Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why We Fight: Fanny Balauti

I’m in southern Malawi today, where I have been participating in a review of some of Habitat’s programs. As I mentioned in the post about Ghana, Habitat for Humanity has a number of different ways that they work internationally, as opposed to the traditional interest-free mortgage loan that is the hallmark of Habitat in the US. One of those programs that is mostly exclusive to Africa is the Vulnerable Group Housing program, also known as the Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC) Program, because in most cases the program works with orphans who are victims of HIV/Aids.
What Habitat does for these children is give them a house. It is usually small, and sometimes they have to help in the building process by carrying water or sand to the building site, but we give them the house – no loan payback or anything else. We also build a toilet (pit latrine), and provide some other services like training in wills, in malaria prevention and we provide them with treated mosquito nets. Habitat also works with other partner agencies to provide health and psychological support, and other things like fruit trees.
I spent the day meeting three house recipient families and interviewing them about their experiences with Habitat as part of our program review. Often the children have been adopted into extended family networks, or they may still have a living parent, but sometimes the household is run by the oldest living child. This is something that I knew existed, but I wasn’t ready for it when I met Fanny Balauti this morning for my first interview. When I first was introduced to Fanny, I knew that she was one of the children that lived in the house, but I did not realize at first that she was the head of household until the Habitat manager that I was with started the interview. She looked to be no older than 15, although, when I asked, she said she was 20. Both of her parents had died of Aids, and she was left alone to care for her 4 younger brothers and sisters.

Although she had relatives all around in the community, she never received or receives any help from them. Her parents left a plot of land with a mud hut that had a leaky roof on it, and nothing else. She is very grateful to Habitat for the house that was given to her and her siblings because they used to spend a lot of time re-thatching the roof or recovering from their possessions getting soaked every time it rained. Now she has more time to tend her garden, tend the one acre of corn she has planted, and to do piece work on farms in the community to provide for the family. She has managed to keep her younger siblings in school (all of them are primary school age) although she dropped out after 8th grade. She actually manages to make ends meet for her family on 20 cents a day. That’s right – her total monthly income is about $6.00 a month. (Development organizations that work for the “Poorest of the Poor” talk about serving people that make less than $1.25 a day – Fanny earns less than 25% of that standard)
Fanny really impressed me – not only by the obvious hard work that she does every day to take care of her younger brothers and sisters, but by the strength of will and character that came out during the interview. She has volunteered to help cook for visiting Habitat groups, and she expressed a willingness to help other families with construction of a new house – even though no one helped her – because she knew first-hand how important it would be to that family, and that she would need to show the same love to others that was shown to her.
After the interview I was to do an inspection of the construction of the house. We had been sitting on her front porch while we talked, and she showed me inside. The house was built well – it was not unlike a Habitat house that I lived in for three years in Zambia, except for one thing. There was almost nothing inside. There were two mosquito nets hanging from the rafters in the two bedrooms. There were two, single, 2 ½ inch-thick foam rubber mattresses that had been given them by another agency, a few clothes, and a few pots and pans and a small bag of corn meal in the corner. And that was it. No furniture, no radio, no candles or lantern (no electricity), no stools – nothing. The old house which is partially falling down is used as a kitchen – nothing. They had absolutely nothing, except a goat that was left by a family that had moved away – in an arrangement where if the goat had any babies fanny would get half of them in exchange for taking care of it. That’s all.
Fanny on her porch with a friend. The hut on the left (which is partially collapsed) is where she and her siblings lived before. it is now used as a kitchen (they cook over open flames) and the goat lives in the collapsed part.

I have seen poor, rural African poverty, but this just blew me away. This was by far the poorest family I have ever met, but even so this young woman had strength and a spirit of perseverance that was almost difficult to view, and gratefulness to Habitat that made me appreciate the fact that I am associated with this organization. I know my words don’t do this experience justice – but the title of this post comes from the TV series and book, “A Band of Brothers” – specifically from the episode near the end of the Second World War when the American troops encountered the Nazi death camps and in the process of liberating them, the troops realized what they had been fighting for.
Today, I realized what I am fighting for…..


