Vol. 4: Labor

Before the work begins, we make a circle, listen to the day’s jobs, stretch and cheer before starting the work. With community members and volunteers, this is how we create solidarity on the school’s worksite.

We carried buckets of hazy-colored water from a small wellspring to the worksite. Mostly in groups of 20, women walked in a line, chattering, singing, down to the nearest source of water ready for construction. For some, babies are nestled, bobbling on backs, and moms nursed them even walking barefoot down the hill.

Descending down to the basin, with other women returning with their filled buckets.

First, we walked downhill narrowly between brown reeds, shaded by the distant mountain. Aside the roots of a tree sat a muddy basin with enough water for our buckets, so we encircled the wellspring. Next, bucket by bucket, another woman scooped from the water that was found at the bottom of the 7 foot hole and passed each bucket to us.

The water source for the school’s worksite.

I stood with at least 12 other Malawian women, and another American woman, and as we were handed a full bucket, we balanced them on our heads. The American woman and I laughed about how we would make it up the hill; the Malawian women laughed too, and were probably wondering the same thing. Step by step, I attempted to carry the tin bucket on my head, just like the other women.

As I walked, I stretched my left arm above my head to hold the bucket of water like the others. I thought about tap water and hoses back in Detroit, and how much more intimate this kind of labor was. Afraid to lift my eyes from each step of my feet, I steadied my breathing when we walked over strips of wood above rivers, trying my best to keep pace with the group back to the worksite.

After we crossed the river and continued upward, a breeze whipped by and each move up the hill felt suddenly meditative.

My mind stopped; “Here I was, on my final Trek in Malawi” became all that I was feeling. I was swept up in this moment of past, present, future and like each one of my cells was in each of those moments at the same time. I was still moving upward with my bucket, but my mind and heart were somewhere in between.

I thought about — -

Past:

It’s been ten years and 17 Treks since I first arrived in Malawi as an eager, faith-filled 18 year old.

When I left Malawi the first time, I knew something had started in me.

When I left Malawi last October 2016, I knew I had become a capable, solid Trek Coordinator. Something new started in me then, too.

Present:

I was in a village named Kankhumbi supporting the construction of a government primary school.

The water I carried makes concrete for the foundation of the school.

The school will educate at least 433 students.

Future:

My last day with buildOn would be in a month.

I will spend more time in America, closer to loved ones and closer to myself.

I will find and/or create new opportunities for myself, recharting my path, living my “why.”

These are just a few of my truths, my facts, my knowns and unknowns, I thought, tin bucket on my head, breeze around my body. The rest of my truths are harbored more below the surface of my forays around the world. Yet with each bucket, brick, shovel carried and used, and every school I helped to build, I journeyed through these truths. Each bit of labor for education has been labor for understanding my own soul. I built schools; I built myself.

Still steadying my breath, I adjusted the bucket on my head, smiled with the three women walking behind me. Carrying this bucket took me through time, connected me with strangers, fortified my faith in myself and the world. This labor demanded I steady my breath, go forward, pay attention to both sorrow and joy.

Learning how to pay attention to joy: bucket selfie!

The breeze kept me moving and I thought again —

Ten years ago wasn’t just the year I went to Malawi; it’s the year my family unraveled, followed by the unraveling of other close relationships, and then, eventually the unraveling of myself. Amid the ten years and 17 Treks, I’ve been moving, laboring: moving away from these truths in the form of alcohol and relationship abuse, moving closer to these truths by way of intensive therapy and relationship development and lots of messy work.

Step by step, movement by movement I crossed rivers, climbed mountains and explored new reaches of myself. Together, on this hillside with the bucket and the breeze, I felt all of these chapters of my life, all lived and unlived and all at once.

With this expansion around me, I felt boundless, and I kept going.

We made it up the hill, past the drinking-ready water pump (in fact, only for locals), and through the piles of red, clay, freshly made bricks. We plopped our water buckets in a staggered line of other buckets leading to the mixing area. When the time was right, the water would be added to the cement, gravel and sand mixture. Together these materials would stabilize the foundation of the two-room school. I wondered how many more buckets of water were actually needed to finish this stabilization, and I thought about hoses and tap water and concrete mixing machines again. This kind of labor demanded more people.

Water buckets ready to be mixed with cement.

After I dropped the bucket, I took a breath, and I looked around the worksite. It was packed: colorful and loud, there were so many people that folks took turns digging, carrying bricks, mixing concrete. There was a hurried buzz happening, one that seemed to push everyone on the worksite to make as much progress as possible, to build the school.

Within minutes of my gazing, an assembly line formed like a caterpillar of people and suddenly everyone passed buckets, now filled with concrete, down the line, to a man in the newly dug foundation hole. Women started singing and clapping, and before I could get wrapped up in the breeze and the passings of time, I placed myself in the line to help pass the buckets too and join the hum of the labor.

And so here I was on my last Trek, I thought again. Passing one bucket of cement at a time down a line of community volunteers. I thought about hiring labor back in the US, and whether my neighborhood would ever volunteer to build a school, church, community center like this.

This kind of labor will be impossible to describe in full, I realized. I am certain I’ll spend years reckoning with my gratitude for this job, and how I will never have work like this again. How rare and precious this labor and these thresholds have been. How I can still build, without knowing or seeing the exact manifestation of my efforts. How I can keep moving, without knowing or seeing the detailed order of my progress.

Above all I’ve learned from Trek and from this decade, however, is that with the fluid embracing of my past, present and future, I am entirely able. I am boundless, ready and able for the labor ahead.

The school will look like this, with at least 433 students, and plenty of adults as a part of buildOn’s Adult Literacy Program.