While many folks might equate “summer vacation” with swimming, grilling steaks, or sipping cocktails on the beach, one local woman built houses for the less unfortunate on her holidays.
Diane Lovisa Noonan spent much of her July in Zambia, Africa, along with a team of fellow Canadian volunteers, working for Habitat for Humanity's Global Village program—her seventh such foray into the world of humanitarian home-building.
Lovisa Noonan, who went to New Zealand with Global Village last November and was in Guatemala in May, 2016 before that, left for Zambia on July 8 and returned home July 24.
It takes about 30 hours to fly from Thunder Bay to Zambia, with many connecting flights in between.
“You're pretty exhausted when you get there,” Lovisa Noonan recalled.
“You lose a night of sleep so just get right into things when you get there and you sleep good the first night,” she noted.
The trip consisted of two days travel in each direction, eight days of home-building, and four days of rest and recuperation (R&R).
Lovisa Noonan and her teammates helped build two homes in a community called Linda, where about 60 percent of the residents live in poverty—a rate reflective of the entire country of Zambia.
The houses they built were very simple, with no electricity (although a single line for a light at night may be added later) and no running water (water is gathered daily from community wells).
They did, however, provide a secure, dry place for the inhabitants to gather and sleep.
Cooking is done outside on an open fire.
“We were building a house that was nine by three metres, which is basically 250 sq. ft.,” Lovisa Noonan said.
“It's divided into three rooms—I guess the middle room is a dry gathering area and the other two rooms are where everyone sleeps,” she explained.
“We were building with cement blocks so it was all bricks and mortar,” she added.
“There were no power tools or anything," she stressed. ”You're mixing cement by hand. You're carrying the bricks.
"It's a real physical job. So by the end of the build, everyone was feeling pretty tired.
“We actually divided into two groups—there was 11 of us—and we worked with the Habitat people that are on-site,” said Lovisa Noonan.
“[They're] the builders that actually know what they're doing—and we completed two houses.”
Habitat for Humanity homes usually are built for the “working poor," where the recipients are required to contribute "sweat equity” to help build their homes and then pay off an interest-free loan as a mortgage after the house is built for them.
But in this case, Lovisa Noonan and her teammates helped build homes for Africa's “most vulnerable” with no such requirements.
“The community we were in was very poor,” she reiterated.
“Many of the households have a woman to provide for a multi-generational family," she added. ”Many of them sell wood charcoal used for cooking or vegetables on the side of the road to make a bit of money.
“AIDS has affected so many of the families," added Lovisa Noonan. "They have very little and it's hard to imagine living that life.”
One family Lovisa Noonan's team built a house for consisted of a woman with AIDS and a heart condition who was taking care of nieces and nephews (her sister had died of AIDS), as well as a grandchild who has AIDS.
One house they built had six people living in it while the other was for 11 people.
The team also built latrines for each of the families. Normally, the villagers used a hole in the ground with a sheet for privacy (each hole would be shared by a few households).
“We were able to build a latrine for each of the families," Lovisa Noonan said. "It had a door and cement, so this was a big step up for them.”
One of the highlights of the trip for Lovisa Noonan was all of the children who would be at the work site.
“They greeted us each morning and were present throughout the day," she recalled. ”We would take time out of our work day to play with them.
“Many of the team members brought balls, balloons, blow bubbles, and other simple toys and we would join them in play,” she added.
"I made a pair of glasses out of scrap wire for one of the children and before long, children with wire in hand had surrounded me.
“They were so adorable, full of life and always smiling," said Lovisa Noonan. ”They loved to grab your hand or just hold on to your shirt sleeve.
“The children, they are what stood out on this build.”
Lovisa Noonan recalled that on the second day of building, one little girl put on her red Christmas dress and afterwards wore it every day to the site.
“She was so proud of it,” she noted.
With no restaurants around, the Global Village team ate at a local school, which gave them a chance to tour it and witness that aspect of the children's lives.
“They're all in uniform . . . it's all very disciplined,” said Lovisa Noonan, noting students start to learn English—which actually is the official language of Zambia—in Grade 3.
