You would think, after all these years of trying, that humans would have perfected the art of building a house. You would be wrong.
Tateh Lehbib Breica (28) — known in his community as majnoun al-qarurat, or the “crazy bottle” guy — proves that innovations are still possible and can come from the most unlikely places.
Breica is a Sahrawi, a citizen of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which exists on paper more than in reality even though the African Union recognises it as a country. For more than four decades, Morocco’s occupation of the territory more commonly known as Western Sahara has resulted in most Sahrawi living in poverty in isolated refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria.
It’s a hard, unforgiving environment. “It is a desert, an inhospitable region. Life cannot be but difficult,” Breica told the Mail & Guardian.
“This land is sometimes called ‘the devil’s garden’, which refers to the difficult living conditions. Nothing grows and temperatures in summer can sometimes reach 50˚C. We call it ‘the desert of deserts’. I was born and live in this desert,” he said.
He was raised in a Sahrawi refugee camp called Awserd, named after a town in Western Sahara. He received a scholarship to go to university in Algiers and was then accepted to do his master’s in energy efficiency at a Spanish university.
Last year, Breica returned home to put some of his ideas into practice. He wanted to use discarded plastic bottles to build a roof garden, which didn’t work out. But it gave him another idea.
(Tateh Lehbib Breica)
Breica filled the old water bottles with sand, a plentiful resource in the desert, turning them into bricks. He used these bricks to build a house for his grandmother. The bottle bricks are stacked in a circular shape and held in place with limestone and cement.
This new design turned out to be a considerable and immediate improvement on the mud-brick houses that the Sahrawi had been building, which dissolved in heavy rain. Not only are Breica’s bottle bricks more stable, they also keep out dust during the sandstorms that periodically batter the settlement. An added benefit is that they use up a lot of the plastic waste that was previously an eyesore.
The United Nations Refugee Agency, which provides some basic services to the Sahrawi refugee camps, was so taken with Breica’s idea that it immediately gave him money to build 25 more houses. He has even grander plans, hoping to use his innovation to construct schools and health centres.
“I do not want to live my entire life as a refugee, but I do want to build sustainable housing so that every Sahrawi family can live in exile with dignity,” he said.
But he thinks he can do even more when — if — he’s allowed to return home. “Once in my land, I breathe the air of freedom. And sure, as a free person, you will be opened [up to] infinite opportunities.”