London architect Jon Beswick, 27, has left the UK on an epic 48,000km overland trip circumnavigating Africa, during which he and his travel partner, strategy consultant Charlie Curtis, will build shelters for HIV clinics and raise money for UK charity One to One Children's Fund. Until 24 February, Jon was working as a project architect for Sacks Maguire Architects on high-end residential projects in Belgravia and Hampstead with construction budgets of £2,000,000. The budget for each shelter, which he is designing, is only a few hundred pounds and will pay for local labour and materials. Over the next few months Jon will be writing a diary for WAN as his adventure continues...
The informality of working in Africa has struck me as at complete contrast with that of the society that I am used to. In the 'Western' construction industry, there are strict hierarchies, formalities and regulating procedures, which govern the construction industry. So often in Africa, these boundaries either don’t exist or are so blurred as to have redefined themselves.
On my travels I have ridden the wave of these inconsistencies and find that there are two very contrasting arenas to consider; the modern sprawling African city and rural Africa. In rural Africa the main construction will be the vernacular dwelling using traditional building techniques that are often unchanged for hundreds if not thousands of years. As such it is an integral part of village life. The erection of a new dwelling doesn’t require an architect (boo), planner (yeh), surveyor (boo), or contractor (yeh)… just the future occupant, his family and often help from the rest of the village. The location for the new house is decided either by the Chief of the village or Land Priest in some tribes. Work moves quickly, simple shelters being erected in days, more complex in weeks. Women are often made to collect reeds and grasses for the roof while the men build the structure. Any help from villagers is rewarded with food and drink. As such a paradigm occurs - there are both no tradesmen, whilst at the same time every person is a tradesperson.
In Guinea we (Charlie and I) spent time in a village where a new house was being erected. Upon our arrival the walls were built, and the roof (constructed on the ground) was waiting to be lifted into place. The dwelling was circular in plan and had been constructed from mud bricks, with a plastered mud finish. A large adjacent hole was tribute to the fact that all materials had been acquired within a radius of a few meters. In the village environment specialist tradesmen therefore aren’t required, as all the villagers have spent their whole lives building in this way, with skills being passed from generation to generation.
The city on the other hand produces tradesman more akin to our Western concept of such, working for a fee and on a much more official capacity. But there are fundamental differences. Jawara is one such labourer, who can illustrate my point. As with most people his age he's a plasterer, an electrician, a landscape gardener, a tour guide, a football player...and a wrestler. For African labourers do whatever they can to make money…there are so few jobs. I met Jawara in the Casamance region in Senegal. Of course he is not alone in his multi-disciplinary approach to work and I have heard similar stories all over the West Coast of Africa. One man in Sierra Leone, offered to sell me 1kg of cocaine, when I refused he suggested I buy a 1 carrot diamond. At this point I told him I was constructing shelters for children with AIDS and not presently in the market for class A drugs or diamonds…he promptly informed me about his charity work. He sells diamonds and cocaine to give the profits to his children’s charity. As ridiculous as it sounds,
there are very few who can afford the luxury of Western morals so boundaries are shifted here, and Jawara and many others do what they must. Camping on the beach, he cleared the rubbish away, offered us fish (he’s also a fisherman), woman to cook for us (family catering business), music, (he’s a musician) and his sisters to keep us company in the tent (lonely hearts club?).
The problem he faces is no one is building. Despite its inherent beauty, there are few tourists or Westerners in the Casamance region due to internal fighting. He pointed to a house; “I built that for the white man, but now there is nothing”. The house was poorly constructed by Western standards, a simple concrete box, on poor foundations, un-insulated, gutter-less, with single layered corrugated iron roof. The cost of construction for this three bedroom house was approximately €1200. Jawara will be poorly paid because there are so few jobs and so much competition.
In the hierarchy of the tradesmen, one up from Jawara is the labourer with tool. It is likely he will only own one tool such as a power drill, compressor or even a bike and so will be called in on specific jobs where his tool is required. When building in Burkina Faso we required the services of one such tradesman. I asked if we could hire an electric drill for drilling into the metal hollow square sections. Ten minutes later a man with a dilapidated drill appeared. I was not however allowed to use the drill because it came with owner who never let it leave his sight. Despite having to wire up his drill with sellotape he commanded higher pay than the other labourers. He subsequently stayed with us until the end of the project, even for the tooled labourer, I guess work is slow.
