PROLETARIAT DEXTERITY BELTANE
At work, I have been grappling with an administration that had difficulties in comprehending that I had both retired and immediately become a consultant, officially impossible but allowed thanks to a special waiver signed by the President. Apparently I am the first employee in recent history to have achieved this feat, for which force majeure deserves the larger credit. I shall now finish in November 2019, as originally foreseen, if not before. My work is now more varied and consists of overseeing, drafting and editing weighty documents intended for the Board, developing short messages to cover the Bank’s policies and activities, and re-writing the House style guide – a task that seems to be pitched somewhere between Hercules and Sisyphus.
Abidjan has been suffering from unseasonal weather – great rolling storms that grumble for hours in the late evening, then whiplash repeatedly, sending down thick dumpy duvets of unrelenting rain for hours at a time, and normally at night. Several mornings I have awakened as if from a long and uncomfortable open boat journey on a rocking sea, with a slight sickness and giddiness that confirms a restless night and signals a heavy-lidded day ahead. I have given up trying to establish when and which seasons start and finish, since the one consistent element in the last thirty months has been that the temperature is always somewhere between 28 and 35 degrees centigrade, whether in night, day, sun, wind, sandstorm or rain.
The cost of labour is perilously low in the Cote d’Ivoire. It’s undervalued in precisely those areas where prices in Europe are prohibitive, such as plumbing or motor mechanics. In Swiss garages, for example, it is not unusual for the labour charge to be many times the cost of simple parts. In Abidjan the labour cost is more like a tip than a fair price. Alli tells me we are getting a piano tuner to tune our much neglected piano, at a price of 200 euros (I distinctly remember it costing five shillings in the early 1960s in London). In Abidjan, electricians, plumbers, jobbing builders, carpenters, itinerant tailors, beauticians, hairdressers, masseurs, piano tuners and others who sell their skills and labour rather than any material commodities expect and get paid very little for their work. The average wage for a full time bartender (for six 12-hour days a week) can be as little as 10 euros a week and rarely gets above double that, even with decades of experience and knowledge. Marxism is not the answer to this problem as, on its creator’s terms, the economy would need to pass through an industrial phase to create a proletariat, and that is still a long way off, and may even be avoided by the more rapid arrival of the fourth industrial revolution and its robots, drones, millennial millionaires, and artificial intelligence. The high level of unemployment here is dwarfed by higher under-employment: casual or badly paid, occasional, or seasonal labour. One day I invited in a man who trundles down our pot-holed road every weekend with his sewing machine, rattling it with a pair of tailor’s scissors to announce his coming. I wanted to see if he could mend the badly torn silk lining of a rather expensive green Italian jacket I had bought many years ago in Rome. I had tried to get it mended and received either an exorbitant quote (Switzerland) or a denial that it could be done (France). The jacket had hung un-mended in a wardrobe for months. The tailor, a Hausa man, hardly blinked at the challenge, and after carefully examining the lining, sat down cross-legged on the porch with his ancient Singer, caressing and guiding the wheel, bunching and twisting the material this way and that with amazing dexterity for just a few sown threads at a time until, twenty minutes later, he presented me with a jacket that was as good as new. I couldn’t even see where the silk had been torn. His fee? The equivalent of 50 cents. I gave him double. He called on Allah to shower me with blessings then trundled his sewing machine back down the street.
I stayed at home over Easter, postponing a road trip to Ghana after being caught short without funds due to my changed employment status. I also had a large work project to prepare and finish. The work was long but rewarding and it reminded me by contrast of weekends past when I had worked under pressure with impossible editing challenges on block-headed texts to absurd deadlines for ungrateful people.
There was also a big overnight storm and the villa had no running water or electricity for several hours, a combination that leaves little to do except sleep or read by candlelight. I did manage to get out on Easter Monday to a good lunch at a restaurant by the lagoon, where I had sea bass poached in a pepper soup with green beans and boiled yam.
Lionel and water bottle, Foret du Banco, Abidjan, April 2019
The following weekend – while my daughter Ella was heroically running around London, completing her fourth marathon – I went hiking through Abidjan’s Parc National du Banco, which covers 30 square kilometres of primary tropical forest, and copious fauna and flora, including several rare butterfly and insect species, fire-ants, giant river catfish, chimpanzees, African civet, parrots, bushbuck, duiker antelope, chimpanzee and monkey. I only saw the butterflies. But after my three-hour 10km trek I was suffering with a painful cramp. Ella, who finished her 40km course in four hours 37 minutes, was demonstrably fit and well, as social media afterwards confirmed. She has to be the fittest Stanbrook ever. I suffered somewhat by missing yet another great family occasion, but I enjoyed the great photos.
Alli, Susanne, Peter, Gwen, Scott, Jurrat, Ant, Jessie, Sophia (Inset: Ella)