Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Chapter Thirty-Two: Building


Chapter Thirty-One can be found here.

The AfroProg administrator shrugged.  “You’ll have to work with what you can find.  But you should be good at that, after Peace Corps.  You shouldn’t need anyone to hold your hand.”  His expression softened.  “Look, a reforestation after-project was written into the initial grant.  Unfortunately, after your salary, and a little bit for a local aide, there’s almost nothing left.”
Paul stared at him, wondering if he’d been given the job merely so that the money could be accounted, so that the project could be wrapped up and forgotten.  No one here in the Ouaga office, so far, seemed to care about it or to be interested either in oversight or planning.  Even the message he had found waiting for him at the Peace Corps office had been lackadaisical.
“Well, do we at least have an inventory of what’s there?”
“The lease on the house, of course, will be up in six months.  You can live there if you want to, or keep it up for the office and the storage facilities.  There’s an Isuzu Trooper that you can use—it runs OK—and the guardian at the house has the keys.”
“What’s in the storerooms?”
“Not much, mainly some things left by the man who set up the project.  You’re lucky, though: he did some of his purchasing with the reforestation phase in mind.  If I remember correctly, there are thousands of those plastic-bag pots there, as well as dozens of picks and spades.”
“That’s good.  At least I’ll have something to work with.”  Paul didn’t bother to keep the sarcasm he felt out of his voice.  He wanted this job, but he also wanted the administrator to understand that he knew exactly what was going on here, that he was just being used for bookkeeping purposes, allowing a project to be tidily wrapped up so that a final, positive report could be sent to the home office, all requirements checked off, completed.
“You should be fine.  Oh, and there’s a desk and typewriter in the office.”
“That should help when it comes to writing my report.”
The administrator gave him a sharp look but stood and shoved out his hand.  “Fine, then.  We’ll be looking for the report in six months.”  He ignored Paul’s unstated cynicism.
Paul shook with him and left.  He had a good thing in this and didn’t really want to spoil it.  The administrator knew exactly what he needed and expected Paul to give it.  He also was done with this project, personally, and wanted to turn to other things.  If Paul proved to be taking up too much of his time, he would simply give him the boot and hire someone else who would allow the project to end without involving the office.
Paul had planned on spending the next few days in Ouaga, expecting that the AfroProg people would demand a series of meetings and discussions, that there would be a façade, at least, of sincere interest in what he would be doing.  Instead, he had been handed a contract, had signed, and had been dismissed with only that little conversation with the direction.  He could have left immediately after, which surprised him.  He had expected at least a little bit of guidance from the organization, so felt a little bit at loose ends, now, finding himself complete master of his time and activity for, it looked like, the next six months.
The only people he was interested in seeing in Ouaga were Bakary and Michel, and Bakary, he had heard, wasn’t coming back soon from Ouri.  He was working there for a month or two, replenishing his stock of masks with the help of the many members of his extended family.  And Michel had gone to Koupela when Paul was returning from Togo—they had probably passed each other on the road—and had yet to come back.
Other than the lack of interest in his project, the only surprise during his visit to the office had been the Isuzu.  That would make his work a lot easier.  If it would run, that is.  It had been months since the wells group had wrapped up.  The little jeep might have been stripped in the meantime.  It depended on the guardian.
Thinking about that, and worried that all he would do in Ouaga was drink, he decided it would be best all around if he got to to Diabagou as soon as possible.  Now, at least, he had assets there, and he wanted to examine them and protect them.  The house, the contents of the shed, the Isuzu, all were suddenly his, or his responsibility, and he had already started to worry about them.  He kick-started the moto, hopped on, and rode back to his hotel.  If he left before lunch, he figured, he could get there at dark.  Fortunately, and had become habitual, he didn’t have much to pack.
Most of the ride was an easy one, on the paved road to Bobo.  It gave Paul a chance to wonder, once more, if he were doing the right thing.  Not by taking this job, but in general.  Could he really make a life and a career for himself here in Africa?  In Peace Corps, he had been able to put off the question.  But it had been more than three years, now, since he’d arrived in West Africa.  He had enjoyed himself, had learned a great deal, but had he accomplished anything?  He didn’t think so.  Could he?  He doubted even that.  This wasn’t his world; always, he would be alien within it; never could he change it.
