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7# A hunter-gatherer

DAY — Ogooué Maritime, Gabon. — EXT.
  • Bakari: This is ridiculous!

  • D2: Can do boss, no problem!

  • Bakari: I know you can! It’s just...AAAARGH Fucking Jimmy!

The three Filipinos reached the oil platform in the evening. Their trip was long and painful, even for seasoned field technicians. They transited via Singapore, the Emirates, and Ethiopia before reaching Port-Gentil, Gabon. From there, they jumped on the back of a pickup truck for half a day, then on a boat through the jungle canals. Upon arrival, the site manager dispatched them around camp. They received no welcome, no explanation, and no dinner. The three Filipinos did not complain. They were paid by the day.

Bakari arrived by helicopter the next morning. A Gabonese gentleman in an immaculate white shirt greeted him upon landing.

  • Gentleman: Good morning, sir.

  • Bakari: Good morning! I’m Bakari, the field engineer from Shell, Paris.

  • Gentleman: Welcome sir, I hope you had a nice trip.

  • Bakari: I did, thank you. My team should have arrived already. Do you know about them?

  • Gentleman: Whom are you referring to, sir?

  • Bakari: Three Filipino technicians.

  • Gentleman: Oh, the Asians!? Yes, they arrived yesterday.

  • Bakari: Good. Could you arrange my container next to theirs please

  • Gentleman: I’m sorry sir, but I'm afraid it will not be possible.

  • Bakari: They do not speak French, and they will be working with me for the next 12 weeks. We will have meetings every morning. I need them with me.

  • Gentleman: I am so sorry good sir, but I don’t have the authority to move people around the site.

  • Bakari: Okay. May I speak with the site manager then?

  • Gentleman: I am the site manager. My name is Jimmy, nice to meet you.

Jimmy smiled and extended a hand. Bakari's eyes widened. Here we go again, African red tape, he thought. He closed his eyes, took a long exhale, and shook Jimmy's hand firmly.

  • Bakari: Jimmy, please see that my men are placed in a container next to mine. It would be a shame to report on my first day that Jimmy, the site manager, is preventing me from doing my work.

He marked a long pause, and still squeezing Jimmy's hand, forced a smile back.

  • Jimmy: Eeeeh...Okay, I'll see what I can do.

  • Bakari: Wonderful! We start tomorrow morning. What time does the site open at?

  • Jimmy: Seven, sir.

  • Bakari: Great! So, two containers ready and set up, the earlier the better. We'll need dinner too. Please and thank you.

Bakari let go of Jimmy’s hand and walked away. As the recently promoted site manager, Jimmy was immersed in red tape. He grew up with aristocrats, from whom he learned diplomacy, French literature, and racism. Jimmy secured an administrative position thanks to his uncle and gravitated in the oil industry ever since. His job consisted of obeying his boss. Always courteous—with important individuals—Jimmy never said no. Instead, he used flowery turns of phrase to express his deepest apologies. He was the civil servant who talked too much and did too little, the ideal bureaucrat.

Bakari had lived in Gabon before, and had mixed feelings about the Gabonese. He appreciated their amiability and joyfulness. The Gabonese lived and spent as if there was no tomorrow, the very essence of Carpe Diem. They envisioned no future, only the present moment.

Bakari loved it, but he resented their general carelessness. Two years before, he almost died in an explosion because of the site manager’s laziness. Since then, he refused to work with Gabonese on dangerous sites. "Their laxity puts my life at risk", he reported. His former boss, a veteran French executive, said it was the hunter-gatherer mentality. Bakari called him racist. He despised colonialism.

The three Filipinos had twelve weeks to complete their mission on the platform. As part of the platform maintenance, they worked around highly explosive natural gas. Their job was to assess, maintain, and repair every leak or source of ignition. It was demanding and difficult work. The Health & Safety department prescribed four weeks for such missions. An experienced field engineer might venture eight weeks straight. Bakari agreed to do twelve weeks, but only if he picked his own team. So, when he requested three Filipinos to be transferred from Brunei to Gabon, his boss agreed.

Under Bakari's threat, Jimmy arranged two containers next to each other and rallied the three Filipinos. The containers were hot, moldy, and humid. For dinner, they had boiled manioc and dried fish. The manioc was tasteless and the fish too salty. Bakari was about to complain, but when his men devoured their portions in the blink of an eye, he kept quiet. They slept well, despite the heat and jungle ruckus.

Bakari wanted to inspect the machine room early, before the temperature got too hot. The four men woke up at six, put on their uniforms, and conducted their meeting over breakfast. They stood at the gate of the engine room at seven o'clock sharp. The site manager had locked the gate, so they waited. Jimmy showed up, wearing a bright pink shirt and his best 10:30 am.

Bakari had enough time to blow a fuse and reflect on his anger. He resented Jimmy, as the man represented what he hated the most in Gabon: The Françafrique mindset. Françafrique is the term describing France's exploitation of Africa. After they colonized Gabon and seized anything they could lay their hands on, the French set up a corrupt government to protect their interests. For centuries, they bribed Gabonese leaders and milked the country of its resources, even President Chirac admitted it. In return, Gabonese leaders assigned incompetent people to serve the French. Consequently, they did not build any infrastructures or training facilities for their people. Corporations overcame the lack of local labor by outsourcing skilled workers from other countries. Accountants came from Morocco, traders from Lebanon, engineers from France, and so on. Oil site managers though, with billions of dollars’ worth of equipment and the power to trigger a natural catastrophe, were Gabonese by law.

