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Feature - A place to call home

In southern India, a former Whistler resident joins a group of international students in helping a family build a place where they can dwell in dignity and safety

Before he dies, every man should build a home. The process, like writing a good autobiography, organizes personal history, clarifies dreams, confirms uniqueness, satisfies the soul.

— Plato

"You and the World" is the Grade 11 and 12 theme for Kodaikanal International School’s Social Experience program. Students at the high school in southern India are required to participate in 15 hours of interactive community service each semester, or they won’t graduate.

The Social Experience department aims to develop student responsibility for constructive, respectable behaviour towards themselves, their family, and communities.

Every Saturday morning, from 9 a.m. to noon, students chose to take part in one of the following local social service programs: English for Tamil students, garbage management, kitchen gardens, Mercy Home for the Elderly, Pre-Natal Clinic, recycling, Shenbaganur Orphanage, or the Under-Fives Clinic.

In conjunction, during the first week of October, the entire high school student body is involved in Field Trip week. This is an opportunity for the school to reach out and participate in long-term community projects.

As a teacher at Kodaikanal, I was one of three chaperones to 14 Grade 11 students who completed their Social Experience requirements by volunteering for Habitat for Humanity in the neighbouring state of Kerala. Habitat for Humanity is an international non-profit organization founded in 1976. Since then Habitat for Humanity has built more than 100,000 homes for poor families around the world. The Vancouver chapter of Habitat for Humanity is currently building homes in Burnaby.

The organization’s mandate is to help those in need who are willing to help themselves. Although HFH is a Christian organization they accept all faiths, ages, races, walks of life and cultures. I found that part of their mandate appealing, and as a group of Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists we fit right in.

HFH firmly believes that "every man, woman and child should have a simple, decent, affordable place to live where they can dwell in dignity and safety." An estimated 25 per cent of the world’s population have no home at all. Most of the Indian population of one billion-plus – 15.6 per cent of the world’s population – lives in housing that is sub-standard for human living. Houses are generally made of grass, leaves, reeds, bamboo, mud, bricks or stone. Recognizing the dire need for housing in India HFH first came to this country in 1984. Kodaikanal International School has been in partnership with HFH since 1998.

Nineteen-eighty-four was also the year former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn took their first Habitat work trip to New York City. When I was still living in Whistler I remember reading in the newspaper about Carter working for Habitat in Manitoba.

Kerala is a long way from Manitoba, and there were no former presidents or heads of state among us when we arrived at the Trivandrum railway station early Sunday morning. We ran through the monsoon rain, dodged puddles, and jumped on a school bus that took us to Loyola College, our home for the week. Later, in the afternoon, we exchanged introductions with local HFH representatives and they explained our agenda. We all anticipated hard physical labour in the hot sun. I was afraid that if the heat didn’t kill me the work would.

At 8:45 Monday morning we arrived at the work site. We knew from our briefing that we would be working on site excavation. Richard Retnakaran, the site owner we would be working with, was approved by HFH in August. Richard, 39, and his wife Denzy, 28, have three children: two daughters, aged six and three, and a son who is one and a half years old. Richard is a coolie – a labourer who works 10-12 hours a day on any work site he can find. He earns Rs.110, about $3, a day.

Through a translator Richard explained that he first discovered HFH through a temple notice announcing a meeting for those interested in owning their own homes. The biggest attraction for him was the interest-free loan HFH offers to families.

After an introductory lecture, Richard proceeded to apply and a month later he was approved. Applicants must own their own property and they must provide all the unskilled labour.

We were definitely unskilled labour: nine guys, five girls, and three chaperones, representing India, Bangladesh, Canada, Kenya, and Germany – unity in diversity. Most of our students grew up with maids, chauffeurs, cooks, and gardeners, so I was curious to see how we would all cope in the week ahead.

Habitat houses are provided at no profit. Richard’s commitment is to pay for the cost of materials and any hired labour through a no-interest loan. Richard and Denzy will repay their Rs.50,000 ($1,250 Cdn) interest-free loan over 10 years. Their monthly payment will be Rs.300 ($9) for their 350 square foot home.