"The time you waste in going to school, we use that time to learn trade and establish our own business and before you graduate we become millionaires and get you employed to work for us"
Labourers have become predominant over the last few decades as modern African cities have exploded in size. Young (often unskilled) men are drawn to them from all over the country in search of the chance of a better life. None awaits them; it is an illusion so they accumulate on street corners waiting for work, any work. There are 15,000,000 inhabitants in Lagos, (Nigeria’s capital), most are unemployed and live in sprawling shantytowns. Many of these men will be labourers either skilled or unskilled waiting for any work whether this be digging ditches, building or cleaning. I’m informed a large proportion of Nigerian tradesman consist of Igbo people, a tribe from the Eastern part of Nigeria, who are known for their skills in construction. In correspondence with the Chairman of Nigerian Trade Association North (Spare Parts) division, Mr Chito Agu, he explained how the Igbo don’t believe in education; instead they believe in the power of money and quick cash:
“Because we cannot waste time going to school in the name to get educated and seek after the white man job because the time you waste in going to school, we use that time to learn trade and establish our own business and before you graduate we become millionaires and get you employed to work for us. With your education you still answer us sir, so what is the need of going to school since we make more money than you do learning how to trade.”
As such there is a high rate of illiteracy with the Igbo, who learn their trade for 4 to 5 years. This takes the form of an apprenticeship from the ages of 12 to 15 years. Their pay depends on the type of apprenticeship they are doing, if they are serving under a building ‘master’ then he should finish his 5 years with the minimum of $1,000. Though this sounds a small amount it is enough for the apprentice to start on his own.
This situation is not without its problems and child abuse is common, especially when young children have an apprenticeship with a ‘master’. They may well be ill fed and of course are indoctrinated by and live at the mercy of their master. But to the Igbo this is part of the hard process of gaining money and a certain level of independence. In a country where corruption is such a problem this is a highly regarded prize.
When asked about the differences between Western building trade and African, the frankness of Mr Chito Agu’s response was profound:
“You journalist always ask something that you already knew, how can you ask what is the difference in life and death? The Westerns are
more organized, they go to school to learn about the profession and they know what they are doing. In Nigeria here you do not have to go to school to learn that, you can just buy the certificate from the black market and get a politician to give you a contract then you will just pocket the money or raise a substandard structure. The Westerns are sincere and less greedy but the Africans are greedy because all they want is money and do not care if millions of people will die for it, but the Westerns have conscience and they are more rational.”
And as to regulations…
“To build in Africa you need to have money and buy land, get contractors to build on it. Nothing happens; all that is required is to have the money to get a contractor because you cannot build without money.”
I asked what contracts exist if any?
“No contracts just pay the contractors in cash and they start the building. Once you have the money you can do all you want.”
While this format of working would scare many a professional working in Europe, it is an attractive proposition for some cultures who do very well here. For example there is a huge Lebanese construction community in Nigeria as there is in many other parts of Africa. These communities are hugely successful due to their ability to forge relationships (where business is won or lost) with government officials and wealthy African businessmen. I am (reliably) told one percent of the population of Nigeria are infinitely rich government officials who make their money through corruption in the oil trade with Western oil companies. Then there is a middle class of sorts made up of Lebonese, Indians, Chinese, Westeners, educated Nigerians etc who trade with the highest echelons of society. Finally the rest of a 137 million population is incredibly poor and have nothing. One Lebanese construction company was working on a block of new build apartments, a private investment for a government official. The total value of the contract was $10,000,000. Of that sum, half was a bribe paid upfront to the government. Leaving $2,500,000 construction cost and $2,500,000 profits to the construction company. As far as I know no architect was used. The contract was an envelope full of money to win the $10,000,000 build.
"Individuals like Dowda or Jawara are left with nothing and so nothing is kept aside for tomorrow or re-invested into a business, a home or a drill"
But the Lebanese aren’t the only communities working and infiltrating Africa. In the Congo (Congo - Brazzaville) we stayed with a Chinese construction company who were building a road from the border with Gabon. The company had imported its own workers. All 130 were Chinese, none of whom spoke French (the official language of the Congo) except for two translators who had been brought in especially. More incredibly, was that most of the workers were political prisoners. The effect on lowly African tradesmen is yet more competition. Because of this competition from home and abroad, pay, when it comes, is insubstantial. Further more this money is then divided around the family and even the extended family. Dowda, a Nigerian electrician we met working in Abuja was in such a position. He couldn’t afford to educate and feed his children in the city so he worked and sent his money back to his village for his wife and her family. Family and extended family play an important part in African life. Cousins (especially on the mothers side) are sometimes more important than the husband. Community also plays an important role. If a man can't afford to feed his family one week, his neighbour will provide food for them. When all this is considered individuals like Dowda or Jawara are left with nothing and so nothing is kept aside for tomorrow or re-invested into a business, a home or a drill. But for many African traditional cultures, the future tense is an alien concept. Each day is a challenge in itself and life is lived solely in the present.
Editorial , London
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