His aborted trip down to Togo had made him contemplate those years more honestly than he had before.  He wasn’t pleased with what he had discovered, which was one of the reasons he had turned around and had come back north.  This was a hard place, sure, but hard for whom?  For the Africans, but not for the expats who could coast along, doing the bare minimum and dressing it up in reports—as Paul would be doing himself for AfroProg.  Was it worthwhile, he asked himself, a life like that?  Could he actually accomplish anything here?  Could he make a plan and actually see it through?  How much of a hypocrite, he had to decide, was he willing to be?
On the other hand, maybe that was why he wanted to stay—because he had failed to do what he had planned so far, planned, at least, once he was in Peace Corps.  To this point, his stay on the continent had been a narcissistic exercise only, only.  Not much that he had done had helped Africa or even improved himself, not even in Peace Corps.  Even his teaching had been pretty close to useless.  And the little that had been for him had produced—what?  Was he any better than he had been?  Did he really know more than he had?  Could he produce more?  Nah.  Not even his small bit for reforestation would make much difference; any change would come from the Adams of the world, not the Pauls.
But what did he have to go back for?  No more than he had had three years before.  Might as well stay here, if that were the only other option.  No sense worrying about it, he told himself, finally.  As he had, going through this same round of thought again and again.  At least he liked it here, knew how to get around here.  Maybe it wasn’t so challenging, this life, but it sure could be interesting.  He laughed out loud at that thought.  Except while stuck in Djibo, he certainly had not been bored.
He got to the turn-off to Diabagou with about an hour remaining before dusk.  Just enough time to get there, if he rode like crazy over the dirt road, to hell with the washboard, the puddles, the sand.  He stood on the pegs, motocross style, and accelerated, enjoying the feel of the bike under him as it squirmed, trying to slide out from under his control.  He was learning to love this sort of riding, though he had done little enough of it, and he still wished he’d been able to take the moto course in stage in Peace Corps.  Like all the teachers, he’d felt like a second-class citizen every time he’d seen the other PCVs roaring by on their Yamahas.
Maybe, he thought, and thought this, again, not for the first time, this was why he was staying, for experiences like this ride.  Suddenly, he slowed, stopped, and sat for a moment, looking out over the fields waiting for the first rains for planting, at the mango trees, the baobabs, the thatched tops above a banco wall in the distance.  It didn’t matter, he realized, if he arrived after dark.  He knew the way.  And he loved this land, he told himself, had never felt such a connection with any other, even if this one would never accept him.  He would just have to get used to that.  He started moving again, shifting up to speed.  A rise coming, he downshifted and accelerated, and then stood on the pegs again, taking the rise with a roar.  The bike became airborne, though just for a second, before klunking into the laterite on the other side, spraying dirt and bucking as though it wanted to unseat him.  Paul pushed the accelerator again to straighten him up and take him off down the road, a cloud of dust rising behind him.
Yes.  Clearly, this was the place to be for someone like him.  He had never belonged anywhere, so being where he could never belong was, perhaps, best.  Here, he didn’t have to worry about what people thought of him—not many, at least.  Change that, he thought.  He didn’t have to worry about what Americans thought of him.  Maybe he didn’t even want the kind of life that was expected of him back home.  Maybe he had different goals.  Here, he could follow his own.
If he could make himself do it.  If he could really give up his home culture.  That had been the problem, so far, hadn’t it?  Most of what he actually did, if he were going to be honest with himself, was drink.  And drink with Americans.
He sped up once again.  No need to think about that.  The drinking life was going to take a new turn.
Paul had visited Diabagou only once before, soon after his swearing-in, to attend the wedding of an earlier PCV who had helped out with his stage and who was marrying a Ghanaian woman.  That had also been the last time he’d seen Eric and his red truck.  The Fulbright researcher had finished up his studies and was heading down to the coast through Ghana, a trip, Paul later learned, that had proved too much for the truck, which came to a rest somewhere just below Kumasi.  He couldn’t remember much of that earlier visit to Diabagou, for the wedding had proved one long drunk.  But he had liked the town, and had been tickled when, two years later, he found out that he might be able to get a contract job there.
He had been given general directions to the AfroProg house in town, mainly that he should look for the sign that should be hanging over the door in the compound wall, even though no one but the guardian had been there for months.  It wasn’t too difficult to find: most of the houses in Diabagou were banco, mud brick.  All he had to do was look for cinderblock walls, and eventually he would find the right one.  Sure enough, even though it was now nearly dark, after a couple of turns through the town, he found it.
He had a few minutes of worry.  When he clapped, announcing himself, no one responded at first.  Eventually, however, the guardian, dressed in ragged shorts and an AfroProg tee shirt, came around to let him in.  Somehow, he already knew who he was.  Had been expecting him, he said, but not for the next day or so.
