| Forestry training manual for the Africa region |
Total time 1 hour 30 minutes
- To acquaint the trainees with the elements of effective development work,
- To have the trainees explore why effective development work is time consuming and requires considerable patience,
- To have the trainees understand the importance of community involvement in development projects.
The trainees are given chapter 18 of The Ugly American, entitled, "The Ugly American and the Ugly Sarkhanese". This particular reading demonstrates the importance of careful consideration of one's project as a development worker. It illustrates the absolute necessity for community involvement in a project, and emphasizes the need for ownership of project by community members.
1. The Ugly American
Flip chart paper, markers, copies of article "The Ugly American and the Ugly Sarkhanese" and copies of "The Bent Backs of Chang ‘Dong" for each trainee.
References: Joyce and Martinson, Marine Fisheries Training, October 1982.
Exercise 1 The Ugly American
Total time 1 hour 30 minutes
The trainees are given Chapter 18 of The Ugly American, entitled, "The Ugly American and the Ugly Sarkhanese". This particular reading demonstrates the importance of careful consideration of one's project as a development worker. It illustrates the absolute necessity for community involvement in a project, and emphasizes the need for ownership of the project by community members.
1. The trainer distributes reading material and asks the trainees to spend next 20 minutes reading and underlining the elements they see as important in development work.
2. The trainees are asked to form small groups of five or sex and to list on newsprint the moat important elements to them as Peace Corps Volunteers. They briefly share their lists with the large group. The trainer should add any elements which may have been missed.
3. The trainees are asked to return to the small groups and list traits the "Ugly American" exhibited which they would wish to emulate. Once again they share lists with the large group.
4. The trainees are given copies of chapter 19, "The Bent Backs of Chang ‘Dong." They are asked to read the material and observe Emma's behavior that could apply to their own Peace Corps Service. The trainer suggests that the trainees may want to record these observations in their own journals.
5. The trainer asks for observations that anyone may want to share at this time. The trainer gives a short talk on the learnings of the past two weeks and summarizes the role of the extensionist,
the need for community analysis and the necessity for setting realistic goals for one's self as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
THE UGLY AMERICAN
Two weeks later, Atkins and his wife left by plane for Sarkhan. Emma, a stout woman with freckles across her nose, in her way, quite as ugly as her husband was hopelessly in love with Atkins, but had never been able to tell him why adequately.
She did not blink when Atkins told her they were going to Sarkhan. She told Homer that she'd be pleased to move into a smaller house where she could manage things with her own hands, and where she wouldn't need servants.
Two weeks later the Atkins were living in a small cottage in a suburb of Haidho. They were the only Caucasians in the community. Their house had pressed earth floors, one spigot of cold water, a charcoal fire, two very comfortable hammocks, a horde of small harmless insects, and a small, dark-eyed Sarkhanese boy about nine years old who apparently came with the house. The boy's name was Ong. He appeared promptly at six each morning and spent the entire day following Emma around.
Emma Atkins enjoyed herself in Sarkhan. She learned enough of the language so that she could discuss with her neighbors the best places to buy chickens, ducks, and fresh vegetables. She learned how to prepare beautifully fluffy rice seasoned with saffron. She liked working in her house, and it was a matter of some pride to her that she was as good a housekeeper as most of her neighbors.
Homer Atkins kept busy with his man-powered water pump. The idea had developed very slowly in his mind. What was needed was some kind of efficient pump to raise the water from one terraced paddy to another. Lifting water in the hilly sections consumed enormous amounts of energy. It was usually done by a pail, or by a cloth sack, attached to the end of a long pole. One man would lower the pail and swing it up to the next terrace where another man would empty it. It was a slow and cumbersome method, but the Sarkhanese had been doing it for generations and saw no sense in trying to talk them out of an obviously inefficient method unless he could offer them a more efficient method to replace it.
He solved two-thirds of his problem. A simple pump needed three things. First, it needed cheap and readily available piping. He had decided that the pipes could be made out of bamboo, which was abundant. Second, the pump needed a cheap and efficient pump mechanism. This had taken longer to find, but in the end Atkins had succeeded. Outside many
Sarkhanese villages were piled the remains of jeeps which had been discarded by the military authorities. Atkins had taken pistons from one of these jeeps and had replaced the rings with bands of cheap felt to make a piston for his pump. He then cut the block of the jeep in two; he use one of the cylinders as a suction chamber, and the other cylinder as a discharge chamber. With a simple mechanical linkage the piston could be agitated up and down, and would suck water as high a thirty feet. The third problem, which Atkins had not yet solved, was the question of what power could be applied to the linkage.
