Monday, November 16, 2009

On the value of things…

It’s easy to forget just how good we have it in the developed nations. Sure our lives are complicated (Eg: Bills - ever noticed how long it takes to finalise change of address when you relocate?!?) but our options are many and it takes just a few hours work each week to feed ourselves and a few more hours to buy enough ‘stuff’ to be able to hold that mandatory garage sale every few years. Discretionary income though, is just one of many concepts that I doubt I could adequately explain to the locals. I’ve seen subsistence farming in many places but when you look at the straw and timber or mucbrick houses and crops here then reflect that it is 25 km walk down to the lake to buy fish or cooking oil and then 25 km back up the same steep hills it give you a new insight into just how different my world is from theirs. Just about everything here is either grown, cut from the jungle or carted in on their backs.

So rare in this place are many things that we take for granted that for example, some of the guys here have offered to work 4 days in exchange for an empty 200 litre diesel drum. That’s roughly the equivalent of USD$16 for something that we would discard as useless. To put it in another perspective, 4 days equates to roughly $600 worth of labour back in Australia. Meanwhile… back at the headshed, we’re pondering whether or not to accept this offer. On the one hand we have 20 or 30 empty drums which are surplus to requirements. We have a few main options: swap drums for labour, sell them, leave them to rust, truck them out for disposal (where they’ll end up in the community anyway) or bury them. What’s the most environmentally and safety conscious answer? Who knows? If we accept the offer of 4 days work for a drum we can probably get rid of 10 of them, save 200,000 TZS in labour costs and help the local community. Whether or not they benefit the local community depends of course, on what they do with them. Eg: if they use them for storing water, will carcinogenic residues end up in their bodies?

The question of course is, if they do swallow a load of carcinogens will it kill them before they turn 35??? Thirty five after all, is about average life expectancy here anyway. Will a drum (even with diesel residue) help extend their life because they can boil and store drinking/washing water in large quantities or store crops away from vermin? In point of fact, we have a hot shower here because we use an old diesel drum as a donkey boiler to heat the water so maybe the diesel residue isn’t so bad after all... Who are we in fact, to landfill a drum which could give them reserves of drinking water or even potentially communal hot water. Then again, if they use it for making gongo (local bootleg liquor) will it create social problems here with an overabundance of grog? Probably not, as it’s already easily available but I can't say that for sure. I can say that not many of the locals seem too interested in grog anyway and I can’t say I blame them. Gongo looks like vodka but tastes like unleaded petrol. So that’s our dilemma with the empty drums. Do we let them into the community? If anyone has any tips or suggestions either way, I’d love to hear them.

The drums of course are just one of the many things that the locals value and that we don't. Everything here has value, even the rubbish. They have so little material possessions that a polymesh bag can become a suitcase or backpack, an empty 1.5 litre drink bottle is a valuable commodity for carrying water. And yes, speaking of carrying, those pictures of people carrying stuff on their head as per 1950’s National Geographic are just as true today. A plastic bowl of about 70cm diameter supported by a cloth on the head is the standard way to carry bananas etc to market. Anything up to 40kg seems to be fair game to be carried this way. Great for posture and balance but I can help but wonder what it does to the vertebrae. Pushbikes though are the haulage vehicles of choice here – I’ve seen them hauling loads of probably 100kg comprising any combination of bricks, timber, produce or clothes as a sort of two wheeled push cart over distances of up to 50km. Quite amazing to see how cunningly the frame of a pushbike can be adapted for load carrying…


  1. Hmmm.

    Your fuel drum issue looks like a risk management problem.

    To kinda fill out the risk profile...Can the drums be cleaned locally so that (1) you reduce the amount of contaminants that would be consumed by the eventual end user, and (2) in such a manner that you won't be polluting the local environment?

  2. Yes. Exactly what we're thinking. And I think the answer to both questions is 'yes'.

    One of the main options we're looking at is that they clean out the drums here on site under our supervision but I need to do some research on how best to do it. In turn it introduces other questions because we don't have unlimited detergent on site nor do we have unlimited water as we have to pump or cart it in from the creek. Last but not least, what do we do with the residue of the drums. We can't just tip it on the ground but perhaps it is useful for treating timber posts or just soak it into the firewood pile. A classic, risk management dilemma in so much as each risk treatment introduces new risks.