Monday, November 29, 2010

The Groundbreaker in Action

We are very happy with our decision to use all groundbreaker bricks for the walls of the school. It has proven to be a fast and cheap way to build a nice looking structure. It has taken some time to get people trained in the machine’s operation and the locals are still slow, although, we are working to improve both skills and work ethic. The guys we hired from Makarere University are on contract to make 450 bricks a day and they finish by about 2pm, and they have also been good teachers. Nat and I decided to learn the machine and we were able to make about 70 bricks an hour after an hour of practice. It’s hard work but the real trick is getting the right amount of soil (red muram soil, sand and cement mixed about 6:1:1) into the machine before compression, otherwise, you must open it up and add or remove a little before compressing again. We are in Kampala now but we have left six of the workers on site with a contract to make 500 bricks per day. This is their first unmonitored brick making – we are all hoping for the best.

The five guys from Kampala work the groundbreaker

Bricks are stacked for a day before use

Large interlocking bricks make the walls go up quickly

It would really be fantastic if the groundbreaker technology caught on in Bwera. Currently, most small scale construction is done using burnt mud bricks. This traditional technique requires that bricks be fashioned out of mud then dried in the sun. After this, they are stacked into a beehive shape and wood is burnt under them for the final curing. This contributes significantly to deforestation and only a portion of the bricks are usable because the inside bricks are too charred and the outside bricks are not cured enough. Then, if it rains hard before the bricks are burnt, the bricks are spoiled. These traditional bricks are also irregular sizes and require a large amount of mortar during building. In comparison, the groundbreaker bricks are uniform and interlocking so need very little mortar to hold them together (if any for a temporary structure). Also, they are usable in four hours and cure completely in two weeks. With the burning of bricks now banned in Kenya and Tanzania due to deforestation concerns, there is reason to hope that the groundbreaker could be a building revolution in East Africa.

Kids in Kampala forming mud bricks in preparation for burning

A stack of burnt bricks is ready for use

Saturday, November 27, 2010

We got back to Kampala a couple days ago. We are here to gather some more equipment, have a break and pickup the next wave of volunteers. Simon arrived on Friday night and we have been enjoying some long walks the last couple days to show him and Cam some of the city. Colleen arrives in just under a week. Nat and I have a few more posts we have been working on – some written out, some still in our minds. We will try to get them onto the website over the next week. Here are a couple now.

The site

Kathy is our team’s resident Mother Teresa. She is an obstetrics nurse and has been engaging the local clinics and hospitals to see how she can best be of assistance. But locals have also taken note of her presence and there is now a constant stream of somehow afflicted people arriving at the site. Most are cases that have persisted after past treatments have failed. There is the young man down the road who can barely leave his room because he has had some sort of general weakness that took over his body five years ago – he is a bright guy and was a math teacher who may now do some tutoring at the school some evenings. There is the middle age guy who is crippled by arthritis, the young girl with the bowed leg, and the little guy with the enlarged head. There is the little one year old that likely has cancer in his sinuses and has trouble feeding and sleeping – he, his mother and a translator have come with us to Kampala to go to the cancer clinic at Mulago Hospital (Dr Sparling thinks it is likely Burkett’s Lymphoma which is common here and often treatable). Kathy has also treated injuries during the school collapse, cuts on the job site, and others. The community and our team are all grateful for her presence.

Kids getting water

The students wrote their last exam on Tuesday and are now on break until February. Most of the students don’t want to go home. Many live with extended or segregate family and are not well cared for. Some have had to resort to prostitution and other desperate measures to pay for food while they are away from school. The students and teachers asked us to pay for food for the kids for the next two months so they could live at the school until the next semester starts – it was a tough but clear choice. It costs 6.8 million shillings (about $3,000) a month to feed the students, money that is mostly raised by Cobra music and drama performances. We could pay for their food for the next two months or we could build most of the second building or buy a plot of land that they could farm to grow food into the future. We decided that we had to work towards long-term solutions.
As a treat for the students on their last day we offered them a movie night. As darkness came, the students collected at the site. We setup my laptop with Kathy’s external speakers and hundreds of students crowded around. They squealed and laughed under the stars while they watched Slumdog Millionaire. It was heartwarming.

Students lineup to get supper from the school kitchen. They get one of two meals - posho (maize flour in water) and beans or tapioca (cassava flour and water).

