Since arriving in Egypt, I have often struggled trying to measure the value of my work here. I know that being present with those I am called to serve is a valuable ministry, but I often wish that I could serve in a more tangible way. This month I got my wish…sort of. In early May I joined a small group of volunteers from Cairo for a two day trip to work on a Habitat for Humanity project. I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to use my muscles and very limited construction experience to really help a group of needy people in a tangible way. Imagine my surprise when I instead found myself engaging in my now familiar ministry of presence while perched on a 4”x4” beam, hammer in hand, twelve feet off the ground.
In the past I have been involved in a number of Habitat for Humanity projects and other similar endeavors, but the Habitat site in Minya was unlike any I’ve seen in the US. Shousha is a small rural village outside of Minya in Upper Egypt and many of the village’s simple houses are occupied not only by families, but also by chickens, goats, sheep, and cows. Overcrowding and living in very close quarters with a variety of farm animals make for unpleasant and unhealthy living conditions, but this is the daily reality for most residents of the Shousha village.
The owner of the largest house that the roofing crew worked on explained that prior to the construction of his new home, he was living with his wife and six children in a single room of his father’s house. There were fourteen other people living in the 200 m2 house, including his father, mother, and brother, and his father’s other wife, her children, and their families. The new house is the same size as his father’s house, but will be occupied by only two families and has a separate area for the farm animals.
In addition to overcrowding, a major problem in the village is quality of housing. For those with very limited income (most of the village), homes are mudbrick walls that are not very structurally sound and generally have a straw roof. The roofs are in no way waterproof and do not insulate against the cold. They are also susceptible to fire and allow thieves to enter the home easily. One man we worked with was asked to tell a story about his former house and he said “I had no roof and we had a very hard time, especially in the winter, as it would rain on us. The rain and the cold were the worst things. The family and the animals lived together and because of the straw roof we were afraid the ceiling would catch on fire.”
Working on a roofing crew that included two other western volunteers, two Egyptian men, and one or more of the homeowners, I quickly learned that I don’t know the first thing about roofing and that I don’t particularly like balancing on a narrow beam that far off the ground. While I moved around cautiously, calculating each step and clinging to every available stationary object, the Egyptians on my crew hopped around comfortably, perching like birds on the beams while passing wooden planks back and forth across the roof and hammering them in place. Once we got each section of roof started and had a surface larger than the width of my foot to stand on, I was more comfortable, but still realized that without my “help,” the Egyptians could probably have finished the roof slightly faster.
Since it turns out my hammering skills weren’t crucial to the completion of the project, I might have expected the Egyptians on the crew to be simply annoyed by my presence. On the contrary, they were delighted to have us working with them and showed their appreciation by trying to communicate through a pretty thick language barrier, by regularly serving us hot tea (not my first choice when it’s 100 degrees and I’m working under the blazing Egyptian sun), and by allowing us to be a part of their community and their lives.
So, what did I offer in return for this unique opportunity to be a part of the community? At first I was asking myself the same thing. And then I looked around me. To the people of the Shousha village, I, with my white skin and high level of education, represent the world’s wealthiest, most important and powerful people. And even though I’m scared of heights and am just as likely to hit my thumb as the head of a nail when I swing a hammer, I came to the village and climbed up the rickety ladder with missing rungs to join Mohammed, Abdel, Hamida, Zaaeem, and other Shousha villagers for a couple days of manual labor. Could they put roofs on their homes without my help? Certainly. But, I hope that the presence of western volunteers on the worksite empowers the people of Shousha by showing them that they have brothers and sisters halfway across the world who care about them. And in a political climate where many Americans fear the Middle East and many in the Middle East feel they are hated by Americans, these cultural bridges are even more valuable.
As always, thank you for your support and please continue to pray for me and other volunteers around the world.
May newsletter of Lisa Burke, serving as a YAGM with the ELCA in Cairo, Egypt