The security guard assured me that it functioned flawlessly and could be rented at a moment’s notice. Jackie , the construction overseer, had asked for my assistance to look over a few pieces of equipment in town that could possibly off-load our new generator, which would arrive in three short weeks. We needed something that could extract the 14 foot long, three ton machine from a 40 foot shipping container and place it comfortably on its slab. That search brought us to one of the river shipping companies to look at their crane.
“Why does it only have three wheels?” I inquired.
“It has a fourth, but it needs repair,” he said.
Ah, the standard African caveat. This is the way things work around here. Any piece of equipment you need will inevitably be broken. When you ask to use it, you’ll have to buy the repair parts, provide the mechanic, calibrate and test it, and then pay the extortionate rental fees. All of this doesn’t buy you any insurance or guarantees or even punctuality. C’est l’Afrique.
Jackie sighed, smiled and shook his head. Though I had my misgivings, I jumped up on the rusty old beast, possibly capable of 15 tons in its prime, and looked over the hydraulics and rigging. Surprisingly, there were no long strips of old inner tubes tied around leaky oil lines, or nails where bolts should be. The ropes were a little rusty but pliable and still oily inside. She would probably be good for three tons. If she ran.
“We unload these all the time. We’ll stack a bunch of pallets outside the container while its still on the truck and push it out onto the stack. From there, we’ll lift it with a forklift and drop it in place.” He said this with all seriousness. This was obviously another man with no insurance. Jackie sighed and shot me another calming smile. We had worked around each other and for six months now and he had already picked up on my tendency to speak my mind. He had been in Africa for nine years and served in several countries. As a machinist by trade, he was demure and methodical and very detail oriented. I liked working with him.
“Do you have a flatbed truck with a winch on the back?” Jackie asked. Sliding it out was not a bad idea, save for the pallet stack. I had been millwrighting equipment for 16 years, but it doesn’t take a mechanic to know that little tumbles carry big price tags.
“No, we just use lots of men and lots of pallets.” I felt like completing his sentence – and lots of money. If you’re worried about your precious generator falling, just place some giant bags of large bills around the base of our pallet stack and that will cushion the blow. My men here will carry away the bags when its all finished. You can keep the pallets.
Our next stop was a furniture factory. They had a 5 ton Manitou forklift and a flatbed truck. Things were looking up. We parked near their lumber stacks, some of the prettiest wood you’ve ever seen, and walked across the factory floor to the rear of their compound. I put my fingers in my ears and held my breath as we penetrated the deafening din. It was a maze of men and machines, with stacks of simple, shaker-like furniture in various stages of completion. The air was thick with sappele dust, hard and fine, and it was known to cause serious respiratory problems if inhaled in quantity. No one had earplugs or safety glasses or dust masks on. Of the hundred or so men on the floor, most would be deaf in a few months and dead in a few years. A man who was pushing boards through a planer smiled and waved a hand with three fingers and two nubs. I waved back and made my way to the door.
My heart sank. The forklift was passable. A little man even jumped on it and started the engine. He drove around in little circles to show-off his circle driving skills. But the flatbed was a disaster.
“It runs, I promise.” That’s not what I was worried about. The bed was rotten and termite ridden.
“Can you replace the bed? Its made out of wood, and you cut wood here.”
“Of course. We change the wood about every two years.”
“Fantastic, when will you change it again?”
“Soon, en principe.”
En principe. It is very important to know this phrase and pay careful attention when you hear it. In French, it means “in principle”. This is the way things are supposed to work. For your first few months in Central Africa, your heart will leap when you hear this expression, as if whatever you are hoping for might actually come true. In time, you will learn the true meaning of the phrase: “What I have just said is a complete fabrication and bears no resemblance to reality. Everyone knows this but you.”
We later found out that we would have more time to find a suitable alternative. The road was blocked and trucks were mired in the mud for hundreds of miles. Our generator was on one of them.
There are easier places in the world to do business than Central Africa. A study by The World Bank gave this little country a rating of dead last on a list of 183 countries and their respective “ease of doing business”. Two years ago, Bangui came in at 179, but since then four countries have joined the list.
Why the low rating? Its just too hard to get anything here. We’re just a few hundred kilometers north of the equator, one hour east of the prime meridian and smack in the geographic center of Africa. On the globe we’re the middle of everywhere, in reality, the middle of nowhere.
Being landlocked, Bangui is entirely at the mercy of its neighbors to import goods. That’s why shipping overseas from NY to Douala, Cameroon costs only a third and takes only a third of the time as driving the container from Douala to here.