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Workers in their new vests
Temporary building on the far left beside the small kitchen huts, the brick making tent in the middle and the second building lines are strung out on the right
Since our last post, Nat and I have traveled to Kampala to pickup Bill, Kathy and Cam. We spent a couple days gathering extra tools and equipment before touring the city a bit with Cam. On Sunday we drove back to Bwera by the southern route passing through Mbarara. The southern route is a great way to arrive into Kasese District since you have to pass through the Rift Valley and Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Elections are in February and posters cover everything in Kampala
A woman walks through the streets of Kampala

The road through Queen Elizabeth National Park meets the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains and Bwera
Baboon on the side of the road

Elephants and a rainstorm in the distance
Cam with elephants in the distance
Bill and Kathy

Peter shoots elephants from the roof

Upon our arrival we were greeted by many students, music and dancing. Unfortunately, darkness fell and the rain started moments after we arrived but that did not stop the party. Students crammed themselves under a tarp, huddled around a CD player, electric piano and some soundboards, “shaking their bones” to popular Ugandan favorites. Eventually the students were extricated from the tarp-party and joined us in watching a fantastic performance by the cultural drama group. It was a wonderful arrival.
Party under the tarp
John dancing under the tarp with the students

Drama group performs cultural dances in the rain and mud

Dancers pull faces during the traditional dance
We are trying to balance many factors during the construction and, although the construction is going well, we have had some issues. We want the building(s) to go up quickly, we want to use local labour and we want to be respectful of local relationships and culture. We have had some problems as a result of hiring the five guys from Kampala. Although they generally work much harder and are far more skilled, they are not trusted by the local workers in Bwera because they are of a different tribe. We have also had some problems resulting from Cobra Association’s obligation to use certain businesses for construction materials and subcontracting. For example, the metal door fabricator had helped Cobra in the past with other projects so it was important to have him make the doors – he did a very poor job. However, despite problems like these, we are ahead of schedule.

Kids inspect the progress
Snow is visible in the distant mountains
John and Jill left yesterday. On their last night we did a taste test - Vic Gin vs. banana spirit made locally.

Yesterday was an exciting day at the school. It collapsed. It happened in the afternoon during a final physics exam (we suspect some of the students may have been wishing for something like that to occur at the time!). The temporary building was packed and students were likely leaning on some of the old supports. Fortunately and amazingly, none of the students were seriously injured – just some minor cuts and bruises. Nat and I funded the construction of the temporary building during the summer of 2007 but nothing had been done for the structure since that time. It was surprising that it did not come down in one of the more violent windstorms that punish the tents most evenings. Luckily, the students only have a few more days of exams before they are on holidays until February. We are going to push to get a third classroom completed before their return. We have set up the classrooms under our building shelters to keep the kids out of the sun while they complete their last few days of exams.

Before collapse
After collapse

Amazing that nobody was seriously hurt

Tests are now conducted outdoors

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Notes from the field

Joel digs a trench around the tent shared by the five from Kampala as a storm threatens

So far, we have had little time to write but we do want to share some stories from the last few days. There have been so many funny and trying moments it is impossible to relay them all but here are some that stick out in our minds. These are more like notes than stories but they are better than nothing.

A couple days in, we had a visit from the city engineer who threatened to stop the project. He claimed we needed an approved building and site plan – paying to approve building locations for buildings that may be built sometime in the future - and we needed to hire an architect to do so. Although I could see his point, few building sites ever go through this process. Nelson said he was just trying to get a bribe from us. Fortunately for the project, Nelson is well connected. The Ugandan Minister of Defense is a friend of his and will assist us if necessary. Incidentally, the minister is also planning to throw us a party at the completion of the school and he is a big supporter of Ground Breaker construction (the doctor at Makerere who sold is the machine also built a house for the minister).

Pete and Nat with the afternoon session students

Lunch of posho and beans is prepared daily for the students
Home sweet home

It has been a bit difficult to track who is working and who is watching, despite our efforts of trying to keep onlookers way from the site. Today there were people working who Russ didn’t recognize. As is turns out, some of the workers, who we have been trying to train on a daily basis, decided to work in their fields and send their uncles instead.  Today, Nat and I are going to look for reflective vests in Kasese to make the workers more identifiable.

Pouring the first foundation
Our construction methods have changed a few times over the last few weeks and some materials have come down in price. As a result our overall construction costs have come down slightly. Now, with the foundation of the first building complete, we have decided to dig and frame the foundation for the second three room classroom block. We are not sure if we will continue too far with the building of that structure but we will at least get it started. We will have to see what we can scrape together to make that building happen. It would be fantastic to at least come close to finishing the second building too. It is both painful and inspiring to see over 600 students cram themselves into three small rooms to get any education they can get their hands on.

