For those of you who've seen my fundraising appeal, you may have scratched your head at whether it could really cost $25 to make 8 bricks... they must be very expensive bricks in Nicaragua.
I confess... I made that number up. But, I can now share with you the price of a brick, for real.
It starts with a mound of heavy earth with tufts of grass growing from it. In the morning hours a team of five women break apart the earth with pick-axes and shovels. Their husbands work in the fields, so these women are the ones who have entered into an agreement with themselves and Habitat to help build each other new houses. Habitat provides most of the materials, supervision and design, and they contribute labor. In flip-flops and bare feet, they start hacking away at the earth at 8am, breaking it up into rough soil before throwing it at a wire mesh to seperate out the rocks from the dirt.
Our team of 12 volunteers from the US and Canada are here to help out for a week. We launch into helping with enthusiasm, but it takes only a few minutes to realize that this is hard work... not for the faint of heart, or those who spend their lives in offices.
Under the blazing sun, the fine dirt is then wheelbarrowed to the brick factory. 15 heaped wheelbarrows are mixed with lye and cement and water to create our brick mixture. Mixing glosses over the effort involved. The lye and cement have to be fully mixed first, and then the water added. This takes about 15 minutes with multiple people with shovels. After you're done, you try and stand up and realize standing straight isn't so easy anymore.
The mix is poured into the concrete machine. That means shovelling the mix back into buckets, and passing them up to be poured in. Each brick comes out and needs to be baked in the sun for a week or two.
15 wheelbarrows and a couple of hours of manual labor will make 80 bricks. On Monday we managed 440 bricks. It'll take another 1300 to make enough for the whole house.
It's so much work, that I scratch my head and wonder right now why Habitat dosen't just provide a backhoe and a mixer, or even better just buy the bricks in from elsewhere. It's a good question, but and I'm going to hazard a guess. The economics of labor in developing countries mean that equipment is a luxury, and human energy cheap. Considering the average income here is less than a couple dollars a day, they'd be saving for a long time to buy their own bricks, but can make plenty in the meantime. Indeed, the village plans to turn the brick factory into a business once their own houses are finished.
It's also a valuable experience for us volunteers. There's a certain sense of fullfillment that comes from a solid days's work, and it's a good reminder that we have it pretty good where we come from.