In March this year, myself (Jordan Green) and four other Arup Australasia staff members took part in a Habitat for Humanity Australia build in Nuwakot, Nepal. As an organisation, Arup has been working with Habitat for more than 12 years in Australia and abroad to build stronger communities. We found ourselves in Nepal through Arup’s Community Engagement programme, which provides donations, advice and assistance to organisations such as Habitat.
If you’re asking, “Who are Habitat for Humanity?”, let me enlighten you. Habitat is a non-for-profit organisation providing housing and shelter to those in need in more than 70 countries worldwide. Habitat believes that “A safe home gives people the opportunity to be healthier, happier and more secure, and for children to be better nourished and better educated”. To break it down for you: by providing people in need with a home, the cycle of disadvantage can be broken, thus providing a leg up… rather than a hand out.
This is where our Arup contingent consisting of three engineers, one planner and one project manager come into the picture. As part of a larger group of individuals from across Australia, we travelled to a small village on a hillside in Nuwakot, to help build two community halls. Nuwakot was badly affected by the earthquakes of 2014, and it became clear that the scars were not just physical. This community, which was an hour’s drive from the nearest town, was isolated with very few services.
We arrived on day one, excited to get started, to find the sites completely bare. Apart from a few string lines, we were starting from scratch. We spent much of our first few days on site digging, to prepare the foundations for our community halls. We worked out that we needed to shift 27 cubic metres of dirt before we could start laying concrete and steel foundations. This is where I need you to imagine a montage sequence of people swinging shovels and maddocks at the ground, while carrying and pushing buckets and barrows of red dirt. Let me tell you, moving that amount of dirt isn’t easy – especially for someone with hands as soft as mine!
By the end of the third day our trenches were set. We were then ready to make a start on laying stones and bending steel bars for the inlaid supports, and mixing and pouring concrete into said trenches. This is where the community members came into their own. The local men and women (and a few goats) in the village were encouraged to get involved and work alongside us. While at first a bit cagey, as can be expected, by day three we were all working alongside one another in what can only be described as a semi-well-oiled machine!
By the end of day five, we had managed to complete two concrete pours and the foundations were starting to take shape. Unfortunately, it was also time up for us and we had to start our journey back to Kathmandu. It was now down to the village and in-country Habitat staff to finish off the job! However, not before our village handover ceremony.
This is what it was all about – seeing the gratitude on the villager’s faces made it all so meaningful and worthwhile. However, if I’m honest with you, on the Wednesday morning (after nearly passing out from heat exhaustion) I was very much questioning my life choices and why on earth I was in Nepal in the first place. I was sweaty, covered in mud, and stank like you can only imagine and had aching muscles that I didn’t even know existed. But when a grown Nepalese man, three times your age, starts welling up with gratitude and appreciation for the help you and your Habitat teammates have given his family and community, I dare you to not feel a huge sense of pride. The opportunity to give back to the world, to people who truly have been through a horrendous ordeal, is what volunteering with Habitat for Humanity Australia is all about.
Upon completion, the community halls will not only provide a local focal point for the village but also provide emergency shelter and assistance in disasters and other trying times.
One of the completed community halls
This village had been through a horrendous experience; the community had lost children, spouses, parents and friends during the natural disasters of 2015. On top of this, there were the mental scars that claimed other members of the community, years after the quakes. However, perhaps for me personally, the greatest take away from this experience was the way in which these people conducted themselves on a daily basis, in the face of such adversity. Their smiles, compassion and appreciation are admirable. One of my co-builders, Michael Salt, summarised the experience perfectly upon his return to Canberra, stating:
“Returning to Australia and walking out into fresh, clean air, reminded us of how lucky we are. Now back in Australia, I am not constantly worried about the quality of air and water, or needing to clean my hands after touching anything. I don’t have to worry about the animals carrying disease or the ridiculous travel times to get anywhere due to the state of roads. But, this is the state of affairs for the Nepalese every day and despite harsh conditions, they show remarkable, admirable and inspirational resilience.”
For anyone thinking of taking part in a Habitat Build, or indeed any international volunteering experience, I couldn’t recommend it enough. Not only do you get to help those less fortunate and give something back to communities, but deep down, you’ll probably walk away from the experience a better person.
So, who’s interested in going on the next build…?