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The Workshed

March 31, 2011

workshed290.jpgThe breeze I was looking for last night is here this morning, cool and steady, stirring up the reeds along the riverbank and creating a noisy chop on the river. There is nothing to hint at the 40 degrees to come. There is no one about as I park on the bank and watch the rafts of foliage, mainly hyacinth, float past.  Some sort of wren with a copper blue breast picks around in the dirt at my feet. I should have brought the camera with me as I see waders drifting along, birds I have never seen before.

The ubiquitous ibis muscles in of course. Doves coo in the bush behind me and I feel as remote and as isolated as one could on one of the busiest highways on the planet.  Making that point last night was a remarkably long barge, perhaps one hundred metres long, covered in vehicles and people, pushing north. It growled its way up river just as a long runabout pushed south.  But isolated we are. Measure that any way you like but even the quickest connection to communications and any semblance of a town is an hours ride by boat up to Melut.  I love it

No one can find any matches so we settle for a tin of fruit and a cup of powdered milk (yes, with water added) to get the day started. It’s a pleasant start at that, sitting under a thorn bush, a cool breeze, the sun a remote disc on the horizon reduced by haze and still rising through the scrub. Last night I dropped off the chatter of Dinka moving up and down the track outside the compound. Not a peep from any of them now. The only people moving along the tracks are the boys working in the shed who wander along without the pressure of a starters whistle. Still, the intention is that they get underway by 0830. And they pretty much do, arriving here and changing into overalls and pulling on safety boots. Safety consciousness here pretty much extends to staying out of the way  of hippos and snakes. Workshop and tool safety is another matter altogether. And given this place is about steel fabrication there are plenty of ways molten and sharp steel can ruin your day.

The wind howls in from the north and the temperature picks up. By lunchtime we have slowed our pace and are burdened by heat and dust. A dozen kids appear out of nowhere, ambushing me with laughter and high jinks.  They have been playing in the reeds where it is cool and wet. Others have been wallowing in the mud – same attributes I guess. I point at the dry mud on the face of one of the five year olds. They all cackle with laughter and immediately touch my arms. Even though burned by the sun my forearms are no match for their ebony black skin and I am very pale in comparison. The colour is an endless source of amusement for them and an interesting glimpse for me into colour discrimination. Not that they are motivated by that of course but the difference makes for comparisons.  

Back into the workshop the boys are putting the finishing touches to  a set of shelves. They have built these out of 44 gallon drums (sorry, 200 litre drums). The process involves one of the guys cutting the top and bottom out of the drum,  slicing open the resulting roll of metal and  unrolling the sides into a flat sheet. Actually it is not quite flat. Those reinforcing ribs need beating out so the largest lad sets to work with a sledge hammer and beats it as flat as he can on the ground with a large hammer. I do not envy him his work.  Then others measure up, cut and fold these into shelves and end sections before everything is bolted together. They agree the drums are a pain in the butt and decided to use sheet metal next time, But they are delighted with the end result and plan on selling these for 200 Sudanese pounds apiece. It’s a very creative outcome and impressive work whichever way you look at it.

While that has been going on others have been practicing their MIG welding (and that has nothing to do with repairing Russian aircraft!) and the MIG device gets plenty of work. Others have been shown how to angle cut and weld a rectangle using box steel. It will be a small model for a door and door frame. Apparently steel doors are a hot item around here and the locals want them for their tukels. It is a little odd to see these mud huts in which they live with a steel door but hey, we all want a bit of security around where we live don’t we?

The containers around which the Workshed has been built looks like a dark cave to bats and that is exactly how they treat them. The materials container is home to a colony of little bats, which go after the cattle at night but which hole up here in the day. Retrieving material out of there is done to an accompanying flittering as fast shadows dart around you.

A couple of young lads turn up with a clutch of phone batteries. The Workshed is the basis of another small enterprise – the recharging of phones for which they charge a small fee. The Workshed is the only source of electricity in the area so as you can imagine there is high demand for this sort of service.  Cell phones have penetrated here as well and even as I jot these notes one of the workers if taking a photo of me sitting on the drum using his phone camera. Just because he can I guess.

The students in the Workshed are a sharp bunch but as a result of twenty years of war represent a generation raised with no education. They are keen to learn and to make up for lost time.  They are earnest about the task and help reinforce our own sense of urgency about it all. But what a generation has destroyed will take another generation to rebuild. They pick up concepts very quickly and their tutor, and the brains behind the shed and its design, construction and implementation out here is Russell, an Australian engineer, is keen to cover as many subjects as possible – maths, drafting, design, quality control, tolerances, production, business basics, safety and on and on. Quality is something they understand. I was amused to overhear a conversation yesterday which touched on this – their metal fabrication competitors in Melut do a poor welding job in comparison. How much more attractive is their product when their construction is so sound.  They take pride in this. And so they should – they are building an enterprise out of nothing in the middle of the bush and already they are generating revenue. 

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