It might come as a shocking fact to learn that in the Netherlands hundreds of children, some as young as five years old, are living in the most primitive conditions, sheltering from the rain in makeshift huts made from disused wooden pallets and scraps of cloth they managed to scavenge from the piles of trash on the outskirts of town. Their junior slum sits in a muddy field by the edge of the new highway, without any electricity, running water or sanitation, apart from two porta-loos on the edge of the field. Twice a day, adult volunteers come round with large plastic kegs of pale squash for the children to rehydrate after working for hours heaving and hammering their wooden huts together. The children possess little else than a plastic cup and a hammer.
And guess what? They love it! Once a week every year, in villages all over the country, children get together to build their own hut, decorate it, customize it as much as they like — they never stop tweaking it — until the last day, when all the huts are torn down, stacked into piles and symbolically burned in a bonfire.
I went along for the first time this year with my two oldest kids and one of their friends. I had only intended to drop them off, but quickly realized that they were quite incapable of dragging the heavy wooden pallets across the field. So I stayed most of the morning, trying to stockpile enough wood before everyone else had grabbed it. It was clear that experience made a difference; some groups had ten people working together, throwing up three-storey structures within a couple of hours. It almost seemed as if it was a competition between fathers to impress the rest, and I suspect some had prepared the whole thing with autoCAD.
I came across two of our T-boy’s classmates pushing nails disconsolately into the mud, having been left by their parents to fend for themselves, so I adopted them and our team swelled to six. It didn’t make a big difference, however, because none of them could hammer very well (“Swing it from your waist! Don’t tap it in front of your face!”); they quickly got distracted and drifted off to pick wild flowers and make hooks to hang their jackets.
After three hours, we realized our grandiose design was doomed to failure through a lack of wood, so we did a quick redesign and managed to use the remaining pallets for a sloping roof. Inside, the children made a shelf for their cups and hooks for their hammers, and a hanging vase for the flowers. It’s these details that count, not the walls.
Scenes from the slums (click to view)