In the end Emma give him the answer.
"Why don't you just send off to the States for a lot of hand pumps like they use on those little cars men run up and down the railroads?. she asked one day.
"Now, look, dammit, I've explained to you before,. Atkins said. "Its got to be something they can use out here. It's no good if I go spending a hundred thousand dollars bringing in something. It has got to be something right here, something the natives understand..
"Why, Homer," Emma said, "with all that money you've got in the bank back in Pittsburgh, why don't you give some of it to these nice Sarkhanese? "
Atkins looked up sharply, but saw at once that she was teasing him. He grunted.
"You know why. Whenever you give a man something for nothing the first person he comes to dislike is you. If the pump is going to work at all, it has to be their pump, not mine. "
Emma smiled fondly at Homer Atkins. She turned and looked out the window. A group of Sarkhanese on bicycles, as usual, were moving in toward the market places at Haidho. She watched them for a few moments, and then spun around, excitement in her eyes.
Why don't you use bicycles? There are millions of them in this country and they must wear out. Maybe you could use the drive mechanism of an old bicylce to move the pump..
Atkins look at Emma and slowly sat up straight. He slapped hs hand against his knee.
"By God, I think you've got it, girl,. he said softly. "We could take the wheels off an old bike, link the chains of the bike to one large reduction gear, and then drive the piston up and down with an eccentric."
Atkins began to walk around the room. Emma a slight grin on her face, returned to her charcoal fire over which she had a fragrant pot of chicken cooking. In a few moments she heard the rustle of paper and knew that Atkins was bent over his drawing board. Two hours later he was still drawing furiously. An hour after that he went to a footlocker, took out a half-dozen bottles of beer, and brougt them back to his work table. By dinner time he had drunk them all and was whistling under his breath. When Emma tapped him on the shoulder and told him that dinner was ready, he swung around excitedly.
"Look, baby, I think I've got it,. he said, and began to explain to her rapidly, interrupting himself to make quick calculations on a piece of paper. When she finally got him to sit down, he ate so fast that the chicken gravy ran down his chin. He wiped his chin with his shirt sleeve and made sure none of the gravy got on his precious drawings. Emma Atkins watched her husband fondly. She was proud of him, and she was happy when he was happy. Today, she felt very happy, indeed.
"Stop drinking beer, Homer Atkins," Emma said, grinning. "You'll get drunk. And then you'll forget that it was my idea about the bicycle."
"your idea?" he yelled astonishment. "Woman you're crazy. I was thinking about that all along. You just reminded me of it."
But then he went back to the locker, brought back two bottles of beer, and blew suds at her when he filled her glass.
Two days later Atkins had a working model. Not a single item in the crude pump would have to be imported. He had calculated that there was probably enough scrap around the countryside to make a couple of thousand pumps. What he had to do now was to get a couple of pumps actually in operation, to see how they worked. At this point Emma Atkins demonstrated her diplomatic skills.
"Now look, Homer, don't go running off like a wild man,. Emma said softly. "You've got a good machine there. I'm proud of you. But don't think that just because it's good the Sarkhanese are going to start using it right away. Remember the awful time that you had getting trade unions in America to accept earth-moving equipment. These people here are no different. You have to let them use the machine themselves and in their own way. if you try to jam it down their throats, they'll never use it. "
"All right, Mrs. Foster Dulles, you tell me what to do," Atkins said. He knew she was right and he was grateful to her. "You tell me how I ought to approach the Sarkhanese."
Emma calmly explained her plan to Homer. He realized that she had been thinking of this for some time. It was an intricate, beautiful plan, and he wished that some of the stuffed-shirts in the American Embassy could hear his wife talking.
The next day he put into operation Emma Atkins' grand strategy.
He drove in his jeep to the tiny village of Chang ‘Dong, a community of one hundred souls, living in fifteen or twenty houses. The village was set precariously on a steep hill sixty miles outside of Haidho. The soil there was rich; but the backbreaking, time-consuming process of lifting water up seven or eight levels - even though the differentials were small - had always made Chang ‘Dong a poor village.
