Friday, July 12, 2013

How corrugated iron, rainy season and poverty gave Africa too many babies.

If you have grown up in poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and you have found a way to escape that life, you will realise the mention of corrugated iron somehow jolts the memories you have safely stowed away years ago and will act as a vivid reminder of just how bad things were in uninsulated corrugated iron housing!

When it rains in Africa it does not come knocking at your roof politely but descends with such angry force and within minutes streets are flooded. Living in a corrugated iron house was stuff of nightmare during this season or any other. When the raindrops touched the thin corrugated iron roof, if you were asleep, you will jump out of bed in shock wondering if 3rd world war has started! The raindrops sound like a rapid fire attack and as soon as you get your head around the fact that is it just rain, you won’t be able to hear your thoughts again until the rain stops. People who grow up in these kinds of houses (they are not fit to call them homes) have even built their own rainy season mini culture. When the nightmare starts, you don’t bother having a conversation because it does not matter how high pitched your voice is, no one will hear you. If you were doing work that needed concentration, like school homework or God forbid, in the middle of surgery, good luck to the patient. This rather life-disrupting rainy season has it is good side, tho. If it was a tiny house with large families, like most sub-Saharan African family structures with no privacy, this is the baby-making season as it is your only chance to have sex and be as loud as you want with no one noticing. You are totally private and free to scream as you like, for once, right next door to your 14 kids, half of them teenagers who would be embarrassed to death if they heard their middle-aged parents scream with pleasure like hyenas celebrating a kill!

During the hot and dusty season, things get worst for corrugated iron housing residents. Without an insulation to ensure the heat collected by the iron roof is not transferred directly to the house, making it heat up like an oven, you can literally feel your skull bake to the point where you can smell burning skin! The worst smell ever and it is one of those horrid smells which tend to sit in the easily retrievable section of the memory drawers. Those Africa-saving do-gooders with their “less than a dollar a day” poverty theories don’t realise for people who grew up in a poor corrugated iron housing every time we hear poverty, we retrieve the memories of burning human flesh and the deafening sound of raindrops hitting the roof. I want to turn the volume down on their pulled-out-of-thin-air poverty theories as badly as I want to stop the violent sound of raindrops on corrugated iron roof. 

With such nasty memories of corrugated iron housing, you can imagine my response when I visited my cousin in Mpumalanga, South Africa, and she suggested we spend a pleasant sunny Saturday in the nearby Barbeton historical town and check out the famous Victorian corrugated iron houses. I said, hell no! Nothing beautiful about corrugated iron and it was a day too beautiful to be retrieving awful memories of baking human skull. Mpumalanga is a beautiful province in South Africa with some of the most breath-taking landscapes and I was sure there were other more pleasant little towns we could visit. 

Well, I am glad I was persuaded to visit and I learnt corrugated iron housing does not have to be the ugly and horrible experience of my childhood. In fact, I fell in love with these amazingly designed and grand homes. They have added so many beautiful little carved wood details to disguise the sharp edges of the corrugated iron to create more aesthetically pleasing homes than I was familiar with. They also made them properly insulated so residents don’t have to go deaf in the rainy season, suffer from baking skull in the summer or freeze their balls during winter. These houses are absolutely gorgeous and human-friendly, who would have thought corrugated iron could be this beautiful!