As for the food, it was “amazing,” Lovisa Noonan said.
“Really fresh, a lot of vegetables and things like that,” she noted.
There's also no doubt the community was grateful for the volunteers' helping hands.
“We had a little ceremony at the end where we handed over the keys," said Lovisa Noonan. ”It was really quite a moving thing because these people are so appreciative of everything.
“It was a really feel-good thing," she added. ”You work hard but, boy, you see your efforts are appreciated no matter where you go.
“Even when you're building in North America, where the poverty is at a different level than what you see in these other countries, everyone is very appreciative of what is being done for them.”
But the trip wasn't all hard work and fortunately Lovisa Noonan got a chance to sightsee during her R&R days.
“You get to see the culture and some of the different things,” she noted.
This time off included a “rhino walk” in the jungle.
“Basically, there was five of us in the group, and you have the ranger with his gun and you have your guide,” Lovisa Noonan said.
“Then you just walk very quietly and you listen carefully to what he [the guide] has to say,” she recalled with a chuckle.
“We saw two rhinos and then another rhino and its baby,” she added.
"You're really not too far from them, and you're standing there and you're thinking, 'Okay, what would happen if they decided they didn't like us being in their [habitat]?'
“It's funny because your guide, he just constantly pans," Lovisa Noonan remarked. ”He looks around and he's constantly looking to see what might be coming our way or if there's any danger.
The group also went to Victoria Falls during their R&R time, where they stayed in Prana Tented Camp.
“You can hear the lions roar [while staying in a tent]," Lovisa Noonan noted. "It was actually quite fascinating.”
The group also visited an elephant sanctuary, where they care for orphaned baby elephants, and went on a safari in Chobe National Park in Botswana.
“The safari we did in two parts," Lovisa Noonan said. ”First, we were in a jeep in a national park where the animals run wild.
"The second half, we were on the water, seeing the animals cross over to this wet area where they go when it gets hotter in the afternoon.
They saw zebras, giraffes, impalas, hippos, baboons, sable antelopes, wildebeests, and more, she added, noting the tour group was merely two metres from elephants at one point.
“You're sitting in an open vehicle, watching them walk by. It was fascinating,” Lovisa Noonan enthused.
“So we're lucky we see a lot of different animals," she noted. "You've got to do that when you go to Africa, right?”
Lovisa Noonan said it's winter in Zambia now and the weather was quite comfortable.
“It was about 23 C. Night really cooled down to 12 or sometimes eight degrees," she said. ”It was perfect for working.
“And of course, everyone brought all of their mosquito gear and everything you'll need to fight all of the bugs,” Lovisa Noonan added.
"But I don't know if it because it was their winter and the evening's were so cold and it's fairly dry in the winter, but there was barely [any bugs].
“It was nice.”
While Lovisa Noonan has seen different cultures with different music, customs, and food, at the end of the day, people are not so different, she said.
“It seems no matter where you go, people are the same," she noted. ”They're welcoming and they're friendly and they're appreciative, and no matter what country it is, you see the beauty of the country you're in.
“Zambia is a very green country—there's a lot of lakes," Lovisa Noonan said. ”They've got a lot going for them.
“I'd like to say it is a 'country in progress,'" she noted. ”They are really trying to get all of the kids into school and get educated.
“There's a lot of effort being put in by the government, which happens to be a democracy, to try and get a lot of these people out of poverty,” stressed Lovisa Noonan, adding she was buoyed by the fact there is a lot of new construction and a growing middle class in Zambia.
As for the future, Lovisa Noonan said she has no doubt she'll keep on doing good work for Habitat for Humanity.
“I'll be doing another one, whether it's this fall or winter,” she noted.
"I enjoy doing it. I enjoy building, I enjoy working.
“The whole experience is something that gives me a lot of pleasure," she added. "And I get to see the world, going to places I never dreamt that I would go.”
Lovisa Noonan also said she enjoys meeting other like-minded volunteers, and working and travelling with them.
“It's a great way to give back and see the world,” she reasoned.