At the end of November I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Ghana for a Habitat – sponsored workshop for Habitat workers from all over Africa and the Middle East. The workshop was focused primarily on Housing Micro-finance and the delivery of Construction technical Assistance (CTA) to both Micro-lending institutions and their clients. This is a new field, where basically Habitat is partnering up with small banks who give small loans to poor people that want to improve their housing conditions – for a small fee, the Habitat technician will help the loan recipient with plans, estimates or even locating a builder, while helping the lender by verifying the need for a housing loan and verifying that not only was the loan spent for the intended work but that the work was done well. In this way, for much less money spent, Habitat serves many more people, and Habitat serves people who normally wouldn’t qualify for a normal Habitat full house loan. Currently Habitat is doing this (in various ways) in 6 countries in Africa and the Middle East, and we hope to expand the program to many more.
An addition of a septic tank and dual-pit latrine (one side remains dormant and the other used, switching out each six months, at the end of which the dormant side has turned to fertilizer with the aid of some chemicals)

This is the main program that I am working with, and the desire to expand the program was why I was hired. It is not the “traditional habitat” that I was familiar with, but I am pretty excited about it and the potential for working with thousands of families in an area each year vs. only at the most building 100 houses is a very exciting prospect. Habitat’s stated goal is to see that every family has a decent home to live in all over the world – and to even begin to think about reaching that goal we have to start finding ways to serve ever larger numbers of people. The UN estimates that there is a need right now for over 1 billion houses to replace slum houses the world over….so the need is huge.

Ghana is cool. I fell in love with the place within a few minutes of being there. Of course, I was pre-disposed to liking the place to begin with – every Ghanaian I have ever met has been friendly and fun to be around and I have loved the “Hi-Life” music for a while now. The country is hot, green, crowded and has a feeling of activity that I have not ever seen in any place that I have been to before. Where in South Africa, if you stop at a traffic light there might be one guy selling the morning newspaper, and maybe a beggar or two – in Ghana when you stop at a light, there will be 50 people selling anything that you might want or need – newspapers, CD’s, toilet paper, nuts, juice, baked rolls or bread, dried plantains, bananas, pineapple, ice cream…..and on and on. And no beggars – why beg when there are so many things to sell? The other amazing thing about these independent retailers is that they carry their wares more often than not on their heads. I have seen many times before people carrying things this way, but in Ghana they don’t even bother to use their hands to balance their loads – it is fun watching people with, say, a bread cabinet (made of wood with glass sides to show off the rolls and bread inside) on their head literally running down a line of cars and buses to get “ahead” of the competition so they can make a sale.

A typical site - the lady on the left with a huge load on her head, a baby on her back and a bag in her hand.

The other major impression from driving around Ghana is the large number of small shops and markets – it almost seems that everyone in the country is selling something to someone else. There were not very many large supermarkets or chain stores in evidence, and even the gas stations didn’t have a lot of goods in there stores. Ghana is the anti-Wal-Mart if there ever was one. Two other things I saw struck me as unusual – one is the “Grasscutter”, a small animal, or a large rat, that is considered a delicacy. They look like an overgrown Guinea Pig, or a Beaver with its tail clipped. My boss, Carl, actually ate one for lunch one day, but not only did I not try it, I couldn’t get past the smell… The other observation was driving by one of the major golf courses in Accra, and stopped at a traffic light I looked to my left at the driving range and observed two golfers taking turns hitting one ball while a third, younger man, stood down range and retrieved the ball after every hit. It was both sad observing how poor these guys were, but also it was very familiar watching golfers overcoming odds to play at their sport. In my case it is overcoming my lack of ability – in their case it was only having the one ball.

Cute, but the Grasscutter is still a giant rat, and also food....

It was a good experience visiting Ghana – I was able to meet several young, dedicated professionals who work for Habitat all over Africa and I was encouraged that I would be working with them more in the months to come. I also was thrilled to visit several villages where habitat has been building and see that the organization really has an impact in transforming lives of the poor. Sitting in my office in the big city of Pretoria doesn’t always give me the opportunity to see that, and it was nice to be reminded about what my work is really about.

Another CTA example - this man is a builder, building his own home to house three generations. He needed a loan to put the roof on - the rest he is doing himself.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


So one of the things I didn't expect about moving back to Africa was how different South Africa of 2011 is from Zambia of 1987 - and probably because I didn't really think it through. Zambia of 1987 was a pretty poor country (and from my visits in 1997 and 1998, and from what I hear - it still is) South Africa of 2011 is much more modern and developed. South Africa is actually part of the Group of 20 (which is meeting right now), the twenty largest economies. This is actually a little misleading, because the European Union is considered as one economy, and several countries that are in the group (including South Africa) would not be there if the European countries were counted as individuals, but South Africa is there - and its' wealth is pretty evident, especially here in Pretoria. The city is the largest one I've lived in since I was in high school in the suburbs of Dallas, and so far I have managed to stay off of the super highways and out of the rush hour traffic jams that any resident of Dallas, Atlanta or just about any big city in the US would recognize. And that is what is so different - it feels so much like being in the states, that the occasional moment when I realize I am in Africa is almost a pleasant surprise.

