Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Glimpses of Life in an African Dock

If you go up to deck 8, which is an open deck, you are treated with endless hours of entertainment, regardless of your personality type. Some gaze towards the nearby island; some observe the water and the predator fish attacking the little ones on a regular basis; some meditate on the million colors of the sky, while others enjoy the business of the port.  (pictures get bigger if you click on them)

I often go up to deck 8 and depending on my mood I switch between these wonderful options. A few days ago I chose the port people. Looking down on them from high above gave me a unique opportunity to dig into their life a bit, to capture some moments and meditate on how blessed I am that instead of working my butts off for little to no money all day I can sit on my ship and study them from afar...

Chaos - is the first word that comes to mind when you look around. Only after sitting down and dedicating a good couple of hours to this project will you start to understand that there is, indeed a method to their madness. In their own mind, (dare I say?) in their West African mindset their goal is to get as much out of it as possible with as little work as possible. Nothing new here, we heard this definition before. But here, somehow it all makes sense. What do I mean by this?

Port exit completely blocked both in and out by trucks
Take these port workers for example. All of them are strong, muscular men in their prime. They come from a culture that supports group activity and cultivates fellowship with everybody. "We all work here, we all get the same amount of money, we all do this together." From this context it's not too difficult to come to the conclusion that "we all know how to do the job best" and consequently they often tell yell at each other. Back home you'd say too many cooks spoil the broth and yes, that's often the reason for the chaos. It often comes down to who can shout louder / who has a whistle / who is dressed in a military outfit.

Another problem is the lack of common courtesy and politeness. They all believe that they have the right to go first. Now if everybody has this attitude conflicts are inevitable, in which case we get back to problem nr. 1.: It comes down to who can shout louder / who has a whistle / who is dressed in a military outfit.

Yet, somehow things get done here... well, eventually. "African time" is a given, no need to dwell on this. If you cannot accept it, don't do business here. Another challenge comes in the form of  goods "fallen of the truck" as we used to call them back home. Here many items fall off quite regularly. There was a grain ship behind us when I was up on deck 8. They had about 20 sailors working on the vessel, most of them busy dealing with the cranes that were unloading the bags from the cargo bays. On the dock 3 sets of 2 trucks side by side parked in front of each other. As far as I know the trucks belong to the port while the drivers are all individual contractors. Basically if you know how to make a truck move ("driving" would a push) you have a job. If you are strong enough to pick up and move hundreds of bags of 30+kg each day, you have a job, too.

Man collecting grains from the ground
So these guys organize the grain bags onto the flatbed trucks. When the cargo nets are lowered just above the truck they unhook the chains and the bags free fall onto the flatbed. Some bags obey the rules of gravity and make their way onto the ground. Sometimes they even rip open. In such cases they put those bags aside and continue the work. Rest assured it won't take long for somebody to kneel down next to the open grain bag and start scooping up the grains from the dirty ground into his own bag. When you're talking about 20.000 tons of grains per ship, loosing a few bags is really nothing. On the other end gaining half a bag of grain will feed a family of 6 for several weeks!

There is no competition between the loading trucks, the workers are not in teams. Usually they sit around and when there is a job all, who showed up for work that day, are directed to work on it until it's finished. Surely there are some people in charge of these huge operations, but so far I wasn't able to determine, who...

To prevent illegal off loading of any sorts port police people are everywhere. How come then that there is still so much illegal activity happening here - you might ask. Bribe is a strong word, I'd rather us the phrase I learnt here: "I help you, you help me". Simple, clean, it works and benefits many. Though I must say while I was watching the show I saw one sailor drop down a blue plastic bag from the vessel to a guy waiting on the ground. He caught it in the air and was on his way to his car, when the whistling and yelling started. Suddenly he was surrounded by many custom officers and they opened the bag. Sadly I didn't see what was inside, but that's not even important. He was dragged away by the men in blue. They took him between 2 containers where nobody could see them - well, except me. I don't know what was said or exchanged between them, but a few  minutes later he came out,, grabbed the blue bag and drove away...

It looks like a rough place to work. I truly felt sorry for the many ladies who walk around among these guys selling food and water. They are often not treated with any respect. :(

Once the truck is ready they carefully guide them towards the port gate. It they are lucky a few more bags fall off. To "prevent" any theft while driving they have guys sitting on top of the bags without any form of security, they travel with the truck. Scary, but fun. Cannot say I would refuse if I was asked to join... :)

And to finish off this post I show you how they store trucks when they are not needed... :))))))))

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