Paul Den Ronden is lecturer in construction studies at the Queensland University of technology. In 2008, he was introduced to someone from the Seven Day Adventist church who told him about project that they were trying to get off the ground — building an orphanage in Thamaga, a village near Gaborone in Botswana, where young children could sleep, live and take classes. After making a trip to the village where he researched the site, met the community and learnt about the social problems in the region as well as the vast number of orphans ( anywhere between 50,000 and 250,000 across the country depending on the source), he worked with a team of students and other volunteers to design and later build an orphanage to house up to 70 children.
To make the project happen, they also took on the fundraising challenge and arranged for donations of building supplies. After a year of planning, designing and fundraising, Paul took a team of 30 volunteers to Botswana in July 2009 where they built the orphanage complex in just 16 days. Here he talks more about the project and how they did it, despite some considerable obstacles along the way …
How did you get so many volunteers to help you get the orphanage built?
Initially, I talked to my students about it. They loved the project as they could get involved from the start. I had a class of about 180 students. As soon as I returned from my first trip there in 2008, I set up a competition where I split the students into groups and tasked them to come up with designs for the orphanage taking into account the needs of the community as well as the use of sustainable and local materials. Ultimately, anything we constructed would have to ensure that it was easy for locals to manage and maintain once built. Around 10 entries were shortlisted and we sent these to Botswana for consideration. From those, we came up with a final design as a combination of the best ideas.
It was a tough project with a short timeframe. How did you make it happen? Why was it successful?
Good preparation was key and doing the project with the right people. When making my initial trip to in 2008, I was able to meet the local team and connections, understand the equipment and materials that would be available there, the prices of local hardware. I also did interviews with the community to understand how they managed projects there as well as get an idea of the materials used. From that point, they continued to feed me information and we had good connections and infrastructure in place.
Before we arrived in July 2009 to start the building process, a lot of preparation was done locally. We wanted to make the project as sustainable and cost effective as possible. Previously, I had visited the Botswana Institute of Technology and spoke to them at length about soil earth blocks, found a company in South Africa that made machines to make these and then found a donor to fund a machine that was sent to the village. Nearly 19,000 earth blocks were laid during the project and several thousand of these had been prepared before our arrival.
Any obstacles? And how did you overcome these?
One big problem we had was that the big container of building supplies, such as tiles, steel and roof materials as well as our tools we collected through fundraising and shipped over was held at the customs wharf until day nine of the project. When it was released, the axel of the truck delivering broke as it was too heavy! For the first nine days, we had to concentrate on what we could do with the earth blocks, windows and doorframes and then work on the roofing later when the other materials arrived. You can never prepare 100% when you do remote work, there’s always something that goes wrong. It’s how you handle those problems. You’ve got to come up with solutions to solve them.
How did you handle them?
Flexibility mostly. We all had backgrounds as builders or tradespeople and given our backgrounds, I and the team were aware of what could be done with a lot of different materials. If we couldn’t find something, we looked for alternatives that could do just as good a job. When we finally got our supplies, we had to adapt those anyhow as they were donated and not set to any particular dimensions. From the outset, we knew we would have to be flexible.
Any advice for anyone taking up a project of this kind?
We were successful because of the great attitude of everyone involved. We worked days and nights. The students were very keen, very dedicated. They were being taught construction so they had a very good idea of what we had to do when we went over there. That made a big difference. I believe we shared a core set of values – to look after each other and get the job done. We’ve since produced a number of catalogues and documentaries as well as “how-to” documentation that we have made available to other aid organisations to help them for future projects.
We’d like to continue to visit the orphanage every year to expand the complex to accommodate up to 150 children eventually as well as continue to make improvements. This of course depends on funding. We’ve previously raised money from small businesses and activities that we’ve organised such as calendars and charity soccer matches. Small amounts have all added up! Largely though, donations have come in the form of building supplies.
To this point, volunteers have paid for their own trips and expenses. A smaller group of fourteen volunteers, including myself has just returned after another short trip, completing more specialised tasks such as tiling, doors, showers and plumbing. We’re about 80% done for the main buildings and we’re expecting children to move in from the middle to end of this year. I’d like to see the orphans in the centre. It’s a personal goal of mine.
If you would like to donate funds, supplies or services, please email Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://botswanaorphanproject.com/ for more information.