I have managed to avoid traffic jams by finding a nice, small house to rent about 5 minutes from the office. its a longer commute than I've had in 7 or 8 years, but it's not too bad.

Downtown Pretoria - "The Jacaranda City"

 My neighborhood is the older, wealthy, close-to-town neighborhood that one often finds in cities - it would be a candidate for being a protected historic district if it were in the US, but there is not any interest in that sort of thing here - mainly because of security. And that is what is really different here - although South Africa has a growing economy with a growing middle class, there is still a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots, with a large crime rate that one would expect with such a gap. The "haves" as a result, lock themselves behind security fences and burglar bars, with electric fences on top and motion sensors inside and outside the houses, and security "armed response" agencies only an alarm or phone call away. As a new resident here, first you are a little shocked at what seems to be paranoia, then you begin to feel pretty insecure and the paranoia starts to feel justified.

Jacaranda Trees in Pretoria
A photo from my neighborhood

Jacaranda Trees in PretoriaThe security consciousness doesn't end there - car-jacking became pretty popular a few years ago, and although the numbers have fallen, and are decreasing every year, everyone warns you about it and you have to worry, especially after dark, as you drive around. In addition, every shopping center has gates and you have to pay for parking, or there is an informal system of "parking guards" who help you park and then look after your car for you as you shop. In fact - the parking guards are about the only thing that reminds me of Zambia.

Enough about security - it is really on my mind right now because I am at this moment waiting for the security company to come and fix the sensor on my front door. My landlord re-painted the house before I moved in, and the painter accidentally pulled a wire out, and I wasn't able to fix it myself. 

Another street scene from the Internet

As you can see from the photos, this city has some amazing Jacaranda trees that line the streets and bloom in   October - November. the blooms are constantly falling off the trees and forming this "purple snow" carpet on the ground - and when you are walking under them it really does feel like they are snowing on you. I have to wipe the purple flowers off of Rosie before she can come into the house after one of our walks. It's really beautiful - and the closest thing to it I have ever seen are the old live oaks in the South Carolina Low Country, only these are purple. The other 2 big differences that I notice especially on my walks with Rosie is that the birds are big and loud, and there is one type that is even aggressive. Rosie tried to chase one of those one day, and instead of flying away, scared, it took to the air and started swooping at Rosie (and me) like a dive bomber. Rosie was pretty freaked out, but fortunately, it never got closer than about 10 feet (although that was close enough!). The other difference is that there are no squirrels here - I haven't taken the time to check why, but it is strange to walk Rosie and not have her want to run off after a squirrel.

That's it for this post. I am actually starting to understand my new job and make a contribution - the learning curve has been big, but I have been enjoying the challenge. I am looking forward to travelling to Ghana later this month, and Malawi in January, and I am also looking forward to my sons coming over in December.  
Jacaranda Trees in Pretoria

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Habitat Building in Soweto

Monday, October 3rd was World Habitat Day - a day sponsored by the United Nations Habitat Organization that Habitat For Humanity has also adopted. In fact, HFH has used the date as the kick-off for one or two-week long "Blitz Builds" all over the world. This year the 500,000th house built by Habitat was celebrated in Kenya, and Jimmy Carter held his annual build in Haiti where Habitat is building homes for earthquake victims.

Here in South Africa, the South Africa Habitat For Humanity held a Blitz Build in Orange Farm, which is a relatively new suburb of Soweto. As part of the Blitz Build, there were many houses sponsored by various South African corporations and churches, and each organization sent teams to work on the houses they were sponsoring - this will be very familiar to anyone who has built with Habitat in the US. As part of the celebration of World Habitat Day (week), the HFH Africa and Middle East Area Office (which is where I work - our mission is to support the various countries in our area that have Habitat programs) sent teams each day to work on the build. My team was there on Thursday, and several of the 44 houses being built during the week were already finished, while ours was a little more than 2/3rds done.

Yes, that's me on the scaffold, building a gable-end wall.

I have to admit - this has been my most fun day so far in South Africa. i have always loved building, and it's a lot of fun to be doing it with some of my co-workers, the family that we were building for, and several neighborhood volunteers. It was pretty cool to enter the Orange farm community, which has no street signs yet (or paved streets, for that matter), totally lost and all we had to do was ask someone walking down the street where Habitat was, and he gave us very specific instructions - even though we were very far away, he knew exactly where the build was taking place.

The existing shack and toilet on the lot we were building on.

