Habitat for Humanity's Slum Theme Park
At times, we all complain about where we live, our list of atrocities ranging from the need to duck under ceiling pipes in our parents' basement to the essential unfairness that Wi-Fi never reaches from the bonus room to the sun porch.
Then a replica Third World slum comes along and shames us.
Habitat For Humanity builds homes for poor people, over 300,000 dwellings in over 90 countries at last count. Volunteers across the nation (and around the globe), donate their spare time - their weekends and vacations, to put decent living structures around families in need - through home carpentry and handy-person skills, or just as an extra pair of hands to help.
At the organization's international headquarters, Habitat for Humanity Global Village & Discovery Center exhibits examples of what they build, but also examples of what they hope to eliminate (BTW, our nickname -- "slum theme park" -- is not an official label).
A plaza in front of the Habitat Welcome Center surrounds a statue of a globe and a Bible (Habitat is a "Christian housing ministry") surrounded by brick bas-reliefs of smiling volunteers hammering nails and a grateful family admiring their new home.
After you pick up your Global Village map and exit the Welcome Center, a self-guided tour trail leads straight through the "Poverty section" -- a simulated urban Third World slum. A sign, built better than the shantytown behind it, warns: "Home, for many families, looks something like the structures you are about to see; or worse." You've seen it all on TV, the backdrop of countless unhappy newscasts -- but Habitat wants you to get a little more tactile
Crowding on both sides is an unbroken avenue of uneven shacks, assembled from a crazy hodgepodge of metal junk and old boxes. Floors are dirt, doors are rags, furnishings are battered items scavenged from dumps. Interior walls are insulated with rotting newspapers. Several of the shacks have old TVs, but a sign explains that they are merely unpowered decorations that "represent the desire for a brighter tomorrow."
The replica slum is deserted of people but buzzing with Georgia bees and wasps, adding to its misery. The single path twists and turns like a medieval street, or the inside of a fun house. Harrowing signs are everywhere. "Deadly Insects," reads one, explaining that kissing bugs kill an estimated 50,000 slum-dwellers each year by pooping on their skin.
Visitors eventually emerge from this claustrophobic nightmare onto a pleasant open lawn, dotted with shade trees, shrubbery, and cheerful little dwellings. This is the Habitat "Global Village," a mini-utopia of full-size, walk-in examples of sensible Habitat houses from 15 countries. It reminded us of Bedrock City, or of a storybook land, but instead of a home in a pumpkin or a Giant Shoe, it offers an adobe bungalow from Mexico and a house-on-stilts from Papua New Guinea.
The Haiti home is equipped with a concrete roof to resist hurricanes. The Tanzania house discourages insects by having its roof trusses painted with used motor oil. Each home displays a listed price. One advantage to living in Malawi, we see, is that it only costs $1,620 to build a house there.
"Visa Station" rubber stamps are provided at each house, where visitors can stamp their Global Village map to prove that they really did "visit the world" as promised by Habitat promotional literature. Then they can stop at the Demonstration Center and experience the fun of making bricks.
The last thing that visitors see at Habitat is a large billboard declaring that the country where the most Habitat houses have been built -- is the U.S.! "Poverty housing is a worldwide scourge," it declares. "The United States is not exempt." Think about that the next time you want to gripe about your trash collection schedule or condo fees, and be grateful that your housemates don't bring home deadly pooping bugs. Much.