Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Construction Summary

I have been asked to write about the construction portion of the trip, so will try to outline similarities (few) and differences (many) between building techniques used in Canada and rural Kenya. 

Project Scope.  Our job in Shiru involved laying the foundation for a 20 metre by 13 metre ward (which constituted a considerable departure from the original plan).   Six weeks prior to departure we were certain our $15K CAD would fund construction of a maternity ward and a lab; two weeks later that concept was out the window.  Although the Canadian Scout Brotherhood project proposal had been fairly specific with the limits of our contribution, a series of E-mails from the project committee in Shiru indicated wires were crossed somewhere.  At our time of departure from Canada we were uncertain of what we would be constructing, other than it would be larger, grander and more expensive.  Although some last minute scrambling in Canada was successful in increasing our contribution to $30K CAD, we were only able to grip the full project scope on arrival at the worksite.

One Size Fits All.   Our site was a rectangular empty field on the east side of the clinic.  The clinic blueprint (produced by the Ministry of Health, single copy, single page) was for a rectangular clinic.   Unfortunately, it was landscape format versus portrait format.   The blueprint was exactly 90 degrees out of phase, with the main entrance situated facing a fence and small, steep hillside.  Fortunately, we were able to juggle the interior design and wall location to move the main entrance to the more logical end of the building.

Phasing.   The most difficult part of construction is always the foundation.  It can also be the most time-consuming and expensive.   In our minds the phrase “we’re building a clinic” meant we would be laying bricks, finishing walls, hanging doors, lifting roof trusses into position, installing roofing and handing over keys in a grand ribbon-cutting ceremony.   In reality, we cleared, dug, mixed, poured and backfilled a foundation.   Despite our brutally hard work we were never able to see the clinic rise higher than about mid-calf.  That said, what we produced was SOLID and will provide an outstanding base for what is yet to come.

Workforce.  Seventeen energetic Canadian youth.  Fifteen similarly energetic Kenyan Rovers.  About a dozen hired labourers.  Nine hired masons on days when concrete was being poured, bricks laid and stones emplaced.  One Kenyan contractor who had Houdini-like disappearing skills.  One Kenyan foreman who never quite seemed to know what he was doing. 

Workday.  Nominally 8:15 a.m. (depending on how efficiently the rickety van could deliver the Scouts to the site) to 5:00 p.m.   Thirty minutes for mid-morning chai (tea) and biscuits and one hour for a Kenyan lunch prepared by the clinic kitchen, with kitchen translated to mean a dirt-floored ramshackle shelter made of mismatched boards, rusty corrugated sheets and chicken wire with cooking fire smoke pouring out of every opening).

Safety Equipment.  None.  More specifically, none for the Kenyans.  They generally worked with bare feet or, at most, cheap plastic flip flops.  All the Canadians had safety boots, work clothing, gloves and eye protection at the outset, with gloves and eye protection lasting only until the Kenyans asked to borrow them and then assumed they were gifts.  Mark’s safety boots didn’t even see Day One, as they disappeared from our accommodation’s front porch on Night Zero.  As personal protective equipment gradually evaporated, Canadians only worked at jobs that suited the protective equipment they still owned.

Standards.  Few.  Building techniques vary across the country and standards are not always standards.  Concrete is mixed on the flat ground, often incorporating the dirt below.  Fifty-kilo bags of cement are emptied onto a pile of sand and gravel and mixed by eye, not measure.  Two inch crushed stone alternates variously with ¾ inch crushed stone in the mixture.  Pouring thickness of concrete varies from thick to thin.  No reinforcing bars are used.  Bricks are made from the local red clay and vary wildly in length, width and thickness.  The clay used in their manufacture bakes to a brittle mass that often breaks apart during transport to the worksite, the unloading, the transfer to the work area or the lifting into final position(breakage rate:  between 20-25 percent).  Batter boards, the wooden contraptions set up in the corners of building sites to facilitate squaring, are hacked from available tree branches and pounded into the ground with a rock.

Building inspectors.  None.

