Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Shooting the Breeze in Mfuleni #opinion

Builder chic for the coffin chick
Now *there's* something you don't see every day!

This might shock a few people, but I’m going to be upfront. I didn’t help to build a house for Mandela Day out of any altruistic sense of “being a good person”. I don’t feel like I owe anyone anything so that I feel compelled to “give back”. Yet when we received an e-mail request for volunteers to build a house for a family in Mfuleni with Habitat for Humanity, I didn’t even think twice. I put my name down.


Because this day would be spent outside of my comfort zone.

Since I spend most of my days in front of the computer, my only point of contact with the rest of the world is often only through my Twitter feed and the e-mails I receive. Sure, I work for a newspaper publisher so I do get to read the titles we publish, but there’s always a degree of separation. All this stuff I read about happens “out there”. Not here. The closest I get to seeing the “real world” is when I catch the train to and from work. But even there I’m insulated by the music I listen to and the fact that my nose is shoved in a book.

And sometimes it’s good just to remind yourself there’s a “real world” out there (and no, in my book shopping malls and visiting friends don’t count). This was my opportunity to go out and explore, gain new experiences.

Predictably, with my luck, the morning we set out in the staff taxi, it was raining, and by the time we reached Mfuleni, the weather hadn’t let up much. Bright spark that I am, I had not brought a jacket. (In my defence I’ll state that, until now, our winter has been very mild.) I needn’t have worried, however.

Our team leader, Linda, soon had us huffing and puffing for breath. First, after donning our hardhats and gloves, we had to help move piles of bricks. These cement blocks weigh several kilograms and, while the first two you manage to swing seem a breeze, try several hundred.

Next up was learning to mix the “dugga” or cement mixture that we had to use. For each batch we needed six wheelbarrows of building sand mixed with bags of cement and this was heavy going. Considering that we had a lone man in our team, we really had to put our backs into it.

What I found fascinating is that even though at first we kept bashing our spades accidentally, by the end of the day we’d learnt to anticipate each other’s movements and work as a team.

And we worked quickly, and hard. Tea time of vetkoek loaded with apricot jam – something I would never eat under ordinary circumstances – tasted absolutely heavenly. Short breaks aside, we focused on our goal: put up four walls consisting of eight courses of bricks, with door and window frames. Slowly but surely the random ingredients of cement blocks, wooden frames and piles of sand transmuted into something that was beginning to look like a house. That knowledge – of a target set and met – was worth the sweat and the aching muscles.

Hard work? Hell yeah.

Pushing little blocks of text and pictures around on a screen all day very rarely feels like work, even when I hold a newspaper in my hands afterwards.

I couldn’t ignore the team-building aspect either. While we started the day a bit stilted, we soon laughed easily and commiserated about our sore muscles or just took pride in what we’d achieved. I’m not the world’s greatest “buddy-buddy” kinda gal, but hell, I felt some of my ice melting towards colleagues I’ve sometimes wanted to cheerfully throttle.

But perhaps the most important reward from this day of work was chatting to the family whose house we were building, and sharing in their excitement. I’ve been a homeowner for almost a decade, and I reckon I take this for granted. Here, folks who have been living in a rusted corrugated shack are finally able to move into their own home. With a real roof. And real doors. And windows. One lady smiled with obvious pride in her gaze, and told me she was so happy she was getting her own room. That simple statement gave me pause for thought.

I don’t want to get all gushy and fluffy about “having done my bit” for Mandela Day. I feel that every once in a while, and for the right reasons you should do something you wouldn’t ordinarily do.

This wasn’t about proving to the world how good I am. It was about stepping outside of myself briefly to do something to create positive change. I reckon that’s what Madiba had in mind.

This piece initially appeared in the Life supplement of the Sunday Independent on July 22, 2012.

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