Building Houses for HIV Orphans in Malawi: Part 2

by Shane  Werle
Tuesday May 27, 2014

Volunteer Shane Werle has a long history of working with Habitat for Humanity in the U.S. and Haiti. Early this year, he traveled to Malawi in Africa, to build brick homes for some of the country’s many children orphaned due to HIV. He returned with a passion for giving back to the community, and a mission to bring more volunteers with him.

EDGE looks at his journey through Africa in a three-part series. In Part 1, he talked about his early work volunteering, and how it brought him to Malawi. This week, he talks about meeting the rest of his team and building the homes:

Habitat for Humanity is building homes in Malawi for families that have taken in orphaned children. If I can’t cure HIV and/or give every infected African medical treatment, I could at least provide a safe, sound and secure structure for orphaned children to live. I decided that Malawi would be my next destination.

Contrary to common belief, Habitat doesn’t cover volunteers’ expenses. Volunteers actually pay Habitat a fee, plus cover their own airfare. This is the case with almost all non-profits. The fee ($2,100 in this case) covers building materials, in-country food, lodging and transportation. This money can be fundraised and is tax deductible to your donors. Your airfare can be deducted on your own taxes as it’s for a charitable cause. So I signed up and began fundraising.

Most homes (huts) in Africa are made of mud bricks with grass thatch roofs and dirt floors. The roofs oftentimes leak and drench the whole house when it rains, turning the dirt floors into mud. There is very little ventilation or sunlight in these huts, so there is a prevalence of mold and fungus, as well as a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other parasites.

As you know, people don’t die from HIV/AIDS, but rather from the complications of the virus. So if you have a person with a compromised immune system living in this environment, small things like a mosquito bite or a damp environment can lead to a catastrophic domino effect. Malaria and TB are both easily treatable, but lead to many deaths in African countries.

The homes Habitat for Humanity build are made of kiln-dried bricks (made on-site), brick and mortar floors, a leak-proof tin roof, wooden doors and glass windows.It costs about $4,000 (USD) to build one brick and mortar home in Malawi. Our team of 14 volunteers built two brick and mortar homes from the ground up in five days. One house was given to a 26-year-old single woman who adopted five orphaned children. The other house was given to a 44-year-old single woman who adopted four orphaned children.

It took six months of planning and fundraising before leaving for Africa, but the time flew by. In the airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, I met six of the remaining team members to board the final leg for the 90-minute flight to Lilongwe, Malawi. The other seven members met us in Lilongwe, having arrived from Nairobi and Addis Ababa. The Habitat affiliate met us at the airport with a van.

It was Friday afternoon, and our first two nights would be spent in Lilongwe. We stayed at a lodge in the capital city in the same area where diplomats and ambassadors live. Habitat makes an effort to accommodate volunteers in somewhat comfortable housing, although some international builds involve living in tents. This would not be the case in Malawi.

Friday night was a time for the team to just get a chance to get to know each other. It was like we had been friends our whole lives. Saturday night, Habitat for Humanity treated us to a very nice dinner at a great restaurant. You wouldn’t know you were in the depths of Africa while eating there. That’s the great thing about Habitat for Humanity: They really show their appreciation to you as a volunteer by treating you to little "extras" throughout your time.

Following breakfast on Sunday, we drove the two hours east to the area where we would be building. It was really our first glimpse of the country. Malawi is a beautiful country, but as is the case with Africa, you mostly see huts and slums along the way. Africa is a continent of extremes: You’re either rich or poor; there is no middle class. You can see a Mercedes driving down the road following a cart being pulled by cows or donkeys. You might see a very nice home surrounded by high walls and security guards, and one hundred meters away see a mud hut with a grass roof.

I was constantly reminded of our excesses in the United States, but I had some comfort in knowing that in less than a week, I would leave having provided nine orphans and their caregivers a solid, dry, safe and comfortable (by African standards) place to live.

After three police checkpoints along the way, we arrived in the nearest city (large village) to where we would be building. Habitat put us up in another lodge that was right on Lake Malawi. The rooms had a television that got one channel, Al Jazeera, so at night we could at least catch up on world news (but only during the times when the government didn’t shut down the electric grid for 45-90 minutes at a time).

Hot showers were hit or miss. If they were hot, they would be scalding and you’d have to turn on the cold water full blast to avoid severe burns. The cold showers weren’t too bad; they felt good after working all day. The rooms did have air conditioning, but like the television, electricity and hot water, it was hit or miss. I only remember one day when we actually had a quadruple win: A hot shower, lights, cold air conditioning, and a chance to see a full news broadcast.

Monday morning rolled around and we all were filled with excitement and anticipation as we drove the 40 minutes to the small village where we would be working. Arriving in the village was like walking into a real live National Geographic magazine. Poverty, huts, malnourished children -- it was everything you think of when you think of Africa. The women of the village greeted us with a small ceremony, and then it was time to start working. We hit the ground running.

