After a summer of tedious medical drama and a general delaying of life-plans, the option to apply for another All Hands Volunteers project was just too appealing to turn down. My experience in Nepal had changed my life; more humanitarian work in Ecuador seemed the obvious next step. So against the advice from my doctor, slight misgivings from my mum and with my bank balance screaming against the expenditure, I booked a ticket, got on the plane and headed to Ecuador. I never once regretted it.
The Manos a la Costa project based in San Miguel on the coast of Ecuador was set up to build earthquake resistant bamboo houses for a community in desperate need. After a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake on the 16th April, All Hands realised that a permanent home building project was very much needed. I arrived a few months into the project on the 6th September in time to work on house number 5. By the time I left on the 30th November, the 30th Core Home was nearly complete.
The final walls team celebrating finishing the final set of walls on Core Home 30
A few months in and the projected figure for the number of houses was set at twenty two – eight short of the original target. With Team Leaders honing their skills and a relatively steady set of volunteers on base – at one stage numbering 70 – the projection crept up to twenty nine; a singular house short. In the resulting meeting after this revelation, the question was put to both volunteers and staff about whether the extra house was possible. The answer was obvious. It was not just possible; it was vital.
So for the last month we battened down the hatches and got ready for the final weeks of stamina-testing work that would allow us to reach thirty houses. Extra Sundays were worked, two further days were allotted and extra hours occasionally added to the working day. Slowly but surely it became evident that even with volunteer numbers slowly reducing, we were on track. It would be close, but we were on track.
Teams filling the sewage system with water, finishing the walls and beginning to start the fittings process
The final house was to be for a family currently living in a borrowed home who had virtually nothing for themselves. Adrianna – an Ecuadorian long term volunteer – spoke to this family and then explained to us exactly how meaningful this new home would be to the family. The impact of meeting this family was clear in her voice as she struggled to contain the emotion that had come with such a powerful first hand experience.
On one of my final days in San Miguel de Briceño I had a few minutes to myself and so crossed the field between the 30th house we had started building and the 8th house that we built over 2 months previously. Since moving in the family had painted the doors and windows, safely installed electric cables and started work on a new structure next to the house using the construction guidelines All Hands had provided. One of the children was sitting reading on the wooden steps that my friends had built at the back of the house and others were playing happily outside in the sun. From the empty – if beautiful – house that we had created for them, they had made a busy, colourful, personalised home.
House Eight with its new painted doors and windows and the beneficiaries’ new construction beginning
Until that point I hadn’t ever been inside a house that the beneficiaries had moved into and the sight was a special one. The gravity sink was being used, a fridge and cooker had been installed, clothes were hanging on the line outside and the house looked great. As trivial as that might sound, it was awesome to see.
My three months building bamboo houses in Ecuador flew by. I was involved in constructing 18 houses and put up walls on 17 of them – Team Leading most of these. Sadly I had to leave two days before the end of the project but by that point all of the houses had finished their walls so I could feel some closure that my job was done. My final day coincided beautifully with the final day of wall-building and I won’t lie, I was emotional. All that was left (I say all but it was still a considerable amount of work) was to complete the fittings on the final few houses and furnish the outside toilets on a couple.
Normally lunch breaks = siesta time. The occasional kindle time did happen, though
As I write this the last house has had its final touches completed and the project in Ecuador with All Hands is now officially over. The staff are probably still there, working away and trying to finalise the last few details but the volunteers have gone. Hopefully they’re enjoying not getting up at 6am and sweating in the sun for most of the day. The community in San Miguel has been revitalised by thirty new houses and even though I was only there since September I could see that the difference in the people we’ve helped is immense.
From left to right: Filip, Jobani, Me, Pajarito and Martin. The Dream Team (+Romain & Xavi!).
The biggest difficulty with humanitarian work was summed up by a text from a friend when I arrived back from Ecuador at the weekend.
“Did you save the world, yet?”
Although the text was a joke – I hope – the message hit me as relatively poignant and confirmed that I really believed in what I’d been doing.
The sad truth is that many, many people are still in need all over the world, and of the thousands of people displaced by the earthquake in April we only helped one single community – thirty houses. But these thirty houses not only provide a stable and safe place to live for families who desperately needed it, but they have shown the community of San Miguel and those around that area that the international community care what happens to them; that there are people out there who are doing their best to help. Our building techniques and ideas have been shared, our experiences related and they will use these to carry on improving their homes so that next time a natural disaster strikes they won’t need outside help.
So no, the world isn’t fixed over night. Donald Trump is still set to be the US president and who knows what that will mean. What we can say, though, is that we have made a huge difference to a group of people who really needed it; and that can never be a bad thing.
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