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Smell or no smell, the work must go on

Updated: 2014-11-21 13:22
By Li Lianxing in Nairobi (China Daily Africa)

Mathare, the second-largest slum in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, is surrounded by putrid-smelling rubbish and human waste. Add to that the dust that lashes the place when the wind blows in, and you have a place where few would live out of choice. But Fan Haoyun, 39, an engineer from Jiangxi province, refuses to wear a protective mask as he goes about his work on a drainage construction project there.

"I don't want to act like a special person here," he says, sitting in a tiny room made of corrugated iron sheets as he enjoys a half-hour lunch break. "I do have problems in communicating with the locals here, but I know how genuine they are and appreciate how well I am treated so I don't want them to look on me as being different to them."

Fan has worked on the two-year-old Mathare drainage construction project for more than four months and does not know when it will be completed, work having been slowed because residents living where the final 1 kilometer of the 54-kilometer pipeline is to be laid refuse to move.

Whatever transpires, he wants to stay until the job is finished because the project is too important for the residents in the slum, he says.

"I didn't know anything about Africa before I came here; I thought it was one country. But I now realize how different the countries are from one another, and more importantly that they live similar kinds of lives and have had a similar kind of history as us Chinese. So anyone who has seen the living conditions here would be moved.

"For them, healthier and cleaner living conditions are a must."

Fan started learning construction skills 24 years ago when he was 15 and lived through an era of rapid change in the infrastructure sector in China. Upgrading infrastructure is the first step in improving people's lives, he says, but there are many things he does not understand in construction.

"I know nothing about politics and am not the least bit interested in it. But I strongly believe that what we in China have lived through over the past few decades is what Africa will experience soon, which is a transformation of infrastructure. So people must focus and dedicate themselves to that."

Starting work at 8 am every day and going back to his apartment 30 minutes' drive away about 6 pm, Fan says he is too tired to unwind with a bit of entertainment after dinner, and the only thing the workers want to do after a long day's labor is to sleep.

"I call my family once a week unless there is something urgent to discuss. I am not particularly homesick because in China I worked on projects in different areas. I am the breadwinner, and am responsible for my wife, my two children and my mother."

The slum drainage construction project is the sixth project he has worked on since he arrived in Kenya in August last year.

"It was not easy deciding to come to work in Africa. I thought it would be a tough place to live, but I wanted to prove that if others could survive under such conditions, so could I. Of course it has turned out that a lot of the talk of harsh living conditions in Africa is a huge exaggeration. But more importantly, I was eager to prove myself as an engineer somewhere that needs my expertise."

Fan found a way to communicate with local workers using his extremely limited English, he says. Now workers on site can understand his rudimentary way of communicating, and some have become his assistants.


(China Daily Africa Weekly 11/21/2014 page7)

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