Newsletter | Jul/Aug 2006

Housing for Nicaragua

by Article and photos by Sarka Volejnikova

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Sarka Volejnikova

6:00 PM: Refreshments
6:30 PM: Presentation

Casa del Libro
973 Valencia St. (@ 21th St.)
San Francisco

RSVP OWA Information

Last summer I participated in a two-week program to build affordable housing in rural Nicaragua. I had found out through a friend about Viviendas León, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco which runs this program, visited the organization's director Evan Markiewicz to learn more details about it, signed up, and went to León. As a landscape designer I felt I could offer useful skills and knowledge to the program besides the physical labor and financial contribution.

My work in Nicaragua benefited one such agricultural community that had been displaced by the hurricane. The entire population of Goyena, a small village just outside of the city of Leon, fled when the rising water carried away their homes and land. A plantation owner later donated a piece of sugar cane field to the community. Since then several international organizations came with help to rebuild houses, level roads, and dig wells. There are now sixty new houses, a church, a three-room elementary school and electricity. There is no other infrastructure: People pump their drinking water out of wells, use latrines, burn their trash or simply leave it outside, and do not think much of the puddles in the dirt roads. A few families are still waiting their turn to have their homes built, and meanwhile live in shacks patched up from any material that can be found.

The new houses in Goyena are constructed of cement blocks, which is the most common and economical construction material in Nicaragua. Decorative cement blocks are sometimes used at the top layer below the roof to allow the afternoon breezes in to help cool down the interior. The roof is typically made of corrugated metal with no insulation, and heat inside such a home often becomes unbearable. There is no stucco or other finish on the cement blocks, and as wood is extremely expensive most doors and windows are made of metal. The houses are single story, single room dwellings, with a small kitchen and sometimes a chicken coop attached to the side. They accommodate one family – anywhere from five to fifteen people.

I was part of a group of four women, all from the U.S., who helped the local volunteers and community leaders, all also women, to build a preschool. Every day, for six days a week, early in the morning we rode a van to the site at Goyena and worked till noon. The preschool was constructed primarily of rammed earth (the construction material being available as a by-product of well construction the previous year), with a small kitchen on the side made of cement blocks. As the rammed earth walls had already been completed by previous volunteer groups, we carried out the masonry work. A local architect and general contractor, as well as the program director supervised our work. However, progress was slow as we lacked the necessary tools, and the four of us were not used to physical work in the tropical heat.

We spent one night in Goyena, and for me that experience was the most notable and profound of the whole two weeks. After the day's work we ate dinner with a few people in the village. We had brought both the food and the water for cooking and drinking with us from Leon, as no one in Goyena could host such an event, and it was prepared by the school teacher who took a day off to prepare it. In the evening we hung a piñata for the crowds of local kids who could hardly contain themselves with excitement, sat around a fire and listened to people's stories. We slept in one of the new houses on cots made of old sacks stretched over wooden frames. There were two of us per cot that was already too small for one person, and we tried not to think about the massive cockroaches on the walls and tried not to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. When we got up early in the morning everyone had already gone off to work or started doing household chores straight away. There were no men around, and the women were doing laundry in the back yard. It seemed that I was the only one looking for breakfast, and there was a definite absence of food in the house. There was no leftover bread on the table, no corn by the fire pit, not even salt. It was striking recognition that three meals a day were a luxury in this part of the world.

Even though I had traveled in foreign countries before, my experience in Nicaragua was truly special in many ways. It made me realize much more profoundly how little we need to live, and how much we take for granted. It made me cherish the life I am living.

Several people have contributed to the community in Goyena indirectly, and I would like to express my thanks to them: to Charles Pankow Builders and Cliff Lowe Associates for their donations of construction tools, and to Anja Fulle and La Casa del Libro for a significant discount on children's books, all of which I delivered to the community.

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