Orange Farm is relatively new, a greenfield development of the type called "Sites and Services", which was an idea just starting to come in vogue in development circles about the time i was finishing my work in Zambia. The principle idea is that if land is made available to the poor, with a lot size that we would recognize as familiar in the US - say 60' wide by 120' deep, and services are made available - in this case an outhouse (connected to city sewer), water and electricity, the lot recipient has a stable plot with clear title that they can then build on, and over time they will be able to build a decent house. It is acknowledged that it might take as long as 20 years to have the finished product - but this kind of incremental building takes place everywhere anyway, often without title to the land or legal electricity or even the basic water and sanitation services.

The House across the street  - note the shack in the back, the Habitat house in front - the lot owner has already built his garden wall, and you can see the partially completed neighbor's house (not Habitat)

It is very easy for Habitat to find qualified house recipients in these types of developments, and in fact, one of the areas that I will be spending a lot of my time on is helping existing Habitat countries to start working with either independent Micro Finance institutions or with the new, separate entity Habitat is forming called Micro Build, to begin offering incremental Housing Support Services, also known as Construction Technical Assistance. The idea is that we would offer support to people making micro-housing loans to incrementally build their houses, or to build a "Core House" that is a basic, one-room structure with a bathroom and kitchen. The idea is really exciting on several counts - first, Habitat resources get leveraged by other financial institutions so that the organization can increase the number of families it serves by literally 10 or 20 fold. Second, Habitat doesn't have to become a land developer, because they would be working with families that have already begun a housing process, on lots they already own, or, if Habitat does develop the land, they would do it with Sites and Services, again to spread the resources they have farther. And third, most importantly, Habitat can actually serve the poorest of the poor - those people who have not been able to qualify for the traditional Habitat mortgage (and they are by far the majority in developing countries) can qualify for a $100 loan to pour a concrete floor, or a $150 loan to roof a room addition.

A house almost completed after three days.

So, all in all I had fun building - although I realized it had been 12 years since I had worked a trowel when I got a cramp in my forearm while cutting a brick (you have to hammer it hard with the edge of the trowel, and I was making the brick shorter for a row over a window lintel, so I was having to cut it the long way) needless to say, the professional mason on site had to finish the cutting job - and I had to take a water break.

Carl, my boss, and Princess, our IT specialist, actually posing for the camera.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Settling In

I realized a little late that at my stage of life, its not so easy to just drop everything and move to Africa. If I had thought about it a little more, I might have balked at taking on so much work - but that is the joy of the impulsive life, just dive in and sort things out as they come... I have to admit, I had a slight case of panic my first night here. I woke up at about 3 AM, wide awake and not able to fall back asleep, and the only thing I could think was, "what in the world am I doing here?". I eventually fell back asleep, and the next morning, while I was sitting in the neighborhood cafe eating breakfast and listening to at least 5 languages being spoken while the Rugby World Cup was on the TV, I realized this was a pretty cool place to be, and I still think so.

The good news is that not only have I been in Africa for a week, my dog and cat have made it here also! Rosie and Mew arrived late Friday night after a three day trip that included a day in Amsterdam, and despite a big case of animal jet lag, they both seem to have weathered the trip fine.


Rosie                                                                                                    Mew                                                        

So now I have completely made the move, and all I have left to do is re-acquire all the things I left behind - house, car, furniture, sheets, towels, pots and pans....you get the picture.The first step, finding a house, has gone quickly - I found a nice place about 5 minutes from the office that I will be able to take possession of in three weeks, which will give me time to find stuff to put in it. Fortunately Habitat understands that I need time to take care of these things, so they have not put too many demands on me yet.

Speaking of Habitat, my new co-workers are great. The office has 33 people from 10 different countries, and I have been so warmly welcomed and accepted that it is hard to describe. I feel that I have transported myself to another, granted more international and eclectic, Allison Ramsey Architects, only I am no longer "The Boss". Which is funny because I just realized yesterday that this is really my first job ever working for a paycheck. As soon as I finished college I joined Habitat as a volunteer (where they sent me to Zambia alone to start their program there, and in those days, with no fax, phone or Internet the only supervision I had was two letters and a visit in three years, and the visit was three months before my contract ended) and every other job I ever had was either as a contract draftsman/architect or as my own firm. So I am glad my first impressions of my new workplace are so good, because I know sooner or later I am probably going to encounter some difficulties, and I feel confident that I am in a supporting environment.

Monday is International Habitat day, and for the whole week the office is taking turns building houses at a Habitat site in Soweto. My team works there on Thursday, so I will report on that, hopefully with pictures, next week.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

My Last Week at Allison Ramsey, for a while...

