Cameroonian priest building a better future, one brick at a time

Jesuit Fr. Aubin Fossouo demonstrates his brick-making process at the University of Santa Clara in California. Fr. Fossouo, a native of Cameroon, is completing his doctoral research at the University of Detroit Mercy by studying ways to improve building materials in his country’s rural regions.
Courtesy Photo

Detroit — Growing up, all Fr. Aubin Fossouo, SJ, wanted to do was serve.

A native of Bafoussam, Cameroon, a small city 182 miles north of the country’s capital, Yaounde, Fr. Fossouo was inspired by the local Jesuits  who were always there to help people in need. Fr. Fossouo eventually heard his own call to the priesthood after he joined the Jesuits in 2004.

The year before his 2014 ordination, as part of his continuing formation at a Jesuit, Fr. Fossouo was afforded the opportunity to study at the University of Detroit Mercy, where he saw a chance to make a difference.

“Growing up, I saw my grandmother’s house wasn’t in good shape,” Fr. Fossouo said.

Specifically, Fr. Fossouo noticed that the bricks made in Cameroon aren’t designed well enough to hold up over time, especially in bad weather, often contributing to leaking homes and poor living conditions.

“I grew up with the idea that we can do better. There is a way that we can improve this,” said Fr. Fossouo, who is studying as part of Detroit Mercy’s doctoral program in civil engineering.

For his capstone project, Fr. Fossouo decided to study how bricks are made in Cameroon, and what changes in the brick-making process could result in a better brick for the country’s more rural regions.

“My project is about sustainable building materials, specifically sustainable bricks for construction,” Fr. Fossouo told The Michigan Catholic. “The bricks I’m working with are made up of clay, fiber and oil. I wanted to respond to this issue in Cameroon.”

Fr. Fossouo returned to Cameroon in the summer of 2015, observing how bricks are made, analyzing the local soil in his hometown and the percentages of clay and sand used in the composition of bricks.

Armed with a summer’s full of data, Fr. Fossouo returned to Detroit to replicate the brick-making process using materials as close as possible to what can be found in Cameroon.

After breaking down and analyzing the building materials in Detroit, Fr. Fossouo continued his research at a fellow Jesuit institution, Santa Clara University in California, during the summer of 2017, where he started constructing bricks of his own.

“I had to go to Santa Clara to collect all the material I needed; here we don’t have enough bamboo in Michigan,” Fr. Fossouo said. “Through my research, I determined it was water getting inside the bricks that caused the bricks to structurally fail. When the bricks absorb water, it starts to break down.”

To prevent water seeping into the bricks, Fr. Fossouo proposed soaking the bamboo fibers in oil and mixing them with the soil. The mixed soil makes for stronger building material, and the oil prevents water from seeping into the bricks’ bamboo fibers.

“By combining the clay with oil and the bamboo fiber, we were not only increasing the structural strength of the bricks with the bamboo, but the water resistance of the bricks, because water and oil don’t mix,” he said.

Fr. Fossouo said he made 25 bricks for the project, trying various combinations of soil, bamboo fiber and oil to get the right combination. Right now, he’s working with Detroit Mercy’s chemistry department to determine how the bricks are composed on a chemical level before proceeding to try his brick recipe in Cameroon.

“I hope to go to Cameroon in May or June to start building and see how these bricks hold up outside a laboratory setting,” Fr. Fossouo said.

In addition to making more durable bricks with local materials, Fr. Fossouo wants to reduce the environmental impact of the brick-making process. To do so, Fr. Fossouo’s bricks are air dried, instead of being fired in a kiln, which releases CO2 emissions.

“Since I began studying at Detroit Mercy, I’ve become more concerned with the environment, especially the impact of construction on the environment,” Fr. Fossouo said. “I didn’t want to fire the bricks; instead I wanted the bricks made from cheap, accessible, local material that would be good for building and good for the environment.”

Fr. Fossouo’s research is still pending, but he hopes his brick design can change people’s lives — much like how the priests and Jesuits in his hometown had an impact on his.

“I felt in my childhood this call to serve, to serve the people and the Church as a priest,” Fr. Fossouo said. “When I met a Jesuit for the first time, he was the priest responsible for my home parish. I was inspired by his simplicity, his knowledge and his humility. It moved me, touched me. I thought I’d like to be like this. I’d like to change the world and make people’s lives better.

“So I started with bricks.”