It took about a week to build the foundation for the first foundation, here are the costs (minus a significant prior investment in tools and equipment that will remain with the school). Generous wages for 17 workers, with a range of abilities, $84/day. Two meals a day for those workers, $111/week. Two truckloads of hand-pounded gravel (making big rocks into small rocks with a hammer), $133, delivery included. Two truckloads of sand, $71. Twenty three bags of cement, $235. Wood for framing, roughly $200 - but much of that was cut from the forest and milled by hand before our arrival and can be reused.

As you can see, after all the expensive prep to make this project happen, it is not outrageously expensive to do the building itself. We have the skilled workers here and everyone is happy to work. It’s now time to stretch our shillings.

The building site

Nat's belated update..

Peter, Russ and the Kampala team ­– electrician, Simon, carpenter, Ben, and the younger team members, Joel, Richard and Steve ­– left for the eight hour trek to Bwera from Kampala early Wednesday. One cattle carrier truck loaded to the brim with our equipment – 3000L water storage tank, wheel barrows, generator, tents, tools, lumber, ground breaker and more– and a loaner van from Mengo Hospital… wish I could be there to see the arrival..

The report from Russ and Pete is the, by now, the very much expected report of a few ‘unexpecteds’ – for the most part, good. The highlights:

·      The rain, though intermittent and unpredictable, has failed to batter down the tents completely (despite shattering one length of fibreglass tent pole).

·      The property next door to the school yard, which we had planned to build our camp on and extent the school yard into, turned out to be not to be so – when the Cobra team started digging for early site preparations they found the human remains of a forgotten burial site. The purchase was called off. We are now in negotiations for the site on the other side of the school yard…

The implications are compounded by the fact that in the Spring there was a cholera outbreak in the  foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains where our second school is located. Currently all of the students from this school in the foothills are attending the one on the plains: 700 students and 24 teachers in one papyrus-wall, three-room schoolhouse… 10ft from the camp.

·      Then there is the foundation trench for the first building. Pete, Russ and the Kampala crew found that Cobra and community members had dug the foundation trench that we had requested.. only it was over a metre deep! We calculate that the overenthusiastic digging will cost approximately 1600 extra bricks to fill… but makes up for itself in local ‘ownership’.

·      On top of our five man Kampala crew, and Russ, Bill, and Charles from Canada, we have decided that six local people with some carpentry skills, and six porters, along with five bright students of the vocational program  at the school, will be hired daily on to help with the construction. The idea is to maximize skills transfer so that the Bwera crew will be able to complete the construction after we leave, and so that the maintenance and of the buildings and materials will be ensured, and so that we can leave our tools behind for the establishment of a local workshop. The students will have small written tests designed by our certified carpenter from Canada, Charles, and upon completion of the training program will have a written certificate. We hope this will increase the future avenues of employment and maintain the emphasis on local ownership.

Here in Kampala I am living in the lap of luxury in comparison – I welcome my eager, if somewhat temperamental, electric shower head, mornings and evenings; I enjoy the good company by evening of the Canadians at Mengo Hospital; and the banana gin is decent, and, more importantly, cold.  Ah, Kampala’s Mengo Hill oasis.

My tasks are going well. I went through the Tax Identification Number (TIN) registration process at Uganda Revenue Authority with minimal bureaucratic hassle, have signed all the transfer papers and paid for the van – keys in hand, custom roof rack built and installed.

I’ve been travelling in the good company of John and Jill (friends of Bill and Kathy who will be arriving late next week), who happened to be in Uganda a different project. John knows a tremendous amount about diesel mechanics and has been instrumental in the purchase of the van.. and great comic relief besides  His wife Jill, an obstetrics nurse, is equally charming. They are eager new recruits and will be coming along with Charles and I for the eight-hour trek to drive to Bwera tomorrow.

This evening will be my first drive through the chaos that fill Kampalan roads – off to Entebbe to pick up Charles, Russ’ carpenter and mountaineering friend, who will be joining our team to help with the project. I plan to stop along the way at the new Children’s Orthopaedic Surgery Unit (CORU), that has moved from Mengo to Entebbe since our last stint in Uganda. Both Pete and I used to spend a lot of time there and really enjoy assisting the Italian surgeon, Fulvio, who runs the program.

