More Mortar, Muzungu!

TEXT Kelley Beaverford and Stewart Morgan

The defining challenge of the 21st century will be to face the reality that humanity shares a common fate on a crowded planet. That common fate will require new forms of global co-operation, a fundamental point of blinding simplicity that many world leaders have yet to understand or embrace.

–Jeffrey Sachs, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet

The face of Canadian design education is undergoing a quiet tectonic shift. Growing demand for international skills and an underlying need to demonstrate social relevance on the world stage has led institutions like the University of Manitoba to diversify their coursework. Service Learning in the Global Community is an innovative model that has emerged in parallel to established design curricula. It has quickly become a powerful draw for students hungry for real-world experience.

In a global service course, students travel abroad to engage in an actual built project while living and working with a developing community. The result is a rich synergy of shared insight and community outreach woven around a design-build experience. The students share their skills and energy with the host community in exchange for insight into some of the world’s most pressing issues.

Journey to Katebo

What happens if you take 11 university students, varied in age, education and life experience, and send them to live and work together in rural Uganda for a month, without running water or electricity? I realized that it was best not to speculate.

–Marla Wirasinghe, service-learning participant

In May of 2008, University of Manitoba professor Kelley Beaverford left for Uganda with a team of student designers. Arrangements had been made to partner with teachers, contractors, and a local NGO in creating a library for Katebo, a rural village decimated by the AIDS pandemic. Katebo is survived by large numbers of orphaned children who must provide for themselves, often without material assets of any kind. Everyone in the village works very hard to subsist, as Izak Bridgman noted: “The community, the children, wherever we went, had a dream, a hope for something they were working towards. There was death and poverty but no sense of decay or even urgency.”

Staying in an unfinished building affectionately called the Big House, the team settled into what would be their home for the next month. With 11 students, two instructors, and a squat toilet, the level of amenity left something to be desired. Suddenly liberated from private rooms, running water, electricity, and eventually iPods, students could begin to negotiate the existing disparity between life in the village and their own lives in Canada. As student Jocelyn Tanner noted, “In Katebo there was a much stronger link between the weather and our daily routines. Our hygiene depended on the rain and the success of our project depended mostly on the sun.”

The participants’ schedule was intense: they would rise at 6:30am and then meet to discuss the day’s agenda over a breakfast of tea and bread. From 8:00am to 5:45pm, they would work in two-hour shifts, rotating from design to construction to community service, regrouping at lunch to review their progress. In a given day, each participant shared roles in several categories of work, and was responsible for teaching his or her successor at a given station how to proceed. By 6:00pm, the tools were packed away in advance of dusk; a seminar followed to introduce new concepts and to reflect on the day. Weekends were reserved for field trips.

Why Did the Army Ants Cross the Road?

There was no shortage of unforeseen incidents that would later become legendary from the relative comfort of the Canadian coffee table. Contradictory rumours circulated about an unidentified hairy birdlike creature with alternately giant and beady eyes that laid in wait for unsuspecting students inside the pit latrine. From the 14-foot-long python found in the woods to strident warnings about 89, a giant crocodile named after the number of human skulls found in its lair, Africa did not disappoint. After one particularly harrowing episode, student Josh Adria recounted the situation with particular clarity: “I was comfortable with, and actually quite fascinated by the ants when they were crossing the road, but the sight of something that terrifies me (spiders) terrified by something else (ants) was entirely more than I was prepared for.”

Site Uncertainty

More unpredictable than the wildlife were the arrival times for project building materials. “Uganda time,” recalls Bridgman, “became a joke, a source of laughter, frustration, resentment, acceptance. Water, money, group members, seemed to hang in a mysterious limbo halfway between a promise and arrival.” A litany of setbacks and frictions necessitated inventive ad hoc solutions. Water had to be hauled from Lake Victoria in jerry cans. Lumber arrived on uneven roads, precariously balanced in the arms of two bazungu (Lugandan word for white people from the singular muzungu) perched and swaying on either side of a dirt bike. The restraints of standard operating procedure in rural Uganda required rethinking Western notions of material and execution, as Wirasinghe illustrates: “You begin to realize that without a backhoe, it takes over a week to haul enough dirt to fill in a shallow foundation. Even making concrete requires chipping your own gravel and pushing bags of cement on the back of a bicycle. Each wheelbarrow load, each swing of a hoe gives you a stronger understanding of the materials and connection to the process of making.” Also, building furniture strictly with hand tools brought participants closer to the community’s actual experience of fabrication. “I won’t ever forget the feeling of shame at the beginning of the day and the feeling of triumph as I made a perfect cut…Uganda gave me my hands,” says Bridgman.

