“Mud-brick… cow-dung…”

What: Fits of the giggles among the sopranos

Where: Choir rehearsal at Pelican Primary School

When: Thursday afternoon, last 30 minutes of the day

I look up with irritation. “What, Hafsa?? What is so funny?”

Hafsa looks a bit embarrassed to be singled out, but says in a small voice, “It’s because of cow-dung!” and she and all her friends all start giggling again.

We’re at Pelican Primary School and singing a song called Shelter that I wrote with students from the English Language School at the end of last year. It’s a very upbeat, catchy, danceable song and it’s become part of the Pelican Choir’s repertoire in 2012. The song is all about the right to housing, and at one point lists all the different things a house can be made from – in the experience of the Language School students who come from all parts of the world. At the time that we wrote the song, one boy from Ethiopia spoke with great excitement and confidence about houses made from cow-dung in his country and so that phrase made its way into the song – have a listen:

Brick. Plant. Rock. Concrete. Glass. Cow-dung. Mud-brick. Bamboo… Tarpaulin. Steel and wood.

Normally at Pelican Primary School’s choir practices, we keep strictly to task. At that time of day, too many transitions or moments of ‘down’ time can mean the end of any concentration, so I keep the teacher-talk to a minimum. But on this day, the question of cow-dung gave us the opportunity to have a really interesting conversation.

“Why do you think all these words are in the song?” I asked the children. “What are they referring to?”

A few people offered their thoughts, and one identified the common theme – these are all things you can build a house with.

“A house from cow-dung? That’s disgusting!” they all chorused in delight and disgust.

“Well,” I said, ever the practical one, “It’s probably really sensible if you live somewhere where there aren’t enough trees to chop down for wood for your house, because everyone needs some kind of shelter. In lots of countries, people build their homes from whatever is available nearby.”

I described some of the houses I’d seen in Timor-Leste, where all the different parts of the bamboo plant were used – the sturdy trunks would be used for the frame, thinner trunks or branches sliced longways would be tied tightly side-by-side to make the walls, and the long stringy leaves would be intricately woven and thatched to make a strong water-proof roof. They were fascinated by this description and sat quietly, picturing these houses.

“But Gillian, how could you make the bamboo house strong enough to stop people getting in?” one boy asked me. I thought about this, and explained that the doors could close, and they could probably be locked with a padlock but that if someone really wanted to break in, they probably could. The boy looked worried at the thought of this, but I went on,

“But the people live in small communities, where they know everyone. They all work together and help each other, and so they trust each other. The moment someone new arrives in the village, they would all know about it, and be watching carefully. Knowing each other well like this helps to keep their houses safe,” I explained.

One boy at the back of the altos then shared a story about helping to build his family’s mud-brick house when he was living “in Africa” (he’s lived in Burundi and Kenya as a refugee and maybe some other African countries as well).

“And best of all,” I said, in closing, “That cow of yours is going to keep doing droppings every single day! This means that you could build your cow-dung house for free! It might take you a long time – I’d be getting my kids to make the bricks everyday when they came home from school, as part of their chores – but it wouldn’t cost you a lot of money!”

By now, they were all completely sold on the idea of a cow-dung house and they sang their hearts out for the last few minutes of the day. I think this was my favourite choir practice of the year so far.

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