Saturday, January 29, 2011

Construction in Kenya

Challenges, innovation and creativity.  That's the best way to describe our construction project in Kenya.

We divided up into teams.  Our team had two projects: 1) The construction of offices to be used by a number of pastors in the area.  It will also include a small library.  2) A Bible Conference for the women leaders and pastors of a number of area churches.

I want to describe the construction project.

The plans that we had received from the pastor with whom we were working in Kenya, consisted of an outline sketch on a piece of notebook paper and a list of supplies with costs.  Much was left to the imagination.

Fortunately, our team included someone with construction experience that could head the project.  He had developed more detailed plans before we left, but, being versed in U.S. construction techniques wasn't necessarily the qualifier for Kenyan construction.  To begin with, 16" centers don't translate well when supporting metric width sheet metal. 

Fortunately, the Kenyan construction crew (some volunteers from the church there plus a few hired laborers) had mostly completed the slab.  The proportions used for the concrete were not what we would have mixed.  It was much too high in sand content, making it very soft.  It also was not dry.  In fact, they were still pouring when we arrived.

The first task was to purchase the material that we needed to build the structure.  Unlike a trip to Lowe's or Home Depot, shopping for building materials was an adventure in itself.

We began at the Timber Yard.  Yep, a sawmill.  We had a choice of Blue Gum or Cypress.  The Blue Gum was less expensive and preferred by the Kenyan crew.  So, that's what we went with.  It is extremely dense, tight-grained wood.  It was green.  It was purchased by the linear foot.  The lengths varied greatly.  The thicknesses also varied.  A 2 x 4 in the U.S. is of standard thickness and width and can be purchased in uniform lengths.  Not so the lumber from the Timber Yard!  Well, we had to adapt.

Then we went shopping for the sheet metal for roofing and siding the building.  The hardware store was the place to purchase all metal items such as the sheets of siding, the nails, hinges, windows, etc.  You went to a window similar to a teller window at the bank and ordered the items that you needed.

Next we arranged transportation for the items we had purchased.  Apparently the locals felt they could take advantage of the mazunga (white people) and sought to charge an exhorbitant amount for the use of a lorry (truck).  We negotiated for awhile and ended up walking away.  Fortunately, others saw our need and came to us to attempt to get our business.  We ended up hiring a couple of small pickup trucks and their drivers to transport the items.

Green wood warps.  Because the slab was still wet, we decided to build panels for each of the walls and then erect and fasten them together on the slab.  Oh, I left out that we had sent ahead instructions to plant j-bolts in the slab for anchoring the walls.  Didn't happen.  So, they were inserted after our arrival.  With the high sand content, we could basically just push them into the slab.  Not very stable.  But, back to the wood.  What a challenge.  Every board had to be cut for length.  Every board was warped -- sometimes in multiple directions.  Every board contnued to warp as it dried.  Remember, it was fresh cut wood.  Have you ever stopped to consider that a 90 degree cut on a warpped board is not going to sit flat on the board to which it is to be fastened?

Oh, and tools.  No electricity so Mark, our construction foreman, brought a battery powered saw and drill from the U.S. along with extra battery packs.  The dense wood killed the batteries in a matter of minutes.  The packs wouldn't re-charge thanks to the different current of the electrical circuits there.  So, hand tools were the order of the day.  Most of the tools of the Kenya crew had seen much use and were in need of replacement.  Our fearless leader purchased a new handsaw for our use, but, in Kenya, the teeth are not set.  they are in a straight line.  The also have not been sharpened.  Needless to say, sawing was time consuming and laborious.

Electricity was found at a nearby orphanage.  They told us we could use their electricity.  So, for drilling the holes in the wall plates, the boards were carried across the field to the orphanage.  This was a great improvement over the brace and bit that was not quite complete!  I say it worked well.  It did until it was found that the holes on one of the completed panels didn't match the bolts in the concrete.  So, the panel (weighing many times what a similar panel of yellow pine would weigh) was carried across the field to be re-drilled.  Hmmmm....electricity is not reliable in Kenya.  The power supply is intermittent and unpredictable.  OK, the panel was carried back un-drilled.  A properly functioning brace-and-bit was sent for and eventually found.  The holes were drilled.

Did I mention that the lumber was crooked?  Holy Cow!  Squaring the building was quite the challenge.  But, eventually, it was satisfactorily accomplished.

Then, our time in the village ended and we had to head back to Limuru and Nairobi in preparation for our return home.  The Kenyan team was left with the materials needed to complete the construction -- or most of it anyway.  We hope to receive pictures soon of the completed building.  I did receive an e-mail indicating that the roof and siding had been completed.  I'm anxious to see what it looks like.

Hopefully the photos that I have included will give you some sense of what was built.  I know that nothing is adequate to fully convey the experience.

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