Friday, March 29, 2013

Plumbing puzzle

We are now in our 7th house in this country.  7 times we have simple mud buildings into homes.  We’re starting to get the hang of it.  One of biggest chores of the process of setting a house up is finding skillful help that can get things done in some rendition close to what we hope for.  Each time there is some job to be done in our house I have to think through:
  • What is the local interpretation in how to do this? 
  • What is the common capacity in actually getting it done well?
  •  Can I accept the finished result?

If I’m doubtful (which is common), then I think through:
  • Do I have the tools and materials to do the job myself?
  • Do I really want to spend my time doing the job myself?
  • If I’m doubtful on these questions as well (which is also common), then I come to the point of compromise, and work together in some way with a local man in order to get the job done. 

Plumbing is a great example.  Most plumbing here is added long after a house is built, so it sits outside the walls (which sure beats having a leaky pipe within a mud wall!).  A couple times I have borrowed tools and done plumbing renovations myself, but as we moved into our house this time I decided I did not want to spend my time changing the pipes so we could hook up our automatic washer.  So I found a guy named Fize who purportedly worked on plumbing, invited him into my bathroom, showed him what my problem was, and asked him how he could solve it.  This is one of my favorite questions, because it invites an open answer that immediately indicates what kind of projects or solutions the worker is used to providing.  Usually guys will answer very quickly with their first idea.  If that idea involves something drastic like knocking down walls, or something ridiculous like duct tape and twisty-ties, then I just smile and thank them for their suggestion (said in the right way, “thank you” in this language means “NO thank you”). 

Usually guys offer their ideas quickly, but when I asked Fize how he would solve my plumbing problem, he rubbed his chin and pondered it for several minutes.  Finally he answered, “well, I’ve never done something like this, but I think we could try…”  It didn’t really matter what he said next, he had already won the bid by showing thoughtfulness and humility.  I actually wasn’t sure if his idea would work, but I thought he was the right kind of guy to work with, so I sent him off to the bazaar to buy supplies and bring his tools.  When he came back he unloaded a whole bag full of plumbing fittings, and we started to figure the puzzle out together.  Fize laid the pipes and fittings out in the way he was thinking, then he looked for my feedback, and listened when I explained another option.  This is all so unique from the other men I have worked with on repairs in my home!  Not only did he come with plenty of supplies (as opposed to not quite enough, which is then sabotaged into a ‘good enough’ solution), he worked together with me, to make sure we both agreed on the best solution.

If you look at the picture below you’ll see that the pipes and fittings had to be tightened together in just the right order, otherwise the turning of one pipe would run into another.  We worked slowly, paying attention to the whole process of steps we were taking to complete the job.  By the time we were done, we had water flowing to the toilet, the bathroom sink, the cloth diaper sprayer, the shower, the washer, the kitchen sink, and a tap for buckets.  Fize was pleased that we succeeded, and said, “I didn’t know it would end up like that, but it works great.”  I was thinking the exact same thing. 

I’ve taken the time to tell you about Fize, because I think he’s a unique guy.  Usually trying to work together and negotiate solutions with guys here is kind of like taking turns stomping on each other’s toes.  Fize was interested in serving and in learning, and that’s really unique.  Since this plumbing project, I’ve also had Fize knock down a wall, cement a floor, and fix my motorcycle’s broken wheel.  He’s done great at every job.  I look forward to working with him more, and getting to know him better.  You can pray for this guy when you think of it, that God would be working in his heart, while I’m working with him in practical ways.  

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Hand-dug well, part 1

 We’ve been in the town we call Fize for a month now.  I spent all of the first two weeks setting up our house, and then I started my new job with the Community Development Project that our NGO runs here.  My start with the project was abrupt, because on my first day I was told that the hand-dug well project in one of the villages was about to fail.  Off to the village I went, with one of the project driver/facilitators telling me the background story on the way.

Three months ago the project signed a contract with a local man to dig a well, by hand, either until he found water or until he reached 45 meters.  3 weeks ago at a depth of about 35 meters, he said that the hole started to fill in with sand.  For 2 frustrating weeks he and his co-worker struggled to fight the sand, then they gave up and said the well could not be completed.  The well project contract read that he would not be paid unless he completed the work, but he argued otherwise.  One of our more technically inclined staff (my driver/facilitator today, I’ll call him Harry) sought out another well digger and received some advice.  Today we were going to try to teach our well digger the technique that we had learned.

After a 90-minute bumpy mountain road drive, we arrived at the village.  The hole in the ground outside the village looked abandoned.  We got a few tools out while we waited for the well digger to appear.  He finally showed up, regretfully, and went right into complaining that the sand could not be beat.  I was surprised that a man who supposedly was an expert at digging wells by hand had never encountered and found a way through a challenge like this.  Harry my facilitator went to work trying to explain the new technique to the well digger.  His style and skill as a facilitator was excellent.  He could have been tempted to disregard the complaining well digger and look for another one to finish the job, but instead he poured all his energy into encouraging and building the understanding of the well digger we had.  I liked Harry’s style, and I was glad to be there to help.