Atkins politely asked the first person he met in Chang ‘Dong where the home of the headman was. He talked to the headman, a venerable man of seventy-five, without an interpreter. It was not easy, but he could tell that the headman was pleased that Atkins was making the effort to talk his language. With infinite courtesy the old man sensed what words Atkins was searching for, and politely supplied them. The conversation moved along more rapidly than Homer had expected it would.
Atkins explained that he was an American and that he was an inventor. He, Atkins, wanted to develop and patent this pump and sell it at a profit. What Atkins wanted the headman to find was a Sarkhanese worker with mechanical skill, Atkins said he would pay well for the man's time and skill; if he was able to help with the pump, he would become half-owner of the patent. The old man nodded gravely. They then began a long, complicated and delicate negotiation over the matter of how much the native mechanic should be paid. Atkins understood all of this quite well - it was just like negotiating with a trade union organizer in the States. Each man knew that he would eventually have to compromise; and each took pleasure in talking the whole thing out. In the end Atkins got the services of a mechanic for a price which he knew was just slightly higher than the going rate.
Both the headman and Atkins were satisfied. They shook hands, and the headman left to bring in the mechanic. Atkins reached in his shirt pocket, took out a cigar, and lit it with pleasure. This would, he thought, be fun.
When the head man returned he brought with him a small, stocky, heavily-muscled man whom he introduced as Jeepo. The headman explained that the name was not a native name. He was called Jeepo because of his reputation as a famous mechanic in the maintenance and repair of jeeps. Atkins did 'nt listen too closely to what the headman was saying. He was studying Jeepo, and he liked what he saw.
Jeepo looked like a craftsman. His fingernails were as dirty as Atkins', and his hands were also covered with dozen of little scars. Jeepo looked back steadily at Atkins without humility or apology, and Atkins felt that in the mechanic's world of bolts and nuts, pistons and leathers, and good black grease he and Jeepo would understand one another.
And Jeepo was ugly. He was ugly in a rowdy, bruised, carefree way that pleased Atkins. The two men smiled at one another.
"The headman says you are a good mechanic," Atkins said. "He says that you're an expert on repairing jeeps. But I must have a man who is expert at other things as well. Have you ever worked on anything besides jeeps?
"I've worked on winches, pumps, Citroens, American and French tanks, windmills, bicycles, the toilets of wealthy white people, and a few airplanes."
"Did you understand everything that you were working on?. Asked Atkins.
"Who understand everything that he works on?. Jeepo said. "I feel that I can work with anything that is mechanical. But that is only my opinion. Try me."
"We'll start this afternoon," Atkins said. "In my jeep outside is a heap of equipment. You and I will unload it and we'll start at once."
By the middle of the afternoon they had assembled most of Atkins' equipment on the edge of a paddy on the second level of the village of Chang ‘Dong. Twenty five feet of bamboo pipe had been fastened together; the bottom of the pipe was put into a backwater of the river that flowed by the village. The top piece of the pipe was fitted by a rubber gasket to the crude pump which Atkins had designed. Above the pump was the frame of a used bicycle with both of its wheels removed. Jeepo had done the assembly entirely by himself. Atkins had made one atempt to help, but Jeepo had gone ahead on his own, and Atkins realized that he wanted to demonstrate his virtuosity. By late afternoon the assembly was ready.
Atkins squatted calmly in the mud waiting for Jeepo to finish. The headman and two of three of the elders of the village were squatting beside him. Although they were externally as passive as Atkins, he was aware that they were very excited. They understood perfectly what the machine was intended for; they were not sure it would work.
"Sir, the mechanism is ready to operate,. Jeepo finally said quietly. "I'm not sure we can get suction at so great a height; but I'd be pleased to turn the bicycle pedals for the first few minutes to test it. "
Atkins nodded. Jeepo climbed aboard the bicycle and began to pump slowly. The chain-drive of the bicycle turned with increasing speed. The crude pipes made a sucking noise. For several seconds there was no other sound except this gurgle. Then, suddenly, from the outflow end of the pump, a jet of dirty brown water gushed forth. Jeepo did not stop pedaling nor did he smile; but the headman and the other elders could not restrain their excitement about the size of the jet of water that was being lifted to the second rice terrace.
