Bricks: the Sign of Progress and Prosperity in Bunda, Tanzania,
and an Economic Microcosm.
by Karen Wiggins
We get to see things as if we were flies on the fence which seems to be a violation of the privacy of the people here in the Lake Region of Tanzania, but everything here is out in the open. Many times what I see is just too wonderful to be left alone. Making bricks is one of those wonders. My neighbors are wonderful, hard working people. This last month, we have watched again as last year in the dry season, the making of bricks which is a large family and neighbor's endeavor to make enough money to get by another year. Now, I must explain that this making bricks is a very exhausting job. All ages of people work at this day and night. Even a small 4 year-old boy who swings a huge, heavy, hoe--as fast and as hard as the legendary John Henry swung his hammer--all the while little Maira is singing his working song--and stopping only to pull his pants back up which inch downward a bit with every swing of his hoe..
I see women, men and children bringing buckets of water from the well to pour on the hard dirt. It is almost as if they make a brick out of a brick because the dirt here is so hard. This shows that a family has to have access to water to make bricks. Here, the people near Lake Victoria or those that have access to a well are the only ones that can make bricks in the dry season. Stirring the mud with a hoe and their feet makes it the consistency of rice pudding or ugali here. The mud is wet but not drippy. It will hold its shape if you roll it in a ball. When it is of this density, men and women shovel this mixture into the molds made of wood nailed into a square divided into two rectangular, open shapes. Our group has two molds that make two bricks each. The mud loses some of the water when they punch the mud in the mold to squeeze and rake it off at the top with a smooth hand. If the mud is close by, some can do this in just 30 seconds. Soon they just pull the mold up and off, leaving the wet bricks to dry even more in a large flat area of the yard. People go around that group of bricks with a large machete, cutting off the brick from the earth at just the right time and removing any imperfections--leaving a perfect rectangular prism ready for more drying on its end and later stacked within the kiln. Both men and women and some children do all of the jobs. There are jobs of carrying the water, making mud, forming the bricks, cutting the bricks, stacking the bricks, throwing the bricks, and catching the bricks. The neighbor workers and family members get paid 1,000 shillings (about a dollar) a day by the owner of the home. No matter what the women are doing, they always wear a dress. Sometimes the pay is by the day. Sometimes, it is by number of bricks. Sometimes they are paid by the job. The owner of the house gets paid for the bricks sold.
The workers here are happy about the work because they cannot afford to build bricks at their own homes. Without good roads, and industry, the infrastructure does not bring many jobs. Usually it is just grow what you eat to keep your family alive.
Talking sometimes or whistling or singing, humming, and even telling jokes and laughing, the work gets done at a brisk speed. We even heard them quietly working at night by the moonlight. When it is day and the dangerously hot sun or "jua mkali" is high overhead, it is time to sit under a tree and rest. As I write, some are still throwing mud--sealing the one finished hive of bricks. They, too, will soon rest as it gets hotter. As we just sent over three good papayas for the tree sitting time, we find big smiles all around. That mud thrown on the outside seals the kiln or huge oven made of the bricks to be fired. The bricks are not put into a kiln, they become the kiln. In some cases this structure is two or three stories high and we like to plan to leave on a safari on the day it is to be burned--it is not a good smell or "nuka" as they say here.
At one point in the morning, we were watching a young four-year-old boy named Maira. His little baby sister was crying her eyes out as she was held by a five-year-old girl unsuccessfully calming the little baby. Maira was trying his hardest to distract the baby by singing and dancing. Mom was making bricks and was slowing down because of all this crying. She soon stopped as did Maira's singing. Mom smiled at the baby and dusted herself off before reaching for her baby and cooing to her. She took her baby and dusted the child's head off because brick making is a very dusty job. Now that his sister was happy and not crying, Maira just dug in the mud with a huge hoe and his song changed to his working song accentuated with a tennis "ugh!" Looking back at his mom who was pulling her kanga tight around her waist taking her young child and sitting on nothing but her heals as they do so easily here, Maira could concentrate on his work. Talking and smiling to her youngest child Ephinniss then pulled the now very happy child close to her breasts and begin feeding her. Nursing and cooing so contently now at one point the baby pulled her head away from her mom and looked upside down at the men mixing mud as if to say, "She is all mine now and you cannot use her for anything." Back to nursing again she went, knowing she had been born in what seemed to her the richest part of the world. Now fed and happy, the mother loved her once more and sat her down in the dirt as she went back to work. The baby will stay right there until her mom bends at the waist, flips her baby onto her back, throws a kanga over baby and her back, tucks the kanga under the baby's bottom, and before she could pull it under one shoulder and tie it over the other shoulder, that baby was asleep. Now work goes on with the little heartbeat going on mom's back as it once did a few months ago on her front.
