The official name of this build is Projeto Mulheres Recriando Vidas (Women Rebuilding Lives Project), with the goal of constructing 100 new homes to benefit workers at a flour mill in the small town of Feira Nova. We’re here to make house #64-65 (two adjoining houses). Each four-room (2-BR) house is 44 cubic meters. This seems tiny, right? But most of the people currently live in quarters half this size, a two-room house with a dirt floor and no indoor plumbing, for which they pay $50-80R a month. (Although that seems crude and primitive, I can remember as a child visiting my own relatives from large, poor farming families who lived in similar houses in Kansas and Missouri: two rooms, dirt floors, outhouse. The trailers we lived in seemed luxurious by comparison.) For the H4H project, families are expected to work 8 hours a week on the house.
Monday morning bright and early (7:45 am), we piled into the van for the 20-minute ride to the worksite. The foundation of the house has already been built by the professional masons for whom we would be serving as apprentices.
where the day began
Our basic task for the day was to mix the materials for the floor for the houses we’re building – sand, cement, gravel, and water.
None of the professional masons on the job speak any English, so we were at the mercy of Helena, our local coordinator, or the rudimentary Portuguese that some of the team members have. Nothing was really explained about how we would work. We just pitched in willy-nilly, shoveling sand and gravel into wheelbarrows and dumping them into two designated dirt pits; helping open the bags of cement and spreading them around; adding water and mixing; then shoveling the mixture into wheelbarrows and pushing them up planks to dump it wherever the masons directed.
The mason working on our pile, Roberto (ho-BEAR-toe), the guy in the yellow hat above, was a master mixologist, strong and efficient. He virtually never spoke a word or gave an instruction. We just watched him closely and figured things out. The few of us who had a few words of Portuguese could ask him – chega? (enough?) or mais uma? (one more?) – and he would respond with a nod of his head.
I bonded with Linda and we developed a compatible rhythm of shoveling and hauling. After an hour of shoveling sand and gravel in the hot sun, I felt light-headed and shaky-handed.
The first day we poured the first layer for the floor; day two, the second layer. By the end of the second day, there was a floor where there never was a floor before.
Wednesday morning we toured the flour mill early to give the masons a head start on the work of the day, which was to begin building the walls of the house with brick and mortar. By the time we arrived, they’d carved out the rooms with corners.
Our first job was to move bricks from a mountain on the ground to several piles in the house (I almost said “onstage”).
Then we had to figure out – again, with very little verbal instruction – how to lay down mortar (massa, which they mixed for us – again, sand and cement), slap some on the side of a brick, and lay it in.
Linda and I stuck together, partly because I felt completely inept at slathering mortar onto the side of the brick in such a way that it would stay on until it was in place. So we worked out a system where she applied mortar to the brick and I put down the foundation and lodged the new brick in place. The next step was to line it up according to a string (ha linha) that has been strung from one end of a room or row to the other, tied or wrapped around a nail stuck into mortar (or nailed into a brick), and then clean up the excess mortar. This system allowed us to work very fast and enjoyably.
By Thursday afternoon the walls were high enough that we needed scaffolding (two planks balanced across two sawhorses). I wasn’t sure if my acrophobia would kick in, but it didn’t, and we continued our super-efficient wall-building. I don’t know if Helena was just being her cheerleader self, but she told us that the masons were impressed with us and said that we could get work if we wanted it. ☺
I thought we were going to pretty much finish the house on Friday, but when we quit for lunch, we weren’t quite done with the walls. The masons will spend the next week putting on the finishing touches: the last rows of bricks, the layer of cement that provides the outer shell of the house, and the roof. Still, we accomplished a lot in four and a half days.
here’s what the houses look like inside when the roof is on but before the walls are finished
finished exteriors. with, you know, goats.
The entire cast and crew.
These are humble abodes, for sure. But as the Habitat for Humanity slogan has it, “Um mundo de esperança começa em casa (A world of hope begins with a home).”