The gas generator that had once supplied electricity to the house didn’t look like it could possibly work, but the guardian, sent out with a few thousand francs, managed to buy a couple of cheap lanterns and kerosene.  Paul sent him on another mission as soon as he had a little light, for beer.  He wanted something to drink as he explored the house.
There was still a bed, and the net over it, though it had a few holes, looked reparable.  The bureau look serviceable and there was a small table and three chairs in the dining room, as well as two couches in the living room.  The kitchen was completely bare, but the office did contain the promised desk and typewriter.  The Isuzu sat next to the house.  But looking at that, and the outbuildings, would have to wait until morning.
All in all, Paul thought, it would do.  Not much different from the houses PCVs ended up in, when posted to towns.  He could be comfortable there, he knew, having slept in identical surroundings during trips to visit other PCVs.  Opening a beer, he plopped down on one of the couches, putting his feet up on the other.  And he would be rich, here.  The value of his contract for six months was greater than his stipend as a PCV for the entire two years—by three or four times.  Plus, he had his readjustment allowance though, even without it, he could spend like a king and still save money.
In the morning, he got the guardian, whose name was Moussa, to get the local mechanic to come by with a battery and some gasoline, for he had quickly determined that the Isuzu’s battery was dead.  The tank was most certainly tank empty, as well.  Other than that, it looked OK.  Surprisingly, not only were the tires all still there, but none was completely flat.
The mechanic arrived on a donkey cart, with a tire pump and tools.  He examined the Isuzu for a few minutes, poured in some gas, hooked his own battery up with jumper cables, and turned the Isuzu’s key.  The engine coughed a couple of times, then caught.  The mechanic smiled and spread his hands: “see.”  Paul laughed and paid him what he asked.
Though two of the outbuildings were completely empty, the third contained, just as the AfroProg administrator had promised, enough tools and pots for Paul to supply at least a dozen pepinieres.  Maybe, he thought, this was going to work better than he had imagined it would.  If only he could transplant Adam and his grandsons, he might even make something of this.  Have to find someone, at least, as interested as Adam in trees.
He had been given the name, in Ouaga, of a man who had worked for AfroProg before, and who would probably be available to help Paul, for a small salary.  With directions from Moussa, Paul drove the Isuzu to the man’s compound, which was a kilometer or so away.
The man, his name was Marcel, ran out from his house when he drove up, having recognized the Isuzu.  Yes, he would certainly be available for the work.  Yes, he could start right away.
“Well then, hop in.” 
Marcel pulled himself into the passenger seat.
“I want to do a tour,” Paul told him, “I want to see where the pumps are, so we can identify vacant land by them, for pepinieres.”
“Oh, no.  That won’t work.”  Marcel shook his head.
“Why not?”
“Let us go around, and you will see.”
The idea, when the project had been funded, was that pepinieres could be established around the town, near the twelve pumps that AfroProg and USAID had installed the year before.  Land near each had been set aside, or so Paul had been told.  The trees could then be used to start a larger reforestation program in the region, another benefit from the new pumps.
But it wasn’t working that way, Marcel’s concern said.  Paul said nothing, just followed Marcel’s directions, waiting to see for himself.
First of all, he saw, there was no longer open space anywhere near the first of the pumps.  From what he saw, Paul was reasonably certain there would be none around any of the others, either.  In the two years since it had been drilled, people from surrounding villages had moved into town, to take advantage of the new, clean water.  They had encroached on the reserved land, little by little, until now it was all houses of fresh banco brick.  Though land had been promised for the project, Paul knew that he would never be able to get the people there to move away.  So, strike building pepinieres near an easy water source. 
Still, he wanted to see all of the pumps, so asked Marcel to point him to the next.
“It will be the same, you will see.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Paul, a bit disgusted with the poor planning that had preceded him, “but I want to see them all, anyway.”
“OK, but it’s all the same, and two of them aren’t working, anyway.”
“Aren’t working?”  They bumped over the unpaved road, Paul driving slowly, waiting for Marcel’s direction.
“Yes, two are broken.”
“I guess we’ll have to see about that, too.  Are there spare parts around?”
Marcel didn’t answer.
After they had looked at all twelve of the pumps, Paul bought Marcel lunch, and told him that they would have to survey further out, to see if there was any land free around any of the area wells.  That shouldn’t be a problem, Marcel said, if everyone was moving into town.  “Oh, the land is there, but… ”
“But what?”
Marcel shrugged.  “I think you had better see for yourself.  You wanted to see the pumps, you had better see this.” 
