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From Challenge Will Come Success

My recent Habitat for Humanity build in Malawi was unlike any other I’ve led.  Not a day went by that there wasn’t some challenge with the team.  I love leading teams and making a difference around the world, and issues are expected when you gather a large group of people with varied backgrounds and experiences.  This post isn’t to insinuate that the team didn’t get along, because we did, and we had hours of gut-wrenching laughs throughout the week, just like on all GV builds.  But I usually have maybe an incident on each build that requires intervention, some more than others.  But I have to hand it to them in that we finished the job early and even began work on another house for a future team.  Below I recount the challenges of the week of GV16128:

Some of the team members at lunch at the build site.

Some of the team members at lunch at the build site.

The Family Emergency — On the third day of the build, I was getting coffee about 0600 in the dining room of the lodge.  The temps were cool that morning since it was winter in the southern hemisphere.  I had gotten up about 0500 to watch the sun rise with a few of the other team members.  Carol, my co-leader, walked in and handed me Steve’s cell phone.  For some reason, she had charged it for him overnight.  There was a text on there for him to call home ASAP.  I found Steve and delivered the phone.

About 0630, the whole team was in the dining room eating breakfast when Steve walked in.  I could tell right away that something was wrong.  I asked if he was OK and he gave me a quick No!  He asked to see me outside.  The whole team watched as I followed him outside.  Once there, he broke down and told me the news that his brother had committed suicide the night before.  I spent a minute consoling him the best I could.  He regained his composure after a minute.  I told him, of course, that we would do whatever he needed.  I asked if he wanted to take the day to make arrangements to go home.  He said he wanted to go to work that day, and personally, I was so happy he made that decision.  Despite the tragedy, it was the best thing he could do.  Sitting by himself in the lodge all day wasn’t going to change anything.  It was still about 0100 on the east coast.  He said his wife would look into flights later that morning.  We kept the news quiet the whole day and he went to work with us.  The team knew something was up, but I asked Steve if it would be OK if we broke the news after dinner.  He agreed.

Level lines at House #1 to ensure the joint lines are level from side to side.

Level lines at House #1 to ensure the joint lines are level from side to side.

Is My Son Gay? — I had a father and son on my team.  The son was 17 years old and a really hard, hard worker with such a good heart.  One afternoon after work, we stopped for ice cream (it’s a big deal in Africa, and would be one of two trips that week).  The dad asked to see me privately and wanted to know if I thought his son was gay.  Of course, I already knew he was, but I faked a good distraction by dropping a file folder I was carrying.  As I stumbled around over my fake tragedy of dropped paperwork, I mumbled something about, “Do you have a problem if he is?” and “If you don’t have a problem with it, just ask him.”

OK, I guess he took my advice, because later that night there was obviously some type of discord between them.  I just let it go and figured they’d get me involved if needed.  The next morning (this was the same morning I was getting Steve off to Lilongwe to catch his emergency flight), the father came into the dining room and asked to see me.  I told him I was busy at the moment, and following that, I really needed to get some coffee.  But I’d come by their room in  a few minutes.  When I went to their room, they were both packing, preparing to leave.  I was in no mood for dramatics, so I told them both they weren’t going anywhere.  End of story.  I asked for an explanation.

Apparently, the 17 year old did come out to his father, but he also dropped a bombshell that he was not only attracted to a 38 year old man on the team, but he’d actually disclosed this attraction to him.  Oh boy!  The dad said he’d noticed that the other guy and the 17 year old were spending an inordinate amount of time together, but it wasn’t until now that it all made sense.  The dad was pretty upset.

We talked for several minutes and decided that the 17 year old shouldn’t work with, eat with, talk with, ride on the van with, or in any way be around the older man.  The kid tried over and over to convince us nothing had happened, and I believed him.  But I couldn’t get it through his head that that wasn’t the issue at hand.  The issue was appearance and what was appropriate.  Regardless of what anyone thinks, the kid was a minor and the father didn’t want his kid spending time with an older man in that way.  That’s the only justification I needed for banning them from being around each other.

The dad agreed with my quick-fix solution.  Of course, I had to go talk to the older man.  I felt bad bringing it up because I had absolutely no reason to doubt his integrity.  But as the team leader, I had to let him know that the amount of time they were spending together didn’t look right.  I told him that they wouldn’t be allowed to be around each other, and I gave him my advice that if the 17 year old contacted him after the build via Facebook, email, phone or text, to ignore it.  Don’t even respond.  The 38 year old has a somewhat sensitive job, and I wasn’t about to let some 17 year old with his head in the clouds, who thought he had the solution to the world’s problems, jeopardize his career.

