Lady with a wheelbarrow (Habitat For Humanity)
Interview 11 April

Help build solutions to poverty worldwide

Liz Cotton explains how getting involved with Habitat for Humanity's ‘Global Village’ programme changed her life... as well as those of the people she has helped

Liz Cotton, Director of a Fair Trade organisation from Paisley, explains how Habitat for Humanity’s volunteering programme allowed her to experience new cultures at a more personal level as she helped build homes for and alongside local families in Africa.

Where have you built homes?

The first build I went on was to Ghana, a trip I took with my daughter. She was certainly an inspiration to me. She totally ‘got’ the whole Habitat for Humanity idea straight away. She loved the experience and told all her friends at school about it, so the following year I gathered a team of teenagers along with a few adults, and we went to Malawi. I have since also built homes in Bangalore, Mozambique and Ethiopia. This year I plan to return to Malawi, and to head to Nepal in October.         

What is the physical process of building like?

I have a picture in my head of a 16-year-old boy in Ethiopia who was helping build a house for his 19-year-old sister; these children were the same ages as my son and daughter at the time. The houses were built out of a wooden frame coated in a mixture made of soil, manure and water. For us it was great fun splatting lumps of this onto the walls – he spent every day we were there up to his thighs mixing the mud for us. He was caked in the stuff. He never seemed to tire and goodness only knows how he ever got clean again. What a different world he and his sister and my son and daughter were born into. Because of people like this boy the work never feels too hard – and for us it is not about the difficulty or the stress, it is about showing some kind of solidarity with people.

Why do you think other people should volunteer to build homes abroad?

Because every home-owner is an inspiration – they are all battling against the odds. We are all euphoric when a home is completed and delighted at the difference we know it will make to the family. We all celebrate together and are made to feel so much a part of the community. However, we feel humbled when looking at all we have in our homes and contrast the simplicity of these houses to the complexity of our own. I would recommend building with Habitat for Humanity to anyone, as long as they are reasonably fit and healthy and have an enquiring mind. I have taken a vast variety of people, with various ideals and views on life, but I can’t think of anyone who hasn’t enthused about the experience. It catches the imagination of everybody. I’m not a particularly adventurous person. I rise to and enjoy a challenge, but I’m not the sort of person who would enjoy danger. I don’t mind staying at home, but if opportunities are there I will take them up.

Have these experiences changed you as a person?

These experiences have definitely changed me as a person, I don’t think it couldn’t!  Many people ask the question as to why we spend so much money going on Habitat for Humanity builds – would it not be better to donate that money? Before each trip I ask myself the same question but the reason becomes apparent on each build. It has been said many times by many people that it is not just homes that are built but relationships and hope. We also become changed people. I defy anyone to go on a Habitat for Humanity build and not return with a different attitude to life and the injustices of the world we live in. We then have names and faces and smiles that connect us to parts of the world that before we might only have seen glimpses of on the news. We have stories to tell that we hope will affect other people too. It has to be a life-changing thing – and everyone I have had contact with involved in these trips, has changed.

What is it like to go home?

Going home is always difficult as there are so many emotions flying about and there is so much soul-searching being done. We are leaving people that we have made friends with but will probably never see again. It is usually the children waving and jumping and crowding round who bring tears to our eyes. We have done so little and yet are made to feel that we have done something great. The reverse culture shock of going home is not to be underestimated. Going home when you want to shout from the roof tops that things need to be changed NOW, watching the wastefulness and the things that our society gets hung up about is hard to take. However it is surprising and frightening how quickly I slip back into the comforts of my own life. Yet I am so much more grateful and aware of how much I have.

I always want to go back to the place I have just left. I always want to know the end of the story – but there is so much need for change in the world. We can only ever hope to be a small part of that change but hope that our experiences act as a ripple effect. Change has to start with ourselves.

Habitat for Humanity works in over 70 countries and have helped over 600,000 families. Global Village destinations available currently include Malawi, Romania, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Cambodia. To volunteer like Liz did, go to www.habitatforhumanity.org.uk/volunteer.