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7 June 2009 – Everybody Must Get Stoned

Hello friends,

Most of you know by now that Monte–Martin–as he is known here is back. Fresh off an Italy trip with his mom, and here until we both leave in late June. And since you’ve been good, we have a special blog-double treat for you. Not only do you get a break from the same old same old of my entries, you also get to read someone who has first hand experience of actually working here–I know, what a concept– and is a gifted, clever   writer.

So here’s Martin with the straight goods.


Everybody Must Get Stoned

…as Dylan would say. Though this isn’t quite what he had in mind.
I was never much good at Tetris as a kid, that video puzzle game where various little square blocks and rectangular patterns drop continuously from the top of the screen and you have to place them at the bottom of the screen so that they all fit together neatly, leaving no gaps. If you don’t, the blocks are stacked askew and your game goes awry and you hear the smug little tune that signals your geometrically shameful failure.
The big, excavated pits I mentioned in a previous entry are the beginnings of the buildings that will be the children’s quarters. Moving stones to lay the foundation for these structures is a little like Tetris. The process goes as such:  one or two guys are on the wheelbarrows, going back and forth from the huge pile of stones (called “hardcore”), gathering a load and wheeling it over to the pit and then dumping the stones over the side. From there, usually two or three guys are in the pit, arranging the stones across the base to form the first layer of the foundation. The pile of hardcore comprises stones of all sizes, from the 40-50 lb. monoliths, all the way down to pint-sized rocks. The general strategy is to stack the bigger stones together in rows along the bottom, and then fill the gaps with the smaller and medium-sized rocks. Pretty simple, but not so easy.
I quickly deduced that Robert was the quarterback of this team. He’s a mostly quiet but very self-assured guy, who, despite his shoe-less feet and glove-less hands, moves among the stones with uncanny ease. Bare feet and bare hands with those big-ass stones? More power to you. He (like many Kenyans) is cut from a different cloth.
After observing for a short bit to get the feel, I dove into the fray and got started. A few rocks in, I was feeling pretty pleased with my debut. That’s when Robert came over and rearranged what I’d done and said, with a slightly dismayed half-smile, “Smart, smart… we must make them smart.” Hmm, I thought they were pretty smart, myself, but this guy must know. So, I nodded to him with a chagrined half-smile, “Ok, got it.” I went back at it, a little less confident but a little more determined to get it right.
All the while, Robert would be whistling away, probably some tune whose lyrics went, “This muzungu is dumb as rocks, I don’t need no shoes or socks…” etc… And I’d go for a while without admonishment, and just when I’d start to get in a groove, the whistling would stop and I’d hear, “Smart… small stone here, big stone here…” And, I’d give a quarter-smile and the acquiescent pleasantries, and get back at it. But one time he came over and I swear all he did was spin my rock 360 degrees and then say, “Like this. Smart.” And I scratched my head and managed to eek out an eighth-smile and said, “Ok, you got it.” And inside I’m thinking, I’m running out of fractions here, dude. But I stayed at it even more meticulously than before, for fear of having the Smart Police all up in my grill.
And then, a little bit later, it happened. I was toiling away and lost in my thoughts when the whistling stopped and I looked up like, “What now?” and Robert looked over with a smile, a full one, and said, “Smart, smart,” and nodded his head. And it was like I’d just gotten back a spelling test with all manner of gold stars and shiny stickers on it. From that point on, the smartness of my stones was beyond reproach, and I hit my stride.
Once I had my sea legs, I started working very briskly and it became apparent that I was outpacing the Kenyans. John said to me, “You are very hhactive (active) in this job… the sun, it is hot.” Translated, “Pace yourself, muzungu. Or the sun will sort you out.”
And the sun was hot, but not in the way that we know it back home. We are just south of the equator here, and over 5k feet above sea level. The sun here is a whole different animal… and not because of the “heat,” per se, but because of the way the heat operates. If there is a high cloud overhead blocking the sun, hell, I may as well be back in San Diego… sunny and 75. But seconds later, when it passes, the fires of hell are unleashed… but concentrated in the form of a skin-searing laser. Not even in a way that makes you sweat, necessarily… but in a way that makes you cook. After any real length of time, you might as well jam an apple in your mouth, get horizontal, and wait for the luau. Africa hot.
Despite the sun, there was a lovely working rhythm where Robert and Joseph would wheel their loads over, and John and I would arrange them, and finish the stack just as the next loads were arriving. John eventually became my partner in the pit, we worked well together. He is actually a trained and certified auto mechanic; but you take the work you can find, and you do it in a way that gets you noticed. John is ambitious in a good way, and an earnest worker.
On a break, I was talking with Dave about the work, and he quoted Robinson Jeffers, the poet, who was admiring the artistry of the gifted mason who taught him the trade when he said, “He had the power to make one stone love another stone…” So, that lofty notion was what I was shooting for, some good ol’ fashioned stone-on-stone love. It got to the point where I could reach into the pile almost without looking and my hands would find the right stone and then whip it around and set it snugly, no shimmying necessary. The most gratifying was when I’d hoist one of the 50 lb beasts and slam it into place, and not need to tweak it at all. Then I’d swiftly fill the gaps with the smaller rocks until you could walk on the foundation without anything more than some minor shifting. Rock ‘n’ Roll.
All in all, working with these stones in the pit has been the most rewarding thing I’ve done out here,  even going back to my stay in ‘07. To flash forward to the near future when these structures are up and running, full of smiling kids and renewed life, and to be able to look down at the ground below and know that some of the sweat buried under there is mine… well that’s a quiet and complete satisfaction, and precisely what I’m here for.
And if I can learn a few things along the way, so much the better. After all, who doesn’t like to feel Smart, Smart?
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One of the fifty pound monoliths.
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John the mechanic.
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A man happy in his work.
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May all your foundations be smart,
Monte and David