Bakari respected field workers in general, and Filipinos especially. Beside their toughness, they had a solution mindset, as opposed to the Gabonese he worked with in the past. To any work request, his men answered, “Can do boss, no problem”. The three Filipinos reminded him of the Dalton brothers from the Lucky Luke comics. They looked the same, wore the same uniform, and had the same black mustache. He called them Jack, Bill, and Averell but they did not get the reference. So, he switched to D1, D2, and D3. They liked it.

Bakari led by example. The crew of four worked thirteen hours a day, seven days a week. His team was always on time, always ready to work. But if something delayed or impeded their progress—Jimmy's red tape—Bakari stopped raging. After the third week, he mimicked D1, D2, and D3. He was also paid by the day.

In the sixth week, the Daltons had to disassemble and seal an engine frame. Bakari planned to cut the frame with a circular saw. For that, he needed to turn off the engine. He asked Jimmy, but his ability to create additional red tape was exceptional. Anything Bakari suggested needed the approval of two local engineers, who, of course, were not available on-site. Bakari walked back to his team, defeated and angry.

D2 did not understand his frustration. After Bakari explained the situation, D2 said, "Can do boss, no problem". Bakari was skeptical, as D2 climbed on the T-shaped frame to assess the metal junctions. There were four 8-meter-long structures wielded in a square, with 102 soldered joints each. D2 fetched a hammer and a chisel from his toolbox and started banging on the metal. Twenty minutes later, he managed to break one joint. Seeing it was possible, D1 and D3 did the same. Bakari could not believe his eyes.

This time, he stayed back, intimidated by the task. The Daltons reminded him of Forrest Gump and Bubba scrubbing the immense dormitory floor with a toothbrush. He began quoting Bubba, “Shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp in potatoes”, and broke down in laughter. The situation was ridiculous and somehow funny. D1, D2, and D3 did not idle. It took them four days instead of two hours to cut the frame, but they did it. Can do boss, no problem.

By the end of the mission, Bakari was injured and burned out. He was forced to adopt the stoicism of his crew. So, when his boss announced that his helicopter flight to Port-Gentil got canceled, Bakari said nothing. Can do boss, no problem, he thought. The trip to Port-Gentil would be long and painful, a journey through the heart of the jungle. Maybe I'll spot a silverback, he wished.

Jimmy did not make the required travel arrangements for the Filipinos, so Bakari had to do it for them. He realized that while he had a month off at home, they were to complete another 12-week mission in Nigeria. Of how many? He did not dare to ask. They hugged each other goodbye and left in different directions. Bakari felt sorry for them, also envious. With their attitude, nothing was ever a problem.

The first boat off the platform was quick to get to shore. The second though, was a relic of the past, a rusty vessel from a forgotten land. The ship carried people, cattle, and merchandise, as it weaved slowly through the jungle narrow canals. Its flat deck hung low enough for a bold crocodile to snatch a foot. The ship cruised on the brown waters as it covered the sky with black smoke. Bakari sat on the highest spot of the deck and dozed off.

He woke up at the sound of a gunshot. People crowded the side of the deck. Startled, Bakari looked down and saw a man and a boy standing on a pirogue. The man was pointing his rifle at the water. Between him and the ship, a mother waterbuck and her offspring were swimming away. The small buck, with white dots on its back, was struggling to keep pace. The small buck resembled Bambi.

Bakari felt the deck shake. A tall and muscular man, machete in hand, was sprinting towards him. Bakari froze as the man passed him and sprung from the deck. He flew overboard and landed a heavy machete blow between the waterbuck's eyes. A loud thud followed. In a flash, the man swam over to Bambi and swung his machete in a few vicious strokes. Bakari melted down at the scene: stifled cries, troubled waters, and two crimson puddles.

The hunter dragged Bambi onshore while the boy in the pirogue lassoed the mother buck and hauled it with his father. Ensued a heated negotiation between the two hunters on the river shore. Alerted, the captain stopped the ship. People crowded the deck, staring and commenting about who deserves what. Bakari watched the two hunters joke and shake hands. Then, they spread the big buck's rear leg and used the machete to cut the joint right below the hip bone. The machete man carried the dripping leg on his shoulder and jumped back on the ship.

The hunter stepped up on the deck, dripping water and blood. The men greeted him with applause, and popped bottles of Regab, the local beer. The hunter drank, passed the bottle, and lifted the buck leg above his head. Men, women, and children began clapping in rhythm. They praised the hunter and sang a prayer of gratitude for the life taken. The boat resumed its course in light, cheerful spirits.

Bakari, still shocked by the violence of the scene, sat stiff. A stranger tapped his shoulder and passed the bottle. Bakari chugged the beer, as the stranger cheered him up, clapping with the crowd. Dazed, Bakari watched the joy in the faces around him. They were celebrating death with life. Intense, genuine, happy.

Hunter-gatherers, eh? He smiled, stood up, and clapped to the beat.

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