Chapter 9 — Cement Building Blocks
Having considered all my options, I decided that buildings constructed from cement building blocks would best meet the needs of the camp.
But transporting thousands of blocks into the bush, over those bridges was out of the question. The second hand block machine of Italian vintage I acquired in Addis Ababa would do the trick.
I soon learned how to make my first blocks. First I placed a wooden pallet just larger than a 8″x16″ block on the vibrator platform. Then the metal mould, one of three different sizes that I would use, was lowered via a four foot lever down onto the platform. The concrete mixture going into the mould needed a perfect consistency of water, sand and cement. The clean sand from the beach was perfect; sharp crystal-like grains that mixed with the cement, one bucket of cement to six of sand. The trick was to add just the right amount of water; too dry and the end product crumpled; too wet and it slumped out of shape.
But it didn’t take long before I had a group of local men working, preparing a perfect mixture. Then I fired up the electric generator. Borema had learned how to throw the switch that started the electric vibrator motor, give the command for the mixture to be placed in the mould, and then lower the lever that pressed it down. He also learned to read the sound of the vibrator that thudded rapidly to a lower pitch when it was time to raise the lever revealing a fresh block on the platform. One of the crew would then slowly and carefully slide the pallet with it’s “stone egg”, as they called it, out from under the mechanism and place it in the shade where it would need to cure for 27 days. We could make up to 300 blocks a day using 10 bags of cement.
These blocks proved to be of top quality. It was impossible to find adequate stone aggregate in the area so I had to settle for a strong mixture of sand and cement only. But as one can see from the photographs, the blocks cured to a very smooth finish as compared to those that were manufactured in the country.
It’s one thing to have a pile of blocks and another to have them assembled into a meaningfully constructed building. It was determined that the first project would be a cabin designed to house campers. I chose a location on the eastern edge of the property that would eventually be in close proximity to the main lodge that would be built next.
With the concrete slab poured it was time to lay the blocks. This was a new venture for me but it didn’t take long to develop my own personal techniques. Teaching Borema was another matter. In his culture there is nothing straight or square. So the idea of a straight line for the blocks using a string as a guide was an entirely new concept for him. I was confident that he had the hang of it after an hour or so of instruction and demonstration so I left him with it. A half hour or so later I returned to see how he was doing. The blocks were in a straight line but angling off in a direction not planned for the wall!
“Borema,” I said, “what did I teach you about following the string? Look where the blocks are going!”
“That’s okay,” he responded with a bright smile. “See.” And with that he carefully moved the string so it lined up with the six or seven blocks that were headed at least two inches from their appointed direction. But Borema was no dummy and after a good laugh between us, he had the situation in hand.
Block-making continued for a number of months. It would take several thousand to complete the buildings in my plan. The blocks dry stacked on each other were also useful for other spontaneous items like temporary benches, barbeque pits, low level scaffolding, and other projects requiring support of some kind.
I constructed the hot water fire box using these dandy blocks. A 45 gallon tank was enclosed in the block frame with a space under it for building a wood fire. Smoke and heat circulated around the tank and exhausted up and out through the top.
Cold water entered the tank from the bottom, was heated by the fire and then extracted from the top of the tank and into our little kitchen sink when the tap was turned on. I eventually built a lean-to shelter to the back of the house with a big white bathtub. What luxury!
Pressure for this system was provided by a 60 gallon water tank 30 feet up in the nearby tree (but the story of how that tank got up there in the first place is yet to come).