Asses have long been called the beasts of burden but in Africa no animal can measure up to the value of the one-wheeled pantechnicon commonly known as the wheelbarrow.
Eight years have passed since my last stay in Africa and I had forgotten how important that common or garden carrier is, whether transporting firewood, beer or rubble, it is ubiquitous.
In Equatorial Guinea, my home for nearly three years before I gave Houston that moniker, I remember shaking my head at the state of the wheelbarrow that came compliments of our not altogether trustworthy landlord. A banker with fingers in many pies and connections to a number of nefarious characters he was, nonetheless, delighted to rent his ‘almost’ built house to an American oil company. With the windowless, fixtureless structure came a gatekeeper and said wheelbarrow. Stephen, the gatekeeper, was my authority on many things West African, whether historical or political, and a treasure beyond words.
The wheelbarrow was not. The tyre retained air for a maximum of three minutes, which when pushing the contraption seemed to go even faster than those long distant long distance phone calls with the time up heralded by pips. The handles, once rubber-bound, were blister-inducing lengths of bare ragged metal, the sides corroded beyond recognisable wheel-barrow shape and which held at most three bricks. I was not being mean in not replacing the object. There were no wheelbarrows to be bought, borrowed or begged for on the island, as I was to learn one hazy morning.
My breakfast coffee was invariably drunk on the terrace watching a flock of white egrets cross over the jungle-clad hill on their way to who knows where for the day. This particular morning was however interrupted by a ruckus at the gate.
“Hey old man?” called a shorts and tee-shirt clad African, gesticulating through the bars. “You give me barrow?”
“What you give I?” countered Stephen, elderly by African standards.
“I got nothin’,” was the rejoinder.
“Barrow, he busy,” Stephen then called, returning his attention to the gas stove, boiling water for his tea.
“I beg you, old man. I need carry bricks. Down de lane. One hour only.”
“No, he busy,” the obdurate Stephen insisted.
Negotiations continued for a while and I poured more coffee. At one stage as I listened, hidden by the balustrade, I thought I might have to intervene when the tenor of the discussion seemed to edge towards dodgy. Fortunately I did not jump into the steadily heating fray, realising it the wife’s culinary skills being bartered and not other favours.
But you get the drift. The wheelbarrow is worthy of lengthy, in depth dialogue.
Back in Africa for a short visit, I have been reminded of the value of this humblest of carts. Upon asking my hosts about the logistics of building their isolated home at Lissataba, a private game reserve on the edge of the Kruger, their response was, ‘dynamite and wheelbarrows’.
Driving down to stay at MalaMala, another game reserve but this time open to the public, I was again to see the value of the wheelbarrow. Weaving along roads, both tarred and dirt top, were men, women and children pushing wheelbarrows, some in not much better condition than mine in Equatorial Guinea, with varying degrees of certitude, transporting shopping, clothing, crates of beer, and sometimes smaller children.
When barrows finally became available on our island home of Malabo, Stephen was despatched to the market with the requisite number of cfa (central African francs) and asked to purchase the best money could buy.
I felt sure, upon seeing Stephen proudly push the shiny new red wheelbarrow, with rubber handles and an airtight tyre through the mud to our gate, that any negotiations for its use would involve meals fit for a king, or a gatekeeper, for at least a month.
Who needs an ass?