Letter from Malawi: Brick by Brick

| June 20, 2013

malawi-rainy-seasonThis article titled “Letter from Malawi: brick by brick” was written by Theresa Allain, for Guardian Weekly on Tuesday 18th June 2013 13.02 UTC

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Letter from Malawi: brick by brick” was written by Theresa Allain, for Guardian Weekly on Tuesday 18th June 2013 13.02 UTC

This year we have had a spectacular rainy season. It has rained day in and day out, week in and week out. Reservoirs and dams have filled and the maize is now two metres tall, tassling beautifully, with fat cobs arrayed up the stem. Everyone should be delighted that bellies will be full for the next 12 months. Some have even hinted that this good news from the heavens might be a divine judgment on our new president, Joyce Banda. But is it heresy to complain that there has actually been too much rain, or perhaps the wrong sort of rain? All over town trees, walls and buildings are falling down, roots and foundations washed out by the deluge, or pushed over by the shear pressure of water with nowhere to run to.

Five weeks ago our maid turned up for work with a long face. “There is a problem at my house, the bedroom wall has fallen down.” The next weekend we drove to her village to inspect the damage. Indeed, the entire end wall of the house had dropped off, exposing the two-family bedrooms.

The whole family was now sleeping in their remaining two rooms. : five men and boys in a third bedroom and four women and a few chickens, who seemed to be making the most of the chaos, sleeping in the living room. We promised we would help her rebuild it, but where do you begin re-building a wall?

I asked my friend Jon, a very practical man. He pulled off his bookshelf a copy of the Indian Practical Civil Engineer’s Handbook by P N Khanna. First published in 1958, it gives all the information including materials, quantities and man days for every conceivable construction, including a humble, 2×4 metres brick wall. My next challenge, where do you buy bricks, cement and sand, and at the best price? I called on my friend George, who knew exactly where I should go. The best bricks are from Mpemba, a village on the outskirts of Blantyre, where bricks are moulded out of river mud, assembled into a hollow pyre and slow baked by lighting a fire inside. Not good for the local environment but certainly a passable house brick and definitely stronger than the homemade bricks used previously. An order for “three ton” (about 2,000 bricks) was made. River sand is the local alternative for builder’s sand. One truck load was enough to do the job. Finally cement, the only shop-bought item. The labour, fortunately, was going to be provided by the family. Now the building works are in progress.

But my involvement in the building trade was not over. Last week our night watchman was late for work. He knocked on the door, “There is a problem at my house …” The wall of his pit latrine had been washed away. This time I knew exactly what to do.

Every week Guardian Weekly publishes a Letter from one of its readers from around the world. We welcome submissions – they should focus on giving our readers a clear sense of a place and its people. Please send them to weekly.letter.from@guardian.co.uk

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