Posted by: hilarycole | October 21, 2009

Three fundis, two mzungus and a workshop

Erick's workshopWith enough funds from kind Canadians to build a carpentry shop on Rusinga Island, we started the project last Monday. Well, Erick and his father started it – steps one and two were negotiating prices and buying materials, so the white person stayed well out of sight. But on day three, it was time to go to work.

I brought a friend – a young Californian I’d met who was doing someErick's workshop volunteer farming on the island. His name is Daniel, which he quickly learned sounded confusingly similar to the local-language (Luo) word for “I’m hungry.” We each arrived at Erick’s home compound around 9:30, after Erick, his father and his friend Enoch had already put in a couple of hours’ work. We mostly helped hold things in place that needed to be sawed or nailed, as the two young fundis (pronounced ‘foondies’) – the Luo word for carptenters -moved with experienced efficiency.

Erick’s father taught him this trade, as did Enoch’s, starting when he was a teenager. Now 27 years old, building a shop or a house with mud and iron sheets is second-nature, a series of well-practiced steps.

We were ordered to break three times during the day by Erick’s wife and mother for thermoses of sweet tea and chapatis, and a huge lunch of Erick's workshopsteaming-hot vegetables, fried eggs and maize meal on a more than 30-degree day. Secretly, Mr. ‘I’m Hungry’ and I were happy to sit in the shade and chat while the three men did the technical work of building trusses, using the string-and-eyeballing technique of course.

By the end of day one, they had a completed frame. It was a long, hard day, but they claimed they were “still strong.”

Day two was iron-sheet day, and providing Erick's workshoptwo extra hands actually made me somewhat useful. I had no illusions though; my real job on this project was “taking snaps.”

More hot food and hot drinks, more hot sun. I left a little early that day as I was feeling, well, hot.

Day three: collecting rocks. I can do that! We saved money by collecting our own ballastErick's workshop (small stones) for the cement floor, and hauling large ones to provide the base layer. (Who knew there were so many stages to cementing a floor?!) I skillfully engaged the services of every neighbourhood child who was fascinated by my glowing white face. While most everyone in the family chipped in, my little helpers and I defnitely won the bucket-filling race.

I decided to extend my stay to see the whole thing finished – an easyErick's workshop decision, as not only was the project moving quickly, and Rusinga’s peaceful lake views a welcome change, but I was really starting to enjoy this family’s company. And after nine days on the island, Erick’s little daughter Zuela finally stopped hiding in terror at the sight of my ghostly appearance. (Bringing candy helped.)

Erick's workshopThe masons and their donkeys arrived on day four to haul water and do their cement thing. By  Monday evening, a week after setting out with a plan and a budget, Erick Odhiambo’s Erick's workshopcarpentry shop was a finished product. Well, except for watering the floor for a week and cutting windows and building the workbench and hanging up tools, etc. I explained to his wife that when men have a place to tinker around with tools and machinery, they’ll always find something to do in there. She’s probably too busy to mind. As hard as those men worked in the hot sun, I still say African women work harder.

I spent my last night in Erick’s mother’s house, leaving electricity and running water behind; the family set me up with a comfy cot and a nice, big mosquito net. When the sun set, everything became pitch black except for the faint orange glow of cooking fires from the little mud kitchen hut.

Waiting for dinner and the family send-off that 15 people would later give their visiting mzungu, Erick and I sat on the ledge surrounding his mother’s house, his sleeping daughter in his arms. A little earlier, Zuela had eaten somethig that made her suddenly violently ill. Hearing her scream, her 24-year old mother ran out of the cook house and deftly used her own hand to force the child to vomit whatever was harming her. It was traumatic to watch but an amazing display of motherly instinct. With much food still to prepare, the child was handed to me, and then from me to Erick.

As I watched him in the faintest of light staring into his daughter’s quiet, beautiful face, it was all a bit much. Here was this boy, who used to draw me pictures of flowers and soccer balls, who posed for his annual sponsorship photo in the Canada t-shirt I’d sent, now a full-grown man, capable of building a shop with his bare hands, and rocking his sick child to sleep. I turned away to look up at the billions of stars and let the crickets fill the silence.



  1. wow.

  2. […] sand, ballast and cement to buid the tower that will hold the water tanks. (After the experience of Erick’s workshop, I’m throwing terms around like a pro.) We visited a few other boreholes in the area to […]

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