"This is a very clever machine," the headman said to Atkins. "In a few minutes you have lifted more water than we could lift by our old method in five hours of work."
Atkins did not respond to the man's delight. He was waiting to see how Jeepo reacted. He sensed that Jeepo was not entirely happy or convinced.
Jeepo continued to pump at the machine. He looked down at the machinery, noted some tiny adjustments that had to be made, and called them out to Atkins. When the small paddy was full of water he stopped, and swung down out of the bicycle seat.
"It is a very clever machine, Mr. Atkins, " Jeepo said quietly. "But it will not be a sensible machine for this country."
Atkins looked steadily at Jeepo for a long moment, and then nodded.
"Why not?" he asked.
Jeepo did not respond at once. He moved silently around the mechanism, twisting a bolt here, adjusting a lever there; then he stood up and faced Atkins.
"The machine works very, very well," Jeepo said. "But to make it work a person would have to have a second bicycle. In this country, Mr. Atkins, very few people have enough money to afford two bicycles. Unless you can find another way to drive the pump, or unless your government is prepared to give us thousands of bicycles, your very clever device is a waste of time."
For a moment Atkins felt a flush of anger. It was a had thing to be criticised so bluntly. For a hot, short moment, Atkins calculated how many bicycles his three million dollars would buy; then, with the memory of Emma's tact in his mind, he put the thought aside. He turned back to Jeepo.
"What happens to old bicycles in this country?" asked. "Aren't there enoug of them to serve as power machines for the pumps?.
"There are no old or discarded bicycles in this country," Jeepo said. "We ride bicycles until they are no good. When a man throws his bicycle away, it's too old to be used for one of these pumps..
For a moment the ugly American faced the ugly Sarkhanese. When he was younger, Atkins would have turned on his heel and walked away. Now he grinned at Jeepo.
"All right, Jeepo, you say you're an exert mechnic. What would you do? Am I simply to give up my idea - or can we find some other way to give power to the pump?.
Jeepo did not answer at once. He squatted in the shallow rice-field, his khaki shorts resting in three inches of mud. He stared fixedly at the improbable machine. For ten minutes he said nothing. Then he stood up and walked slowly to the machine. He turned the pedal and held his finger over the rear-drive sprocket of the wheel as if to test its strength. Then he walked back and squatted again.
The headman looked at Atkins and then talked in a sharp voice to the elders. The headman was embarrased at Jeepo's arrogance, and he was saying that the entire village of Chang ‘Dong would lose face Jeepo's ears became slightly red at the criticism, but he did not turn his head or acknowledge that he heard the headman's words.
Atkins felt like laughing. The headman and the elders reminded him very much of the diplomats to whom he talked for so many months in Phnom Penh. He was quite sure that Jeepo had an answer for these comments, and he was quite sure that it was not a political or personal answer, but technical. Atkins squatted down beside Jeepo, and for fifteen minutes the two men sat quietly on their heels studying the machine. Atkins wee the first to speak.
"Perhaps we could make the frame of the bicycle out of wood and then we'd only have to buy the sprocket mechanism," Atkins said in a tentative voice.
"But that's the part of the bicycle which is moat expensive," Jeepo said.
For perhaps another ten minutes they squatted motionless. Behind him Atkins could hear the shrill voices of the headman and the elders. Although they were attempting to maintain their dignity and manners, it wee clear to Atkins that they were trying to find a way to apologize to him and to smooth the whole thing over. It never occurred to Atkins to talk to them. He and Jeepo were hard at work.
Once Atkins walked to the mechanism, turned the pedals rapidly, held his finger to the sprocket gear, and looked at Jeepo. Jeepo shook his head. He understood the mechanical questions that Atkins had asked and was giving his answer. Without exchanging a word they demonstrated six or eight alternative ways of making the pump work, and discarded them all. Each shake of the head upset the headman and elders profoundly.
It was dusk before they solved the problem, and it was Jeepo who came up with the solution. He suddenly stood bolt upright, walked over the bicycle, remounted, and began to pedal furiously. Water gushed out of the outflow of the pump. Jeepo looked back over his shoulder at the lower level of the pump, then started to shout at Atkins in a loud and highly disrespectful voice in which there was the sound of discovery. It took Atkins another five minutes to understand fully what Jeepo wee proposing.
