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Building houses for the poor

· From Sri Lanka waiting for Pope Francis ·

At almost 2,000 metres above sea level Nuwara Eliya is the highest city in Sri Lanka. It was founded by the British in the 19th century and today a golf course, a charming little lake for boat outings and splendid hotels remain to recall that Victorian past. It is precisely in this little town that a group of sisters have recently set up a workshop where handbags of various sizes and styles are made.

The material used is jute. Sixteen young girls work there. Behind their project is not only an ecological reason — to abolish, in their small way, the unrecyclable plastic bags — but above all an occupational one: “If you don’t work here you wouldn’t know what else to do!”, exclaimed one of the young mothers employed. We were inside the large convent built more than 100 years ago by the Good Shepherd Sisters. It includes a school, a dormitory and a canteen.

My guide was Sr John, the Superior, a robust woman with grey hair and, behind a pair of solid spectacles, an authoritative expression. The idea of a sewing centre was hers. But the bag workshop is only one of the Congregation’s projects that aim to encourage the development of the local community. Its most ambitious project is to build houses for the poor.

“After visiting the poor on the outskirts of Nuwara Eliya I realized that many of the psychological and social problems that afflict so many destitute families were related to the inadequate housing they live in”, Sr John told us while she pulled from a cardboard box photographs taken a few years ago. She showed me the sites where they have worked. The idea from which the project came into being was to reconvert into true and proper accommodation those improvised homes that are made of nothing but four wooden planks held together by nails hammered through them. These lodgings account for a large number of the dwellings in the peripheries of Nuwara Eliya.

“The father of a sister in our congregation came to talk to me about Habitat Humanity, an organization that works on building houses for the poor. He said to me, ‘why don’t you ask them to give you a hand? And I took his advice. They came and explained their work plan to us in detail. I was satisfied. So we began straight away”, said Sr John, who to start with had attempted to build a house on her own with funds collected by the sister in Germany. However it very soon started raining inside that new house: Sr John realized that by herself she could never do it. She had to invent something else. So it was that the housing projectgot off the ground.

“The results were extraordinary. A hundred and sixty houses in only five years”, the religious declared, “while she proudly pointed to the photos showing the new dwellings.

While it was the NGO that funded the work, a system was introduced to involve the families directly and groups of twelve families were established. Each group had to save a pre-arranged amount every month, with which to contribute to building a house, until all twelve homes had been completed.

“We always say: ‘work hard for your house and you will always be proud of having built it with your own efforts and the sweat of your brow’. This is the reason why it is important that the families participate in the building work. We began with the most dilapidated houses. The first phase concerned the building of two rooms; when these were finished, the structures were already inhabitable and only then were the last two rooms built, so as to enable everyone to have an essential first home as quickly as possible”.

Sr John cited the example of the house built for Rita, who is 30 and has three children. Her husband works in a factory for the repair of household appliances whereas she is cashier for the jute bags workshop. Before the intervention of re-styling on her house, Rita and her family lived in a temporary hut with a plastic sheet for a roof; during the rainy season it turned into an uninhabitable pond of water and mud. They now live in a real house, made of brick and with a solid tiled roof. Water no longer seeps in and Maria can be dry when she dreams.

However there are families in worse conditions, such as Riccardo’s. He can no longer work because for years he was a porter – or rather an unloader, a common job in these parts – carrying enormous weights on his shoulders and today his knees are destroyed. His wife works from time to time as a babysitter and before meeting Sr John they lived in a wooden hovel that was always sodden. “It rains here half the days of the year”, the religious emphasized. Today Riccardo and his family live in a modest but comfortable house and in addition, thanks to a system of assisted loans, again organized by the Good Shepherd Congregation, they can cultivate vegetables in their own garden that satisfy most of their daily food needs.

“Living in a house after years of living in a hovel is an experience that changes life”, commented Sr John who herself inaugurated the beginning of the project by laying the first row of bricks, brandishing a mason’s trowel. “Once the building has been completed local rites are celebrated, rice and coconut are scattered on the ground as tradition requires. But for Catholics it is I who bring the holy water” the sister said and was eager to add that the project is not only for Catholic families.

I was curious to visit one of these new houses. Outside it was pouring. We got into a van. We climbed a steep slope while the water rushing down turned into a small torrent. On our left the lovely new house appeared. We entered it and I noticed straight away that a small receptacle was hanging from the ceiling. They explained to me that it was a symbol of prosperity: the vessel was filled with rice, curry and other spices: every family hangs a similar one in their living room. For these people on the limits of dire poverty possessing a house has always been a luxury, but that food won’t be lacking is a constant concern. It is not by chance that the families for whom the housing project is intended have never owned the piece of land on which they have lived for so many years.

“Only now have we obtained from the mayor the guarantee that these plots of land will never be reclaimed by the municipality”, Sr John told me. She added, “it is a great victory. We can now build on those sites without the fear that those who go and live there will one day be thrown out”.

Cristian Martini Grimaldi




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 20, 2019