Tales & images from life as me…

TIA Tales – building work


In Swahili a fundi is someone who makes or fixes things. Here we have literally thousands of them, there is always someone to help, and some are incredibly talented and/or creative.

My clothes fundi, for example is a legend. He whips up whatever random item I may want made in a matter of a day or two. I have a favourite carving fundi who makes beautiful wooden trays, frames, children’s toys etc and, through setting up the craft fairs (which me and Sue host every six months here in Mwanza) I’ve been lucky enough to discover all sorts of talented people who make shoes, jewelry, soap, bags, paintings – you name it. But for the TIA Tales, as you guys know by now, it is the funny, quirky, crazy stuff we’re after. So this week’s piece is focusing on building fundis, in all their glory!

Let me explain
The problems start with finding the right guy for the job. It may well be that you have found a builder, but there is every chance that your brick layer is not the same guy who mixes the cement to go between the bricks (does that stuff have a special name?!). The electrician may not be the same guy as the one who fixes the plug sockets and there may well be a third one for fuses or whatever. You’ve made a plan for someone to appear? Good for you, but it won’t be that simple.

First, he is highly unlikely to arrive anywhere even close to on time, or even that day. You can phone, but you will be told he’s ten minutes away every time – so, not much point. And when he arrives, with three other people you’ve never seen before in tow, and sees your bright red face (complete with steaming ears and a stream of expletives) he will shrug, ignore you and get on with the job!

What invariably happens is that on the first visit they have no tools. I’ve no idea why this happens so often, maybe different fundis share sets or something, but basically they come, look, talk amongst themselves and agree to return the following day.

Let’s take the example of my friend who wanted a plug socket, which was loose from the wall, to be secured back into position, bearing in mind she had a small child it was important to get it sorted. But a quick and simple job – right? Ha, don’t be silly!

They came, they looked, they decided what was needed, they left. The next day one of the guys comes (only two hours late) and says he’s finished. Luckily she takes the time to check… because now the socket is sideways!

She explains that this is not ok, that all the other ones are straight. His face clearly reveals that he not only thinks she’s fussy but also a bit mental, but he agrees to move it back around, only he can’t do it that day because part of the plaster has been knocked away at one corner which was why he’d put it sideways, to hide the patch. He needs a plaster fundi.

Day three and the plasterer arrives. He patches up the area and they turn the socket (though they can’t secure it into position because no one has the right sized screwdriver now).

Now the socket is still loose and there is an ugly plaster patch. OK deep breath. “Can we get some paint to sort this out please,” my friend asks ever so politely. “No mama.” Is the straight speaking answer. (This is actually a step forward as people here commonly say ‘yes’ to everything but do none of it, which is way more frustrating than just being told the truth) .On further questioning it turns out that – in this country of barely any rules at all – you can only order paint on a Wednesday!

Almost a week later paint arrives. It is used to cover the plaster and the greasy hand print above it (courtesy of the first fundi) and the socket is finally secured, the right way around, in position. Perfect… Except the walls are green, and the paint they used? – yup – white!

Get wired
Actually electrics in general are a pretty daunting task in any building project here. There are endless tales of fundis finding that a short keeps happening or a bulb keeps blowing and solving the problem by modifying the fuse instead of identifying the electrical fault! But my favourite has to be solution to the mysterious lack of plugs in Tanzania.

For some bizarre reason endless electrical devices have been separated from their plug ends. The solution in the UK would be to pop to B & Q and buy a plug. Not here. Here they simply strip the wires and connect them directly into the socket. And no one ever bothers with the earth! This happens all over, no matter if you gardener is waving a hose about that morning, or indeed if the wiring they happen to be dealing with is actually in the swimming pool – I kid you not!

Of course electrics on a wider scale are a complex matter. Copper cable has, on a number of occasions, been laid by the council one night, and then dug up by thieves the next. Actually, we spend around three days in a week without electricity here and a huge amount of that time is due to mad mistakes people make – like the truck that came up our road last week, fixed the enormous holes in our road and then promptly drove into the electricity pylon on its way out!

Car fundis tangent
So you’ve gathered that precision and safety are not at all key! I’ll never forget my brother’s incredulous face as he watched mechanic fundis emptying petrol from a truck with a hose and bucket in a garage. He was muttering “they’re walking around with a bomb in their hands and if that goes up – in a garage full of more petrol and diesel – we’re all dead!”.

