We stayed with a local family who works with the charity organization. Nico, Mama, Anna, Steph, and Nico Jr. did whatever they could to make us feel at home. There was a house in the back of his walled-in compound for the volunteers to stay in. Long hot showers were only a dream when halfway through the week we lost our running water. However, hand pulled well water heated on the stove and a cup to pour it over yourself with still felt amazing and more than satisfying after a day of work. Chickens, roosters, turkeys, ducks, and guinea fowl (a terror to anyone trying to sleep past sunrise) filled the compound and were quite entertaining to watch. We would have a feast of a dinner with the whole family each night usually ending with Mama pushing a third or fourth helping on you.
The next day, on the way to the school, I could get a better look at the city. So much of it looked like any other city back home; banks, restaurants, grocery stores, even a massive soccer stadium, lined the streets. People running errands or on their way to work packed into small buses. Only the bright red dirt and curious trees hinted you were somewhere foreign. But take a few short turns and you came to a small community known as Mackenzie. As we drove closer to the school, the buildings turned from tall concrete structures to small one or two room houses made from bricks hand formed and dried in the sun. The four lane paved roads turned to dirt trails. The grocery stores turned to small shops on the side of the road selling cornmeal and dried fish. As we pulled up to The Mackenize Community School, some of the children met us by the school gates, dressed proudly in their red school uniforms. A few laughed at the mzungus getting out of the van but were soon ushered into their classrooms to start the day.
We were soon set to work digging the foundation of the new classrooms. No backhoes or loaders in site, we had simply shovels, pickaxes, and a few wheelbarrows. That seemed to be a pattern throughout the trip. When the rebar needed bent and tied, we had a hack saw and a pair of pliers. When the concrete needed mixed, we had a hand pump at a well for water, a bucket line for moving it, huge piles of concrete and gravel on the ground, and workers with shovels to mix it. Left to do this ourselves I don't think we would've gotten very far.
Thankfully, we had an awesome group of guys to work with. They were on the jobsite before we got there and were still working long after we left for the day. They were some of the hardest working guys I'd ever met. I soon realized they didn't use the machinery we use in the US because they didn't need it. They worked together so seamlessly, at times it seemed there wasn't much we could do to help them. When I'd swing the pickax and loosen a handful of dirt, I could see one of the guys smirk as he'd loosen enough dirt to fill a wheelbarrow with three swings. However, by the end of the week we were working well together and laughing through the pain of the blisters.
There were so many more experiences I won't soon forget from the trip including going on a safari, nightly discussions and games with the volunteers, eating nshima and capenta, service with a local congregation with a barbecue to follow, visiting a mill where they handmade wooden spoons, and a visit to the Madalitso Wits Sports Academy: an after-school soccer camp set up by a partner of iChange in one of the local communities. We got to play with some of the kids there, or, more correctly, attempt to keep up as they played soccer around us. Overall, the trip was a lot of hard work and discomfort but what I saw, learned, and the good that I know I was a part of there was worth every bit.