I will pick up Charles from the airport at 8:15 in the evening, and, if all goes well, will be in the good company of the crew at Mengo by quarter-past ten.

By day, I’m –Barb, plug your ears – a money-sucking vampire. I slink around to all the banks in Kampala, sucking and scraping, until I hit the limit at each ATM.. in the millions, mind you.  Behind me in the line are the sensationalist mummers, “My God, she’s sucking it dry”; “there will be nothing left for us”; “Momma Nyabo!”; “God help us!”... There have been some serious money issues – our PODA card only allows $500 withdrawals per day and one interaction per day; our email money transfer limit is $2000 per day, and $5000 per week; both Peter and I’s personal bank cards have been frozen; and there have been some hurdles in setting up our Ugandan bank account and transferring money there…Together these obstacles makes all this money-sucking more tiring than it might otherwise appear to be.

Okay, more on my end soon. Tomorrows is a big travel day and I’ve got to run around and pick up some camp supplies to keep those boys going, meet my transfer paper broker, and leave room for a cold Nile before sundown.

The new PODA van

The sunset from Mengo Hill

...Good news, we seem to be coming in under budget… there is a good chance we will be able to go ahead to dig and pour the foundation for the second block of school classrooms as long as our final calculations of monies spent and cost projections for the next four months allow…


First Day Building

Unfortunately, our miraculous USB internet stick does not work anywhere near the building site. We stopping quickly in Kasese to look for timber for the trusses. Here is a brief post and some pictures I prepared a couple days ago..... 

It’s 5pm on Thursday. The first day on the site seems like an eternity, although, we have accomplished a lot. It turns out there are more students here than the 400 we expected. Apparently, there was a cholera out break a few months ago at the second school in the hills near by. At that time all the students came to learn at this school. It is amazing that more than 600 of them can learn in three small classrooms. However, I’m not sure if much learning happened today as most of the eyes I could see through the holes in the grass-mat walls were focused on the action outside.

There have been a few obstacles but also some unexpected bonuses. The trench for the foundation is almost twice as deep as we requested (and since learning about Ground Breaker construction, about four times what is needed). Much of the wood we requested to be on site for our arrival is… different than expected. But on the bright side, we thought we were going to have to build a tool shed and lockup structure, however, there is a good brick building here already that was built in July.

Today we have adjusted the foundation trench, constructed a shelter to protect the outdoor carpentry area, built a double shower stall from which to hang solar showers and started developing relationships with the local builders and others in the community.

Russ explains to Nelson the trench depth issue

Ben investigates the trench

Students watch the construction of a canopy over the a tool area

Many little onlookers

The trench was dug as two rooms but we had hoped for three - here we are preparing the foundation for the centre room

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Quick Odds and Ends

Here are few notes and images from the past 48 hours. We have had little time to write.


A tremendous amount has been accomplished in the last couple days and plans have been changing rapidly as well. We have picked up much of the equipment required for the project, secured a vehicle and changed the construction design of the school – the latter will require some explanation. For months before we left for Uganda our team laboured over the design and particularly the construction materials that would be used to build the school. The big debate was whether to build the school out of wood, bricks produced by the traditional method (mud dried in the sun then fired) or “Ground Breaker” bricks. The Ground Breaker is a machine that compresses a mix of soil and cement into an interlocking brick that dries in the sun. Before our arrival we had settled on a three foot pony wall using the Ground Breaker bricks above which we would use wood framing. We thought using wood would increase earthquake resistance, skills transfer to locals and the overall speed of construction. However, after considering many factors, we have decided to go with the Ground Breaker bricks all the way. This decision really became concrete after our meeting with Dr. Moses at Makerere University today.


It’s 6am and the power has been out since yesterday afternoon. We are packing up by headlamp. I am leaving to Bwera in a couple hours in a van generously lent to us by Mengo Hospital. I will be going with Russ and three of the hired guys from Kampala. The two others and a driver left a 5am in a large truck with the other equipment – 3000L water tank, mattresses, Ground Breaker, cement and other tools. Nat is staying in Kampala with John and Gill to finalize the purchase of a vehicle. She will come out with them and Charles – who arrives Friday – on Saturday.

Kampala from Mengo Hill before sunrise

Spending in the millions!

Russ talking design with the Kampala team: Simon, Steven, Richard and Ben

Russ negotiates for cement. The Ground Breaker is in the back of the truck.

The 3000L water tank is loaded.
Nat and I with the workers at the Poly Factory.