Written by: The Bridge on Friday, June 13th, 2008
PG Construction, as it is called, is a construction company owned and operated by Palmgrove. Fancy as that sound, it consists of two pieces of equipment, a loader and a grader, which of course is enough to be considered a construction company. These machines are rented out to people that bid on jobs. Typically the people that hire the machines are contractors looking for equipment that they don’t already have. We would like to say we fill in the cracks of the smaller construction contractors.
The equipment was bought from North Carolina in the USA and was shipped over the ocean. The method of shipping was drive-one. This is where the tractors were driven on to the ship, spread over with heavy oil to prevent rusting, strapped down and shipped. This is cheaper in the long run because people end up spending less for a quality machine that has lower hours than buying the machine directly in Africa. I would suppose that the reason for this is because all the equipment in Africa is imported in the first place.
The Loader is a Capillaries IT38F front end loader. The grader is also a Caterpillar, but I forgot what model. Both pieces of equipment are in nice shape and can work nicely when taken care of. The loader is operated by two young men from Palmgrove Community, where as the grader is operated by a hired person. The reason for hiring is that we feel that the operator is more careful with the equipment. The real problem with this equipment, like all equipment, is the repair bill. Some times the price of a new tire can be staggering for such a small company. Especially when all the profit is used up almost immediately by Palmgrove. When a big repair job comes along, there is no reserve to pay for it. Small things like hydraulic hoses can be handled, but bigger ones like tires will simply park the equipment, which then completely stops any hope of continuing because the community has no income. When we first came in February 2008, the loader had been standing since December 2007. This was because the loader had fuel injector problems. Injectors had been sent from Canada, but when they were replaced by a local mechanic, the loader didn’t seem to improve. The engine still made a very scary erratic banging sound. Therefore the loader was left at the work site where it was last used. This happened to be a busy construction intersection. While the loader was parked, the grader however continuing to do work..
There is a young man in Palmgrove called Ifiock that goes about trying to line up work for these tractors. He does a very good job considering that nobody in Palmgrove has any business experience. He’s learning as he goes. He can be very aggressive, but in the end he tries very hard to get the jobs that get the pay checks. He also tries to get all the repair arranged. He’s the one that keeps it going. The truth is that this construction equipment is responsible for paying most of the bills. Sometimes it can be very disheartening because the repair bills are equal to the income, but then the next week there are no repair bills or just small ones. So it is a very bumpy ride for the drivers and the steward of Palmgrove.
When Edd Vetter from Crystal Spring Colony arrived here in February, one of the first things he tried to do was think of ways how to get the loader going. He came up with the idea of trying to contact one of the mechanics that work for a German construction company here in Nigeria. The company’s name is “Julius Berger”.
Julius Berger is the biggest and best road construction company in Nigeria. They do everything to German specs. Just about all their trucks and equipment comes from Germany. They are very out of place here with their quality standards. All their trucks are Mercedes Benz. The loaders, dozers, graders, and excavators are all Caterpillars. Almost all the equipment they run is brand new. There is a reason why the Nigerian government is hiring this company. They get the job done right the first time. If they have a break down, they have a new piece of equipment there the next or same day.
The plan was to try and get one of the German mechanics to help with this tractor. So off we went. It was a big help that Ifiock already knew where these people had their headquarters. He made me come along entirely because of the color of my skin, which turned out to be a very good idea. You see, because the construction company is German, the armed guards and the security around the compound think that every white man is a German engineer. By going along with Ifiock we got to talk to people that we would never have gotten the chance to meet.
At the headquarters we were told that “Mr. Schmitt” was the man we wanted to see. We then went to the actual place where they fix all of their equipment in the Uyo region. Once we got to the place, that is where things got somewhat exciting. There were about two hundred people standing at the gate of this compound As it turned out most of these people were looking for jobs from this construction company. Remember that Nigeria has a very high rate of unemployment. Just to mention, I thing that this is the country’s biggest problem, first and foremost. There were of course, fully armed soldiers guarding the gate to this compound. As we made our way through the crowd, all eyes were on us and some people were running after us saying things like “I now have work for me because you are with a white man”. Anyway, there was no problem getting inside. Ifiock just pretended that we had very important people to meet and that he was escorting me. Once inside, we had to fill out long forms about what we wanted and who we wanted to talk to. Because we had the name “Mr. Shmitt” it looked very official even though we had no idea what we were doing. After some time we were led by a guard to the “Mr. Shmitt” container office. It was quickly apparent that the place was run by white people. You could see one white person for every thirty blacks. Basically they would watch over a bunch of mechanics to make sure the equipment was being fixed properly.