Now how can I explain to you the technique that we taught the well digger?  In order to keep digging, he had to have a way to hold the sand back against the walls of the well shaft.  He had tried to make a perimeter with sheet steel, but it had not worked.  So we told him that our new technique was for him to pour a cement ring (80cm diameter by 50cm height) at the bottom of the well, let it cure, then resume digging inside that cement ring.  As he dug within the cement ring, he would push the cement ring straight down into the hole he was clearing for it.  Once he dug and sunk that cement ring a full 50cm, then there would be room for another cement ring on top of the first, and then on top of the second, third, fourth, and so on.  To pour the cement rings, we were going to make steel forms for both the outer and inner circumferences.  In order to give the cement rings strength and keep them together as they sunk lower, we brought six 200cm x 14mm steel rebar that would stand vertical in between the steel forms, to be encased in cement.  I hope this makes sense, if not, reread this paragraph because this is my best explanation!

The new technique explained, the well digger sat down on a rock and scratched his shaved head in dismay.  He didn’t believe it would work.  He doubted the feasibility of digging inside a 80cm cement ring, he doubted that the sand would allow the cement rings to sink, and he doubted that it was worth this much effort.  Harry, exhausted by his attempts to encourage, turned to me and said in the local language, “will it work, can you help me convince him?”  I doubted I could do a better job than Harry at encouraging, but I decided to at least try to answer the well digger’s doubts.  First I did the cultural necessity and patted his ego by complimenting the work he had done.  I admitted that my untrained limbs could not dig in the dark inside a 80cm cement ring, but that with his specialized, God-given skill, I was confident he could do it.  Then I assured him that the cement ring would sink as he dug, as long as the steel form released it.  In order to ensure the steel form would release it, he needed to: 1- grease the form, 2- use a spirit level to level the forms, and 3- make sure the form had a slightly bigger bottom diameter.  The well digger listened close, and the small group of guys from the village all leaned in to hear the foreigner that spoke their language in an unusual way.  I wasn’t sure if I had communicated anything sensible, but Harry seemed pleased, and took over by asking the men, “are you with us?”  To the surprise of both of us, the well digger stood and said, “alright, let’s do it.”

The next 3 hours were spent perfecting the steel forms for the cement rings.  This involved 5 of us taking turns measuring, cutting, pounding, welding, arguing, second-guessing, and trying again.  Twice we went after more tools and more guys that we thought would be helpful to include.  It was not the easiest process; I couldn’t convince the well digger to wear eye protection, or shoes, when he was welding.  But by lunch-time the forms were nearly done, and the well site had become a big party.  Two school-age boys showed up with bread and kettles, and we all squatted on the ground to eat.  Out of the kettle flowed milk tea, which probably contained more salt than any other ingredient.  After we had all drank our bowlfuls of tea we all jumped back to work, all except the well digger who curled up to a boulder, rested his head on a pair of shoes, and took a nap. 

The forms completed and the well digger awake again, the afternoon sped along as we lowered the forms to the bottom of the well, and prepared to pour the first ring.  The challenge of the 35-meter well shaft became more clear to me while we did this.  As the well digger descended into the hole on a spool of rope, the spool had barely turned and he was already out of sight.  The spool turned over and over again until he finally reached bottom.  Then everyone held their breath and leaned toward the hole to try to make out what the well digger was yelling from the bottom.  Not to worry, he just needed a bucket.

By the time everything was perfectly ready for cement to start being lowered down the well shaft for the first ring, Harry and I needed to head back to town.  The day had been a success; I left with a real sense that this project was going to succeed.

Four days later, Harry and I were on the road again, heading back to check the progress on the well.  Harry had actually returned to check on the first ring the day after it was poured, and he came back reporting that everything was going well.  Now 3 days had passed since either of us had been there, and the well digger had been on his own.  Although we did not know what we would find when we arrived, the last thing we expected was for the well digger to emerge from the well wearing only a long shirt, hard hat, and a smile.  With complete confidence he told us that he had found an adequate supply of water, and the well was a success.  I was impressed that in 4 days he had dug another 1.5 meters, sinking 3 cement rings with him as he dug.  The new technique had worked!

On that day we began to run a 1” electric pump so that the digging could continue.  The well digger excitedly thought it was enough to have water up to his chest, but actually for this project we need to have a resting depth of 150cm water after 6 hours of running an electric pump.  So, he’s still digging, and the stack of cement rings in the bottom of the well has grown to 5.  The electric pump and control box that will automatically send water from the well to a reservoir in the village will be installed as soon as the depth of water is adequate.  I’m hoping this will happen next week, and if all goes well, I’ll post some pictures from the well for you here.  Don’t worry, I’ll make sure the well digger keeps his pants on for the pictures.