Following the example of his whistling uncle, Maira pulled up a heavy, wet brick only up to his waist and he started walking parallel to our fence. My husband was sitting on the porch watching him with admiration. He walked 10 yards whistling and carrying that brick that was actually resting on his tummy as he walked holding it with both hands. He stopped and turned to Charles, holding that brick on his bent knees, he smiled and waved with his other hand. Turning his head back down the path the whistling began as he walked another 10 yards. It was quite a nice song. He again stopped but kept on whistling, placing his heavy brick again on his bent knees, he reached down to pull his pants up continuing to walk and whistle another 10 yards. Just as his sister, he believes life is wonderful, and he is blessed to be a part of it. Being poor is relative. If he sees himself next to a very rich person I am not sure he would think that they were different in any way. Having a support group and love all around him, he is very content with his life. When does he start feeling poor? Here it seems to be when he finds out that the primary school has not taught him enough English for him to pass a test in English to allow him to get into Secondary School. I believe that that is where the understanding of the split between rich and poor begins.
Will there be enough people in Bunda to buy the bricks? Supply and demand will soon be known after the bricks are completed. Many homes are in the process of being built of bricks. It seems that more and more people are building in Bunda. These neighbors who built the bricks are counting on even more building going on here in the very poor part of a very poor country in Africa. These families are showing a tremendous amount of faith. Judging by the homes that are up six bricks high, they should have no trouble selling the bricks; however we have brick hives all over town. Unlike the moneyed countries with large banks and mortgage loans, our people do a job to get money and they buy bricks and cement and rocks. They just began building their home. When the money runs out, they quit building. They do this year after year until the house is completed. Then they just move in. No Banks--No Loans--No Debts! We have many homes that have just begun. I have to say, they may be on to something.
Back to making bricks: When all the bricks are dry, the special people that know how to stack them come. One person throws the brick to another person on the top of the beginning tower. Top person quickly places it in just the right place and reaches up to grab the next brick that is in the air. I know they must hurt all over at night after a day of playing a game of brick tossing and catching. The bricks are stacked like a tower making sure air or smoke can get in between each brick to another. The bricks become the kiln. On the very bottom layer of bricks two compartments are left empty for the placement of wood to burn when the whole tower of bricks is ready and sealed with mud on the outside. Straw is on top so in case it rains the bricks will not turn back into mud. Dirt is thrown two stories high onto the straw when it is time to burn the bricks. Seeing a man get a shovelful of dirt and heave it up that high was amazing. We see some of these towers when something went wrong and they just left the tower alone and grass started growing on top. Friends have told us that sometimes no one buys bricks because the owner was arrogant. No one wants to buy bricks from someone that is arrogant. I know other countries mix straw in the mud in their bricks. Well, they say here adding straw in the brick makes them break with the heat. I do not know. I think this is the oldest way to make bricks; however, it only came to Bunda 20 years ago. Knowing that bricks were made this way in the time of Jesus, I just must say: "Brilliant, Just Brilliant!" We see so many trades that are done just as just as the people in the Bible. Even the dhows in Lake Victoria are built just like the one Jesus was in.
Building with these bricks is another story. They cement over the inside and outside of the bricks to make the house stronger.
Right now trucks with big sisal logs and other tree logs are being delivered to burn the bricks. Wood is so hard to get. This is one of the reasons for us to sell solar cookers and the Bio-sand Filters. Both cut down on the use of charcoal. No one is allowed to cut down trees, yet the people still find trees in a barren places to make and sell charcoal. How else can the people cook? We do have some lumber yards for making furniture and doors and windows. Wood is so scarce that it is just really expensive. Enough Mninga wood to make a door is 150,000 Tsh and Mtunda is 90,000 Tsh. This place where I live now was a heavy forest in the '50s. Now it only has shrubs.
After listening to them quietly work all night and one hive being lit to begin the burning process and the other neighbor still making bricks, we awake to see them working very fast as if they have some sort of time limit to make. As we ask, this morning, it seems to be the thought that it will rain today. One large rain would kill all the weeks worth of work that has taken place. Without a cloud in the sky and no sign of rain (we do not get the weather channel here), all the people seem to think that it will rain today. Juliana seems to agree and she wants them to hurry. She has land with a small shack on it where she is living now and plans to buy some of these bricks so she can have a house one day. All is woven together in this community with its own economy. This is just a snap shot of the economy of the world really. I wish we could all understand. Bunda is a economic microcosm.
Weather was not the reason for the quick speed that occurred this morning. It seems that they mixed so much mud last night that they must hurry and make bricks before the morning sun dries out that mud. If it does dry before they mold it, they will have to do all the mud making over that they did last night.
When the our young women U.S. visitors were here, they would eat their dinner really fast and run over to help make bricks and play with the children. What a joy. The American director of "Tears of the Sun", said that "If you get the red dirt of Africa on your feet, you will have Africa in your heart forever." I say, "If you look at the possibility shown in the eye of an African child, your heart must find a way to help educate them."
One must have money to make bricks. You must have: Water source, Money to pay workers, Money to buy wood to burn, Land to make bricks, Money to put nourishment back into the now stripped soil so you can have a garden when the rains come again. However, some make sun dried bricks (no firing) and build homes with that. They will wash away in a few years.
As I write, that four-year-old boy just started singing one of his songs. It is now a call and response song. You have to laugh. That precious little boy sings something and all the adults respond. If he keeps that up, we will have to put him through college. Oh, Dear! Me! Charles already walked over to give him some candy. That little boy has no idea how rich he really is.
"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away." Henry David Thoreau