The impact of building a home:

a volunteer's experience in Kenya

In April, a team of volunteers from the leading house builder, Homes for Scotland, ventured to Kenya to build a new home for Mama Saline. Nicola Barclay, their CEO, returned inspired and wrote this blog post about her experience.

Words can’t describe…

A week after I returned from Kenya, and I’m back into the swing of things at work, I’m still trying to reconcile the events in my head. Some of the group who came with me have been posting photos and comments on LinkedIn. The most common phrase is ‘words can’t describe’ so how do I sum up our experience? Why is it so hard to explain the profound impact of the experience to those who didn’t join us?

Homes for Scotland volunteers in Kenya

To go back to the beginning of this story, I set up a charity partnership with Habitat for Humanity three years ago, shortly after I became Chief Exec of Homes for Scotland. I believed that it was incumbent on me to use my influence and position to be a force for good, beyond the excellent work that we do as part of the day job, promoting and advocating for the need for more homes across Scotland. I had a duty to reach further and have a ‘better and wider’ impact on the lives of others.

Homes for Scotland volunteers in Kenya

Simple but life-changing needs

I was aware that our levels of poverty and need are a world away from those in developing countries. While we recognise that improved housing options in Scotland can improve the education, health and financial outcomes of our citizens, in places like Kenya and India, the provision of a basic home can be the difference between basic life chances:

  • Do your kids have a dry floor to study on, without the risk of them being bitten by scorpions or snakes biting them?
  • Do you have a lockable door on your house that protects you from the risk of theft, attack and even rape?
  • Do you have access to clean water and hygienic places to prepare and cook food, with a chimney to stop you inhaling deadly smoke and fumes?

Superficially, health, safety and education are similar desires across the globe, but in the developing world the provision of a home can lead to far more fundamental outcomes.

Homes for Scotland Volunteers in Kenya

The beginning of a wonderful charity partnership

I’d been to Mumbai in 2017 to see the work of Habitat for Humanity for myself, and on my return I was encouraged to reach out to our wider membership, announcing the possibility of a Homes for Scotland build at our Annual Lunch.

Fast forward two years, and 20 of us have just returned from 10 days in Homa Bay, western Kenya. We are an eclectic mix of people from across the industry:


The team leader and deputy were appointed by Habitat for Humanity – John and Jemma managed to put up with 18 Scots admirably!


Our trip got off to a rocky start when the connecting flight for 12 of us to Amsterdam was cancelled, while we were on the runway! But the resulting team spirit to finding alternatives and keeping calm set the scene for the whole trip. We met up with the rest of the team the following morning, at the escarpment to the Great Rift Valley, a suitably impressive location for our first rendezvous!

Homes for Scotland volunteers in Kenya

So, on with the build!

We mucked in and followed the lead of John ‘Chap Chap’, the local mason who ran the build project. We shifted countless wheelbarrows of sand, rocks, hardcore and cement; we passed thousands of bricks along a line to get them to where they were needed; we filled in the gaps with mortar, as we chatted to the locals about football, family, housing and all the common bonds that hold humanity together.

And we made friends…

From 4-year-old Anita who everyone fell in love with, to 84-year-old Mama Saline who we were building the house for. She had lost all 7 of her children to AIDS and HIV and now looked after her orphaned grandchildren. We played frisbee and kicked a ball, and we lent the local children Rocky the bear, and I wish I could have seen their faces when Rocky was returned to them after we had gone.

We cuddled babies and tried to work out who was the mum – everyone seemed to share the responsibility for looking after them, and we quickly slotted into a routine of work, water breaks, food and rest.

We enabled the build programme to be shortened from 3 months to 6 weeks, just by providing additional labour and bucket loads of enthusiasm and energy!

So, what did we learn?

That it’s hard to explain to a rural community why we felt the urge to fly 4500 miles to a country we don’t know, to build a home for someone we had never met, and to raise a lot of money for a community completely unlike any we had ever come across before. But that’s exactly what we did. Because we wanted to – wanted to give back, to share, to contribute to the wider good – beyond our own small world.

And we bring back a sense of achievement, a sense that we can all individually make a difference, bring hope to others, and bring a sense of perspective to our own lives, as we try to carry on as before, while knowing that we have changed.

We’ve left a small part of ourselves behind. And the red dust of Africa is on our boots, probably in our lungs and definitely in our hearts.

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