There was no one who was more stressed than Dunhill at the moment. This forty-something Civil Engineer for the past eighteen months, had been tirelessly trying to bring ‘development’ to the people of Katmandu village. A futile effort it would seem, as there was no progress showing.
It all started when his long-time friend, Aspen had decided to join ‘Doctors Without Borders’, a not-for-profit organization that went to impoverished areas to offer medical help. He then requested Dunhill to accompany him to Africa and use his vast experience in Civil Engineering to lay the groundwork for the construction of a modern clinic. Dunhill had been reluctant at first but grudgingly he left the comfort of his up-Market apartment in Manhattan and headed to East Africa, a place he had only heard of in his history classes.
What was initially a five week job had dragged on for the next eighteen months. Frustrations, depressions and despair had all plagued him but he was determined not to give up. He had taken the task to heart, often referring to it as his ‘baby’. A ‘calling’ he’d said when his fellow Americans inquired about his undertaking. Even when Aspen started voicing his reservations he would hear none of it.
There he was now on a sunny Monday morning wondering where his foreman was. This was the second time he had been late that week. Finding good help in these parts of the world had proved to be an impossible task. Few of the locals had basic education; most of them didn’t even understand English and would occasionally laugh at him whenever he spoke because he had a heavy accent. Therefore a translator was required. That was the foreman who had now decided to take an un-official holiday. He looked at the handy men that had already reported for work and wondered how he was going to communicate with them. The local language had proved hard for him to understand.
He smiled at the irony of it all. The Americans were amused at how the locals couldn’t understand English while they themselves couldn’t grasp even the simple words in the local languages.
As he sat under the tree waiting for his foreman, feelings of nostalgia overwhelmed him and he started remembering the first days in Katmandu village.
Together with Aspen, his wife and a team of people, mostly doctors, they had gotten a king’s welcome when they had arrived. They were seen as ‘liberators’ who would free the locals from the shackles of poverty, ignorance and disease.
With gusto they had embarked on their mission. Aspen and his fellow doctors treating the sick in a makeshift tent as they waited for Dunhill to lay the ground work for their clinic.
It was during this construction that Dunhill realized that the locals needed more than just a clinic. They didn’t have adequate water supply, schools, and a place for worship among other things. It was then that Dunhill began his ambitious project that would make him forget the luxuries of his American life and embrace life in a third world country.
What he had not expected were reservations from the people whom the projects were expected to help. The people seemed to have resigned their misfortune to fate. They saw no good could come from their surroundings. He always wondered why a people with such a rich culture and heritage could not envision a better version of themselves. Phrases like ‘No hurry in Africa’, ‘African time,’ took him to a state of depression. If something was a little hard they dismissed it as impossible. They never wanted to go the extra mile and instead of seeing him as a partner, they saw him like a mini-god.
Even when he taught them simple tasks they would perform them well but be unable to do them when he was away.
‘Are you an African or an Africant?’ he shouted at one of the workers who could not do a simple task on the pretext that only a white man had the ability. An ‘africant’ was a name he had coined for the locals who never wanted to be innovative. Never being a bigot at any time in his life, he believed that an African could do any anything that a white man could do. His views differed sharply with those of his fellow Americans who felt that the ‘black’ man was inferior to the white man.
It was at this time that he realized that the locals would have to be empowered in their way of thinking before they could achieve any other progress.
He then started on an apprenticeship where he taught the locals basic skills in Civil Engineering. Slowly their mentality had started to change but many lacked the confidence of handling work by themselves.
“Boss, boss, I’m back”, the thundering voice of his foreman interrupted his thoughts. He was standing next to him holding a spanner and with a sheepish smile across his face.
“Where were you?” he asked, waiting for the usual lame excuses.
“Mrs. Johnston had a broken water pump and I had gone to fix it”, he replied.
It was then Dunhill realized all he was doing was not in vain. They were now Africans!
© Oscar Gee Ng’ang’a 2009
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