Friday, February 11, 2011

The Gleaners

Amidst the general chaos that exists in Juba right now owing to all of the building and construction projects, one of the roads that I use almost daily to walk to and from the office has been completely rebuilt and the other day was finally tarmaced. This is remarkable for many reasons, the least of which is that this quarter-mile long stretch of asphalt measurably increases the amount of tarmaced road in all of south Sudan. I used to enjoy walking on this road when it was just a dirt path and you had to cross a small stream by straddling an old truck chassis that someone had thoughtfully laid across the water. I was a little sad when the road was widened and scraped and the neem trees which grew-up in the middle of the right-of-way were cut down. This used to be a quiet pathway but once it was widened and gravelled it became a busy, dusty thoroughfare. But that's progress. Finally last week the construction crew came in and laid down the last layer of gravel and paved the road. No sooner had the road-crew left, I think actually before they left, a small group of women showed-up and started retrieving the excess gravel which had been left on the edges of the road. All this week the women have been there, from first light in the morning until evening. Bent over all day, exposed to the sun and the terrible heat that we are currently experiencing (close to or over 100-degrees every day), digging with their hands through the gray dirt to sift out the precious gravel which they collect in large pails. When their pails are overflowing the women then lift them with practiced dexterity and a strength that would shame most men and pour the gravel into large sacks. When full the sacks are tied closed and left to be sold to whomever it is that comes around and buys sacks of recycled gravel. It is hideous, brutal work. At first I felt sorry for the women having to do this work, working so hard for probably very little. There is an entire industry here of gravel making that is conducted by women. On the south side of town there is a camp of women, like outcasts, who toil all day with hammers to break down boulders into gravels of various sizes. There is so much construction going on in Juba, such a demand for gravel, that the women are always busy and fill an valuable role. This is one of those cases where an unthinking, kind hearted person might be tempted to bring in a large mechanical gravel making machine so these women didn't have to do such hard work. But the net result of that action would be to put a large number of women out of work and to saddle the local economy with another machine which would spend more time broken down. In Africa, labor is cheap and plentiful and in need to occupation. The western desire to provide people here with great pieces of machinery usually result in disaster, putting people out of work and leaving them dealing with equipment which frequently breaks and for which parts are difficult if not impossible to find. Anyway, getting back to the rock ladies, at first I felt bad seeing these women digging through the dirt all day for bucketsfull of gravel. But a friend pointed out how entreprenurial these women were, taking advantage of an opportunity and that if they weren't getting the gravel someone else would. Far from being pitiable, I have began to see these women as smart and strong and remarkable and wishing them the best of luck. It's funny how things are not always how they seem at first.