by Sara Hornback
15 March 2012. Seoul, South Korea. We tried to peek over the gray, rusting, metal fence but all we could see were make-shift roofs, insulation poking out and occasional tarps strewn over the cinderblock walls. We moseyed out of exit two of the subway, wondering where the village was.
We were in the southern part of Seoul, still in the city, yet we were looking for a small village, unlike the rest of the city. The gray, rusting, metal fence secluded a third world village. We approached the fence, rounded the corner but the entrance to this village was nowhere to be found. After some searching, the 30 of us disappeared through a two-foot wide opening in the fence.
This tiny village in southern Seoul is called Hwa-Hwe. It is almost hidden on the map. Our leader tried to find it on her GPS, but it could not be found. The village did not even take up a whole city block. Our jaws dropped as we walked in, noting the third world living conditions. A single dirt alley (Main Street) wound through the village, passing in front of 150 homes, primitively made of cinderblock walls and tarp roofs. Remnants of insulation draped across the outside of the make-shift buildings. Dried seaweed decorated fronts of houses, as it hung to dry from the clotheslines.
The village consists of just over 200 people, 85 of which are elderly and 40 physically disabled. Most of Hwa-Hwe does not have electricity; therefore, they have no heat during this frigid weather. Forty-five of these families use briquettes to heat their homes. A briquette (Yeontan, in Korean) is a melon sized piece of coal, burned to keep a house warm. One of the families told us that a typical family goes through about 4-5 briquettes each day. The families who do not use briquettes are simply left to fend for themselves, using only thick blankets to keep warm!
We arrived and were ushered to the community center, which was a building similar to the homes. This was a common place for the elderly to gather, probably simply because it had heat. There, we tied on aprons, slipped on arm covers and pulled on rubber gloves, and wondered what we were getting ourselves into. Delivering 1,600 briquettes had not seemed like such a big task, until we saw the heaping pile ahead of us! Our group had raised money throughout the Christmas season to purchase the briquettes to donate to the village.
The village head stood before us, explaining the process. We were to split into two groups, in order to make assembly lines. We passed the briquettes down the line to stack into piles. Our assembly lines kept moving as we went down the street of houses, piling 200 briquettes at each front door. The village head observed us carefully, making sure we did not go too fast, which would risk dropping a briquette. One less briquette meant one less house with heat. We joked and laughed as our arms got weaker and weaker. Thirty people allowed the work to go quickly. Within two hours, all of the briquettes had been delivered and the village head nodded his approval.
By the time we were finished, our clothes were dirty, our gloves black, and smudges of coal streaked our faces. We laughed at each other’s smudges as we went to the community center to wash up.
Supposedly, there are many villages similar to this one, throughout Seoul. We would not have seen Hwa-Hwe, if we had not known what we were looking for. I wonder how many other villages like this we’ve passed throughout the city and didn’t notice. These villages are hidden right in the middle of the city, swallowed up by sky scrapers on every side.
South Korea as a whole is very concerned with its appearance. The booming economy and culture strive to show the world its wealth and power. This is a stark contrast to what we saw at Hwa-Hwe. This village, and others like it, is viewed by many as a smudge on South Korea’s appearance. It hints at the poverty of South Korea’s past, before the country developed, just over 30 years ago. The city developed so fast that parts that did not bloom, were left to wilt. The city highlights the beautiful parts, but seems to forget the folks of villages like Hwa-Hwe.
Though this village has literally been forgotten and hidden from a casual observer, its people showed no hint of resentment. As we were washing up, the village head commented, “We are curious why foreigners would want to help a country that is not even their own…” As we worked, an occasional villager would stand to observe, excited to see the much anticipated briquettes arrive. Though these briquettes will not radically transform this community, and likely the briquettes will not even last the entire winter, it will heat a home. To a cold family huddled under a blanket, it will make a difference tonight. Tonight, they were not forgotten.
Sara Hornback is an English teacher and freelance writer based in Seoul, South Korea.