It wee the height of simplicity. What he proposed was that a treadmill be built which could be turned by the rear wheel of an ordinary bicycle fitted into a light bamboo frame. What this meant wee that a family with a single bicycle could put the bicycle in the bamboo rack, mount it, and pedal. The rear wheel would drive the treadmill which in turn the pump with an efficiency almost as great as Atkin's original model. When anyone needed to use the bike, he could simply pick it up from the rack and ride away.
"This man has made a very great discovery," Atkins said solemnly to the headman and the elders. "He has developed a way in which a tricycle can be used to drive the pump and still be used for transportation. Without Jeepo's help my idea would have been useless. What I propose is that we draw up a document giving Jeepo on-half of the profits which might come from this invention."
The headman looked at Jeepo and then at the elders. He commenced talking to the elders in a solemn voice. Atkins grasped that the headman had never heard of binding legal documents between a white man and a Sarkhanese. It became clear to him, also that the headman was determine to drive a hard bargain. After several minutes of consultation he turned to Atkins.
"Do you propose that you and Jeepo will begin to build such pumps?" the headman asked.
"Yes, I would like to enter into business with Jeepo. We will open A shop to build this kind of pump, and we will sell it to whoever will but. If the customer does not have the money, we will agree that he can pay of the cost of the pump over a three-year period. But don't get the idea that Jeepo will be paid by me for doing
nothing. He must work as the foreman of the shop, and he will have to work hard. Not any harder than I work, but as hard as I do."
One of the elders broke in excitedly. He pointed out that it was very unlikely that a white man would work as hard as Jeepo. He had never seen a white man work with his hands before, and what guarantee could they have that Atkins would work as hard. Another of the elders agreed, pointing out that this looked like the trick of a white man to get cheap labor from a Sarkhanese artisan. Both of the elders were firmly opposed to Jeepo entering into the partnership.
During all of this discussion, Jeepo did not speak. He tinkered with the pump and bicycle mechanism, tightening gears, checking valves, and tightening the bicycle chain. When the two elders had finished talking, he turned around and came through the mud of the rice paddy to where the group wee talking.
"I have listened without speaking to what you foolish old men have been Baying, " Jeepo said, his voice harsh with anger. "This American is different from other white men. He knows how to work with his hands, He built this machine with his own fingers and his own brain. You people do not understand such things. But men that work with their hands and muscles understand one another. Regardless of what you say, I will enter into business with this man if he will have me."
There was a quick flush of shame on the headman's face. "I think that Jeepo is correct," he said. This man can be trusted. I will now write up the document which will ensure that he and Jeepo share the profits and the work equally. "
"And the document should say that neither I nor the American shall license or patent the idea of the pump, " Jeepo said. "We will make the idea available to anyone else who can make it. But on the ones we make, we deserve the profit. That is the way of working men."
Jeepo looked at Atkins. Atkins was pleased and he nodded.
"Also, when we have made some pumps and sold them we will print little books and it will show others how to do it," Atkins said. "We will send it around the whole of Sarkhan, and the village of Chang ‘Dong will become famous for its mechnical skills."
Jeepo and Atkins did not wait for the headman to complete their contract before beginning work. Two days later they had rented a large old rice warehouse on the edge of Chang ‘Dong. In another day they had hired twelve workers. Jeepo and Atkins drove into Haidho, bought used tools and suplies, and carted them to the warehouse. In a week, the plant was in full operation. Over the entrance to the warehouse a small sign written in Sarkhanese said:
The Jeepo-Atkins Company Limited. " Inside the warehouse was a scene of incredible and frantic effort. Jeepo and Atkins worked eighteen to twenty hours a day. They trained the Sarkhanese; they installed a small forge which glowed red-hot most of the day. They tested materials; they hammered; they swore; and several times a day they lost their tempers and ranted at one another. Their arguments, for some reason, caused the Sarkhanese workmen a great deal of pleasure, and it was not until several months had passed that Atkins realized why - they were the only times that the Sarkhanese had ever seen one of their own kind arguing fairly and honestly, and with a chance of success, against a white man.
