Lindsey Marsh is a Habitat for Humanity Global Village Volunteer and Team Leader. He visited Guatemala with AON in 2019 to build houses and install smokeless stoves over the course of one week. This is his story.
Like many developing countries Guatemala is a country of marked contrast. From the high rise multinational corporate offices, international hotels and shopping malls of Guatemala city, to the impressive UNESCO world heritage Spanish colonial city of Antigua, to the corrugated metal covered settlements clinging to the sides of steep hills and valleys in the shadow of active volcanoes.
Antigua was the base for the team. The historic town is vibrant and colourful with many hotels, restaurants, shops and local artisans selling their colourful embroidery or locally crafted leather goods. Whilst popular with tourists it has been protected from development and is housed in the historic buildings of this Spanish ‘outpost’.
Our plan for the week was to help build two houses and to build ‘smokeless stoves’. We divided into three groups and each had a bus ride to settlements outside Antigua.
One build was located in a busy town of largely reinforced concrete and block houses along dirt roads. The plot had been bought by the family with help from Habitat to access finance. The work involved plenty of digging to remove the soft volcanic topsoil, to level the site and to dig the foundations. We worked alongside local skilled workers, local Habitat staff, and the father of the wife who’s home this was to become. The spoil was loaded into old pick-up trucks, very different to the large shiny 4×4’s seen in Guatemala City, and taken a short distance to either be spread on the ‘roads’ or on friends and neighbours land.
Team members returning from this site looked reminiscent of miners returning from work with their laughter lines highlighted by the dirt on their faces.
Just as well the hotel had hot showers!
The second group travelled to a more rural location but again working on the foundations for a new family home. We learned new skills of forming the steel reinforcement to strengthen the footings and supporting pillars required to provide safe structures in this area of frequent earth tremors. We worked as a team, like leaf cutter ants, to ferry materials from a lorry along the sandy track to the building plot and to mix concrete by hand to pour the foundations. Physical work to provide additional labour for the family and skilled masons to speed up the build. At work and school during the day the family had taken to spending nights sleeping in a temporary shelter on the site to protect the building materials.
Whilst it was rewarding to be part of a house build, each group also took turns as the third group was building stoves for people living in poverty. A walk along steep narrow dirt paths brought us to their homes, basic hillside shelters in close proximity to their neighbours. Often a single room and a separate space or lean-to structure for cooking over open fires, with firewood piled around the walls and the tin roof coated in thick black tar from years of smoke. It took just half a day to build a new stove from cob blocks, pre-made by the families, with metal tops and chimneys to carry the smoke outside.
Not only is the design of these wood burning stoves much healthier for the lungs of the families they are also much more fuel efficient saving on this precious resource.
People are having to travel further afield to gather timber from the forests and carry it home with only the fortunate few able to use a horse to carry larger loads.
Lunch was a well deserved break from the heat and dust. Served on table cloth covered picnic tables with plenty of good food and soft drinks. Time to rest, chat and get to know the local workers and families excited to see their dreams now progressing to physical structures.
It was hugely rewarding to see the results of our effort so quickly and the gratitude expressed by the many recipients in just one week. Dinner was in different venue each evening and gave time for the whole group to relax and reflect on the day.
Whether any team members ever put new skills, such as tying re-bar, to use after the trip is not important. What we gained from the trip was an impactful personal experience along with a whole new set of friends. In a short space of time we were able to build strong lasting relationships based on a shared experience and to grow our network connections back home.
The experience was a reminder of perhaps what we take for granted in our day to day lives but also a lesson that whatever people’s nationality, or background we all share so many things in common.
The need for safe and secure homes, the importance of family and friends, the aspiration to provide for loved ones and that giving can be more rewarding than receiving.
Whilst individual volunteers may not be able to change the world alone, by working with others they can collectively have a huge impact on many people’s worlds. The global village programme provides an excellent opportunity for volunteers to directly witness the results of their efforts.
Due to Coronavirus, our overseas volunteering programme is on hold for the safety of both our volunteers and the communities in which we build. When the time is right, and with you beside us, we stand ready to once again accelerate our efforts with renewed energy and commitment to fulfil our vision of a world where everyone has a decent place to live. In the meantime you can keep up-to-date with our news and follow us on Social Media and share our stories.
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