Sense of community a lesson to bring back to more ‘sophisticated’ areas – Chris Thomson

Lynn Mark, Les Hall, Chris Thomson, Fiona Robson and Graeme Yarwood - the Castle Rock Edinvar team in Kenya
Lynn Mark, Les Hall, Chris Thomson, Fiona Robson and Graeme Yarwood - the Castle Rock Edinvar team in Kenya
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When I agreed to join my Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association colleagues as a volunteer for a building project in Kenya, I had no idea the positive impact the trip would have.

On a personal level, I learned that happiness comes from knowing you have enough. Professionally, as part of a placemaking team in Scotland, I realised there are lessons we can learn about what really makes a strong community.

After successfully fundraising for the project, our five-strong Castle Rock Edinvar team were headed for a very rural village in West Kenya near Homa Bay as part of a Homes for Scotland build squad, supported by global charity Habitat for Humanity. A total of 13 different organisations took part in the one-week programme, working with local builders to construct a new home for a family devastated by the AIDs virus which had denied 84-year-old Mama Seline of her children, and her grandchildren of their parents.

In Scotland, we aim to create places where people can prosper, meeting the variable needs of our own society. We consider design, layouts, specification and proximity to services. The experience in Kenya was no different. Although no formal planning process exists, the local community had formed a committee and decided not just where to build the home but who should get the new home. In making their decision, the committee took in to consideration those in greatest need and proximity to land to support the smallholding and future generations who would inherit the home. Similar values exist in our own lettings and planning systems.

Our presence caused quite a stir among the locals, who were intrigued by our presence. We were struck by the warmth of the people and how happy everyone seemed. They had genuine interest in us and wanted to know all about our lives and our families.

Together with our fellow volunteers, who were all housing sector workers like ourselves, with careers spent developing communities and building places that will be homes to generations, we set about building a home for Mama Seline. The build tasks were shared equally, guidance was offered by our hosts and together we all built not just a home, but relationships and friendships that will last a lifetime. The experience of preparing the land and manual construction work had a significant impact that many of us have brought back to our day jobs. It allowed us to question our own standards and expectations.

Many of the existing buildings in Homa Bay are made up from old corrugated metal, but newer properties have been built using a fully sustainable range of materials, from stones cleared from the fields to sun-baked clay bricks.

Our host explained that there were many projects under way, not just housing but safe water points for the community and new roads that can link villages to one another. Although we couldn’t see signs of sustainable funding for the infrastructure projects, every road provides opportunities for enterprise and thousands of sole traders have sprung up to provide food, drink, and accommodation and transport services for passers-by.

It’s not clear whether properties of the future, scattered within the fields, will ever form some part of planning infrastructure where streets are formed, where areas become accessible and where infrastructure will be laid to support the growing population. There was no electricity or solar panels, no running water and no drainage but there was still a strong community and way of life in the village that we aspire to create here.

I spent just eight days with the build team, but the experience will stay with me for life. I have also been reflecting on the difference we made. Yes, it was positive. We provided a family with a new home, but that alone does not enhance living standards much beyond the community’s current habits.

I have also been questioning who is richer: us, with our sophisticated homes, running water, drainage systems and infrastructure, or them? In Homa Bay we witnessed a real community where there was a sense of togetherness and integrity. Although poor in finance, they appear rich in life. Through living a basic life off the land, the people have a strong sense of community and belief that collectively the village will prosper. Most importantly, my time spent in Kenya has taught me that it is the spirit of the people who truly create communities, not only the buildings or places.

Chris Thomson, Director of Property Services, Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association