As we stepped out of the van and into the early morning sun of the Mozambican village, dozens of native women in long print skirts and colorful scarves danced toward us, their voices raised in a joyful and rhythmic African song.
Several on our team -- mouths open, eyes wide -- eventually joined them, dancing shyly at first, then with increasing abandon as the women continued, some hollering and stamping their feet, in a festive welcome.
As Monday mornings go, it was hard to beat. And what better way to start a weeklong Habitat for Humanity build?
One woman who moved with exceptional style reached for my hands, inviting me to join her in a spirited dance. That turned out to be Lurdes Chauke, a 34-year-old widowed mother of four and the owner of one of the two houses we were there to build.
Lurdes is quietly beautiful, unstoppably strong, energetic -- and HIV-positive. She has lost two husbands to AIDS. When her second husband died, their house reverted to his brother's estate, as is the norm, not to Lurdes and her kids.
She was left to live in a reed hut the size of an American closet, with a leaky roof and four children ranging from infancy to 13.
The second house we were building was for Adelina Bila, the grandmother of three children orphaned by AIDS.
Such is life in the village of Tres de Fevereiro, in the Gaza province of Mozambique, where there is no running water, no electricity and, for the most part, no men.
"Where are the men?" we whispered to each other on day one.
Aside from the hired construction team of natives at our build sites, we hardly saw any in the quiet and sprawling village. Tres de Fevereiro is dotted with tall palm, mango and citrus trees, with rows of pineapple plants and small gardens of green beans, cassava and corn.
Proud women walked the dirt roads, casually balancing impossibly large containers of water or great bunches of firewood on their heads.
Smiling children dressed in light blue school blouses or American T-shirts walked long, hot miles to the local school and back. Each day, more and more of them visited us on the build site.
But no men.
In Mozambique, among the poorest countries in the world, the men leave for work, mostly mining jobs, in neighboring South Africa. There, forgetting about the families they left behind, they take up with girlfriends or prostitutes, and they routinely, maddeningly, get infected with AIDs. And then, because wearing condoms would be an admission of guilt, they return home for short visits and routinely, maddeningly, infect their wives.
The rate of HIV/AIDS in Gaza is 1 in 4, one the highest rates in the world.
Across Mozambique, the number of those infected with HIV/AIDs, mostly women and children, grows at a rate of 500 per day.
Because of the AIDS problem, half the population in Mozambique is now under age 10.
We learned these things and more over the course of a week as our team of 16, from the United States and elsewhere, built a pair of small, two-room houses at a cost of $3,000 each.
While I have joined or led five teams in different countries for Habitat builds, this one was different. In Mozambique, Habitat doesn't just build houses but takes a holistic approach that includes water purification, mosquito nets and legal documents to protect the homes from property grabs.
It was a quick decision for me to join this build, made one cold day in late January when I was online at Habitat (www.habitat.org), researching where to lead a trip next year. A description of the Mozambique trip caught my eye and, after talking to the trip leader, gut instinct told me: go, go, go.
So I went, arriving in the capital of Maputo on a Saturday morning in mid-March to meet the team. We melded quickly and left the next day for Xia Xia, up the coast on the Indian Ocean, where we stayed in an air-conditioned but bare-bones hotel that lost power sporadically. No biggie. At a perfectly adequate bar-restaurant, we spent our evenings at outside tables, getting to know one another and the local beer and wondering how to change a culture that lacks mass communication.
As groups go, it was a good one, diverse and lively. The best sign? We laughed often and loudly.
At 7:30 each morning, we rode to the village in a wind-blown van, taking the only main road through miles of rice paddies that the Chinese were building and lush fields where workers raised hoes to till the soil.
Lurdes works in those fields and gets paid the equivalent of 50 cents for four hours work. Fifty cents, we were told. Twice, because we couldn't believe it. That's well below the average annual income, also difficult to believe, of $370.
Lurdes is getting medication for her illness -- walking miles to the hospital where she waits in long queues for her checkups -- and so far is faring well. Good thing, because Lurdes' work is exhausting and there's no letup.
She pitched in, happily, with the construction of her house when she wasn't working the fields, hand-washing clothes or cooking from scratch over an open fire. She worked with her infant, Dorcas, strapped to her back, the baby's tiny head bobbing sometimes at a comical if somewhat alarming 90-degree angle. (Fortunately, Dorcas and the other children are uninfected.)
One day Lurdes cooked us a simple dish of hominy and grilled fish. She was thrilled that we not only accepted her meal -- her HIV status relegates her to the status of evil spirit in some parts -- but that we also enjoyed it.
Truth is, we were in awe of her.
Each day, we split into two teams and mixed cement, hauled cement blocks, scaled scaffolding, applied mortar and plastered. Because the houses lacked plumbing, kitchens and bathrooms, they went up fast. (A construction crew hired by Habitat also built two surprisingly attractive reed huts with pit latrines.)
We skipped out early one day to spend time at a stunning Indian Ocean beach only a half-hour away.
We also made time to photograph the beautiful people of the village. It was hard to say who enjoyed it more, us or them. An elder was so delighted by the photo I took of her -- likely her first ever -- that she took my arm and led me hut-by-hut to photograph everyone we encountered.
We knew nothing of their language, a form of Zulu, but got by with limited Portuguese and a few native phrases. Mostly we communicated through photos, taking shots of groups of women and kids who took one look at their images and shrieked with laughter.
On our last day, we gathered for the closing ceremony with many villagers again joining in song and dance.
It was there that Lurdes said she prayed to God for help when her husband died and she had nowhere to turn. God sent me you, she said.
Adelina said she could die in peace now that her grandchildren have a home that no can take away from them.
And our team leader, Ramona, moved us to tears when she thanked them for the privilege of allowing us to help build the houses and being part of their loving and welcoming community.
Then we all joined hands and formed a circle around Lurdes' new home -- dozens of women and children and even a native man! Then, we pressed our palms to the walls of the house as an elder prayed. It was a moment unlike any other.
Leaving wasn't easy, but it coincided with school letting out. Hundreds of children lined the road as we passed, yelling and waving madly at our van as we slowly pulled away.
As weeks go, it will be a tough one to beat.