Developed -v- Developing
I was sitting in a traffic jam on the Thika Road when a man cycled past me. His bicycle was laden with what looked like the steel rods used for reinforcing concrete pillars.
He crossed the road to his “shop”, untied his bars and set up his gas welding kit.
That evening, I was passing back along the same road when I saw this man at the side of the road, in his shop. In pride of place was a magnificent wrought iron coffee table. I just had to stop and look.
Yes, this was made from the iron rods I had seen him carrying that morning. Yes, it wasn’t finished – he was waiting for his friend to supply a sheet of glass to go on the top. Yes, it needed painting. But, on close examination, the legs were perfect, the scroll work was symmetrical, and this man used only a welding torch, a charcoal brazier, a large hammer and a length of steel railway track as an anvil. No drawings, no rulers, just his eye – brilliant, absolutely brilliant.
We needed cubicles for our new Internet café. I would be hard-pressed to know where to start in the UK, and would probably end up with ordinary office tables, with partition screens mounted on top. Not in Kenya. You go to the local carpenter and explain roughly what you want. A couple of days later, you pick up the finished product, which is perfectly made and ready for painting.
Our car broke down last September. The front disk brakes seized up. Luckily, we were in Thika Road, where there is a plethora of mechanics. I pulled into a dirt yard which was formed by a semi-circle of sheds serving as a body shop, spray booth, a mechanic, a greengrocer and a bar.
The mechanic came over, carrying his toolbox, comprising a hammer, a half-set of open-ended spanners and a lump of wood. He had an apprentice with him. The kid looked about 10, his overalls swamped him.
I sidled over to the bar where I sat sipping soda and chatted to the clientele drinking their breakfast beers. These were an off-duty tour bus driver, an off-duty policeman, a municipal worker taking a break for refreshment, and a “property developer”.
I was soon relieved of my cigarettes and one of the men sent a youngster off on his bicycle to get more. Obviously I had to tip the boy.
90 minutes later, the mechanic told me that the car was fixed. We both jumped in and took it for a spin, testing the brakes. They worked.
I asked how much and he thought for a while. “Even if you are mzungu, I will only charge you 1,350 bob,” he said.
I gave him Ksh 1,500 and he made a show of looking for change in his many pockets. I told him to give it to the boy.
The following day, I drove from Nairobi to Nakuru, Kericho, Sotik and finally, Kisii, then back through Narok to Nairobi. I don’t know how far it was, but it was a long journey going up and down the escarpments, and the brakes never let me down.
I am sure that this sort of service and inventiveness can be found all over Kenya. To me, a visitor, it is astonishing to see at first hand these artisans working with virtually nothing to produce works of art, perfect furniture, or sturdy car repairs.
Here – anywhere in the “developed world” – you can get the same finished products, the difference being that most would be produced by machines. The workers are merely machine minders. They could not produce the coffee table, the cubicles for the Internet café without detailed drawings and a host of power tools. They could not fix the car without a workshop full of tools and a manual.
We, in the developed world have lost that ability to make things, to bodge.
What a shame.