It gets worse…

Please Just Do What You’re Told!  Please? — So after the above situation, the 17 year old never ceased to amaze.  We got to the work site that morning, and after some time, I didn’t see the 17 year old working where I had placed him that day.  Well, it turns out he’d gone over to site #2 to work on the same house as the 38 year old.  They weren’t working together per se, but they were at the same site.  This isn’t what I — or his father — had agreed to.  I split them up again, and also reminded the older guy I needed his cooperation on this.

It turns out that the 17 year old also decided to disclose to the older man the entire incident with me and the dad earlier that morning.  So now the 38 year old felt somewhat embarrassed and confused.  In his defense again, he had never done anything with the 17 year old, either physically or emotionally, except try to be a friend.  The 17 year old was really treading on thin ice here. I spoke — AGAIN — to the 17 year old and reminded him he needed to follow instructions.

The day proceeded and I went to site #2 to check on the progress.  Well, well, well!  Look who’s here!  Yep, the 17 year old.  No, he wasn’t working with the older man.  He was dressing and treating open wounds on a seven year old African kid from the village.  I was almost furious, but still managed to maintain my composure.  There was also an 18 year old girl assisting him.  I gave them strict orders to not do that again.  Of course, in their eyes, I was the bad, mean, team leader who has zero compassion for the kids in Africa.

I tried to get them to separate emotion from logic.  This is way beyond the scope of our mission here.  Neither of you are wearing any type of protective gear — gloves, eye shields — and you’re treating and dressing open wounds with your bare hands.  I asked them where the results of the culture tests were.  They had a quizzical look on their face.  Do you know if this is fungal?  Parasitic?  Bacterial?  Viral?  Does he have HIV?  And they were cleaning the wounds with hand sanitizer!!  Totally not appropriate.

The problem with this type of thing in rural Africa is that if you do it for one kid, then every other kid with any type of ailment comes around seeking treatment.  Then, if the wound were to get worse, through no fault of our own, they blame us.  We are there for one purpose:  To build houses in a week’s time.  We are not there on a healthcare humanitarian mission.

I was getting no where with using logic on them.  They were hell bent on saving the world.  I really didn’t have time to deal with it, so I gave them a final, stern warning to not do it again.

Would you like to place a bet on where this is going??  So the next day I was checking up on the progress at the build sites and lo and behold!!  What did I see?  Yep, they were treating the same kid from the previous day.  As I stood there completely dumbfounded at what I was witnessing — dressing open wounds with bare hands — I was really quite upset.  Then I found out that they had treated three kids.  I was livid.  Livid that they had defied my instructions, but more so that they were jeopardizing their own safety and were too stubborn to know it.

I asked Carol, my co-leader, to speak with the teen girl, and I told the 17 year old that we needed to take a walk and talk.  I warned him that one more direct defiance of my instruction would lead to his being kicked off the team.  It wasn’t so much that he was going to be kicked off for disobeying me, but more so because team safety is the first priority of all GV builds.  He was getting into an area that he wasn’t trained in, and it could have serious future consequences on his health.  I have to put safety above everything else.  Little safety violations could lead to bigger safety issues, and I had to nip it now before something bigger happened.  Teenagers just don’t see the big picture, bless their innocent do-good hearts.

So the day proceeded, and everyone was working fine together and as far as I knew, the teens were no longer operating an Army field hospital under a shade tree in a remote African village.  So we finished the day and returned to our lodge for dinner.  We had our team meetings and then everyone was off for some down time.  The 38 year old asked to speak with me.  I told him we could meet at his room, as in the hallway outside the room.  We talked for over 30 minutes.  All of a sudden there were footsteps coming up the stairs.  Guess who was coming to the older man’s room?  If you guessed the 17 year old who was instructed to not make contact, you’d be correct.  He rounded the corner and saw me standing there and just about sh*t himself.  He mumbled something about just wanting to apologize for all the drama that day.  The older man thanked him and I quickly instructed the 17 year old to leave.