People often indicate that they’d "love to do something like this" but they don’t know anything about construction. With Habitat for Humanity, you don’t have to know anything about how to build. There is something for everyone to do, and if you’re a quick learner, you can be taught. Everyone finds their niche on the jobsite within the first day, and it all works out. And since we were there with the common goal of giving back, there were no slackers on the job.

I was surprised how much we accomplished on the first day. Generally, however, the first day of a build is usually the most productive, and the second day is the least productive, with the remainder of the week leveling off into days of solid, hard and productive work. This is because on day one, everyone’s adrenaline is flowing and everything they’ve been working toward for so many months has finally come to fruition and the build is now a reality. On day two, jet lag has caught up and everyone realizes the amount of work still ahead of us over the next four days.

The team of 14 was divided into two teams of seven, one team per house. The homeowner was there, too. I was on team two, and our homeowner, Tiliya, was just 26 years old and had adopted a one-year-old baby that was orphaned. Tiliya was at the worksite everyday carrying the baby on her back. She would load bricks into a bucket and bring them to us. The bricks were heavy and it was hot. But she didn’t mind helping. Habitat for Humanity requires that homeowners put in sweat equity, and Tiiya certainly put in her share of hard work. I was impressed.

Tiliya has five children, all of whom she adopted as orphans. They range in age from one to fifteen. Her 15-year-old son was at the jobsite each day also, carrying buckets of mortar. Her new house would consist of a small front porch, a living area inside, and three small bedrooms. Overall, the house measured about 30 feet by 20 feet.

Africans use their homes for shelter and sleeping, and not much else. There is very little furniture, if any. They sleep on straw mats at night, and then use those mats outside during the day to dry corn and vegetables. The houses might seem "too small" for six people, but as mentioned, they are just used as shelter.

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Work breaks are encouraged when Habitat builds. Ample bottled water is provided. Heat exhaustion and dehydration are very real dangers, and as volunteers, you are encouraged to stay ahead of the curve and keep hydrated and cool. During the week, two team members succumbed to dehydration, but were back at work after a day off.

Over the next few days the structure rose fast. On day two, the door and window jambs were put in place, and by the end of day four the roof peaks were being built. While the houses are small, it still is a tedious and monotonous job to build it out of bricks. Since the bricks were made on-site and kiln dried, each one was shaped slightly differently, and they all were very rough. The mortar was a homemade type that has been used in Malawi for years, but was very much unlike mortar we use in the United States.

So between the mortar consistency and the oddly shaped and undulated bricks, it took some time to build the walls. Due to the limited bricks, every one had to be used. The walls, both outside perimeter and interior, were two courses wide, so it was really like building one house inside the other.

As the house got higher and higher, it was time to use scaffolding, which in Africa means any type of extra wood planks they can find and nail together well enough to not collapse. Habitat for Humanity does not condone or allow any unsafe working conditions, but in certain countries you have to use the resources available. I never felt in any danger. Since there was only so much room on the scaffolding, this generally left two or three team members free at any one time, and we all took this opportunity to play with the children of the village.

There were probably 200 children of all ages. Some were orphaned, some had just one parent, and some had a two-parent household. But in almost all cases, the father was away for weeks at a time working wherever he could find work. Many of the children displayed the classic signs of protein deficiencies -- bloated stomachs. Throughout the week we learned to easily identify the children by their clothes. They had to wear the same thing every day. Few of them had shoes. It wasn’t uncommon to see kids wearing just a pair of shorts, no shirts.

Children in Africa work, and work hard, from a very young age. But fortunately the parents allowed them to spend time with us and they stole our hearts. These children have been dealt a bad hand in life, but they never complain about what they don’t have, they are only happy for what they do have. They have so much love to give, you would have to have a very cold heart to not love these children.

Some of my donors donated toys for the kids; I had one whole suitcase full. I had to bring toys that generated group activity to avoid any chance of animosity or jealousy. Bubbles, Frisbees, soccer balls and jump ropes were very popular. Candy was prohibited. Some of the children spoke limited English, but love and a smiles are universal languages, and we had no problem communicating.

When we arrived each morning in the village, the children would see our van and run beside it screaming, smiling and waving. As we got off they would hug us and tug at us to come play with them. We knew we had work to do, but it would be easy to just spend a week playing soccer (football) or Frisbee with them.

Our goal was to go to Africa, build homes, leave a small village just a little better than we found it, come home and tell our story and feel good knowing we made a difference somewhere. But we left having been made better by the children. They taught us so much -- about ourselves and the world.

The HIV/AIDS crisis has forced some of these children to be uprooted from their homes, families and familiar ways of life, and be sent off to live in an orphanage or in a new community in a foster family. Some of them were as young as 11 or 12 but had to carry the responsibility and workload of an adult.

