When I was 15, or 16, somewhere in my mid teens, I went to Fiji to build a house. We stayed in a village for just under two months and worked everyday on this house with some of the local men. Before leaving for Fiji we underwent about two weeks of training in brick laying, mixing cement, hammering nails, digging holes etc… We also ran an obstacle course every morning. I’m still not sure how that helped our house building skills but it sure was fun.
I really enjoyed working on the house, particularly laying bricks, or rather large blocks. But I found that often my jobs were taken from me by the FIjian men we were working with. On one occasion each time I lifted the hammer to pound in a nail a man would take the hammer from me. This happened so many times I became fed up and decided all the men must be sexist. That was the only possible explanation.
I have spent the last two or so days in a village in Kep where I will be spending about half of my time in Cambodia. Originally I was supposed to live in this village for the duration of my year here. This was changed and I was asked to be based in Phnom Penh, which I was happy to do. But after seeing the village I’m a little disappointed I don’t get to live there for the whole year. It’s beautiful, lush and green. When I do visit I will stay in the local volunteer house, awake with the roosters, walk to work with the cows, and pick a mango for breakfast on the way to the office (by the way, the house below isn’t the main volunteer house, although I may get this one).
The volunteer house is not just for long termers like me, but also for groups of high school and university students who travel to the village with my NGO to do practical community development work. Build houses, dig latrines and so on. Yesterday I was asked to accompany a group of four Canadian university students building a latrine for a local family. The first step was to lay bricks for the walls. There were only four trowels available so the students were the only ones able to work (I got to stay clean and be the photographer). It was awful. It was so obvious to me that the very well meaning volunteers only got in the way. The men had already started on the walls and had done a pretty good job and now it was being butchered by these Canadian students. The bricks were laid at all kinds of angles, some with too much cement in between, some with too little. The Khmer men followed anxiously behind each of them tapping the bricks to correct the position. One man even tried to take over the job but then had to give it back to the girl he’d stolen it from. She looked very unimpressed.
It left me wondering what the point was. Why were these volunteers here to build houses and does it actually have any benefit for the community? The whole process is clearly meant more for the volunteers. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the experience will influence future decisions made by the participants that will benefit another community. I certainly had a good experience in Fiji. Most of the men actually seemed to find it amusing and not long after we arrived a group of workers on the nearby train line gathered around to watch and laugh.
So yesterday I learned that the repeated theft of my hammer as a teenager had nothing to do with my gender. It was probably just because I was doing a terrible job and the man stealing it had to live there and didn’t want his house to fall down. I am told that the families who participate offer to do so and are most likely aware that the whole process will be laughable. And I guess that’s a good thing. But I can’t help but think, maybe volunteers shouldn’t build houses.