Building Perspective

Detroit high-schoolers get a lesson in community development,gender equality, and education abroad through international nonprofit buildOn.

On a red-eye flight in mid-July, I’m seated with a group of 17 Detroit high school students. Robert Nettles, a student from Osborn College Preparatory Academy, looks nervous. “Are we in the air yet?” he asks. We’re still on the tarmac. I tell him he’ll know it when we take off.

This is the first time in an airplane for most of the students, and they have a 28-hour journey ahead of them. Our final stop is Lilongwe, Malawi, the capital of the southeastern African country.

The students have spent four months preparing for the trip as participants of buildOn, an international nonprofit organization that engages youth in service learning. We work in six U.S. cities, including Detroit. As part of a mission to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations, buildOn also constructs schools in underdeveloped countries as part of its “Trek for Knowledge” program.

During this Trek, the students and I, along with other buildOn staff, spend 10 days living with host families in Mpeni, a small village in the Malawian countryside with no electricity or plumbing. The students sleep on thin mats beneath straw-thatched roofs, play soccer and games like Jenga with village children, and eat nsima (a corn-based local staple) with their host families.

Most importantly, however, they work side by side with community members to help construct a new primary school for the village.

The school, when completed, will be buildOn’s 834th. Each school is built entirely with volunteer hours, except for a few hired foremen recruited from the region. The host community also donates time — one day a week for every adult man and woman in the village — and promises to enroll at least 50 percent girls in the school (a mandate buildOn’s Malawi office will follow up on annually).

We arrive in the village greeted by a chorus of women and children singing in Chichewa, the local language: “Zimkama tere tere, iayii, zosouaa.” Johanna, our translator, quickly relays the message: “We wish every day could be like this, something rare is happening.” The villagers usher our group under a canopy, where speeches are made by village leaders: the chief, the school teacher, an elected official, and a half-dozen more.

“I was ecstatic to finally meet the people and immediately wanted to embrace their culture,” says Jewel Pugh, a student at Oak Park High School. “The welcome ceremony gave me an open mind and spirit for what I would encounter.”

Pugh is one of the first students to embrace the hard work. Traditionally, women in the village aren’t permitted to handle tools, so the men on the worksite are surprised when she fills wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow with sand to be mixed into cement, telling the men as politely as possible that she does not need help.

“No thanks, I got it” quickly turns into “My fosholo.” Fosholo, which means “shovel” in English, is a team favorite. The village men laugh, and eventually stand back to let her work.

The village women spend their work days bringing bricks and water to the school worksite. We try to mimic them by carrying the items on our heads, but most of us give up quickly.

Gilberto Orozco Diaz, a student from Western International High School, is particularly talented at balancing bricks on the half-mile journey. “Part of me wanted to carry bricks for the sole purpose of showing that the work can be done by anyone,” he says. “That’s how I see the school; it’s a tool to break gender roles.”

On the fifth day, a group of students and I help dig a new latrine for the school. A pair of village girls skips over to us. After much miming and negotiating, they try their hand at digging and climb into the 8-feet deep hole. They start to shovel, tentatively at first, then boldly, catapulting huge mounds of red dirt above their heads. We count aloud and when they reach 20, the students and the village men working with us burst into applause.

Indeed, something rare is happening here. If only every day could be like this.

Leah Ouellet is a program coordinator for buildOn at Western International High School in Detroit. For more information visit