A house in a lot of societies is a person's biggest asset. Once a person loses their home, it becomes a huge burden emotionally, economically and psychologically for them to tackle. By supporting people to recover their homes, people can begin thinking to the future and begin the process of rebuilding their lives.
—Seki Hirano, senior CRS adviser
Photos 1–6 by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS and photo 7 by Roland Ramanampihery/CRS
In early 2012, the president of Namahoka, a village on the island country of Madagascar off the southeastern coast of Africa, hung a sign announcing that Cyclone Giovanna was on its way. To prepare, villagers cut down coconut trees and propped them against the walls of their homes for added support. People with sturdier homes invited neighbors to stay with them. Others took shelter in the local church.
Most waited out Giovanna in their elevated homes, sometimes climbing underneath to avoid a collapsing roof. As they watched the walls whip back and forth in the 90-mph winds, all they could do was hope that something would remain after the storm. When Giovanna finally did pass, 70% of the village's 132 homes were damaged, and most villagers had lost their harvests.
Without a home, and with no crops to sell for money to purchase rebuilding materials, people resorted to moving in with family members or sleeping under plastic sheets.
In Namahoka, Jeanne Marie simply slept under the remains of the thatched roof of her almost collapsed house, an incredible hardship considering she is 81 and blind. Fellow villager, 79-year-old Tsaby, who lost his roof, moved in with his brother for 2 weeks until he received plastic tarp that he could hang from the remaining walls of his home. The tarp, however, intensified the broiling heat and also began to develop leaks.
Locally Sourced, Culturally Familiar
Teaming up with Caritas Madagascar to help with reconstruction, Catholic Relief Services found that villagers need look no further than the generous Ravenala madagascariensis for building materials. Villagers can use parts of this local tree—also called the Traveler's palm—for different parts of the house. The fibrous fronds are perfect for the roof, the branches have the right type of give to be able to sway and lean in and out of cyclone-force winds, and the trunk is sturdy enough for walls and flooring. The tree also grows in abundance on Malagasy hillsides and is far less costly than bamboo or cement.
On the surface, it might seem easier to simply bring in a prefabricated shelter or build a cement house. These options, though, are either far too costly or too difficult for other villagers to replicate or maintain when they need to make repairs. Instead, CRS studied the indigenous architecture to come up with improvements that would fortify homes in this region against future cyclones.
"We need to give people choices and include them in the reconstruction process," says Seki Hirano, a CRS senior technical advisor who offers guidance on shelter building. "People need to have the option of how they want to live. We don't want to overtake or change that cultural identity. We want to enhance it and make it more resistant. It is important that what we offer feels familiar within their culture, like it belongs to them."
Centuries of building have shown that homes made from bamboo and Traveler's palm are easy to repair, have lateral sway against heavy winds, and provide cool shade from summer heat.
Giovanna-damaged homes suffered mostly from torn roofs and collapsed walls. Incorporating simple modifications into the building process—adding ties to the roof and main structure, digging deeper holes for support columns, and adding Y-shaped beams on the walls to provide cross-bracing and lateral stability—wouldn't cost much more or involve increased labor.
New Techniques, Better Buildings
CRS and Caritas Madagascar worked with the community to select the 17 people with the biggest obstacles to rebuilding: age, physical disabilities, abject poverty, and, in many cases, a combination of the three. CRS and our partner hired 10 villagers to build one home over a 5-day period. In payment, those villagers received a quart of cooking oil and 55 pounds of rice. Because everyone in the village had been affected by Giovanna, the infusion of food also served to give the builders and their families a modest cushion as they worked to get back on their feet.
A carpenter led the team for each house and supervised the quality of the work. The other nine builders rotated from house to house, an approach that offered villagers an opportunity to understand the new techniques that they could apply later to the construction of their own homes. They learned they could replace the metal ties that attach the roof to the frame of the house with rope made from leaves of the Traveler's palm. Villagers also saw that the Y-beams supporting the walls are much more effective than the coconut trees they had used during the storm.
Fifty-two-year-old Jonah received a new home. From her son's place, she had watched as Giovanna pummeled her house, taking with it the flour she used to prepare food for sale.
"I wept when I saw my house was destroyed," she says. "I'm happy with my new home. I like how much stronger it is. It receives the wind and doesn't move like my old home. I hadn't seen these techniques before."
Sara A. Fajardo is the CRS regional information officer for East Africa and southern Africa. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.