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African work puts Habitat for Humanity mission in focus

Area volunteers build houses in Tanzanian village
Returning to their Green Bay work site for the first time in 2007, Jeff Carels and Kathi Kampen were greeted by temperatures 100 degrees cooler than they’d become used to.

Last time the pair had rolled up their sleeves for Habitat for Humanity, they’d been working with locals in Korogwe, in the East African country of Tanzania.

Now the pair — both of whom work for Greater Green Bay Habitat — were back on the job, this time doing demolition on a house on the city’s east side.

But like the other members of their Habitat Global Village team, Carels and Kampen brought a new perspective back with them. They were two of 15 volunteers, mostly from the Green Bay and Fox Cities area, who traveled to Tanzania in late December and early January to help build homes with three families there.

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One of the volunteers hard at work

For both — Carels is Habitat’s construction coordinator and Kampen is the volunteer coordinator — the Tanzania experience was a chance to reflect on Habitat’s mission to build simple, decent, affordable housing.

And although the volunteer work they did for 10 days was in some ways very different from what they do in their professional lives, the reason remains the same, Kampen said.

“It’s nice to see people all over the world — they believe in the mission,” said Kampen, who has worked for Habitat since August and has been a volunteer since 2002. “No matter where you are, they believe in the mission.”

But accomplishing that mission in Tanzania is in some other ways quite different from getting it done in Green Bay, Carels said. For one thing, there’s the climate. For another, the tools.

Instead of power tools, the Tanzania group relied on trowels, hand saws and hand-mixed mortar for the handmade bricks they used.

Scaffolding also was made manually, bored into the home and the ground thanks to holes made by machete. The wood was tied together with twine, creating a platform to work on.

“The scaffolding was huge. There’s no way we could ever do something like that over here,” Kampen said. “I guess our country is more sue-happy. Over there, if you fell off, it’s like, I guess you should’ve been more careful.”

Recruiting workers also is different in Tanzania, Carels said.

“One of the issues I think they’re dealing with, that we don’t, is getting volunteers,” he said. “People are too busy trying to make a living.”

Getting the word out

The local Habitat office often struggles more with finding qualified homeowners, Carels said, and getting the word out can be difficult.

The homeowners themselves were both different and similar to those in this area, Carels and Kampen said. Although Habitat homeowners here tend to be a bit younger than those they built for in Tanzania, there is a general appreciation that exists in both places, Carels said.

Standards of living, of course, can differ considerably from the United States. Many Tanzanians, especially in rural areas, live in crowded conditions without running water or electricity.

Food can be scarce. Children often have few, if any, toys. In Korogwe, the Tanzania team witnessed kids playing with a homemade soccer ball instead of the real thing.

It was eye opening for Kampen, who — as a divorced mother of three — has experienced tight budgets in her own life.

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The team taking a break for lunch

“Being a single mom, I know I struggle at times to pay bills,” she said. “It makes me appreciate how hard I do work and what I do have.”

Most of the Habitat team members took some time to readjust to their jobs, families and routines back in the United States. Team leader Alex Tran had some physical troubles — notably, jet lag — she said, but it was worth it.

“Emotionally, I was on a high,” she said. “I felt great when I came back, because I had accomplished everything I had set out to do in Tanzania.”

For Tran — and Rep. Steve Wieckert, R-Appleton — that included climbing Mount Kilimanjaro after the build had ended.

The Tanzania team had a reunion Feb. 17, and two group members — AJ and Casie Reed of De Pere — have applied to be team leaders for a future Habitat Tanzania trip.

Several others also are talking of going back, using experience both here and abroad to do more in Korogwe.

In some ways, it was tough getting used to being back, Carels said. But the commonalities made it less so.

“It hasn’t really been a significant adjustment,” Carels said, “because I think, quite honestly, the trip I took and the things we saw reflect what I do here.

“I do this because of the impact it has on people — volunteers as well as homeowners. The program works wherever we go.”

By Kelly McBride (Green Bay Press)