I work at the Southern Rural Road Authority (SRRA). This government bureau is responsible for the
construction and maintenance of all rural roads and bridges within the southern region of Ethiopia.
The 4000 km road network is entirely gravel or earth surfaced. The bridge inventory consists of hundreds
of small concrete bridges and culverts and a handful of bailey bridges (a portable bridge that only
seems to move when you donít want it to).
The main office is a single-story building that, if viewed from above, is shaped like an "H". The
interior is dark and dingy, with heaps of Awassa dust blowing in through the numerous broken
windows. There are a total of 25 offices, each with 2-8 people inside. In a typical day, the
number of staff is about 100. During meetings, when the site staff is recalled from the field,
this number inflates to about 120. This is a bit unfortunate, since the office only has 100 chairs.
It is during these times that one cannot take a coffee break for fear of having oneís chair stolen.
The offices themselves are quite spartan - tables and chairs, perhaps a bookshelf. There is
very little stuff because stuff is expensive and difficult to get. There is, however, one room
that is quite different. At the heart of the "H" is the storeroom - a locked inner sanctum. Just
last week, I finagled a visit to the holy vault. Inside I found boxes and boxes of stuff: books,
office supplies, computer equipment and an unusually large box of rubber boots. The stuff is
safeguarded against staff usage by the vigilant storeroom manager. I made the horrifying
suggestion that we should move the books into the main office where people could actually see
them. The storeroom manager was incredulous at the suggestion! My boss, to his credit, agreed to
the idea. One week later, and after I took financial responsibility for the books, we opened
the SRRA Resource Centre. The untouched reference book on Windows 3.1 was left in the vault.
Compared to the cost of stuff, the cost of labour in Ethiopia is very cheap. As a result, the SRRA
is a buzz of people but little production. For example:
- It is entirely reasonable to leave staff idle for a week while the
cheapest computer part is tracked down.
- The photocopier has not worked for over six months and thus, neither
has the operator.
- The entire staff contingent is drawn into a two-week long meeting to
- There are two runners in the office whose sole job is to move messages
around the office (a round trip from one end of the "H" to the other takes less then 30 seconds).
I share an office with my boss in the Design & Survey Branch. The group is made up of 6
surveyors/drafters, 2 engineers, the manager and me. Our purpose is to produce drawings for
the design of about 60 km of road and 15 bridges a year. The design work has, until recently,
been done entirely without the assistance of a computer. The engineer prepares a complete
set of drawings in pencil and the drafter then traces the drawings in ink. This can be an
arduous process and, to speed things up, certain short cuts are necessary. Like drawing to
scale for example. You might think that scale drawing was important but my colleagues design
countless bridges without it. This has been one area where I may have gotten a little
"preachy". Perhaps I am imposing my western values but itís difficult to build a bridge when
one part of the drawing says that the abutment is 4 meters high and another part says
that it is 6.
To assist in my "Drawing to Scale" campaign, I am introducing AutoCAD (computerized drafting)
to the office. Each Saturday morning, I get together with four of my colleagues and we fumble
our way through the workings of the program. Did I mention that I donít really know much
about AutoCAD? But thatís OK because, for some of my colleagues, double-clicking is a
challenge ("Hold the mouse like a mango" seems to be a constructive suggestion). I must give my
colleagues great credit - some of them are way over their head but they are all eager to learn
and entirely engaged in the training program. This is definitely a highlight of my week. I
have attached a few photos from our Saturday morning classes.
The two engineers, Yisehak and Teramaj, are young, bright and very keen. They have been very
agreeable to my suggestions and we have developed a great professional and personal rapport. When
I work with them, I feel that my time here will be fruitful.
So thatís my job. Like any job, there are good bits and bad bits. In this case, the bits are
just rearranged. I have a single request of all of you: the next time you spend only
two minutes to photocopy something or grab a package of post-its from the supply room,
give a silent thanks to the god of office supplies.