So yesterday was my last day at Allison Ramsey Architects - I start at Habitat For Humanity International in Atlanta on Monday. I will work there until Thursday, when I fly to South Africa.

Obviously, I am really excited about traveling to Africa again and starting a new job. I have mixed feelings though, mostly due to the fact that it has been about 19 years since I last changed jobs, and considering that I never thought I would ever work in one place for even 5 years. For some reason, everyone I talk to thinks that I might have some adjusting to do to the fact that I will not be the boss anymore - but my response to them is they haven't had to work for my clients for 19 years. I like to think I am trading an average of 10 to 12 bosses at a time for just one, or maybe two.

I am also a little nervous due to the fact that I am flying my dog and cat to Africa, and they will be following me after a few days, so I won't even be the person that puts them on the plane. I have never transported animals before, except in my car, and considering how many times my luggage has been lost by the airlines in my lifetime, my confidence level is understandably low....

Anyway, it was great spending the last three weeks in Beaufort working with the gang at Allison Ramsey. I can't express how proud I am of the firm that we have created together - we do an amazing job, and have such an incredible body of work - we just need to keep on sharing with others what we have done and can do! I plan to continue to be involved in Allison Ramsey at some level - and I will definitely be visiting when I am back in the States.

Some of "The Gang" - Past and Present:

Saturday, September 10, 2011

I am new at this...

I am new at this blogging stuff, so bear with me as I try this out. My name is Bill Allison and I am about to move to South Africa to work for Habitat For Humanity International in their Africa/Middle East Area Office in Pretoria. A number of my friends and colleagues have asked me to keep them posted on what I will be doing, and several have suggested starting a blog - so here I am. At the moment I am still in the US, waiting on my travel documents from South Africa. I am camping out, with my dog and cat, in Cooter's guest house until I leave for Pretoria. Cooter is one of my partners in Allison Ramsey Architects (the other is Bill Harris) and he and his wife Stacy are really super letting me live in their backyard for an undetermined time.

First: A note about the title of my blog, and a preview, I guess, of how I will be posting stories. I went to architecture school (Texas Tech) and, like many architecture students, got pretty burnt out during the process and decided for many reasons to do something different when I graduated than sit at a drawing board for the rest of my life - which is exactly what I felt would happen at the time if I didn't do something drastic. After exploring the Peace Corps and a few other options, a friend suggested I look into this relatively new organization called Habitat For Humanity, and gave me Millard Fuller's book, "Bokotala" about how he and his wife Linda started the organization in Mbandaka, Zaire (now the Congo). That book captivated me, and made me realize that building houses with Habitat would be a better and more relevant use of my architectural education than what the Peace Corps had to offer, so I applied, and was accepted to go overseas as an international volunteer. Habitat decided to send me to start their first project in Zambia, on an isolated island in the Kafue River Flats called Kabuyu Island.

Kids playing football on Kabuyu Island

As I write this blog I am sure I will spend a lot of time talking about what Habitat does and how they work, so I will not go into that now, but the title refers to one of the first houses we built on Kabuyu Island for a Man named Mr. Phiri. I am sure he had a first name, but he was older and a respected member of the community, and I didn't dare call him anything other than Mr. Phiri. As one of the elders on the island, he was on our Habitat committee, and because the project was new, I was young, and most of the people on this island had relocated there from other parts of the country where they had experienced difficulties, the people on the island were very skeptical of me and the whole program. Mr. Phiri was chosen to get one of the first houses not necessarily as an honor, but more as a guinea pig, or so it seemed to me. As the house progressed, I came to admire how hard Mr. Phiri worked, and as he saw that we were really building him a concrete block house to replace his grass walled and grass roofed hut, I began to be amazed at his joy and enthusiasm for the work that we were doing. The day I remember most was the day we finished - this man was so overjoyed that he completely lost his reserve and started to tell me and the two young guys that were working with me about how as soon as we packed our tools and left he was going to grab his wife and "initiate" each of the three rooms in the house to celebrate it's completion! It was a very funny moment, but now, after about 26 years of building, and mainly designing hundreds of homes for clients, I still recall it as the most joyful, most happy and satisfied reaction to getting a new house that I have ever seen.

Not Mr. Phiri's house, but the same design.

And of course - I got such a kick out of seeing how happy Mr. Phiri and his family were in finally having a permanent home. The enjoyment at playing even a small part in helping to transform peoples lives - that's one of the reasons I am going back to Africa to work for Habitat full time. I have quite a few other reasons that I am sure I will get to sooner or later, but this was a major one....

Please comment, ask questions, talk back. Don't make me do all the work - especially those of you who were pushing me to do this!