By Bob Whitmore
Precasters build a different kind of infrastructure 9,000 miles from home.
The precast concrete industry is focused on building infrastructure with an amazing array of products that are often extremely large, enormously heavy and exceptionally long-lasting. With their roots in precast, Randy and Melanie Lindsay-Brisbin are building infrastructure of a different kind in a country far, far away.
Nearly halfway around the world in Tanzania, a country just below the equator on the eastern edge of Africa, Randy and Melanie are building. Not with large concrete structures, but with basic human interactions. Randy, vice president of Lindsay Precast in Colorado, and Melanie, whose parents founded Lindsay Precast in Canal Fulton, Ohio, 55 years ago, have built a community of friends in Tanzania over the past five years. Now they are sharing their expertise with Tanzanians to help solve problems that plague many developing countries.
Like the precast business that Melanie’s parents Roland and Linda Lindsay started many years ago, what began as a small venture has blossomed into much more.
Their involvement in Tanzania started innocently enough. As their two children, Jenna and Luke, were approaching high school graduation, Randy and Melanie made them a promise.
“We told them they could plan a trip as a graduation present pretty much anyplace – with some parental veto power,” Randy said. “Luke had been pondering what he wanted to do, and through a mutual friend here in Colorado Springs one summer we met a gentleman who was a Lutheran pastor from Tanzania.”
Pastor Ringo was making his first trip outside of his home country.
“We had him over to our house and he and Luke really hit it off,” Randy said. “During the course of the visit, he made Luke promise to come visit him and his family someday in Tanzania.”
A trek to Tanzania
When it came time to pick his graduation trip, Luke settled on Tanzania. In 2011, Luke and his parents paid a return visit to Pastor Ringo, whose congregation lives in the Moshi district in northern Tanzania. The area receives some tourism as a gateway to safaris and Mount Kilimanjaro. However, the country is mostly rural and underdeveloped. In some remote villages, the appearance of three white Americans was indeed a spectacle when Randy, Melanie and Luke first visited.
“That first trip, when we were up on the mountain staying with families, we were literally the first white folks or the first Westerners many of those people had ever met in person,” Melanie said.
During the first visit, Randy and Melanie were inspired by the welcoming nature and genuine warmth of the Tanzanian people.
About a year later, one of their local hosts, Rev. Dr. Fredrick Shoo, an assistant bishop with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, visited Nebraska. Randy and Melanie made the trip from their home in Colorado Springs to see him.
“We were talking with him about wanting to go back and we were not sure what would work,” Melanie said.
“What do you know how to do?’” Dr. Shoo asked.
“I know concrete,” Randy said.
“I’m a social worker,” Melanie added.
“We need all of that!” the assistant bishop replied.
Since that time, Melanie has made eight trips to Tanzania to work with women’s groups. Randy has visited seven times, including their most recent trip this summer. Their son Luke, who now has a doctorate in physical therapy, joined them this summer, along with his girlfriend. Other friends and family have joined on various trips to the community where Melanie and Randy are known as Mama and Baba Luka. The family is treading carefully, though. They always act in concert with local churches and community organizations. Melanie, who has a master’s degree in social work with expertise in crisis counseling, works with Rev. Faustine Kahwa, director of women’s programs for the ELCT, to organize seminars for women in the church.
Last summer, their daughter Jenna joined Melanie in the training. Jenna had just earned her master’s in social work and presented information on reproductive health, Melanie said.
“The rate of AIDS transmission in Tanzania is still very high, and young women are at high risk, so learning about the virus and how it is transmitted and how to avoid it is critical,” Melanie said. “We did some very specific training with the women in the group, who were youth teachers. We were teaching them things that they could teach their youth.”
In the Tanzanian culture, women work practically non-stop. They are responsible for fetching wood and water, cooking and cleaning and taking care of the family’s domestic needs, and often still work outside the home. They rarely get a moment to themselves, so the workshops provide a change of pace, Melanie said.
“One of the most powerful things in these workshops is that the women just get an opportunity to be together and network and make connections and learn new information together. It offers them a time and space to develop their profession and develop their best practices together,” she said.
While Melanie has been involved with women’s groups, Randy has been exploring practical ways to ease the challenge of everyday life in the village, such as making cooking less of a burden. Tanzanian women typically prepare the family meal on an open fire, he said.