The following day I had another heart to heart with the 17 year old.  This time I was as stern as I’ve ever had to be with a team member.  I told him that not only would I kick him off the team for one more egregious violation, but I would write a report to Habitat for Humanity asking them to consider banning him until he was 21.  It was during this conversation that he dropped yet another bombshell on me!  Apparently when he and his father got into an argument about his coming out, the kid decided to go outside the compound and go for a walk.  In rural Africa.  In the dark.  At night.  By himself.  Without telling anyone where he was.  He apparently met a local who took him to his house to meet the family.  I simply couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Again, the kid wasn’t able to separate emotion from logic.  In his opinion, nothing happened so what’s the big deal?  Again, I tried in vain to explain that we have to be proactive against the “what ifs” to avoid being reactive.  I was talking to a brick wall.  The sad thing about it is that this kid is super intelligent and generally mature way beyond his years.  But I just couldn’t get him to see the logic in anything:  a) How it appears when a 17 year old expresses an attraction to someone more than twice his age and then spends an inordinate amount of time with him; b) how treating wounds might seem compassionate but is wrought with liability, healthcare or otherwise; and c) how just walking around by yourself in rural Africa without anyone knowing where you are isn’t safe just because nothing happened.  I used the analogy that if you are at a bar and get drunk and drive home, and make it safely, does that make it OK just because nothing happened?  Still, he did’t get it.

The Loud Mouths — This was a team like no other.  We all got a long very well and worked together fabulously.  We stayed at least 1.5 days ahead of schedule all week.  But I had some very strong personalities in the group who also had very foul mouths.  They were also very sarcastic which is generally fine on these teams as it’s that sarcasm that generally marks the bonding stages of a team:  You know you’re good friends when you can tease each other relentlessly.  But this group of people didn’t know how to use an inside voice anytime or anywhere.  So at dinner or on the van or any group activity, the language got quite intense.  As the team leader, I was 100% at fault for not addressing this on Day 1.  Finally, a few team members complained to me about it and I felt terrible.  I should have been sensitive enough to everyone’s feelings to recognize that this type of thing can make a lot of people uncomfortable.    So again, Mr. Meanie Team Leader had to go ask a bunch of adults to grow up.  It wasn’t so bad and we all continued to have a great week together.  I was glad they saw my side of it.

You’re a Dictator — There was one woman on the team who was pretty much a nightmare to work with.  She was just very difficult and felt that none of the rules applied to her because she’s “done this before.”  She seemed to be there only for the photo-ops and not to work.  I received several complaints that she just sat around all day except when posing for pics.

Leading a big team, my experience told me that there had to be some form of structure in order to ensure our success.  Yes, it’s a volunteer project, but that doesn’t mean it’s a free for all.  There are still rules.  One thing I demanded was that everyone be prompt for all activities — departures, dinner, meetings, activities, etc.  Waiting eight minutes here and five minutes there for everything would add up to a lot of lost time, and I explained that as the team leader, I felt an obligation and responsibility to be a good steward of the investment made in this project.  Every person on the team appreciated me taking this seriously.  They knew that if we were leaving at 0730, then they would be left behind if they were late.  But it kept things on track.  Well, apparently, being prompt means that I’m being a dictator, as she explained to me.

But there was still more to piss her off.  Each day I assigned two people to “Van Duty.”  This meant that in the mornings you had to put all the water on the van for the day as well as lunch for the worksite.  In the evenings, you had to remove all the trash, return the food items to the lodge, and sweep the van out.  I explained that it wasn’t the van driver’s job to clean up after us.  No one had a problem with this either, as team chores are required on most builds.  We’re there to work, not take a holiday.  Well this really set her off.  She simply informed me she wasn’t going to do it because it’s not what she signed up for, so I should just go ahead and find someone else to do it.  Yeah.  That actually happened.  I wasn’t in the mood, so I actually gave in on this point and let it go.  Taking trash off the van wasn’t worth ruining the week.  I don’t think she liked me very much, however!

Despite the remoteness of our worksite, the challenges were never few.

Despite the remoteness of our worksite, the challenges were never few.

One Other Thing — There was another incident that I am really wishing I could share here, because it was a doozy.  But I could never, ever put it in the cyber world it’s so sensitive.  Let’s just say that it was something that completely left me speechless.  Absolutely nothing to say.  I was so speechless, I just gave a nervous laugh and walked away.  I went back to my room, shut off the lights, and closed my eyes.  I had an instant migraine.  It was only 1930.  My migraine was making me nauseated.  I was so completely dumbfounded at what I had just seen that I couldn’t even get up to get an Advil because of dizziness and a sick feeling.  I don’t remember falling asleep, but I didn’t wake up until 0630 the next morning.  That’s unheard of for me.  Anyway, it was one of those things you don’t find funny at the moment, but looking back you laugh and think to yourself how you can’t believe they did that.  It’s one for the books.

A Recap — In the end, I loved this team just as much as any of my other teams.  We became quick friends and worked well together during the day.   The important thing isn’t if I had an easy week, but that we finished what we came to do, and that is provide two families and their children with a future.

Well, done, team of GV16128, and thank you for keeping me on my toes!



© 2022 Shane Werle