See, over the past two years of living in Paraguay, I’ve volunteered a few times alongside my students with TECHO, an organization similar to Habitat for Humanity. TECHO funds and constructs temporary emergency housing for thousands of families across Latin America who living in grinding poverty, particularly those living in disaster-prone areas. Many of my students are passionate about fundraising, purchasing materials and then travelling to the campo to work alongside families building solid, weather-resistant housing. Let’s just say my students desperately that passion; it almost makes up for their utter and complete lack of competence!
Few of my students have worked a day of hard labour in their lives; they are from an elite class that simply hires others to do that sort of work for them. They do not understand how to operate sophisticated machinery like a handsaw. The intricacies of the hammer and nail presents an impossible technological challenge for many. Watching one of my female students attempt to pin a few screws into a wall with a screwdriver sent me into the throes of gut-shatteringly uncontrollable laughter.
I, on the other hand, have had the opportunity to learn how to use some of these advanced tools.
Now, this sounds ironic to those of you who know how embarrassingly “unhandy” I actually am. Despite working a construction-labour job during university and pitching in with my father’s ambitious renovation and house-building plans from time to time, I am far from a jack of all trades. In fact, I have frequently (and rather accurately) been accused of being a side-burned Neanderthal by my loving wife when I attempt to mount a TV, piece together some furniture or fix a showerhead. She often takes over in frustration after watching me fumble clumsily around and completes the task in short order. Basically, I’m not a problem solver and fixing or building things is NOT my strong-suit.
Last weekend I travelled about 20 kilometers from the city for the most recent set of TECHO housing constructions. I worked with a group of eight motivated high school students who I teach to build a house for a mother and her three young kids. None of them spoke Spanish or English so I couldn’t really communicate with them other to than to grin stupidly in response to the kid’s silly jokes in Guarani. The walls of the house come prefabricated so tacking them in place, fastening the rafters, installing the door and pinning sheet metal on the roof was pretty much all that was required. Not rocket science; it’s stuff that even I can accomplish with relative ease, precisely because it requires no skill!
Here’s where my “legend” status comes in. As a dude who basically types away at a computer and grades papers all day in my classroom, it’s nice to get outside, swing a hammer around, take a skill-saw to some wood and generally feel like a bit of a man again. I thoroughly enjoyed it and taught my students how to hold a hammer and not smash their thumbs while demonstrating my ability to actually hit the nail on the head (almost) every time. This is, apparently, highly impressive. Word of my talent quickly spread and soon, sightseers began to arrive at our site to observe my hammer prowess. Seriously. My students gawked and fawned over the fact that I could nail a whole wall in place faster than the other eight students could tack a single nail into the floor. Small groups trailed in from other build-sites to observe my “insane super-powers.” My students who volunteer with TECHO are already bickering about who gets to have me on their squad next time!
Situational irony aside, I enjoyed myself and learned a few new words of Guarani in the process. I’m already looking forward to the next series of constructions so I can continue to awe my students with my handyman expertise!