In the shade of a palm tree we left our packs and waited for directions from Mr. Joseph, the HFH field co-ordinator in charge of construction scheduling. Speaking in Malayalam, the language of Kerala, he discussed the morning agenda with Richard.

They staked out an area 20 feet x 20 feet. The soil was damp and hard; it felt like clay. Richard and his father-in-law worked with us. They worked in bare feet, and cotton checkered lungies – a square piece of fabric draped over the lower body like a skirt and tied at the waste.

We wore trendy sports shoes, sports clothes, and sunglasses.

Mr. Joseph indicated to a couple of the guys to start digging, and within a few minutes we were organized into a line, passing baskets of mud back and forth. I felt like I was working on a chain gang.

The work was hard and the sun was hot. We were extremely happy when we took a break. Richard surprised us with fresh coconuts. Using an adval, a machete-like knife, he cut the top of the coconut off and made a small hole with the tip of the adval. I couldn’t drink the sweet tasting juice fast enough.

When the coconut was empty, he smashed the shell in half and we lined up to eat the heart of the coconut. It was a total flavour burst.

After 20 minutes it was time to haul our rear-ends off the ground and get back into chain gang position.

"The job was to level a piece of ground," recalled volunteer Karin Chauta. "It looked simple, but within half an hour our opinion took a U-turn. For the whole morning all we did was transport mud in buckets. Our hands were hurting and we were covered in mud by the end of it. We were in a miserable state but there was a feeling of achievement which was satisfying. The owner was very thankful."

By noon we were exhausted and ready to quit. Actually, at break-time we were ready to quit. We kept going for another half-hour but we were a quiet bunch when we finally called it a day and walked back to the bus. We were filthy dirty and looked dramatically different from when we arrived.

I was tired; the sun, the heat and the work had drained me. Driving through the noisy streets of Trivandrum, I fell sound asleep.

The following morning we were in for a major surprise.

"As we reached the site, we got the shock of our lives, the whole place was full of mud," said volunteer Mit Shah.

In our time away, Richard and his father-in-law had excavated two feet into the ground. The entire area looked like a gigantic mole hill. We stood silently looking at the mountain of mud we had to move.

"Let’s pay to get a machine," someone suggested.

But we put our packs down and started up the chain gang again. We worked on and on and on. After four hours the entire pit was cleared.

Mr. Joseph informed us it would have taken Richard and his father-in-law a week to clear the site.

Volunteer Nikhil Patel wrote in his journal: "We accomplished a lot and my heart is full of content, just to see that man smile."

Richard’s eyes told how grateful he was.

The following day we were invited to a Habitat open house, at the 232nd HFH house completed in Kerala. We arrived at 9 a.m. and a red ribbon graced the doorway. A Father from the local parish blessed the house and cut the ribbon. I was asked to turn the key and open the door. I considered it a great honour.

After spending two days labouring in the mud, it was interesting to see a finished house. The front door opened into the living room. To the left were two bedrooms. A kitchen was in the back part of the house. The owners, Cecil and Mary, passed out bananas and we all remarked on how wonderful it was for them to have their own home.

After the house warming we headed for Kovalam, a picture-perfect beach 20 kilometres south of Trivandrum on the Arabian Sea. We indulged in the warm surf, fresh seafood, and some even enjoyed ayurvedic massages. Locals walked up and down the beach hawking sarongs, scarves, table clothes, and beaded necklaces. One character, Reggie, a natural-born salesman, sold sunglasses.

We savoured every minute; we knew that the next morning it was back to work and the mud.

Two more days of labour strengthened back muscles and resolve, and helped establish the foundation for a local family’s home.

On Friday, volunteer Showa Kalla summarized the week: "I had a great time working, drinking coconut water, and looking forward to a shower. If these people truly felt like we helped them then I would be proud of my effort," he said.

"It was amazing to be affecting people and their lives so positively."