Its 40C, what do you fancy doing? Sitting in the shade, drinking some ice-cold beer, going for a swim? Work wouldn’t be at the top of your list would it? If you had to work, you’d probably envision some kind of air conditioned environment and a source of ice cubes for your cold drinks. You bone idle slob! What about lugging a pile of granite on your head up a steep slope or swinging a bloody great sledge-hammer all day, fancy that?
Thought not. Welcome to Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world, currently at 185 out of 188 at the bottom of the Human Development Index. You don’t even have to go far from the centre of its capital, Ouagadougou to have any allusions of lazy Africans shattered in a single grim vision. At the end of an innocuous side road in the West of the city lurks the vast man-made hole of an open cast granite quarry. Smoke billows up from burning material used to weaken the rock before men wield huge hammers against long chisels to split portions away from the bedrock. Clouds of grey dust waft slowly over the two thousand men and women earning a living in the hellish landscape, barely enough breeze to carry it away or temper the perspiration.
You won’t find a single machine or mechanical device on the whole site, human muscle has turned this entire, interred mass of granite into gravel sized lumps to be taken away and sold. The broken rocks are carried up to women at the top who sit, all day, usually six days a week, smashing them into progressively smaller pieces until they’re down to just a few centimetres across. A few highly skilled workers might receive up to $5 a day for the privilege of working in such conditions but for many it will be more like $2.
Even in Burkina Faso this kind of money doesn’t go that far so you’ll even find a few kids hammering away at rocks to supplement their parents income. There is however a crèche nearby provided by the company to look after the workers’ children for those who are not quite so desperate.
For most Africans being genuinely lazy just simply isn’t an option. With one job supporting eight people on average, turning down a job or risking sacking for being a slob won’t get you very far in life or earn you much respect from the family. Breaking rocks in the hot sun may not be someone’s first choice of career but, for many it is the difference between feeding the family or starving; giving your kids an education or buying medicine for an illness that would be of little consequence to those of us protected by a welfare state but for the poor could have dramatic consequenses.Traditional values have always put great store in family bonds so people are expected to put the welfare of their family before personal gain.
You will hear Africans themselves complaining about lazy Africans, but this can be more of a misrepresentation of another failing, such as lack of initiative or concerning corrupt officials and those whose job is secured by family connections, regardless of aptitude or dedication.
Its easy to see why the eyes of the prejudiced traveller in African cities might pick up on groups of men hanging around the streets and blame their lack of activity on some inherent laziness. I’ve spent many hours hanging out and talking with such groups and learnt that there is more to their behaviour than just passing the time as they’ve got nothing better to do. In a modern economy, away from village life, the family role of men who have no job has been taken fron them – if you see a group of men in a village sitting doing nothing its because their work for the day is done. In maintaining friendship groups in particular places on the streets it offers the possibility of profiting from the connections of any individual in the group and allows them to exploit any opportunities that arise on their bit of turf. Guys will leap up to guide a car into a parking space or help someone unload a van in the hope of a tip; a shop keeper might want someone to guard the shop while he goes out. As all the friends and families of the group know where to find them if there’s any chance of paid work, all group members can potentially profit.
With so few jobs to go around many people have to do whatever they can to earn a bit of money and that can often have no respect for the the length of time involved to earn that pittance. Some might sit all day hoping to sell an item from the handful of objects they have collected or are trying to sell on behalf of a shop owner they know. A day or even several days may go by without selling anything but it’s that or nothing and it at least offers a slim hope of eventually having some kind of business should times improve.
In a country like Burkina Faso, struggling with political instability, corruption and terrorism the lives of most are determined by forces far greater than anything that characteristics like determination or initiative can overcome. It’s not lazy Africans that I see but decent people somehow coping, despite everyday life often being an uphill obstacle course of a kind we will never know ourselves. Respect to them all.
In the unlikely event of any readers visiting Ouagadougou and wishing to visit the quarry, you’ll need someone to translate from Moré, the local language. The manager will show you around so please give him some money to put into the fund that supports injured workers.