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Building Houses for HIV Orphans in Malawi: Part 3

by Shane  Werle
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Jun 2, 2014

Volunteer Shane Werle has a long history of working with Habitat for Humanity in the U.S. and Haiti. Early this year, he traveled to Malawi in Africa, to build brick homes for some of the country's many children orphaned due to HIV. He returned with a passion for giving back to the community, and a mission to bring more volunteers with him.

EDGE looks at his journey through Africa in a three-part series. In Part 2, he talked about building homes for the villagers and their children. This week, he talks about how people are chosen to have a house built for them.:

People often ask how the recipients are chosen for these houses. It’s a process that involves many steps and organizations. First, Habitat for Humanity International is based in Atlanta and Americus, Georgia, and they have Habitat affiliates all over the United States and the world. In this case, it’s Habitat for Humanity Malawi. The Malawi affiliate coordinates the resources in various parts of the country and handles the logistics of building -- getting materials, handling permits and records (secure tenure, as mentioned earlier), organizing volunteer build weeks, etc.

Ours was the first Habitat project in this village, and we were the first of three teams this year. Habitat goes to the village chiefs and proposes the project. The village chiefs then decide who in their village will receive the house. I did not detect any sort of animosity or jealousy from the other villagers while we were building.

We finished our houses, had ample time to play with the kids, got to know the villagers, experienced what real Africa has to offer and then it was time to start winding down the week. On the sixth day, we returned to the village and spent a couple of hours in the morning cleaning up our work site. We were very respectful of their village and did not want to leave any trace of refuse or debris. It’s not uncommon to see Africans throwing trash to the wind, as they don’t understand environmental impacts in the same way we do, but it was our duty to respect their land and not leave it dirty, even if they didn’t fully comprehend our reasoning.

By late morning it was time for the dedication ceremony. The whole village was there, as well as the senior chief, the village chief and the village elders. The senior chief oversees about 32 villages and is appointed by the president. Except for very serious crimes, most disputes or criminal activity (stealing, for instance) is handled within the village chain of command.

The ceremony included lots of traditional African singing and dancing. Of course, we had no idea of the significance of what they were doing, but we appreciated the fact that they were honoring us with their efforts. The chiefs made a few remarks along the way, and then the senior chief presented us individually with a certificate of appreciation (the certificates were provided by Habitat Malawi, but he also signed them). It was a nice gesture and makes for a great memory.

And then came lunch! Yes, lunch in a village in rural Africa is not like a church potluck in the United States. I’m very particular when it comes to how food is handled and prepared, and I knew this day was coming and that I’d have to bear with it. There were only about five forks for over 20 of us, and I’m not quite sure about the history of the plates. Lunch included goat (he had been tied to a tree just two days prior), chicken, rice, a type of coleslaw and ncima.

They went way, way, way out of their way to prepare this for us, both timewise and financially. Africans eat meat once, or maybe twice, per year. For them to serve us goat and chicken was an honor, and I was not going to allow my eating preferences to offend them. I sat on the floor of house #1 with the rest of the team, some village chiefs and the homeowners and their children and ate with my fingers.

This is an example of what I was talking about earlier -- about us learning from them. We gave up our time and some money to help them. We felt the financial impact of our trip, but we knew we could easily recover from it. In turn, they gave up the equivalent of about six months’ wages (not including the value of the goat) to prepare a meal for us.

I still think back everyday about how the people were so generous and genuinely happy to see us and do anything for us. It seems like so many times when we’re downtrodden we expect people with more means to help us. They don’t expect anything.

We finished lunch and took one last walk through the village, and then headed to our van. All the children and most of the adults were gathered around and we realized that this was goodbye. The week seemed so long while building, and now standing there with the children, it seemed like we had just gotten there. All the children were picking out their favorite team members to hug, and we got more pictures, even though I had already filled two 16gb cards and another 32gb card with videos.

Seeing them for the last time was a little harder than I had imagined. We were going back to the United States to our big houses, restaurants, malls, etc. They were remaining in Africa to deal with poverty, HIV, family illnesses and death, and hard work. Children work hard there. It was hard to not feel guilt for our excesses.

We got in the van and started the drive out of the village to the main road. The children chased us as they had done every day as we arrived and departed for work. They laughed, screamed, waved, made the peace sign... and then we were on the main road headed back to our lodge about 40 minutes away. The van ride back was quiet. On the way back, we passed the same huts and shacks and small markets and people we had passed twice a day since Monday.

We arrived back at the lodge and everyone took showers and packed their bags for our departure at six o’clock the next morning. Then we went to a "resort" on Lake Malawi for a farewell dinner. This is a resort frequented by Germans and South Africans mostly, so it was more Western by African standards. Habitat Malawi allocated 5,000 kwacha per team member for dinner, so any drinks or extras were on us. Of course, we all had dessert, even if it was an extra 2,000 kwacha (about $5).

The next morning it was time to leave for the two hour drive back to Lilongwe. We arrived at the airport and went through security (I’ve seen more security at the mall than at this small airport), and then went to the observation deck to wait the five hours for our flights. There was a small restaurant there, so we ordered food and drinks. Some of the food arrived twice, some not at all, some was different than what you thought you were ordering -- it was a great way to end our week in Africa and a reminder to appreciate how good we have it in the United States. Then we boarded the flights and began the long trip back home.

Habitat for Humanity prepares you for reverse culture shock when you return from these trips. You’re excited about what you just experienced, but people back home have never slowed down since you left, and want to hear the initial details of your trip, but then have to get back to their first world problems. This was the case with me, just as it had been when I returned from Haiti. I made four videos about the trip to put on YouTube. They were designed, of course, to remember the trip, but mostly to educate and advocate about the battle in Malawi and the orphans.

I am now qualified to be a team leader on Global Village trips with Habitat for Humanity. I hope to lead at least two trips a year, one to various destinations each January or February, and then return to Malawi each June or July (it’s their winter then, so it will be cooler). My goal is to get at least 60 people to go each summer, but as many as 100. Having experience in building and construction, I have found a way for just six volunteers to build a house in a week. We could build 12-15 houses in a weeks’ time each year, in addition to the smaller teams that go to Malawi throughout the year.

If you’re reading this, I encourage you to watch the videos on YouTube and commit to going on a Global Village build at some point in the next 36 months. I do not work for Habitat for Humanity and do not get paid by them. But I am a strong advocate for their mission. If I can get 1,000 people to commit to a trip over the next 10 years, think of the difference we could all make all over the world.

If you’re interested in knowing more, you can email me with any questions. I will also be taking applications for my first Malawi build in the summer of 2016. I need as many people as possible to go, and you do NOT need any construction experience to participate.

To help raise funds for Shane’s next trip, visit


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