The organisation we volunteer with, Ntengwe for Community Development, operate and run a drop-in centre in Manjolo, a town about 25km from Binga. The drop-in centre acts as a community hub for the town; consisting of 3 concrete buildings, borehole water pump and a traditional grass-thatched hut; all set in a large fenced compound. Plenty of trees provide lots of shade and out to the edge there is a garden with some crops growing.
The thatched hut was used as the drama group’s meeting place, until, that is, it collapsed the previous week. As we arrived we could see the whole roof had collapsed in on itself. We had been tasked to assist the local community in clearing the debris ready for its (stronger) reconstruction. On the way from the office we had stopped in Binga to purchase refreshments to offer those who help with the work - an extra incentive to bring people from the surrounding area in to help.
It didn’t take long to start work once we arrived. Salia, who runs the centre, gave us some safety gloves and briefed us on how to go about dismantling a grass thatched roof. After nearly two weeks of orientation and planning, we were desperate to get stuck in to something physical outside of the office!
Quite quickly, people from the local community started to appear and help us. The majority of these were women, many of whom carried their babies on their backs in the traditional sling, as they worked. Come to think of it, considering how many babies and toddlers there were that day, I can’t recall hearing a single one cry or shout in the entire time we were there.
This was the first time out of the office for most of the volunteers; the first time that we had had the opportunity to interact with the local community. We’ve had a brief language course - a couple of hours - plus some vocabulary. We’ve been practising our greetings as much as we can, but things are a little different when confronted with 20-30 Tongan women speaking fluent Tonga! But after a while, communication became a little easier, as the few who spoke English started to translate the rapid Tonga.
UK volunteers Simon, Caitlin and Peter started to teach everyone a song. We perhaps could have done better than the 'All Saints’ record- ‘Whole again’, but it’s catchy and easy to learn. It turned out to be good icebreaker - pretty soon we were all laughing with each other.
With all the help, the grass roof was quickly getting dismantled; with perhaps 15 people on the roof, peeling the grass off, and maybe 30 on the ground collecting, bundling and storing it in one of the concrete buildings. All of the materials that were going to be taken today were to be re-used in rebuilding the structure. Even the bundles of grass we tied using the same plastic twine that was holding the grass onto the collapsed superstructure. This is recycling, at its most basic and useful level.
A couple of us dragged free a large, V-shaped beam, handing it over to the women waiting to carry it off for storage. Totally effortlessly, three women each picked up a corner, and briskly carried it away. All three of them had a baby slung on their back, and still took it across the yard as if it was nothing.
When we broke for lunch, we shared the supplies we had brought from Binga out among all the helpers and ate together in the shade. It had been a long morning and everyone was tired. Luckily for us, the rains had come every hour or so for a few minutes to cool us down. So we were able to work hard whilst it was cool and dry under the rolling cloud cover.
The community started to leave after dinner but a few stayed, giving us a good opportunity to talk and have some fun - the more we can earn the respect and trust of the community, the more we can function as a team with them and involve them in future activities. What started with Salia and Caitlin dancing to music from a mobile phone, escalated to 15 people smiling and laughing, including all the volunteers - Natasha, Rossie, Simon, Peter, Jo, Tonderai and Lucky.
After finishing for the day at the drop-in centre, we headed to the bus stop to go back to the office The bus stop is a couple of km down the road in Manjolo itself. Everyone was tired, but in good spirits from being out and about in new settings.
After perhaps half a km, we caught up with a few women carrying heavy loads. Two had large sacks full of grain on their heads, each thrice the size of a football. One of these women again, had a baby slung on her back. The third lady pushed a wheelbarrow with another two sacks inside. Upon catching up with them, Lucky and Peter offered to help them.
This is a testament to the strength of the women here - unflinchingly carrying heavy beams away, baby in tow, and carrying these sacks over such distances. These sacks must have weighed 20kg each. These women carry such items for many kilometres - day in, day out.
The Ntengwe team get stuck in - UK volunteers Jo, Peter, Simon and Caitlen and Zimbabwean volunteers Lucky, Natasha, Rossie and Tonderai