The highway between Bangui and Douala is one of infamy (see w07 15/10). Nearly 1600km of vehicular brutality, it is the only artery connecting Central Africa with a port, and thereby the rest of the world. Vehicles are battered and scorched in the dry season, or bogged down in the rainy season. Supposedly, $165M has been earmarked to pave the monstrosity from Douala to Bangui and on to Ndjamena, Chad, but no one knows when work will begin. If your shipment is delayed by breakdowns or bandits or the plain absence of a road, just deal with it. It will arrive, en principe.
Oddly enough, older maps of Bangui show a train station, a scenic whistle-stop on the Pan-African Railway! Our sky-high shipping expenses even led one foreign branch to request that we seriously investigate using our local rail network to import needed materials at the branch. To this day, the mention of that memo still makes longtime family members buckle in peals of laughter.
Our generator was four days away from “nowhere” and anticipation was building. We would go with the forklift and flatbed option. In the days that followed, I contented myself with the reality that, if faith could move mountains, certainly three tons of copper and steel would pose no problem. Besides, we had other things to look forward to, like our blooming bible studies. Jesenia had found a young man in field service that was very responsive to the kingdom message. Or rather, he had found us.
She was preaching with Lisa when, towards the end of the morning, a young man approached them on the street. Jes caught a flash of blue in his hand – the Young People Ask book, Vol II. “This book has changed my life. Do you have anything else like it?” Jes told him what he really needed was a regular study of God’s word and he wholeheartedly agreed. He said his name was Lambert and he was 22 years old.
Our second study with Lambert was an interesting one. I noticed that he answered almost every paragraph parroting expressions you hear booming from the windows of many churches. Church services here consist of long, hard preaching. Really, dogmatic yammering that repeats the same thing over and over again with little spiritual or educational value. They are almost always practiced syncretically with traditional beliefs. However, people in general have a high respect for God’s Word and crave learning. That makes starting studies easy, but you have to overturn “strongly entrenched things.” For instance, the bible Lambert uses (and reads everyday) has the divine name completely removed with the exception of Genesis 22:14. We used all the lines of reasoning in chapter one of the Bible Teach book with great effectiveness, and he agreed – God’s name is Jehovah, Jesus used God’s name, and He wants us to use his name. But when I asked him how he should address God in prayer, he was stuck. He felt he had to use a title like Lord or Creator.
“Who is the president of this country?” I asked. He answered and I followed, “If you meet him on the street, will you call him by his name or will say Monsieur le Président?” The answer was obvious, you would only use his name if you were one of his few close friends. “With Jehovah, does he want you to stay at a distance, or does he want you to draw close to him?”
“He wants us to draw close, to have him as a best friend.”
“And what do you want? Do you want to be God’s friend?”
He looked at the ground and shook his head and I could almost see the truth illuminate his heart. “From now on I will always call him Jehovah.” Now he reads “L’Eternel” in his bible as “Jehovah”. One mountain, moved.
But another mountain was on its way.
To avoid moving our power plant more than once, we enriched the slab with an extra half bag of cement per yard. It cured quickly and after only a week it had developed enough strength to bear the load. The very same day customs officials freed it for delivery. Having already traveled 6000 miles from the Netherlands by ship and then another 1000 miles overland was pretty amazing. What worried me now was the last 50 feet.
Earlier, our first generator was also set in place by renting a forklift. Being the lowest bidder, he came with a few surprises at no extra charge. Like no brakes. Picking the generator off the truck required holding the forklift still while on an incline. He accomplished this by feathering the clutch and giving it gas, causing the forks to dart back and forth like a dog on a leash for the first time. Though he managed to avoid piercing the fuel tank with his forks, you could smell the clutch burning a mile away. Two daredevils scampered around the ponderous, bouncing load, jamming blocks of wood under the tires when the clutch-gas system didn’t give the desired level of safety. Since beating the odds once just wasn’t enough, they tempted death over and over again, removing and replacing the blocks in the shadow of the huge cargo.
Our driver today was much more experienced and had a working machine, with real brakes. Jackie had phoned the company persistently, and the flatbed we looked at before had been rebuilt with new wood. Everyone heaved a community sigh of relief. The uneven terrain made the top heavy machine teeter and dance, but slowly it made its way to the slab and came to rest like a baby in a crib. Here’s the step-by-step.
The only nail-biter came when he unloaded the shipping container from the truck it came on. Sometimes, Central Africans are accused by foreigners of working at an easy pace. But our forklift operator had been very unique so far, and he was about to set a precedent for expediency. Watch and see. In the end, the seemingly impossible had come and gone, anxiously but uneventfully. The worst was over, en principe.
A few pictures of our growing kitty.
And a few pictures from our last Family Night and other miscellaneous shots
Parting shot, parting thought
Life in Africa requires a highly developed sixth sense – a sense of humor.
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