Suppose you want to build a fence. In my home country, the US, you might just drive down to the local Lowe’s, Home Depot, or some other lumber yard. You go in, select the size and style of fence posts you want, hand over some cash, or sign a credit card receipt. And it’s done. Either the employees load the poles in your vehicle or you pay to have the poles delivered where you want them. It’s just about that easy.
Well, we want to build a fence around the health center we’re renovating. Since we don’t have a Lowe’s or Home Depot, we’ve had to look into other options. One option is getting metal fence posts. But they are too expensive, and we’d have to haul them at least eight hours to get them here. A second option is getting the Ik to cut poles from the forest, poles like the African Pencil Cedar that are impervious to weather and termites. But that would encourage the already rampant deforestation, and more importantly, it’s illegal to harvest trees from the national forest. That leaves a third option: get poles from eucalyptus trees that were grown for timber. But that requires hiring an expensive truck to haul them from hours away, and moreover, termites love to munch on eucalyptus.
We went with the third option, and so began the infamous fence-post fiasco of 2012.
I called a local dump-truck owner and asked him how much he’d charge to haul poles from Karenga, a town sixty miles away that has some eucalyptus poles for sale. He said $420. Ouch. So I gave our South African friend Patrick a call. He’s got an old but powerful ex-military 4x4 beast of a truck. He was kind enough to agree to let us use it for free; we only had to pay for fuel, which ended up being $170. Not a bad deal.
Last Monday we drove to Karenga. It was too late to go get the poles, so we decided to wait until the morning. We stayed at Patrick’s lovely ‘Ngamoru’ safari camp. The next morning we drove into town to the local government office (the local government owns the trees we wanted to buy from). We found the office all locked up. On a Tuesday. Morning. At 10 am. Not a holiday. Go figure. After a few minutes of scratching our proverbial heads, an official walked up. We told him what we were looking for, and he agreed to take us to the grove. He jumped in, and we headed off.
At this point I still held the naive belief that we could roll into the ‘lumber yard’, select the size and length of poles we wanted, and load them up. As it turned out, plenty of poles were there...but they were still, um, alive and growing. So we come up to this forest of living eucalyptus trees, and then the government official tells me to select the size of trees I wanted. Done. Then I’m informed that we have to drive all the way back into town to pay for the trees, get a receipt, and bring the receipt back to the cutters who would begin cutting. Couldn’t he have just told me the sizes in the first place?
Now back at the office in town, we are told that the cost of ‘grade 3’ trees is ‘no longer 3,000 shillings but is now 5,000’. Hmmm. Funny how those prices increase. We are also told that they don’t charge ‘per tree’ as we were led to believe but ‘per 8 meter pole’. Each tree contains on average 16 meters. So by now the price has nearly doubled per unit of wood, and the unit of wood has been cut down by half. I found myself in a situation that is by now all too familiar: I know I’m being scammed, and I know there is nothing I can do about it. Prices are not written anywhere. Oh, and in the midst of my being scammed, the official tried to capitalize on my confusion by trying to sell me 70 poles instead of the 35 poles (8 meters longs) that I had requested. If you follow: the cost per unit has doubled; the size of the unit has been halved... which means I need twice the number of units I originally asked for, but not really, because I originally thought the trees were 8 meters long. Don’t even try to figure that out.
I paid the 5,000 shillings per pole, which times 35, comes to 175,000, or $75. Not bad for thirty-five trees eight inches in diameter. But then I’m told we must wait for ‘half an hour’ while they look for guys to cut the trees. Oh, and I have to pay them too, which means another round of negotiations where I have no idea how much I should pay. Oh, and then I have to pay for loaders, which means yet another round of negotiations where I have no idea how much I should pay. After, yeah, about half an hour, a motley crew of men young and old, show up and we agree to pay them each 5,000 to cut the trees, plus 4,000 (total) to buy 20 liters (yes, five gallons for seven men) of the local brew, a necessary prerequisite for most manual labor jobs here. They tell us to come back in about five hours to load the felled trees. So we go back to Patrick’s camp and wait.
When the hour rolled around, I gave some money to Patrick’s truck driver to pay the loaders, knowing he could get a better price than I could. He leaves and is gone for more than two hours. When he comes back, he reports that he found those men getting drunk in town. They hadn’t even started cutting our order. Apparently, they worked on the order of another customer who actually stayed around to make sure it happened.
We resigned to stay another night at the camp and send the truck in again in the morning. That morning, it took them five hours to fell, section, and load our order. We had to leave early and take some visitors to our home in Timu, so the truck came later. After nearly three days of hassle, the fence-posts rolled slowly into Timu just after sunset. It was too late to unload, so the driver and a couple of other guys overnighted it at our place. The next morning we hired a bunch of Ik to unload. And now the money continues to flow as we need people to remove the bark and cut the poles into fence-posts. Then will come varnishing and dousing with used motor oil as a termite deterrent.
What does all this have to do with translation and language development? Sometimes I ask myself the same question. But it’s part of life on the frontier where convenient goods and services have yet to reach. It’s why things we take for granted in the West take so long to get done here. But what could we do? We needed fence-posts.