Mechanization.  None.  No backhoe, no cement mixer, no truck-mounted cranes to lift bricks to the ground, no stone slinger.  The only things that produce choking black diesel fumes are the ancient Massey Ferguson tractors that pull even more ancient trailers to deliver materials to the worksite.  Everything else - EVERYTHING - requires hard, sweaty, backbreaking manual labour.

Building Materials.  A combination of locally-manufactured and commercially produced.  Cement comes in bags from the hardware store (which is inevitably run by an Indian family).  Everything else is made onsite or locally.  Squared timber comes in non-standard dimensions and is usually cut from a log onsite using either a chain saw (uncommon) or a hand saw (common), with the wood choice being whatever is handy.   Gravel comes from rock outcrops in the neighbourhood that have been beaten into submission with a sledge and the resultant chips sorted – by hand – into piles and moved to the roadside to be sold.  Sand comes from the river bottom, labouriously dug by a worker standing up to his waist in running water.  Piled in conical piles on the shoreline, it is eventually moved to the roadside to be mounded up beside the gravel being sold there. 

Tools.  Most of the Kenyan tools are rudimentary and live a very hard life.  Spirit levels for ensuring horizontal and vertical construction are cheap, nasty and have one tiny bubble.  Claw hammers may or may not have a factory-made shaft; more often than not a welder will have attached a length of pipe to the head… or the hammerhead will simply be cradled in the palm of the hand and used on its side.  Timber saws with big teeth are non-existent and cutting/ripping of all wood is more often than not done with a combination of machete, axe and handsaw.  Squares are not used.  Water levels consist of translucent, colourless plastic tubing and even when used are used incorrectly (there were three interior walls in the building that ended up sloping upwards or downwards dramatically).   Plumb bobs, trowels and a hank of string seemed to be the only tools used with any effect by the masons.  Shovels are cheap, with most having broken handles or blades.  About six of the ten new shovels we purchased did not last more than a day without breaking a shaft or shedding a handgrip.  The only tool success story was the jembe, a hoe-like digging implement that looks more like a lethal weapon than a tool.  With its sharp, curved blade the jembe could REALLY move the earth and it quickly became a favourite of the Canadian Scouts.   

Construction Pace.  We worked hard.  In fact, everyone worked hard.  The Canadians really stepped up to the plate.  The Kenyan Rovers were generally inexhaustible.  The paid labourers worked like Trojans.  The most amazing workers, though, were two young Kenyans digging a deep (read:  really, really deep) hole to uncover murram, the heavy red clay with pea-sized pebbles used as a final top layer before the concrete slab was poured.  Between the two of them they dug two holes, each large enough to bury a Smart Car or two.  Close behind were the two rock splitters who wielded a heavy sledge to break bushel-basket sized boulders into football sized ones.  Each of these four men was paid 200 KES (about $2.40 CAD) per day for their long days of backbreaking work.

What did we accomplish?  LOTS.  Going back to the project scope, there had been some discussion of having the foundation ready on our arrival so we could work above ground.  This, though, would have cost more, as paid labourers would have done all the work.  Our backbreaking labours saw the foundation through to completion at a much-reduced price, leaving the Project Committee with more money in the bank to pursue follow-on construction.  Our presence stretched the funds available and made what might have been unachievable, achievable.

My take.  As I said in Shiru at the wrap-up lunch, I am a person not easily impressed. 

…but I WAS impressed.  Really impressed. 

A bunch of Canadian Scouts with limited construction experience put their shoulders to the wheel and pushed.  The days were long, the work was hard, but there were few complaints.  Everyone looked out for everyone else and the resultant productivity was high.  The site was clean, the injuries limited to a couple of scrapes and bruises, the final product excellent.  Those with greater strength took on the difficult tasks.  Those with lesser strength soon determined what tasks they could do and pursued them diligently.  Although Daniel was lauded as the hardest working Canadian, his selection does not in any way lessen the vast amount of hard work done by others in the group.  

I was incredibly lucky to work alongside some terrific Canadian youth.  It was a fabulous experience.

We set out to do our best and we did.

by David

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