Actually car fundis are a whole other classic set of stories – you might go in with one problem and come out with several new ones – but that’s for another day.

Boiling toilet
So, back to building fundis. I can’t help but think of the time when Damien and I first moved into our current house and a lot of work was needed. All sorts of adventures occurred but by far my favourite was the day I finally came to use our toilet for the first time (sorry toilet stuff seems to be a recurrent theme in my stories!). I couldn’t understand why it was smoking. I moved in for a closer look and found that not only was there smoke, it was boiling hot, so much so that it was bubbling! Turned out they’d connected the hot water pipe to the toilet. I mean I’ve heard of steaming turds but that really takes the cake!

The road saga
Even as I sit here, fundis are outside my gate building our road. Now our road has always been pretty hectic. It gets washed away when the rains come and then baked to cracking point during dry season so it’s always full of holes, but just recently it got so bad that we could barely get in or out of our house. Then one day last week they came to spread huge heaps of earth and fill in the gaps. Even though I know it’ll all be washed away with the next rains I was pretty happy (except when they later knocked the electricity pylon down, as I mentioned) and for two days we merrily drove up and down our new road.

Two days ago five men arrive to dig up the road! They decided now, having just made it all neat, was a good time to lay concrete ditches. Our road is currently impassable… again!

The good bits
There are a couple of good things about being here though. First, you can always get things done… somehow. And it’s unlikely to cost a fortune… usually. Plus, you can generally either get what you need (thank you Manji’s Keys – best service in Mwanza!) or find someone who will fashion something that will get the job done.

And then there’s the miracle of Afriscaf. I can’t write about building without a mention of the ingenious (if potentially lethal) invention of African scaffolding (Afriscaf, as I like to call it). Here there are no metal poles, connecting bits (technical term!), safety platforms, ropes etc, there are only pieces of wood, cut directly from a tree. In a matter of a day a team of guys has constructed a series of levels and interior struts that literally holds up a building and enables buildings of several stories to be built. I’ll add some pictures for illustration if you haven’t seen it.

It may look a little wobbly, and I sure as heck wouldn’t want to get up on it, but points for creativity and somehow or other, it seems to do the job – even surviving the fierce storms we have (which our road does not survive!). TIA baby!

Your turn
I know that building is one of those activities that causes frustration and great stories all over the world so please, don’t forget to share! I always love seeing your comments.

In the mean time, don’t forget the competition for 2054 inventions (details in the previous update) which closes at the end of the month and I’ll keep you posted on my selected short story which I am told goes live on the Café Lit site next week.

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10 responses

  1. Jeff Walker

    Absolutely hilarious and so very true. As well written as it is I still have my doubts that it will be truly understood or, (more importantly) believed by readers who have never been to this wonderful continent !!

    March 8, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    • Ha ha yeah no doubt true, it’s the same with lots of the mad tales I put up on here I’m afraid. Anyway, good to have you on board and I’m glad you liked your first TIA Tale! Hope you got your mugs!! x

      March 8, 2012 at 6:52 pm

  2. Ms D

    A hilarious read! I miss the fundis and their antics!

    March 8, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    • funny what you miss isn’t it! Thanks for reading 🙂

      March 8, 2012 at 6:53 pm

  3. Nazeesh

    Awhhh..!! Good one. Just the other day I reported a maintenance problem in the morning, nothing too big – my kitchen cupboard was missing a shelf. By the time I returned, which was in a few hours, the problem was sorted. I remember debating with myself about how long would that take in Mwanza. Two days? Maybe three?

    I was expecting a special mention of your curtains fundi! Bless him. I do miss all of them very much, however.

    March 8, 2012 at 8:56 pm

  4. Pingback: Tanzania Perks « titotravels

  5. 3lln

    I’m sure the members of Isamilo Staff have their fair share of stories with Mr Chris and Co 🙂 wonderful stuff. Ever tried calling a guy in to fix your sink? Talk about no preparation what-so-ever!

    March 9, 2012 at 11:40 am

  6. stuart

    Brilliant , bought back frustrating memories with the staff I had , but it makes me smile now

    March 9, 2012 at 8:12 pm

  7. Anish

    Very well said and I totally agree!! Except the Manji’s Key part!! Thats to be debated!!!

    March 10, 2012 at 10:06 am

    • Is this a little professional jealousy Mr Metha! Nice, thanks Anish x

      March 10, 2012 at 10:11 am

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