The project budget became a lens through which to explore how the community worked around the challenge of limited means. In addition to donated tools, each course participant had contributed $300 to the cost of the library’s construction; the modest total left little room for special equipment. Wirasinghe reflects on how this guided the design: “It is about trying to improve what already exists rather than creating something completely new…if something has been done a certain way for a long time, there is probably a reason for it.” Vernacular forms made possible a meeting of minds, a shared architectural language that both the community and the participants could understand without making project costs unrealistic.

The Bricks and Mortar of Reciprocal Learning

From initial impressions, one might assume that rural Ugandan building practices were less advanced than their Canadian equivalents. As James Frank remarked, “It took me forever to get used to the idea of how much mortar to use. It seemed at first a ridiculous amount in comparison to what we see around home.” In working within Katebo’s everyday challenges, the team grew to understand how local methods, skills and knowledge were specifically adapted to Katebo’s situation. Side-by-side contact with the engineers and local subcontractors was particularly illuminating in this regard; their familiarity with the challenge of designing without site services and utilities was well developed, as was their knowledge of low-cost masonry construction and climatic factors. They knew, for example, how to use, dismantle, and reuse readily available materials like bamboo and twine to great effect, creating scaffolding that was harvested from the jungle nearby. Many participants were equally impressed by the quick and complex wire knot they used in tying rebar: fittingly, it didn’t
require gloves or special equipment.

Cultural perceptions of vernacular buildings were also exchanged, along with discussions on what the library could and should be. “I really liked the fact that this course placed a significant emphasis on the fundamental role of the community in the design process,” said Derrick Finch. Based on their collective upbringing, the design team had a strong initial sense of what was needed, envisioning a place where books could be stored and read. However, in working with Katebo’s children, teachers, and a women’s empowerment group, these ideas evolved. Given that the library would have very few books, it was determined that the space would be better utilized as a community activity centre. Additionally, government regulations required that primary-level exams had to be written in an enclosed space: the need for a sanctioned exam-writing hall was emphasized. Another unanticipated need was for a vaccination treatment space and medical checkup centre. It would become one of the only flexible community spaces available and a variety of uses had to be considered.

“Work within the evolution of an object rather than trying to recreate the object every time,” advised professor Karl Burkheimer. One-sided innovation gave way to sensitive analyses of the larger village needs and traditions. As Canadians, the course participants initially focused on the interior, assuming that the facility would end where the walls stood. In Katebo, however, the most affordable and important spaces are shared with the outside. Public assemblies and classrooms with overflow into the outer courtyard were seen as very desirable. By enlarging the building’s veranda, the community gained a low-cost way of extending space for public use. Again and again, preconceived notions of the program had to be dismantled and revised to uncover adaptive solutions.


How does real change begin? The core of the experience in Katebo was the mutual exchange of disparate ways of life and the cultivation of new relationships facilitated by a shared goal. Displacement within a different social reality intensifies the learning experience. It imparts a visceral perspective from which a participant can begin to take a new direction guided by first-hand knowledge and personal conviction. It is an experience that is beyond the capacity of a classroom lecture to convey. In this regard, the built project in its various stages of resolution becomes a catalyst for change–in the students, in the design professions, and in the world itself. CA

Special thanks to the community of Katebo, the builders, Professor Karl Burkheimer, Professor Leland Hill, and students Joshua Adria, Izak Bridgman, Derrick Finch, James Frank, Rachelle Lemieux, Andrew Lovatt, Matthew McFetrick, Laura Rempel, Kate Snyder, Jocelyn Tanner and Marla Wirasinghe.

Kelley Beaverford is a professor in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Manitoba. She has been involved with numerous projects in Africa and Asia as the Executive Director of Architects Without Borders (AWB) Canada. Stewart Morgan is a freelance writer and filmmaker with a background in architecture and anthropology. He has contributed to several AWB projects.