Building with the Solar Youth, Feb 2013

Life in Sabana Grande is tranquilo, the morning starts for many women at 4 or 5am with getting water from one of the 40 wells that are dispersed throughout the village. The kids of the village and some of the men bring back big buckets of water while the women prepare corn tortillas on their wood-saving stoves. Breakfast is delicious and my favorite meal of the day: black beans and eggs on warm tortillas with some avocado and hot sauce! Solar roasted coffee is served in tiny cups.

The municipality of Totogalpa is in the dry-tropics of Nicaragua, where the sun is burning out the overgrazed, bare soils, where leaves and plastic waste are getting burnt at the sides of the roads, the sun also heats up the pots and pans in the solar cookers, creates energy for the villagers and drys the adobe bricks that we used to build an adobe youth center. Sabana Grande is a rural comunity of around 4000 people, where economic shortcuts are offset by a network of organizations and participatory groups.

Yelba, my hostmum, is one of the „Mujeres Solares“, the „Solar Women“ of Sabana Grande. This group of 20 women is committed to using the energy of the sun to prepare their food and provide electricity. In a recently opened restaurant they bake and roast coffee in the solar cookers and in addition to that they have a bio-digestor that provides them with ready to use bio-gas all day long and year-round. Energy is created by solar panels and regularly student-groups form the United States and Europe come through to learn about Applied Technologies.

The Natural Building Course was in collaboration with the Youth Group, who recently started a collective bicycle rental business and that is supposed to provide educational grants. Our workday at the building site started at 7:30 with a short meeting to plan the day. By 8am the sun is chasing away the last clouds that usually come through at night and provide some shade in the early morning hours. The dynamic group that participated was an eclectic mix of mostly women but also some men, most of them in their 20ies and 30ies, Miguelito and Adalí of the youth group helped out a few days as well and we were happy to see a couple of familiar faces from the last course we were teaching in Condega! Due to the economic realities of rural Nicaragua, most of the people who participated in the course were actually getting paid to be and work with us.

Most of the women had participated in last year’s course, when they built the natural classroom with Liz using all kinds of different wall systems, like wattle and daub, chorizo, taquezal and maya cyclón. The natural classroom has beautiful earthen finishes, an earthen floor, in-built cob benches, bottle artwork and some artistic sculpting on the outside walls.

For this year, Liz had decided to build a round Adobe youth center with a tile roof to honor the vernacular building technique of the area. Adobes are popular in this part of Nicaragua, not only for economic reasons but also for its thermal performance. The thermal mass of a thick Adobe wall works well in this climate, since it cools down at night and maintains the interior comfortably cool throughout the day.

Don Hilario –with a few other helpers – dug the foundation trenches for the whole building by hand. Hard work in this clayey soil! Magdalena, Corina, Yorling and Candida – family mothers of 2-3 children made over 1000 adobes before the course started, just in time to allow enough time for drying, around 4 weeks. For improved performance during seismic activity, the adobes have a shape of 38x38x10cm and probably weigh more than 25kg each. It has been proved that square adobes are 4 times more seism-resistant than rectangular adobes.

The first part of the day was dedicated to getting the mixes done that we will need throughout the day. The mortar mix consisted of two parts of earth, one part of sand and one part of “burril” – horse manure. We added horse manure to stabilize the mortar and to avoid cracking. I learned that leveling is very important, especially plumbing. It makes your work a lot easier, when you set the first row of adobes exactly where you want them to be because they will be the reference point for the –in our case 16– lines of adobes that will go up to form the wall. Leveling can become quite tricky with adobes because their shapes tend to be pretty irregular. One part of the adobe wall was load-bearing and a perfect circle was therefore necessary to guarantee an even distribution of the load of the roof. A playful circular, organic cob wall connects the inside of the building with the outside, creating cozy nooks for children to play in, hide away or sleep.

It was hard work under blue sky but the two weeks passed by without noticing. Lot’s of laughing and buena onda, lot’s of shoveling, piles of earth disappearing, walls getting higher and higher, cob getting stomped, cob balls formed and thrown on the wall, communal lunches and yummy “charamuscas” –frozen fruit and cream in a little plastic bags– made the days fly by like an arrow.

After our workday was over, we either returned to our family homes or went to the nearest town Ocotal to check our emails and talk to the outside world. Before dinner was served at 7pm, I usually had a bucket shower after I got some water from the well. After pulling up 20 liters of water I got to appreciate running water a lot more than I did before. During dinner, my family watched the daily telenovela and at around 8:30pm we crawled into our beds and turned the lights off.

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If you are interested in an experience like that, please get in contact with Grupo Fenix. They regularly offer courses on solar energy and appropriate technologies and there is the possibility to volunteer with Grupo Fenix and become part of the Sabana Grande Community.

or Liz Johndrow of Earthen Endeavours:

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