My Kitchen Counter; An African Odessy

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September 6th 2008
Published: September 6th 2008
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There she isThere she isThere she is

in all her glory
I am in the Peace Corps. I serve in Mozambique. Or is I the other way around? Peace Corps Mozambique is the name of my program. Within Peace Corps Mozambique, there exists a powerful and wise organization called The Peer Support Network (PSN). This organization is made up of only the wisest and most powerful volunteers, a network of peers, if you will. These are volunteers who have won the right to go through intense special training that will allow them to offer assistance, guidance, and advice to their fellow volunteers during this particularly stressful time of their lives. Homesickness, problems integrating into the community, feelings of excessive happiness or sadness, unpredictable bowel movements, and the like, all fall under the realm of psychosocial topics that a PSN member might be able to help you with (and yes, that last one too, because as those of you who have experience with unexpectedly shitting in your pants in public know, this can be just as much a psychological blow as a physical one).

Whence officially becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer after 10 weeks of training, the PSN will bequeath you with the PSN Handbook. This is all the emotional, social, technical,
that is where the magic happens...that is where the magic happens...that is where the magic happens...

the cooking magic that is
and psychosocial support a volunteer could hope to find over the next two years. And wrapped up into 127 pages too! In here, you can find tips on the best places to find ice cream in the city of Nampula, the most effective methods to prevent burn-out during service, how to cope if a friend of yours dies at your site, the challenges of being female in a foreign country, etc. These have all been very helpful to me (especially the sections on being female) but the section I have dog-eared is another form of support altogether. If one has the bravery to venture far enough into the pages of this manual, you will eventually stumble across a section tucked deep into the heart of the handbook (pages 65-85 in most copies) called….Do-it-Yourself!!! Making you shack livable. This is referring to the homes that us volunteers move into, homes that almost always are completely bare when we arrive. You have books. You need shelves. You find page 69. You have a face. You need a mirror on the wall to see it. You find page 73. You have money. You need a safe in which to protect it. You find

and a faucet
page 78.

Me. I have very little experience using tools. That’s what happens when your father runs out on you at age 5. Partly to spite him, I have made it my mission to build almost everything in my house with the help only of this manual, some tools, and the drive that comes from being abandoned as a youngster (this is what we call literary license. My father never left me and has loved me very much for most of my life. The only time I have ever heard him get angry is when he is using our snowblower to remove snow from the driveway) . Many of the things in my house are ideas that were drawn from this manual, with some variations or modifications. Most have been small scale projects like shelves, a shoe rack, an open closet, and curtain holders made from plastic bottles (totally original). However, back in January, I determined that one small wooden kitchen table wouldn’t cut it for two years, so I decided to build a cement kitchen counter with a large plastic container as a faucet. In the manual, the author describes 4 main steps for completing the kitchen counter.
thats the corner...thats the corner...thats the corner...

where my food lives
My process was slightly different than he had drawn up. For all future Mozambique volunteers, here is an alternative way to finish your kitchen counter:

1. Buy large plastic container to use as faucet. Overpay by 20 metacais.
2. Spend two entire days walking to every single store in Quelimane to buy necessary tools and materials to make kitchen counter dream a reality.
3. Do this in January, because summer in Mozambique is not at all warm.
4. Decline all offers for help to carry supplies from bus stop to house ½ mile away; realize that 110lbs of cement is heavy. Make sure it is still January as well.
5. Cut hole in plastic container to put in faucet head. Realize that water is leaking, so cut up your leather wallet to make a washer around the faucet head.
6. Walk a neighbor’s wheelbarrow half a mile down the street to where someone is selling bricks on the side of the road. Realize that you need about 180 bricks and that your wheelbarrow can only carry about 20 at a time. Storm away, not because of humiliation from the size of your wheelbarrow, but because the brick owner offers