Emma Atkins did not stay long in the suburb outside of Haidho. Within a week she had moved their belongings to a small house in Chang ‘Dong. She bustled about her home and through the village, buying chickens and vegetables, and making huge casseroles of rice and chicken. Every day at noon, she and several of the village women brought two of the casseroles to the warehouse and all of the men ate from them. Emma seemed to find it not at all unusual that her husband should be in a tiny hillside village constructing something as outlandish as bicycle water pumps.
Once a technical advisor from the American Embassy called at the warehouse and watched quietly for several hours. The next day the Counselor of the Embassy called. Taking Atkins to one side, he pointed out to him that for a white man to work with their hands, and especially in the countryside, lowered the reputation of all white men. he appealed to Atkins' pride to give up this project. Moreover, he pointed that the French, most experienced of colonizers, had never allowed natives to handle machinery. Atkins' reply was brief, but it was pointed, and the counsellor drove away in anger. Atkins returned joyfully to his work in the warehouse.
At the end of six weeks they had manufacture twenty three pumps. When the twenty-fourth pump was finished, Atkins called all of the men together. He and Jeepo then faced the group and between them outlined what now had to be done. Jeepo did most of the talking.
"This is the difficult part," Jeepo started quietly, "You have worked hard and well to build these pumps - now you must sell them. Our friend Atkins here says that in America one of the best things that can happen to engineers like yourself is to be allowed to sell what they make. So each of will now take two of these pumps as samples, and go out and take orders for more. For each pump that you sell you will get a ten per cent commission."
One of the men interrupted. He did not understand what a commission was. There was a confused five minutes while Atkins and Jeepo explained, and when they were finished the prospective engineer-salesmen were smiling cheerfully. They had never heard of such a proposal before, but it struck them as both attractive and ingenious. When the discussion was over, twelve contracts were laid on a table; and each Sarkhanese signed a contract between himself and The Jeepo-Atkins Company, Limited.
The next morning twelve oxcarts were lined up outside the warehouse. Two of the pumps were carefully laid out on beds of straw on each of these carts. By noon the twelve salesmen had left for all parts of the province.
Now the waiting began. Jeepo, the headman, the elders, and everyone else in the villge realized that everything rested on the persuasiveness of the engineer-salesmen and the performance of the bicycle-powered pump. If no orders were placed, Atkins would have to leave, and the excitement of the factory would disappear. In only a few weeks all of this activity had become very important to the people of Chang ‘Dong. The people drifted into the warehouse, and watched Jeepo and Atkins at work, and many of them began to help. The tension grew steadily; and when four days had passed and not one of the salesmen had returned, a blanket of gloom as thick as a morning mist settled over the village.
Then on the morning of the fifth day one of the salesmen returned. He drove at a speed which, for an oxcart, is rare. The oxcart stumbled and splashed mud in the air, and the salesman beat the animal with gusto and enthusiasm. As the ox labored up the hill, everyone in the village came to the warehouse to learn what would happen. When the cart, covered with mud, drew to a halt, there was a low murmur. They could all see that the cart was empty. The driver got down from the cart slowly, fully aware of his importance. He walked over calmly and stood before his two employers.
" I have the pleasure to inform you, sirs, that I have done wrong," he began, a grin on his face. "You told me that I should bring back the two samples, but I was unable to do it. I have taken orders for eight pumps. But two of my customers insisted that I deliver the pumps at once. Because their paddies were in desperate need of water and the crops might have been ruined, I reluctantly gave them the pumps. I hope I have not made a mistake.
There was a deep sigh from the crowd and everyone turned and looked at Jeepo and Atkins. These two squat, ugly, grease-splattered men stared at one another for a moment, and then let out shouts of joy. Jeepo hugged Atkins. Atkins hugged Jeepo, and then Jeepo hugged Mrs. Atkins. Then everyone in the vilage hugged everyone else. For several hours an improvised party involved the entire village.
The next morning the village was up early, but not as early as Atkins and Jeepo. As the people went down to the warehouse, they heard the clank of hammers and wrenches. They peered into the dim interior of the warehouse and smiled at one another. Atkins and Jeepo were in the midst of a terrible argument over a modification of the pump. Emma Atkins was laying out a huge breakfast in front of the two men, and they were ignoring it as they continued their argument.