We were in Africa in early April, which in that part of the world was at the end of their rainy season and the transition from their summer to fall. This meant that the annual crop harvest was just underway. We learned that in the months leading up to harvest, they only eat one or two times a day in order to make their dwindling stockpile last as long as possible.

The most common food source is made from corn and known as Ugali (sometimes called ncima in parts of Africa). Basically, it’s maize flour that is boiled into a thick paste. It’s cheap and filling, so it’s eaten at every meal. If they’re lucky, they will eat it with a side of vegetables. But you can understand what a nearly 100 percent diet of starch and no protein can do to your body. Ugali takes hours to make, so much of the day can be spent just cooking.

I say all of this to make this point: The children (and the people of Malawi in general) have nothing positive going in their favor -- illness, malnourishment, inadequate housing, extreme poverty ("Extreme poverty" is classified by the UN as living off of less than $1.25 per day), daily battles of mere survival and more -- yet they continually express love, happiness, and joy at what they do have: Each other and another day of life.

In the United States we continually complain about our "First World Problems." But we all know that in reality, getting our Starbucks order wrong isn’t the worst thing that can happen to us. We were reminded how we take so much personally in our lives and get upset at the little things.

The children would play with the toys we brought them and, like children anywhere and everywhere, they would get into scuffles over who had what toy or for how long. The difference is that they would battle it out and the ’loser’ (for lack of a better word) would either go play with something else, or join in, realizing that he would have to share whatever it was he wanted to begin with. There was no pouting or cries of unfairness.

We brought out the soccer balls and they went crazy, getting pushed down and trampled in the rush to kick the ball. But they would get up and continue playing. There were no accusations that someone was playing too rough. They enjoyed the chance to play and they were thankful for the toys they had been given. They made the best out of the life they had.

As I said, it would be so easy to just play with the kids for a whole week, but we had to finish our two houses in just five days. By the end of day two, we had the four exterior walls up high enough that we had to assemble scaffolding to go any higher. The interior walls were coming along as well, but at a slower pace. The door and window jambs were installed that day also.

Habitat for Humanity routinely makes it possible for volunteers to have a little "local" time. For builds that are longer than a week, you usually have at least two days for cultural or local activities and sightseeing. It’s important to keep yourself rejuvenated when you’re battling jet lag and a more primitive environment and still doing manual labor. For us, the midweek included a few short activities. On day three, we worked hard in the morning and quit a couple hours early and went to a craft market.

Everyone that goes to Africa needs an ebony wood elephant or a tribal face mask to keep as a souvenir. One day we went to the nearest big town and had ice cream at the "Big Canoe Ice Cream and Delicious Food Center." It wasn’t Ben and Jerry’s, and there was only one flavor ("milk"), and it wasn’t quite frozen enough. But after working in the hot African sun all day, it was soothing and delicious, and for 300 kwacha (about 70 cents), you couldn’t beat it.

On the fourth morning, we stopped at a commercial crocodile farm on the way to work. We spent about 45 minutes touring this huge farm that has about 16,500 crocodiles, raised for their skin and meat. We watched as workers went into the pits with stun guns and would zap the crocodiles on the head and then they would bag them to be moved to other pits.

One night we went to a nice restaurant (by African standards) at a hotel on the shore of Lake Malawi. They had a great menu and a bar. Other than the 20-minute blackout in the middle of eating, and the fact that they only cooked two meals at a time (which meant we spent over four hours there), the food and bar was a very welcomed and refreshing mid-week treat.

On the last night of the work week, we stopped at a market and everyone bought something to chip in. We bought wine, vodka and rum, chips, and the largest avocados I’ve ever seen. We went back to our lodge and rigged up a little party, making guacamole with what we could find. This was sort of a last minute idea, but as a team, I think we bonded more that night even after working together all week and becoming good friends (although alcohol and laughter are probably responsible anytime people become good friends).

It seems like the last two work days flew by. Once the exterior walls were up and the roof peaks built, we finished the interior walls that divided the bedrooms from the living area. Then the tin roof was applied. Working hard and staying motivated, we were able to spend a little more time exploring the village.

This village was exactly what you’d think of if you said "village in rural Africa." Huts, grass roofs, goats and chickens everywhere, but it was huge. Over 2,000 people lived in this village and you could walk at least 1,000 meters in any one direction before you’d be on the outskirts of the village.

We wandered around and the villagers would welcome us to sit and talk with them. There were a few Habitat affiliate coordinators on site that could translate for us. I thoroughly enjoyed this little part of the week.

You can go on a vacation and see the hotspots, but to actually immerse yourself in the culture in some country is very rewarding and educational. Everyone we spoke with had some connection to the HIV/AIDS crisis: A family member(s) that had died, infected family members, close friends that had died -- the list reached far and wide. Again, the stories were sad, but the people were happy to be alive and have each other.

To help raise funds for Shane’s next trip, visit


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