‘Many hands make light work’ was one of my mother’s favorite phrases. She said it at the end of every evening’s dinner, inducing each of us to clean up our own plate. The phrase took on new meaning for me today as I witnessed 60 Haitians pour 38 cubic yards of concrete in less than six hours. They used one mixer, two giant piles of sand and stone, twelve wheelbarrows, 40 buckets, 209 bags of cement and good spirited cooperation to create what we would produce in the United States with a crew a fifth the size, six ready-mix trucks and a pump.
Here are the cast of characters. At 6:30 am two laborers chip away at the key joint from yesterday’s pour while another guy uses a hand broom and a shop vac to clean out the bottom of the forms over the 1100 square foot area. He starts at the northeast corner and works to the southwest, as does every aspect of the operation. The finisher snaps lines that determine the top of the finish floor slab.
Meanwhile, down on the ground ten guys arrange five gallon plastic buckets against the piles of sand and stone, five per pile. At the signal, one guy shovels the buckets full while the others pass them to the mixer. Two guys dump 21 buckets each of sand and gravel while a third guy tosses in 5-1/2 bags of cement. The hose guy adds water (in an amount that is less scientific than our structural engineers would like) and everything mixes up in the drum. Once the mixture is well combined, the mixer dumps a cubic yard of concrete into a shallow basin where four guys in hip boots and long handled spades shovel concrete into waiting wheelbarrows and buckets.
There are twelve wheelbarrow guys. When one is loaded he runs the barrow up the hill behind the orphanage, rolls it across a narrow plank bridge that connects to the second floor, wheels it to the pour area, dumps it, loops back to the bridge and down the hill to get another load. It seems to me they have the best gig, and they must agree. Wheelbarrow guys are running and singing up and down the hill all day. Meanwhile a line of guys stand on the construction stairs propped next to the concrete basin. They chain bucket after bucket of green concrete up the steps and across the second floor to the pour area, then toss the empties back to the mixing area.
Planks are laid across the exposed slab reinforcing. Concrete is dumped at the farthest reaches first. One guy guides the concrete from the wheelbarrow or bucket, another vibrates the fresh concrete. It takes a lot of buckets and barrows to fill a 9” thick slab and its integral beams. Eventually, there is enough mass for the two finishers to start troweling the slab, making it smooth and level.
Watching the concrete pour from the top of the hill is a bit like Circ d’Soleil visting Busytown. Buckets of concrete move very fast, the empties fly back like trapeze artists, wheelbarrows follow a complex route of up and over and back. There is a blur of motion, yet when you look carefully, the only people who take more than one or two steps are the wheelbarrow guys. Everyone else is arm’s length from their mate in the sequence.
The first concrete came out of the chute a little after 7:00 am, by 1:00 pm everyone was washing out their buckets and barrows and the finishers were smoothing the concrete around the last column. Everyone was exhilarated, the workers stopped me and wanted their pictures taken, dusty guys with huge smiles. The workers are paid per diem, so there is great incentive to finish, and no good way to stop for lunch. By two they are all sprawled in whatever shade they can find with heaping plates of diri et ple (rice and beans) prepared by the local women who cook on site. I greet the tired workers with ‘Bon Travil, merci beaucoup’ which Gama mimics. That makes me feel good because we all know that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
The Concrete Mixing Basin
The Bucket Brigade
Trail of Wheelbarrows