THE BENT BACKS OF CHANG 'DONG
Emma Atkins was a simple and straightforward person. She was not a busybody; but she had learned that when she wanted to know something the best way to find out was-to ask a direct question. She had been in Chang ‘Dong only two weeks when she asked an unanswerable question.
She was working in her kitchen with two of the Sarkhanese neighbors, trying to make a small guava which grew in the jungle into a jam. The glowing charcoal stove and the sweet aroma of the bubbling fruit gave the kitchen a cozy and homey atmosphere. Emma felt good. She had just finished telling her neighbors about how a kitchen was equipped in America; then through the open window, she saw an old lady of Chang ‘Dong hobble by, and the question flashed across her mind. She turned to the two women and spoke slowly, for the Sarkhanese language was new to her.
"Why is it that all the old people of Chang ‘Dong are bent over?" Emma asked. "Every older person I have seen is bent over and walks as if his back is hurting."
The two neighbor women shrugged.
"It is just that old people become bent," one of them answered. "That's the natural thing which happens to older people."
Emma was not satisfied, but she did not pursue the problem any further then. Instead, she kept her eyes open. By the time the rainy season was over, she had observed that every person over sixty in the village walked with a perpetual stoop. And from the way they grimaced when they had to hurry, she realized that the stoop was extremely painful. The older people accepted their backaches as their fate, and when Emma asked them why they walked bent over, they only smiled.
Three weeks after the monsoon ended, the older people in the village began to sweep out their homes, the paths leading from their houses to the road, and finally the road itself. This sweeping was inevitably done by the older people. The used a broom made of palm fronds. It had a short handle, maybe two feet long, and naturally they bent over as they swept.
One day as Emma’s was watching the wrinkled and stooped woman from the next house sweep the road, things fell into place. She went out to talk to the women.
"Grandmother, I know why your back is twisted forward," she said. "It's because you do so much sweeping bent over that short broom. Sweeping in that position several hours a day gradually moulds you into a bent position. When people become old their muscles and bones are not a flexible as when they were young."
"Wife of the engineer, I do not think so," the old woman answered softly. "The old people of Southern Sarkhan have always had bent backs."
"Yes and I'll bet that they got them from sweeping several hours a day with a short-handled broom," Emma said. "Why don't you put a long handle on the broom and see how it works? "
The old woman looked puzzled. Emma realized that in her excitement she had spoken English. She put the quesiton to the woman in Sarkhanese.
"Brooms are not meant to have long handles, " the old lady said matter-of-factly. "It has never been that way. I have never seen a broom with a long handle, and even if the wood were available, I do not think we would waste it on long handles for brooms. Wood is a very scarce thing in Chang ‘Dong.
Emma knew when to drop a conversation. She had long ago discovered that people don't stop doing traditional things merely because they're irrational. She also knew that when people are criticised for an action, they stubbornly persist in continuing it. That evening, Emma had a talk with Homer.
"Home, have you noticed the bent backs of the old people in this village?" Emma asked.
"Nope, I haven't, Homer said, washing down a bowl of rice with a bottle of beer. "But if you say ther're bent, I'll believe it. What about it?"
"Well, just don't say what about it," Emma said angrily. "I'm getting to the age where when my bones get stiff, it hurts. Imagine the agony those old people go through with their back perpetually bent. It's worse than lumbago.
I've asked them, and they tell me it's excruciating."
"All right, all right, Emma, " Atkins said. "What are we going to do about it?.
"Well, the first thing we're going to do is get longer broom handles, " Emma said with heat.
However, Emma found that it was difficult to get longer handles. Wood of any kind was scarce int that area, and expensive. The handles the Sarkhanese used for their brooms came from a reed with a short strong stem about two feet long. For centuries this reed had been used; and, centuries ago people had given up looking for anything better. It was traditional for brooms to have short handles, and for the broom to be used exclusively by people too old to work in the rice fields. But Emma wasn't bound by centuries of tradition, and she began to look for a substitute for the short broom handle.
It would have been simple, of course to have imported wooden poles, but long ago, Homer had taught her that only things that people did for themselves would really change their behaviour. With the mid-western practicality, Emma set about researching her problem. It was a frustrating task. She tried to join several of the short reeds together to make a long broomstick. This failed. Every kind of local material she used to try to lengthen the broomstick handles failed.