  1. REPLY
    John Bertilacchi says

    I was just wondeing if this building will be half under and half above ground or will the foundation fill the entire undergroung hole?
    How are the upright frames going to be set in the foundation?
    Regards,. JB

  2. REPLY
    david says

    Hi John,

    Good to hear from you. The hardcore (rocks) and murram (a certain kind of rocky soil), will, in layers, fill up the entire excavation cavity. The house will be built on cement pillars on top of it. It will be entirely above ground.

    Give my love to the Thursday morning guys,


  3. REPLY
    jeff kroll says

    David, enjoying many of your stories about the construction, and love your sense of humor. I am wondering if you would be willing to speak to our North Stockton Rotary group in August or September or the next time you are in town. We look forward to seeing you soon.

    Jeff and Susan

  4. REPLY
    david says

    Hi Jeff,

    There is a lot here that requires a sense of humor, so it’s good to keep it handy. I’d be happy to speak to your Rotary club anytime. You can introduce me as your cousin from Africa. I’ll be sure to make up a lot of good stuff to say about you.

    Love to Sue and Hailley and Uncle JIm,


  5. REPLY
    Tom Shoneff says

    Dear Monte: Rarely have I had the pleasure of beholding the sort of love betwixt stones that was to be observed in that magnificent foundation that was laid, or better, that you’all have whupped into shape @ the Red Rhino orphanage project ! Right SMART!! And assembling of the blog from your own formidable pile of hardcore and murram, the daunting task of rocking the house in place of the great muzungu poet laureate was forever cemented in place,with the words lovin’ on each other like the stones! 😉 . Very nice job, guys! Gather no moss!

  6. REPLY
    martin says

    Thanks for the feedback, Tom…

    I’m afraid that after some consistent work with those stones under that sun, the only one “whupped” was me. I started out with Jeffers and his mason in my sights… and now I sit here feeling a lot more like Barney Rubble.

    As for gathering no moss… in the face of my desperate escape to Europe tonight, it’s safe to say that regarding the stonework, I’m pleased that we’ll be gathering no más…

    At least until next time, anyway.


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