November 02, 2001 Features & Images » Feature Story

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

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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.

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