Emma refused to be defeated. She widened the scope of her search, until one day she found what she was after. She was driving the jeep down a steep mountain road about forty miles from Chang ‘Dong. Suddenly she jammed on the brakes. Lining one side of the road for perhaps twenty feet was a reed very similar to the short reed that grew in Chang ‘Dong Except that this reed had a strong stalk that rose five feet into the air before it thinned out.
"Homer , " she ordered her husband, "climb out and dig me up a half-dozen of those reeds. But don't disturb the roots."
When she got back to Chang ‘Dong, she planted the reeds beside her house and tended them carefully. Then, one day, when several of her neighbors were in her house she casually cut a tall reed, bound the usual coconut fronds to it, and began to sweep. The women were aware that something was unusual, but for several minutes they could not figure out what was wrong. Then one of the women spoke.
"She sweeps with her back straight, " the woman said in surprise. "I have never seen such a thing. "
Emma did not say a word. She continued to sweep right past them, out on the front porch, and then down the walk. The dust and debris flew in clouds; and everyone watching was aware of the greater efficiency of being able to sweep while standing up.
Emma, having finished her sweeping, returned to her house and began to prepare tea for her guests. She did not speak to them about the broom, but when they left, it was on the front porch, and all of her guest eyed it carefully as they departed.
The next day when Emma swept off her porch, there were three old grandmothers who watched from a distance. When she was finished Emma leaned her long-handled broom against the clump of reeds which she had brought from the hills. The lesson was clear.
The next day, perhaps ten older people, including a number of men, watched Emma as she swept. This time when she finished, an old man, his back bent so that he scurried with a crab-like motion, came over to Emma.
"Wife of the engineer, I would like to know where I might get a broom handle like the one you have," the man said. "I am not sure that our short-handled brooms have bent our backs like this but I am sure that your way of sweeping is a more poserful way. "
Emma told him to help himself to one of the reeds growing beside the house. The old man hesitated.
"I will take one and thank you; but if I take one, others may also ask, and soon your reeds will be gone. "
"It is nothing to worry about, old man, " Emma said. "There are many such reeds in the hills. I found these by the stream at Nanghsa. Your people could walk up there and bring back as many as the village could use in a year on the back of one water buffalo."
The old man did not cut one of Emma's reeds. he turned end hurried back to the group of older people. They talked rapidly, and several hours later Emma saw them heading for the hills with a water buffalo in front of them.
Soon after, Homer completed his work in Chang ‘Dong, and they moved to Rhotok, a small village about seventy miles to the east. And it was not until four years later, when Emma was back in Pittsburgh, that she learned the final results of her broomhandle project. One day she got a letter in a large handsome yellow-bamboo paper envelope. Inside, written in an exquisite script, was a letter from the headman of Chang ‘Dong.
Wife of the Engineer:
I am writing you to thank you for a thing that you did for the old people of Chang ‘Dong. For many centuries, longer than any man on remember, we have always had old people with bent backs in our village. And in every village that we know of the old people have always had tent backs.
We had always thought this was a part of growing old, and it was one of the reasons that we dreaded old age. But, wife of the engineer, you have changed all that. By the lucky accident of your long-handled broom you showed us a new way to sweep. It is a small thing, but it has changed the lives of our old people. For four years, ever since you have left, we have been using the long reeds for broom handles. You will be happy to know that today there are no bent backs in the village of Chang ‘Dong. Today the backs of our old firm. No longer are their bodies painful during the months of the monsoon.
This is a small thing, I know, but for our people it is an important thing.
I know you are not of our religion, wife of the engineer, but perhaps will be pleased to know that on the outskirts of the village we have constructed a small shrine in your memory. It is a simple affair; at the foot of the altar are these words: "In memory of the woman who unbent the backs Of our people." And in front of the shrine there is a stack of the old short reeds which we used to use.
Again, wife of the engineer, We thank you and we think of you.
"What does he mean, "lucky accident'?" Emma said to Homer, "Why I looked all over for three months before I found those long reeds. That was no accident."
Homer did not look up at her from the letter. He knew that the indignation in her voice was false. He knew that if he looked now he would see tears glittering in the corners of her eyes. He waited a decent amount of times when he raised his head she was just pushing her handkerchief back into the pocket of her apron.