Building A Home
After just over a year of anticipation and planning, the day of our first morning at the building site of the second ever old people’s home in Eswatini had come. We were greeted with smiles and waves and a row of breeze block bedrooms next to piles of soil and sand and at that moment we knew this wasn’t going to be easy but it’d definitely be fun. Pastor Lasalette sent a few of us to the local care point to help the teacher with the preschool lessons whilst the rest of us began to create a flower patch and vegetable garden to bring life to the home it would one day be.
The quiet hum of excitement and eagerness to transform the empty shells of rooms was always noticeable despite the chattering and laughter from the girls and builders alike. Whether it be shovelling or weeding, every girl did their part to create the lines of beetroots and rows of reeds knowing in a couple weeks an elder from the area will be able to sit in the evening and look onto pink, purple and red flowers as the sun sets or listen to the children’s morning prayers as they water the spinach on their doorstep.
It wasn’t just a bit of light gardening in store for us, we soon learnt. We helped carry the handmade bricks from an unsteady tower by the sand piles to tidy rows around the kitchen foundations, ready for the builders to begin construction. No amount of PE could’ve prepared us for the struggle of carrying the heavy blocks or the humbling strength of the builders who carried two with ease.
Next task to complete was to paint the first two bedrooms and to the amazement of many of the girls this wasn’t as simple as we thought, whether it be dusting away cobwebs or sanding door frames we had plenty to do but it was all worth it when the painter handed us our rollers and the bright green and yellow paint tins. If you hadn’t known we were helping to create a bright and beautiful home for the elders, it was definitely apparent to everyone around us, as we wondered around with splatters of yellow on our trousers, or green in our hair for one unfortunate student who found herself under a particularly clumsy painter.
Meeting the Children
Whilst the trained professionals worked hard to finish the kitchen, we found ourselves decorating the garden with stepping-stones, rock walls around the flower beds and gravel paths, but one of our favourite activities was definitely visiting the children as they learnt to spell their names or the colours of the rainbow. We sang their songs and taught them a couple of our own, with a firm favourite being The Hokey Cokey for obvious reasons. The teacher also welcomed us to lead the morning lessons and the joy you felt radiating off the children’s grins is something many of us will never forget, gappy smiles and all. As frustrating as it was when all that was shouted at you was “THREE THREE THREE!” as you pointed at a very obvious eighteen, you couldn’t help but smile at their constant enthusiasm.
Rehearsing for the big performance
After some busy few days, the building site went quiet for the weekend, and we all enjoyed some well deserved rest. Clothes were washed and books were read as we sat in the church gardens enjoying each other’s company. We voted on a hymn to perform in Church and also decided to add a bit of British pop to the scene by singing Stand By Me but were quickly humbled after hearing the band rehearse for the Sunday service in the room next door. We didn’t let it dampen our spirits for long though as we were quickly invited in to join in and dance with them. This for many was an unforgettable moment, from spinning your partner country style, to slow dancing across the room or joining a massive conga line, everybody couldn’t resist joining in. Nobody could stop smiling even after we retuned back to the dining area and even decided to sing on our own for a bit around the campfire and enjoy the feeling of carefree joy for as long as we could that evening. Locals who stayed at the church joined our swaying and offbeat clapping though I doubt they were massive Swifties like the rest of the group revealed to be. Many of us thought that that evening would be the moment that couldn’t be beaten but we were all very, very wrong.
Songs of Praise
We woke up for church with butterflies in our stomachs as we one by one remembered we had to perform in front of the whole church with only a couple hours of practice under our belts, but the nerves soon dissipated once the service began, colourful lights and joyful singing filled the room as we all clapped and swayed along. Songs of praise in both English and SiSwati had everyone on their feet and to our amazement women in the church began to dance down the aisles and congregate in-front of the band. It wasn’t long before our team had joined them, trying as hard as we could to copy the bouncy sidesteps and upbeat claps in a quite oval, conga circle. We sang and danced alongside them, just enjoying the music, irrelevant to whether we were usual church goers or even believed in a god. Lasalette then took a moment to say a prayer and talk to us about a passage that had come to her that morning and, at that moment, all the worries that we hadn’t done enough for the community melted away and a smile lit up each and every girl’s face. She spoke of the verse telling us to not only be listeners of the Lord but doers of his word before turning to thank us for all the time and energy we had put into the project and the shouts of amen and whoops created a precious moment of quiet pride in ourselves and our friends sat around us.
It was this speech that made us begin to see how impactful our work was and how grateful the community was for our help. As we walked out, smiles still surrounding us, we had the pleasure of meeting one of the old ladies who would soon move in to one of the two rooms we were about to finish, which was definitely the cherry on the cake to this sentimental moment.
The Final Few Days
After the service, we had the afternoon to ready ourselves for the busy two days of preparing the rooms for the opening ceremony ahead of us. Peace and quiet settled on the campsite and gardens as we came to terms with our project coming to an end, but a buzz of excitement to see the product of all our hard work was still in the air.
We woke up bright and early and headed to the old peoples home with our trusty driver Reggie (AKA Reg the Ledg) who we knew we would miss already. We didn’t manage to see the children as much today and only saw them for short snippets much to some of the girls’ dismay, but we still had a productive day of planting, painting, and plastering. Once we got back to the church, the exhaustion hit us, but we eased the yawns with some creative card games, credits to Anna, and another early night.
As we ate our usual scrambled eggs for breakfast, a bittersweet feeling was obvious as we knew this was our last day helping with the construction of the home. The day mainly consisted of tidying and cleaning in preparation for the community to see what we had done. Although we were tired, we were eager to sweep away the dust and polish the floors, doing our work justice. After saying farewell to Reggie and gifting him one of our Sense Earth team t-shirts, we had our final dinner and campfire karaoke and settled down for bed.
The Opening Ceremony
The day was finally here, the opening ceremony. We arrived to rows of chairs and we helped to lay out the sandwiches and cupcakes Lasalette had kindly provided for the community to eat after the ceremony. After an hour of waiting on our own, we began to lose hope that anyone was going to come, despite Jenny’s constant reassurance the community was just running on African time, but to our amazement people began to arrive, people even Jenny didn’t expect to arrive. The chief of Section 19, Mr Mipsi Dlamini, had to come to see our work alongside his brother, Mr Mzweleni Dlamini, and the chairman of Vuvulane Libandla (bandlancane), Mngisi Mngometulu. The builders also began to appear, wearing their best clothes, with one sporting a particularly smart outfit to match the bucket hat we had gifted him a few days ago.
As much as we loved to see the builders and VIPs of the area admiring our work, the highlight of the ceremony was undoubtedly when women of the community began to emerge from the village in traditional clothes and beautiful beaded jewellery. They performed a native dance, which we later learnt was a sign of respect towards us for helping create the home for their community. As we sat and enjoyed the performance, more and more women emerged in their traditional clothing as word spread of the event and as the numbers began to reach the mid-teens, Jenny told us that she’d never seen so many women of a community perform their dance as a thank you for the work of an expedition project before and it gave both her and the entire team goosebumps. So, as we waved farewell to the builders and hugged Lasalette goodbye, we knew that the small fraction of our lives we had devoted to this project had meant so much to the community, and the elders soon to move into their new home would be able to enjoy living there as much as we enjoyed creating it.