The goal was to build a crèche (or a kindergarten) for the local village kids using bricks made out of mud. Wellington, a local farmer, had recently expressed a need to add a classroom to the small village school on his land, just outside Chintsa in South Africa.
Our group had been assigned this project and each day for two weeks we loaded into our van, drove half an hour or so across the dry plains and hills, sometimes spotting zebras, and arrived in Wellington’s village where we set to work.
Although I was one of the leaders in charge of our group and the project, I had never engaged in mud-brick making before, and neither had our participants. Painting — yes, teaching — yes, and even travelling or building experience was a task we had taken on before. But shaping bricks from mud and literally building a classroom from the ground up was a new experience we were excited to jump into.
Every day we would gather our tools and gloves and dig a hole on Wellington’s land and shovel the dirt into a wheelbarrow. Then we would wheel the barrow down the rocky path, through the gate (closing the gate carefully so the farmer’s pigs wouldn’t escape — which they did every day anyway), then dump the dirt a little farther down the lane in the simple construction site, our wheelbarrow dodging fresh cow pies and running school children playing ball as we went.
Mixing the fresh dug dirt with water and a little cement, which was not an easy task, we’d then create a mixture that could be poured into a wooden rectangle frame. The mud would be patted and shaped into something solid, then left to dry for a day or two.
We would mould brick after brick until we had enough bricks dried and strong enough to play their part in the building of a classroom wall. Seemed simple enough.
But . . . I struggled.
I can’t remember if the others had trouble getting the mixture of their mud-bricks just right so that the mould kept its shape when we pulled the wooden frame away from the mud-patty, but I do remember that the bricks I tried to shape were too wobbly, and would crumble and fall apart when I removed my frame.
Little muddy clumps stuck to my fingers, and wide muddy cracks split open like fault lines as my crappy attempt to mould a brick failed.
I was frustrated. My bricks weren’t taking shape, and it felt discouraging and disappointing to not be able to get it right.
As my muddy bricks lost their shape and turned into cakey lumps, I would vocalize just how discouraged I was with my pile of mud that just wouldn’t stick in the shape of a brick as I watched the others carry on, with their perfectly shaped and drying mud-bricks.
But then Wellington, overseeing our efforts, saw my frustration. I was squatting down in the mud, patting my wobbly pile of mud-brick mixture when Wellington joined me on the ground and began to show me how to do it, taking over and shaping my mud pile with his hands.
“Don’t wurree”, his calming South African voice assured me, “you can doooo what you can doooo”. In just a few minutes, he had helped me remix my mud and shape it into a perfect mud-brick.
His words were very calming. He didn’t join in my chorus of frustration and discouraged commentary. He only helped, and kindly explained that he expected only for us to do what we could do.
Wellington’s words were simple, but resounding.
While the groups’ efforts would achieve a significant project such as building a classroom, which would have ripple effects far after we were gone, it was the smaller steps I had to learn to pay attention to and not be distracted or discouraged by.
You can do what you can do.
A big lesson that I continue to learn no matter which country we are in or which project we are focusing on is how much more individuals are capable of achieving when we travel outside of our limits and push ourselves to do new things. We unlock our potential, and are able to do so much more.
However, there’s also a lesson to learn that’s just as valuable as pushing our boundaries — and that is being kind to ourselves and recognizing that contributing the best of our capabilities is pretty awesome too.
While this story took place a few summer’s ago with my previous organization, the lesson I learned and the take-away for our participants then has stayed with me, and continues to give me comfort and courage even now.
You can do what you can do.
Focus on the small things, do them as well as you can, whatever that may be.
When you do what you can do . . .
then mud becomes bricks . . .
and bricks become a wall. . . .
a wall becomes a classroom . . .
and farmland becomes learning space.
And the education from that space becomes something so much more.
Wellington’s advice was simple, and shaping a mud brick was a simple task.
It’s an example of how although, for these programs, we pack our bags, board a plane and head off to new places to lend a hand in education, to experience new cultures, to work hands-on with sea turtles or elephants, build a classroom and truly be of help… what we get from our adventure is so much more than we signed up for, and the lessons learned go beyond what we could have possibly predicted.
Years later, I remember Wellington’s words from his South African farm and I take them with me everywhere I go. I hear them when I feel frustrated, and they help me slow down, try again, and keep shaping whatever “mud-brick” I have in front of me with less frustration, and with more calm, with focus, until I get it right.
We learn unexpected lessons between the cracks.
Even if — in my case — the lesson was between the cracks of my wobbly, misshapen, falling-apart mud-bricks.
You can do what you can do.