The sweaty Egyptian man stood there expectantly with a cigarette dangling from his lips, his hands extended towards me. In them was a pallet of spackle, more or less a mixture of cement and gypsum. I extended my gloved hand and accepted the pallet by grasping the handle on the underside and felt the weight of the mixture as the Egyptian man released his grip. My pallet knife rasped across the pallet as I mixed and moved the spackle around until I had shaped it just right, just enough to lift a large glob with the pallet knife.
Sweat trickled off my forehead and into my eyes and I felt the sting as I crouched down in front of a wall made of mud and straw bricks. I slapped the spackle against the wall and most of it fell to the floor. I chuckled at myself as the three or four Egyptians snickered too. I just hadn’t mastered the technique yet. My teacher was patient though and showed me through non-verbal instruction once more.
I was in a small village just outside an Egyptian town called Minya. I was working with Habitat for Humanity, helping rural Egyptians to improve their homes. My fellow Young Adult Volunteers and I joined the Habitat crew over the last two days and saw a side of Egypt few ever see, the village life of poor Egyptian farmers.
Earlier that day, when we arrived at the village, our small bus bounced down the dirt road and sped past farmers in their fields who paused long enough to wonder what a bus full of westerners was doing way out in the country. Most often their faces bore a perplexed look, but every now and then a small child or a teenager would wave heartily while grinning broadly.
When the bus stopped we stepped out onto a road that was covered with a layer of donkey dung mixed with straw and sand. Flies were everywhere and swarmed in front of my feet as I walked. As we walked down the street between mud-brick buildings we passed children happily playing soccer in the street and old, crinkly-faced, robed women sitting on doorsteps chatting to one another. As we passed everyone stopped what they were doing and stared. A child smiled at me and said, “Hello.” I turned as I passed him and said hello back to him and shook his hand. Before long we had attracted a group of wide-eyed children that followed us, occasionally shouting out, “Hello!”
We arrived at the house where we would work, and our Habitat organizers led us through the front door. The “house” was a loose collection of small rooms contained by a perimeter wall. The “hallway” between the rooms was an open-air passageway where we could look up and see the blue sky. Sunlight spilled over the edges of the rooms and reflected brightly off the walls around us. We were led to a back room that was dimly lit by reflected sunlight through a window. In the room we saw workmen already hard at work applying spackle to the brick surface. Immediately the workers welcomed us and began to give us instructions, mostly through hand gestures. As Jen and I began to work a collection of men and children formed outside the door and window to watch us.
I did just what my teacher showed me. I swished the spackle to the left, and then to the right to make a narrow vertical strip down the center of the pallet so I could easily scoop it up. The next part was tricky. My teacher had applied the spackle by flinging it onto the wall and the whole blob stuck. But no matter how many times I tried it, the spackle wouldn’t stick. It would just flop comically to the dirt floor. In the end I just applied it by easily mashing into the surface of the wall and then smoothing it out to match the rest of the wall. It seemed to do the job. I alternated doing this with Jen until the rest of the wall was covered in spackle.
After some time we took a break, drank some tea, and chatted as best we could given the language barrier. We smiled and laughed. The local men brought in their wives, children and babies. The children were all precious with gigantic brown eyes. The locals let us take some pictures. They had certainly seen digital cameras before because they immediately ran over and eagerly waited to see the image appear on our cameras’ tiny screens.
We worked for a few more hours, taking a few breaks along the way. Before long the walls were completed. We enjoyed the company of the Egyptians for a while longer before we loaded back on the bus and waved our goodbyes to the villagers smiling outside our windows.
This experience was by far the most exhilarating thing I have experienced in Egypt thus far. I feel like I finally made a difference. The results were tangible and real, and they still stand in a small village outside Minya. During the last two days, I truly felt like I was doing God’s work.