Mike's photo adventure weblog

Mike's photo adventure weblog: July 2007

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Zambia #8

So the miners are on strike. It all began when the workers’ union representatives traveled to the Zambia head-office to negotiate, and were promised a 21% raise on their base salary plus back-pay from the start of negotiations. This was expected to come into effect last week but due to an accounting debacle and some poor communication between union and workers, it didn’t happen for everybody. Seems that some had their raise and back-pay, some only had 6% raises, and some even had their pay reduced. The bean-counters were warned to fix it fast but they didn’t. Now the Leading Hands and Managers are operating equipment, along with some workers who snuck through the protest. Although our stockpiles are running down and this can’t keep up forever, the mill is thrilled with the consistency and quality of the ore feed! And further proof that the stock market makes no sense: When the news hit the exchanges about our strike, the stock jumped up over 3% in the remaining hours of trading.

Last year it only lasted half a day before being resolved, but the Ghanaian Production Manager had to go to court in the capital. He had taken a photo of the union leader during the protest, and faced charges of witchcraft. The union leader felt that he was being cursed to death by the black-magic of the black foreigner. The superstitious fear magic (sometimes known as ‘ju-ju’) from Africans originating from other parts of the continent.

We’ve had some pretty hilarious occurrences over the last few weeks, which I hear about from the production crew at our daily meetings. Last week the dozer went to our rubbish dump to bury and compact things, and found about 50 locals scouring for scrap metal. They fled into the forest, but when they saw the dozer was burying their treasure, they started hurling rocks. The security has since been stepped up, and there are plans to make the landfill area our new snake-relocation zone.

And two days ago a 40-tonne truck’s parking brake seized on, and while the truck drove up a ramp the brake caught fire. The driver jumped out and smartly chocked the wheels, and our Shift Manager came with the water truck to quickly bring the fire under control. When the fire was extinguished the brake released, and the chocks proved inadequately small for the 2-meter diameter tyres. The truck began creeping backwards, and everybody hesitated to jump aboard the soon-to-be runaway truck. It rolled down-ramp for over a hundred meters, narrowly avoiding a grader, a pickup, and the sheer-drop off the high-wall into the pit. At the bottom of the ramp it ran over a stop sign before rolling to a relatively peaceful stop. Even funnier is that the Shift Manager and Production Manager were laughing to the point of tears as they told us what happened on their watch. Since no equipment or people were hurt, this situation’s hilarity could be appreciated. But at any first-world mine, people wouldn’t take it so lightly. Hurray for a laid-back Africa.

The 21 tradesmen of Team Indonesia have now been joined by 50 Filipinos. Sometimes at lunch I wonder if I’m still in Africa. Apparently, flying in these skilled contractor teams is way cheaper than employing the local people, and you get better results, much faster. As unfair as this is to the local people desperate for work, the problem with Zambians is that so many certified tradesmen have forged certificates. And some of the authentic certificates are from schools that have no equipment, so people can graduate without ever touching a wrench or lathe. What good is that!? But I’ve been in contact with one of the social development coordinators and they’ve found an excellent trade-school in the Congo that they’ll be investing in and recruiting from.

I've got some more photos posted on the flickr account, like newspaper clippings you could only find in Africa, what 40000 kg of explosives can do, and visual accounts of two more hilarious occurances not mentioned above. Plus chimpanzees! Check them out by clicking the thumbnail above.

Only two weeks remaining for me here before I’m off to see something other than rocks and dust. It's the final countdown. (And I've got that song by 'Europe' stuck in my head).


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Zambia #7

At night the temperature here drops into the single digits, and my tin-can accommodation has absolutely no insulation. Fortunately I remain comfortable with plenty of blankets, but I still dread that first contact of bare-feet to floor each morning. With the temperature rising rapidly early in the morning and never even a whisper of wind, the mornings are always comfortable. But the Zambians and Australians around here sure complain about the cold, especially at breakfast where we eat in an essentially open-air cafeteria.
On a similar topic, it appears that nobody here understands the function of the “defrost” setting in a car. Both Africans and Australians will get into a car on a cool morning, leave the heater off or set it to dash/floor, and then repeatedly wipe the fogging windows with their hands all the way down the road. The Zim woman with whom I surveyed in the bush absolutely refused to allow me to turn on the defrost heater. She was adamant that heaters ‘smell funny’ and we should just wipe the windows ourselves. Whatever.

During the monthly safety meeting the Mine Manager relayed a story about his time working at Palabora mine in South Africa, which is separated from Mozambique by a large game reserve. The mine had two large smokestacks that could be seen from over a hundred kilometers away in Mozambique, and escaping refugees would use these as landmarks for navigation to South Africa. The mine would frequently catch small groups of starving, dehydrated refugees who had come through the fence from the game reserve. The mine would give them food and water, and my boss then started asking them about their journey. He discovered that their party of 5 initially started with about 50 people! All the others had been bitten by snakes, collapsed from exhaustion, or been eaten by lions. The refugees actually came to be the primary food source for the lions of the game reserve. I wish I was joking.

The other night at the pub I was quizzing a few Zambians about marriage and relationships. Considering how westernized the people here are, I was astonished at what I heard.
In most parts of Africa including Zambia, a married man having a mistress or girlfriend is socially acceptable. Even further, a man is legally allowed to take multiple wives, but women cannot have multiple husbands. Most men who take multiple wives do it as a show of wealth or virility. But I’m told a jealous wife will sometimes poison the favourite wife. Or the husband. Most people here are understandably monogamous.
In a divorce, the wife gets nothing. And because the man is the “custodian of the marriage”, a woman cannot legally get divorced without his agreement. Amazing how the people are so devoutly Christian, yet are able to mix in traditional customs. I can just imagine the missionaries bargaining with the natives they encountered here hundreds of years ago.... “Alright, if you cut out the cannibalism, we’ll let you keep the polygamy. Deal?”
I promised the guys that with globalization and increasing women’s rights they would see these customs changing within their lifetimes.

Yesterday was the most fun I’ve had on the mine site yet. A 120 meter TV tower needed a cable brought up and connected to a radio repeater. It seems everybody around here is afraid of heights; meanwhile I was jumping at the opportunity to climb anything after so long without rock climbing. So after dragging up an increasingly heavy amount of coaxial cable behind me, I discovered that the plug did not fit the socket. Oh well, now I have to climb it again later.
In the afternoon my boss the South African Mine Manager (for description see the end of update #4) had invited me to come for a dirtbike/quad ride around the perimeter fence. I was under the impression it would somehow be work related -- looking for damage perhaps. I didn’t expect being invited for something fun. But fun it was, oh boy. A 400cc quad can really rip, and on the open road I got it up over 80 km/h! The huge mine property has lots of trails ranging from footpaths to full-width roads, and there are lots of dirt pits to play around in. There are even zebra, impala, and elan (like a deer) on the property, but we could only find hoof prints today.
And it’s not because we were on loud machines -- it’s actually much easier to find African wildlife from motorized vehicles than on foot. Because humans and animals evolved simultaneously in Africa, the animals are now instinctually frightened of a recognizable human shape. Hence why, (a) you cannot domesticate African animals, and (b) a car allows you to get up very close to animals without them running off, to the delight of safari-goers.

As usual I’ve posted plenty of new photos! Please take a look and feel free to comment. Click the thumbnail above.