A road-repair crew appeared outside our flat today. I caught my first sight of them as I stepped out onto our balcony to hang some washing on the clothes line we have strung across. Although I have seen these gangs in operation before, this time it really shocked me. Perhaps it was the sudden exposure. Laid out before me in full operation, I had an unprepared birds eye view from our fourth floor flat. But what bothered me most was the weather conditions. With searing mid-day heat and the oppressive claustrophobic weight of such high humidity, particular to the Bay of Bengal, manual work of any kind becomes even more grueling than usual. This hardly seems possible when you observe how much effort is demanded by so many on a daily basis, just to keep the wheels of Bangladesh turning. I had broken out into a sweat simply rinsing out my washing in the relative cool produced by the ceiling fan in the flat. Outside in the street, even shade was non-existent.
The crew comprised of a mixture of men of varying ages, from young boys to grandfathers, and women, appearing to be between twenty and forty year olds. They worked strung out, along almost the entire length of the road, which in itself is fairly impressive considering how long it is. I looked on as a man and a young boy of around fourteen, working together, swung primitive wooden handled hoes above their heads and down, hard into the ground, breaking up the densely packed earth road surface. The women, barefoot mostly, heads covered with their colourful cotton sari had organised into two groups, those with tools used to scrape together the loose earth for loading into large round wicker head-baskets, and those carrying it away to a designated dump someway off from the main work site.
Our road has been in a right old state for some time now, but the deterioration has speeded up considerably over the past couple of weeks due to rain damage. Brown, sludgy, stagnant puddles have established even further ruts in an already seemingly battle scared street, and traveling back down the ‘home straight’ from work by rickshaw had become almost fascicle. I repeatedly bang my head against the rickshaw hood, crick my neck and jar my back as we lumber ludicrously along. So for us residents this repair-work had come not a moment too soon…but what a high price they were paying for our smooth ride home.
The stinking acrid smoke drifted up to burn my eyes and the back of my throat, so with nothing to lose I decided to take the opportunity to venture downstairs, and get in amongst the thick of activity. Street level offered a new perspective. I could see some of the more mature men and women working with small hand brushes, meticulously and carefully sweeping dust from an area in preparation for boiling tar to be poured, forming the new road surface. This was being ‘cooked’ up in the centre of the road on long metal plates, suspended over naked flames, surrounded by empty oil drums. The additional heat thrown out added considerably to the already near impossible conditions.
It struck me how efficiently and productively this team operated. I suppose it must have been in all their interests to get the job done, but it was impressive never-the-less. Nobody seemed in-charge, yet everyone worked hard, fast and with purpose, at least until I was spotted squatting next to one of the women workers who had stopped for a well earned rest by the side of the road.
I was alarmed at how quickly I’d caused such disruption. Workers laid down their tools and came over, all smiles to ask ‘kaemon achen?’, how are you? I looked around anxiously, expecting the wheel to drop of this efficient production line, but luckily, enough stayed at their posts to keep the operation in full swing. I realised I was concerned on their behalf also, scanning around for some stern foreman to appear as if by magic, with heavy penalties to be extracted from these ‘malingerers’. Not only did he not manifest, but nobody else seemed the slightest bit twitchy, and I realised, with real pleasure and growing awe that they actually were a self-managed and hugely tolerant team.