A novel housing scheme in Nuwara Eliya helps poor families ‘save and build’

Building a legacy

By Hiranthi Fernando
Nuwara Eliya is often called a garden city. But amidst its lush tea-clad hills, plush hotels and flower-filled gardens are many pockets of poor housing, where large families live in deplorable conditions. Many of these homes are makeshift shacks, made of tin sheets or cheap planks, protected by plastic sheets. When it rains, water pours in from all sides and the inhabitants have little protection.

Jayalakshmi’s elderly mother and son have got reason to smile

Next in line: Jayalakshmi and her son in front of their house

P.G. Chandralatha, a mother of four young children, lived in one such structure that was close to collapse. "We were asked to vacate as the land belonged to the Forest Department," Chandralatha said.

"Although they gave us a plot of land further away to build another house, we had no means to build anything." Chandralatha's husband who was a casual labourer was unable to work due to ill-health. The children aged from 7 to 14 were too young to contribute to the family income. They were indeed in a sad plight.

Fortunately for this poor family, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Nuwara Eliya heard of their plight. "We wanted to do something for the poor to celebrate our centenary in October last year," said Sister John, Superior of Good Shepherd Convent. "When we visited this family and saw how they lived, we felt compelled to do something to ease their situation. These children were not unhappy but were undernourished and their environment was not healthy. We began to put aside money to help with their house."

With much struggle the house was built. Since the land was located in the interior with no motorable access, all the building materials had to be carried a long way. "Chandralatha worked really hard," Sr. John said. "She carried the bags of cement from the lorry all the way to the site and even dug the ground for the toilet."

"Now we are happy," said Chandralatha, beaming while two of her children Nishani and Salitha stood beside her. "We have two rooms, a kitchen and a toilet."

When this house was completed the need to continue reaching out to other poor families became evident. At this stage, a generous benefactor came to their aid by donating Rs. one lakh towards the project. The Sisters were able to improve two more houses. As they identified more families needing decent housing, they turned to Habitat for Humanity, an organization dedicated to building houses for needy people.

Together with Habitat for Humanity, a committee was formed with the Superiors of all the convents and churches in the area, irrespective of denomination, as well as some lay people. Applications were called for from those in need. The members of the committee visited the families and selected the most deserving. Sr. John said they concentrated on families with children. Though the parents earned a meagre income, she said they could not obtain bank loans because they lived a hand-to-mouth existence. "Working in cultivation lands as labourers and having no steady employment, parents try to feed their children in the best way they can, but it hardly satisfies the needs of a family," said Sr. John. "One can't imagine how a family of 7 can share ½ kg of rice. When children don't have enough to eat, they cannot attend school."

Habitat for Humanity's plan is 'Save and Build'. Selected families are formed into groups of 12. The first house built was that of Rose Virginie, whose husband now works in the Habitat stall in the town. The twelve families saved a small sum each month. In six months they had saved Rs. 36,000. This money was used to rebuild the house in most urgent need of attention. Habitat gives the rest needed as a loan to the family. In the process of building, the house owners give of their time and energy, together with their neighbours. This cuts down on the expense. After one house is completed, the group members continue saving for the next house.

"Our house was leaking badly," said Rose Virginie, the mother of three small children. "It was built of planks and cardboard. Now we have two good rooms built. We are continuing to save to repay our loan and help the other families with their houses." Jayalakshmi, who lives next door, is the next on the list for rebuilding in the group. Jayalakshmi lives with her aged parents and a 3-½ year old son who is mentally retarded, while her husband is employed on an estate.

Rita Abeysinghe is happy to have three rooms rebuilt for her family. A widow, with four children, of whom three are schooling, her mother and unmarried sister also live with her. They earn an income cultivating vegetables on their 15 perches of land and running a small shop for the people living nearby. A portion of her house remains to be completed but they are protected from the cold and rain in the newly built section.

Sr. John said they have adopted a concept of ‘Building in Stages’ which enables them to reach out to a larger segment of the needy. "Building in stages through savings makes them feel that they need commitment, contribution and dedication to be liberated," Sr. John said. "While strengthening this concept, they need the financial help of the donors, which helps them to feel they are not alone in their struggle."

While the householders’ groups raise part of the money for building through savings, the Habitat for Humanity committee has to find funds to meet the balance costs. A basic house of 350 square feet would cost around Rs.80,000. A homeowner, whose house was completed, commented that his children, who were always out during the day, now stay indoors, enjoying their comfortable new house. The committee fervently hopes they could find people willing to extend a helping hand to help many more of these very poor families.


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