So there we were, waiting for how knows who, not knowing what we really wanted them to do. When the mechanic finally came, we told him our problem with the Caterpillar. He just asked if the injectors were electronic or mechanical. We told him that they were mechanical. He then told us that the instruments that he used to adjust the injectors had just been sent back, and that he felt that the injectors had just not been set properly. However, he also told us that he could arrange for a mechanic that was trained by Caterpillar to talk to us. He thought that perhaps this mechanic would be able to adjust the injectors with just a caliper. We were told that this person would only be able to leave the mechanic site on Sunday and that we would not be able to bring the tractor to the compound because only Julius Berger equipment was allowed inside. In the end we were told to come back the next week to meet this other mechanic.
The next week we went through the same security problems, although because we had an appointment, we got in a lot faster. There we waited a few minutes and then we were introduced to “Bjirn”. He was a younger mechanic out of Germany that was trained and sent by Caterpillar to Nigeria for a few months. He was very confident that he could adjust the engine with just a caliper and said that we should pick him up the following Sunday. We took down his phone number and talked about a few things and were soon on our way home to Palmgrove.
The next Sunday at 7:00 am we came back to the same compound again, but this time we waited outside. We decided it would be a good idea to let him know that we were there waiting so we phoned him. As it turned out, he was still at the hotel waiting for his taxi. We told him that we would come and pick him up ourselves. When we got to the hotel he told us that his taxi driver said that he couldn’t get a car and only had a motorcycle. Therefore, we picked him up and got to talk with him all the way to the work site where the loader was parked. As it turned out, he grew up in East Germany, loved to sail boats and thought that the Nigerian mechanics were too sloppy in their workmanship.
When we got to the loader, he didn’t waste much time. He quickly got to the point and started to take off covers. I had packed some tools and so we got to it. This was while everybody was at church in Palmgrove as it was 10:00 in the morning already. He found that not only the injectors were not set by the previous mechanic, but that the fuel settings and a small fuel line was plugged. It quickly became apparent that Bjirn was very familiar with Caterpillar loaders. He was however very unfamiliar with the heat and by the time he was finished at the end of the day, he had a very bad sunburn. When Ifiock first started the tractor it still smoked too much, but didn’t have the banging sound. Bjirn then discovered that there was a small blockage in the fuel line. In the end the tractor had a very nice sounding engine. It still smoked very heavily out the sides of the turbo, but this was something that we felt could be dealt with later. The turbo had been fixed a few times but somehow fixing has a different meaning to different people.
In the end we took Bjirn to Palmgrove to wash his hands and to drink water. He was a very friendly person and when we asked what we owed him, he said that he would take whatever we wanted to pay, at which point we said a beer and so he said “at least make it two”. We then paid him a small amount and said good bye. Ifiock then took him back to the hotel where he came from.
We have had Bjirn out to the tractor at least three times. The last problem was the steering. He had to study up on the problem because he wasn’t able to solve it in the little time that a Sunday afternoon gives. The big problem is that he has been very busy the last month and a half. He has been working on Sundays for the company that hired him. After that he has had to attend workshops as well. We haven’t been able to get him out to help us with the steering problem since. The tractor has been run with a bad steering for the last six months. The reason we run it anyway is because the saying here is that “half bread is better then none”. At least we are getting something.
This whole episode has taken four months and still isn’t over, and probable never will be. I’ve been out to the grader and loader to help with everything from fixing tires, unplugging fuel lines and finding work. I don’t know very much about motors and heavy equipment, but even a little knowledge is a lot around here. I guess the problem I am having is that this is only one of the businesses we are trying to get going. There is also the plastic bag machine and the water bags and bottles that need a lot of attention. In the end the people still take the most attention. That is how it is here in Palmgrove. It would be nice to have Eddy from Cascade Colony back or just about anybody. Sometimes the challenges are very big. Sometimes they are very small. It is definitely the bigger challenges that are the most interesting in the end, even when they tend to stress one the most.