Breaking ground


(Posted by Laurence)

Two weeks ago the first pickaxe bit into the soil on the site of the Amazima School chapel, and since then I have had a growing sense of satisfaction and contentment as construction has bounded ahead.  Prior to breaking ground Yusuf, the project foreman, had conducted two weeks of site preparation: erecting around 400 metres of timber and corrugated iron hoarding (no quick-assemble hoarding here); building a ‘temporary’ pit latrine to provide for up to 100 workers for the length of the project (no porta-loos here); and starting to induct new workers into ‘the EMI way’.

Forming an EMI construction crew

In the planning stages of this project I had asked one of our foremen how we would find workers at the start of the project, and he said “They will come!”.  I was slightly dubious – my approach to project planning would involve having a list of workers before the first day of construction – but I knew this was one of those areas where my western approach wouldn’t work, and lo and behold on the day Yusuf and I turned up at 7:30am to kick off the project we found 40-odd prospective labourers waiting outside the school gates.  The effectiveness of word-of-mouth advertising and the keenness of these men and women to take on relatively low-paid manual labour was impressive, but it also demonstrates the lack of employment opportunities in Uganda.  We only took on 25 workers that day, and told the rest to come back in a few weeks time as work starts to ramp up.

Below is a snapshot of the crew we have had on site over the last couple of weeks – it fluctuates depending on the work available, but the principals remain the same.  I think in organisational pyramids and line diagrams (due mainly to my military background), and so that is how I present the crew.

pmMy role as a project manager here feels very familiar, because as a Royal Engineers Troop Commander I had around 30 soldiers under my command, and I mixed planning and strategy with on-the-ground leadership.  So while I lack some of the mainstream construction experience that my peers have, such as managing multi-million dollar projects with large contractor firms, it’s great to see how God prepared me so well for this role even while I was working in the military, which is in many ways a polar opposite to the NGO sector.


The typical make-up of an EMI-managed construction crew

foremanThe man who is really in the driving seat is Yusuf.  He has worked on EMI projects in some manner since 2008, starting as a casual labourer while studying for his diploma in construction and working his way up into the Foreman position.  One of EMI’s core values is Diversity, and it’s great seeing how Yusuf and I bring different skills and experience to the project from our differing professional and cultural backgrounds.

new-piktochart_20609067_f47a27886364660b0ea0315afe82661ec852f000Still to join my crew is Cossy, another EMI staff member, who’s role (Construction Management Administrator) encompasses project accounting and materials procurement.  This is an essential role, ensuring value for money and transparent accounting for our partner ministries, and I am feeling the extra workload in Cossy’s absence and looking forward to his arrival in a week or so.

emi-skilledYusuf’s right-hand man at the moment is Edison, an experienced mason who has been a casual labourer on EMI projects for some time, and just finished one of our projects over near Kampala.  Our remaining experienced workers are a mixture of people known from previous projects and others who are new to EMI projects and are undergoing a trial period while Yusuf confirms their ability – this week we had a self-proclaimed mason who didn’t know the difference between feet and inches.

emi-unskilledThe remainder of the crew are generally referred to as ‘unskilled’ or ‘helpers’, and have joined our crew from the local area.  This is where EMI strives to have an impact beyond the site boundaries: providing employment, skills training, and a gospel message.  And somewhere among these workers could be future EMI foremen!


Yusuf (EMI Foreman) checking foundation levels

Early days… challenges and successes

The most unique, or new, management situation I have encountered in these early stages is the nature of employment for our casual workers.  First of all there is the sheer volume of people looking for work, and then there is the fact that if we shut down site for a day because I misjudged the scheduling of tasks and there is no work while the concrete cures… then 30 people don’t get paid that day [this happened on Monday].  I’m sure similar employment situations exist in the west and I just haven’t encountered it – but the scale of it here is different.

Other than that, the main issues so far are site safety, security, and weather – this could be the UK!  But so far Yusuf and I are keeping on top of these areas: we have provided each worker with helmet, overalls and gumboots, and so far they are being worn consistently; our site fencing gives us good separation from the staff and children on the operational area of the school site; and although we have had several night-time storms, we are currently steaming ahead with concrete footings before rainy seasons sets in for real… although it is always a matter for debate as to when rainy season really starts!

More insights on these topics in the future: especially site safety, as that is something that I am very conscious of and opinionated about.


4 thoughts on “Breaking ground

  1. Laurence

    Great to have the update and how exciting that shovels are in the ground. Fascinating that the “army way” has such similarities! I am assuming no mechanical excavators but does readymix come in a truck or are you batching it yourselves? On the issue of keeping the team busy it is the same in the West except the guys would still get paid! Should get easier as you open up new construction fronts as then there is always other work to fall back on. Presumably your need for skilled labour increases as you get out of the ground and are putting the structures together with utilities etc.?

    We are having lunch today with Maggie B. and Jane’s parents are coming over which will be great – we met them first when EMI visited a few weeks ago. Next week-end we have an event put on at St Andrew’s by MAF, another of our mission partners. Jaime Saint, grandson of Nate Saint who was the MAF pilot martyred in Ecuador along with Jim Elliot and friends in the 1950s, is speaking. Should be fascinating.

    Take care



    • Rob – yes we are batching concrete on site, with a 350L mixer; we are using plant machinery for some grading, but we decided to use manual excavation for the foundations – this is an interesting discussion which my Foreman and I don’t completely agree on, so I’ll address it at some point!

      Yes indeed, we will take on more skilled workers on due course, but also hope to train up some of the less skilled.

      Great to here you’re seeing Jane’s family!


  2. Thanks Laurence, great to have a picture in the mind’s eye now of the beginning of Amazima school’s new chapel. Margaret


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