“Three stones with a fire in between. You set your pot right on the three stones,” he said. “Much of the cooking is done inside the home. The women often have a baby tied to their chest or on their back, so the mother and the baby are exposed to all the smoke and the fumes.
“All that smoke inside the home often leads to respiratory and vision issues.”
There may be a solution to this common problem. As they were learning more about the country, Randy and Melanie connected with a group called Childreach Tanzania, which has a family energy project devoted to identifying affordable forms of energy for cooking and lighting. Back in Colorado Springs, Randy found a cooking stove designed and tested by the Paradigm Project.
“It’s a very simple and efficient design that uses 50% less firewood and has 70% fewer emissions,” Randy said.
The time savings and health benefits of the stove can provide a big quality of life improvement.
“Often the women will spend more than half of their day walking to areas where they can find firewood. So by burning 50% less wood, you invest less time and energy in finding wood,” he said.
Randy has been working with Childreach Tanzania to supply a small number of the stoves to local women for testing and also provided a few to the “roadside restaurants” in the region.
“It was very exciting,” he said. “People loved them.”
But the idea is not to just give away stoves. The concept is to build infrastructure by finding a Tanzanian partner who would create a business of selling and servicing the stoves.
“It really works best where it can be set up as more of an entrepreneurial model where people make investments – have skin in the game so to speak,” Randy said.
Precast vaults in the future?
While these efforts are a world apart from running a precast concrete business in the states, a more direct linkage may be coming soon. Randy and Melanie’s friend Dr. Shoo, who is now the bishop for the ELCT, has an idea for a side business for the church, Randy said.
“They are very interested in looking into precasting burial vaults,” he said. “Right now, people are buried at home in their backyard or on the farm. A hole is dug and they wait for people to come to mix some concrete and line the hole.
“Then they have to wait longer for the people to come back and form the lid – a dome really – over the crypt site. It’s a long process and the casket is there the whole time.”
Dr. Shoo has his hands full with administering to his church’s more direct needs, so the precast venture is on hold, but one thing’s for sure – the Lindsay-Brisbin family isn’t going away any time soon. They now have long-term relationships and a strong commitment to the country.
“Probably one of the greatest things we’ve gotten out of our work and travels to Tanzania is just the relationships we’ve developed,” Randy said. “These can be lifelong relationships. I fully expect that we’ll be making some trips to Tanzania to go to friends’ kids’ weddings some day.”
Nuns fighting snakes
It is not uncommon in the developing world for an aid group to swoop into a country, do a project and leave. Randy and Melanie were recently invited to visit a school that a group of Lutheran nuns had purchased from a large church group.
“A church came in and built this big campus and then they abandoned it,” Melanie said. “It was empty for a few years.”
Because the church group did not build relationships and create an infrastructure, when they left, the school failed. The nuns came in with the intent of staying.
“They literally fought snakes bigger than their arms to take their property back and now they have 60 students at least,” Melanie said. “They are living there and teaching them.”
One of the ways Randy and Melanie plan to continue building the human infrastructure is through a nonprofit foundation they created called Together With Tanzania.
“We use it as a conduit for sending money to Tanzania for these projects we do,” Randy said. “The idea behind Together With Tanzania is that we are working in partnership with people there. We’re working with them to identify needs and find out what the appropriate solutions are.”
The work in Tanzania is a natural extension of the acts of giving back that Randy and Melanie have been doing as volunteers with multiple organizations in the Colorado Springs area for many years.
“From kind of a selfish perspective, the work we do here and the work we do over there makes our lives richer and better,” Randy said. “It brings more joy to us. These are things that we all do for each other.
“It’s what makes it a community in Colorado Springs, or at the National Precast Concrete Association, or in the United States, or in a global community. We’re doing these things to build relationships, to help each other, to understand each other and make the best of what we can with our time in this world.”
And though they didn’t know it 55 years ago, it started with Roland and Linda Lindsay, working hard to turn a small excavating service into a precast concrete business that continues to grow and evolve in its sixth decade.
“Part of the reason we’re blessed to be able to do this work today is because of what my mom and dad did,” Melanie said. “They started out in a small town and started a business that they saw a need for. They filled that need and worked endlessly and were very successful.
“That’s a huge part of why we can do this at the level we can right now, so we also see that impact from their lives.”
Bob Whitmore is NPCA’s vice president of communication and public