The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) partnered with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) on a joint volunteer trip to Haiti for seminarians, May 24-31. In the post below, participant Karen Quinlan shares her thoughts on the journey.
Our days are filled with simple, repetitive, physical tasks. With picks and shovels, we dig trenches, the depth of this stick and the width of this one, along lines marked by strings tied to posts. We watched someone make those posts with his machete earlier. Passing them one at a time, from hand to hand along a line of coworkers, we move piles of rocks and stack them near the trenches. Our Haitian coworkers mix cement on the ground with shovels, using water from a small pool two hills away, carried here in buckets on the heads of women. We carry buckets of the cement to the trenches and give them to our coworkers, who pour it among the stones they’re placing into the trenches. We watch them make bricks out of the clay and sand dug from the trenches, mixing in a little cement and that precious water. After the bricks have cured in the shade of a few trees on the site, we carry them to the foundations of rock and cement we’ve built in those trenches, and our coworkers lay them out with mortar they’ve made out of the same materials as the bricks.
It all seems so simple. Despite this, I’ve seen the precision with which the process is created. The trenches are laid out according to a building plan, the rocks are fitted together inside them like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, the bricks are not laid until strings are tied to delineate straight and level lines for their placement. Mimine, the construction engineer for the project, oversees everything. And our coworkers move precisely and conservatively, making sure things are done according to plan.
One of the things that strikes me as I participate in this building of houses and community is our connection with the sources of our materials and labor. Almost everything comes from or near the site, and our coworkers are intimately familiar with their properties. It’s so easy to romanticize this idea, and that’s the last thing I want to do. The people living here have no choice but to use the materials they find at their feet to provide for themselves. And it’s hard, hard work to do so, every single day of every life in rural Haiti, to survive amid the poverty and disease and lack of food and water.
We’re staying in a building whose second floor was just completed. The bricks were made by hand, just like those we’re helping to place on the foundation of the first home at the eco-village. I estimate at least 2,800 bricks on our second floor, and I don’t know how much concrete went into the floors and steps and interior walls. Our water comes from a nearby waterfall, traveling through a series of pipes that were placed by hand, pushed by small pumps powered by generators. Our food is grown and raised, harvested, slaughtered, and prepared right here.
I thought I had a good understanding of my connection with the rest of the natural world. I am, after all, an ecologist, and I try to eat food whose source I know. But this work is opening me to a whole new level. With my ability to access water and electricity and backhoes and cement mixers on demand, I’ve lost direct connection to what sustains my body and those of my loved ones, and the intimate understanding of my immediate surroundings. I hold much appreciation for the opportunity to discover that connection in a visceral way.