The wells, he saw as he looked at each of them, were all close to dry.  He figured that there was so much more water use in town, now, that the water table was actually going down, affecting the outlying wells.  And resulting, he was sure, in even more people moving into town.  So there was land available around them, but hardly usable now, and probably unusable soon.
“Well, we’ll do what we can.  First, however, let’s see to the broken pumps.”  Paul and Marcel went back to the compound where Paul hoped to find information about the pumps among the papers that remained in the desk.  He searched through them, but found nothing.
“Was anyone trained in maintaining the pumps?  Is there a parts storage anywhere?”  He looked at Marcel, who shrugged.
“Not that I know of.  They said these should last for years.”
Knowing it was futile, Paul looked at the two broken pumps.  But he could see little that he could do with them.  These were much fancier than the bulky, India designed but locally manufactured pumps he had seen so often in Togo, pumps decorated with large bolts almost begging anyone with the appropriate wrench to take them apart and put them together again.  These, unfortunately, were relatively seamless, and Paul had no idea how to even take them apart, let alone fix them.
Paul did what he could, anyway, turning his attention to reforestation, starting off a week later by hiring school kids to make banco bricks for him and cajoling people into helping him build the waist-high walls that would keep goats and sheep from getting into the pepinieres and eating the small trees.  He offered the tools from the shed to the people who were using them, as an incentive to get them to help him: they could keep them, and use them on other projects, too, if they worked with the trees.  He carefully supervised the planting of the seeds and the watering.  The rains hadn’t quite begun: when they came, they wouldn’t have to take such care of the seedlings.  Until then, though, each would need lots of water, and probably would need some, even after.  At least, they would have to be checked upon, and the walls maintained.
Everything seemed fine, except that his workers complained that the wells were drying up, just as Paul had thought they might.  It was getting harder and harder to get enough water from them, always something of a potential problem if the rains came late, but much more of one now.  Paul began to worry that the rains wouldn’t come quite soon enough.
They watered as much as they could, but it wasn’t really enough.  With little else to do, Paul spent most of his time sitting in the house, brooding and drinking, and hoping for rain.
The people in town quickly realized, of course, that Paul was connected with the project that had brought in the pumps.  After all, the AfroProg banner still graced the compound.  So, when another one of them broke, just a few days after he had planted his last seeds, they came to him and asked him to see to fixing it.
“But I know nothing about pumps.”  The visitor was one of the local chiefs.  Behind him stood a small retinue, respectfully waiting.  Paul had invited them all in and offered them glasses of beer, the chief first, of course.  The two of them sat on his two facing couches, the others standing a little uncomfortably, their beer glasses awkwardly in hand.
“Couldn’t you just look?  We don’t know what might be wrong.”  The chief was clearly worried.  He, at least, could see the disaster looming, if there were no way to fix the pumps.
Paul didn’t know what to do.  He had no tools for that kind of work and no idea how the pumps operated.  Still, he was the only contact in town with the project that had installed them.  He wished futilely that AfroProg had taken the time to train him a bit regarding them—but they hadn’t, of course.  Still, he had to try something; he couldn’t just refuse flatly.  He told the chief that he would see what he could do. 
He asked the mechanic who had helped him with the Isuzu to come with him, to help him take the pump apart.  It took them a couple of days, for they had no idea what they were doing, and automotive tools were an approximation of what was needed, at best.  The mechanic, fortunately, proved to have a flexible, mechanical mind, and creatively made do, so they eventually got the thing apart, where they found they had a further problem.
One part had broken, and a ring had worn out.
“Can you repair it?  You or one of the welders?  Can we find some other sort of ring that will work?”
“No, we can’t weld this.  I know a guy who could try, but it looks like it is meant to take a lot of stress, so would probably break again in a day or two.  It doesn’t matter, though: we can’t repair that ring, and don’t have a replacement.”
“What should we do, then?”
The mechanic shrugged.  “They should have put in pumps we can work on and that are made in Africa, not France.  It’s easy to get parts for those, and easy to work on them.  I don’t know why they chose these.”
Me neither, Paul thought.
Finally, after staring at them for a while, Paul decided to take the pieces up to Ouaga himself, on his moto.  If he could get the right replacement parts, he figured he and the mechanic could fix this and the other two broken pumps.
Before he left, they took apart the other two, the work going much more easily, now that they had figured out how to do it.  The problems were similar, but Paul still ended up with a nice little bundle of broken pieces on the back of his bike when he finally took off for Ouaga.

Chapter Thirty-Three can be found here.

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