Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Understanding Ubuntu

Today I’m going to explain Ubuntu a bit more.

Last year at this time I was introduced to the Ubuntu Blox house. Last week I visited it for two more times: Tuesday I saw it at SMU’s Earth and Humanity Week and on Saturday at the Earth Day Dallas celebration. I’ve become the house’s most loyal groupie.

First, it’s pronounced ‘Oo-boon-too’. It’s both an old African concept as well as one of the newest housing solutions.  (As well as free software, but that's another blog.) This building could change the world. The Ubuntu concept could change the world. Yes, we’ve said that before, haven’t we? I’m not ready to give up. You can read what I wrote about it last year here.   Or, even better, watch the youtube of the house and its creator.. 

Ubuntu goes by other names in different African countries but basically means the same:

 I am who I am because of who we are together.

Harvey Lacey is an inventor and twenty-first century philosopher. His wife says Harvey doesn’t think like anyone else on earth.


The idea of the Ubuntu Blox came to him in a dream after meeting a guy named Ronald Omyonga from Kenya. Harvey heard him give a lecture on Holistic Approach to Housing. That night Harvey had a dream and saw himself compressing plastic garbage into building blocks. The idea was so simple you wonder why no one else thought of it before. This solves two problems at once—recycling plastic trash and building low cost housing. There is also a third benefit and that’s what I want to talk about today.

Harvey started tinkering around and came up with a rig that will compress plastic into a block roughly the size of a standard cement block. The rig then holds it in place while you wrap wire around it to hold it’s shape. The finished block weighs about as much as a box of cereal. From there you build a house as usual. Instead of concrete holding it all together the blocks are connected with wire.  Each block is wired to every other block it touches. Finally, a jacket of chicken wire covers the house with a finish coat of concrete on the outside to protect the plastic from the sun.

Then Harvey got a grant from the Memosyne Foundation that allowed him to go to Haiti for five weeks to train the women how to build an Ubuntu house. He says his goal is to take the poorest community in the world and work with them to change the world.  And he doesn't even expect the house to be perfect, claiming "a three-legged stool is the best solution in less than perfect circumstances."

Before he left for Haiti, he had the house tested for earthquake and hurricane resistance on a thing called a “Shake Table.” It passed the test with flying colors proving it could withstand a 8.3 earthquake and a category four hurricane.

I saw with my own eyes what both earthquake and hurricane on the same day would do to the house: just a few hairline cracks. The benefit is that it moves but since it is wired together the walls won’t collapse.

When Harvey showed the Haitian women the video of the Shake Table test they applauded at the end and told him, “Now our babies won’t die.” Most of the babies killed in the earthquake were inside a house whose heavy brick walls collapsed.

If you are wired together you can’t collapse. Ubuntu : I am who I am because of who we are together.

I’ve heard somewhere that a common African response to the question, “How are you today?” is “I am fine if you are.” In other words, we are a community and your well-being is very important to my own. When we are wired together we can’t collapse.

Monday I was at Lowes getting some lumber and complaining to myself about having to wait in line. There was only one check-out lane open and there didn’t seem to be any employees in the store. When I walked out the door I saw why. Everyone was at the curb waiting for Tanner Higgins to come by. The curb was packed not only with the store’s customers and employees but also everyone else in town who had heard about what would be happening and who came to stand in respect.

Small towns are at their best when it comes to their families and young people. And Tanner Higgins was coming home from Afghanistan in a box. The intersection where my store sat was almost immediately after the funeral procession exited the freeway coming from the airport to bring Tanner home. We were at the beginning of a procession that would take Tanner by his church, his high school and the town football stadium.

The roads were lined with American flags and yellow ribbons. The intersection where I stood was blocked off by a Sulphur Springs fire engine with all the firemen standing at attention. Three other fire departments and their equipment led the funeral coach. There was a group of motorcycle riders called The Patriots who are all veterans who accompany returning soldiers. There were almost a hundred of them, with a huge American flag mounted on the front of each cycle. Then the three surrounding counties and their cities had sent sheriffs, police and fire fighters to escort the body.  As they passed the Winnsboro Elementary School the entire student body stood at attention in front of the school

It was a gloriously clear spring day without a cloud in the sky. No one spoke. We only stood in respectful silence. It was a time best left unsullied by words.

It was Ubuntu. I am who I am because of who we are together.

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