also work as clothes hangers
to sell at a price that is twice what a Mozambican would pay.
7. As you are returning home, meet a 15 year old kid who sells bricks as well. Pay him money for bricks and to transport 1 mile from his house to yours with a large donkey cart.
8. Receive bricks next day. Become confused when he says he sells dirt as well. “What the hell do I need dirt for?”, you will ask. Oh. Apparently you mix it with cement. Fork over more money for dirt and transport.
9. Receive dirt 1 hour later.
10. Realize you have no idea how to mix cement…
11. Or the tools to mix cement
12. See workman who is building things for your neighbor’s house. Ask where you can find 4 boards of wood to make a top for your counter. Get on bike and go 4k to place he described.
13. Find out that the good wood out front at this place is not for sale. Just the crappy wood out back. Leave, wondering if a Mozambican would be able to buy the good wood in front.
14. Tell workman story. Agree when he says to wait outside at 4am the next morning. See, the good wood is actually in the market, but you need to get there early to get it. We will go together, he says.
15. Wait until 5:00 a.m. on your porch for workman to show up. Go back to bed.
16. Accept workmans apology. Agree to give him money for 4 boards of wood so that he can pick it up and bring it the next day.
17. Receive 2 boards. Never receive other 2, or the money you paid for them
18. Ask workman to help with building the first couple brick pillars of your counter. Or at least his tools when he isn’t using them. He says sure, tomorrow.
19. (3 weeks later) Watch as workman builds 3 of your 5 columns in 30 minutes. He breaks for lunch. Says he will finish after lunch.
20. (2 weeks later) Realize you will have to buy your own tools and learn how to use cement.
21. Hire people to put bars on your windows and doors to protect from burglars. Pay them an extra 100 metacais to build last two brick columns. Go on vacation. Have work meetings. Come home a month later to 5 brick columns, standing there, mocking you.
22. Find a place in market to buy wood. Buy two boards. Walk 1 ½ miles from market to your house balancing extremely heavy boards on your head. Try to ignore everyone who stops whatever they are doing to either stare at you, or talk about you to their friends in Chuabo, the local dialect.
23. Breathe a sigh of relief when a friend spots you and offers to help carry one of the boards ½ mile away from home.
24. Pay a local carpenter to make a few cuts on your wood with his saw and axe.
25. Let him have a bottle of water when he asks for it. Watch him walk away with your bottle. Ask for it back. Hear him say he will bring it back tomorrow. Realize you will never see your bottle again.
26. Ask your friendly Canadian missionary neighbor to use his electric drills to screw boards onto brick columns.
27. Ask new workman doing work at your neighbor’s house to help you put a thin layer of cement on top of your wood.
28. Wait two weeks for when you and they are in the same area at the same time.
29. Watch with glee as they finish the job quickly, and without even asking for money.
30. Give them some money anyway.
31. Buy a plastic tub to use as a sink.
32. Try cutting a hole in it to use as a drain.
33. Break a large hole in the bottom while cutting.
34. Buy another plastic tub. Practice cutting a perfect sized hole for an entire day with the old broken tub. End up using fire in an effective way.
35. Realize you don’t know how to mount your large container of water to the wall and so that it will hang over your sink.
36. Come up with a complicated idea and ask the Canadian for his drill again.
37. When he asks what you are trying to do, explain it to him, and watch as he in 10 minutes, makes what would have taken you 2 days. He makes it pretty too.
38. Mount your water. Use bamboo to steady it (another original idea!)
39. Collapse.

So this is how you make a kitchen counter in Africa. Become frustrated. Get scammed. Receive unexpected help from all over. Try creative ideas. Fail. Succeed. In the end, it took a village to make my kitchen counter. I estimate that around 20 people had some hand in helping complete that counter.

The PSN handbook has another section called 25 tips for Peace Corps Volunteers. Little bits of advice to live by during your two years.

#6: What takes a day in the USA takes a week in Africa. What takes a week in the USA takes a month in Africa. What takes a month in the USA takes one year in Africa.

This kitchen counter was started in January. I finished it in mid-August. Now you know why.


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