Timber Truck Driver
[For the past 14 years, Mr. Safo has worked with a timber company in Kumasi, Ghana's second largest city and capital of the Ashanti Region. He is in his early thirties, and has completed middle school. He is the chief of all the drivers in the company. Mr. Safo and his wife have an infant son, but live with eight other people in their household. He spoke with Stephen Obiri-Yeboah in the Twi language on the verandah of the house where Mr. Safo lives.]
I joined the timber company when I was sixteen. I worked as a mate (apprentice) for five years, but I was collecting pay. I was of course paid less than the drivers. At age 21 when I had acquired almost all the necessary skills, I was issued a license and passed from being a mate to being a full driver. I was also given a mate to serve me and to train to become a driver. On the day when I was given a truck, I organized a party with friends in the company and outside to celebrate the new responsibility and the fact that all the inferior duties would from then be performed by a mate--jobs such as washing the truck, buying food and other personal items for the driver, and sleeping in the bush when there is a break-down. I was among the few mates who were promoted as drivers. My education, although limited, was my advantage--I could help in reading road signs, and also know when the papers on the vehicle would expire.
As chief of the truck drivers in my company, I try as much as possible to command respect by setting good examples for my co-workers and other subordinates. I devote most of my time to solving issues to the betterment of my drivers and the company as a whole. I go to the station where the vehicles are assembled as early as possible--around 6.00 a.m.--to be sure all the drivers have signed the roll-call book. If a driver is unable to turn up for work, a spare driver must be found. The company has some spare drivers, even though mates can handle the vehicle. So there is no problem finding a driver. I report absences to the production manager who may go himself or send someone else to verify the reported cause of absenteeism.
I normally meet for about thirty minutes with the drivers and their mates to listen to grievances and other complaints, which I transmit to the bush manager. From there they go to the managing director. Sometimes part of the meeting time is used to introduce new workers in the driving sector. In the meeting, I caution drivers against acts that could lead to accidents, like drunkenness and careless driving, and I stress the need to obey road regulations. This has reduced the rate of accidents in the company since I assumed the position as chief driver.
In addition to these management responsibilities, I see to it that my vehicle is in good order before I leave for the bush. I check the tires, oil level, brakes, trailer, chain, the various vehicle lights. To set an example for others, I also see whether the vehicle has been properly washed.
The company operates in a lot of forest concessions, and we drive to those places in the bush to collect the logs. How far the places are and the availability of the logs determines the number of trips I make in a day.
If there happen to be shortages of logs at the bush loading station, I sometimes accompany the bush manager to the forest where the chain saw operators fell the trees to find out the cause of the delay. If the delay is due to the timber jack drivers, I do whatever I can to help them get going (a timber jack is a caterpillar-like vehicle that is used to convey the logs from where they are felled to the station). I try to keep the drivers from having much free time in the bush. They might go looking for firewood, and could lose their lives if a tree falls on them. Basically I try to see that the work goes as quickly as possible.
After the truck has been loaded, I drive to the home station. If there should be a breakdown which my mate and I can't fix, I take another truck to Kumasi, leaving my mate behind. I report it to the production manager, who sends for mechanics to repair the truck. If the area where the breakdown occurs is not safe for the mate alone to stay, he comes to Kumasi with me. Because of this my mate likes me (he laughs). We try to return to Kumasi early, but if there are problems and we are unable to return before 6 p.m., we have to spend the night where we are. The law in Ghana prohibits our traveling through a town or city after that time. But if we are only a few kilometers from Kumasi, I will go home to sleep to enjoy the company of my family.
If I detect a major problem on the truck after it is unloaded, I drive to the workshop where the company has its vehicles repaired. I assist the mechanics by going from one spare parts shop to another to locate the needed parts. These problems come from the fact that the company does not have its own mechanics, despite my numerous suggestions. The company pays maintenance costs through the accounts office so I submit the list of parts purchased, plus the labor bill to that office.
At the end of the day I take the truck to the filling station for more diesel. At the filling station, a clerk takes records of the petroleum products that each driver gets. When I am satisfied with the truck's condition, I drive it back to the station for the mate to wash away the dirt.
There are no specific hours that I work on a typical day. Except Sundays and Fridays, there is no day that I work less than ten hours. Most of the time I return home very tired. Often I have to take some tablets before I go to bed.
I am satisfied with almost every aspect of my work. Most of the company trucks are up to standard, so when drivers are careful the accident rate is minimal. I like driving a timber truck most because most other drivers, except other timber truck drivers, fear us. Passenger and private car drivers may even move far off the road into the weeds when they see a timber truck approaching, whether it is loaded or not (he laughs).
Another benefit of my work is the "bush allowance"--things we can get in the bush. It includes firewood, local sponges, pestles (sticks to pound fufu, a staple food), foodstuffs at cheap prices from the rural areas, bush meat, honey, herbs for medicinal purposes, and mushrooms. I also take traders' small loads like firewood, plantain, corn, and other foodstuffs to convey to Kumasi for some cedis which do not go into the company's accounts. The roads leading to most rural areas are so poor that cargo truck drivers hesitate to go on them. When there are many loads belonging to more than one trader, I ask only one of them (usually they are females) to join my mate and me and tell the rest to come by passenger cars. I hate asking people to stand in the area between the logs and the truck cab. The police can arrest you for that; it is very dangerous. Some years ago when I was a mate, there was an accident where some people died when riding in that place. (His face saddened.)
I consider my work as important as that of the bank manager. I encourage friends who want to learn my profession, but I caution them about the extra boldness and carefulness that the profession demands.
There are of course some unpleasant things in the business. I normally sleep with my mate in the bush when there is a breakdown. In the bush, all the blood-thirsty mosquitoes find their way through the windshield and other parts of the vehicle to attack us. (He showed his skin with mosquito bites). Sometimes we have to drink water contaminated with oil from containers that are meant for the tank. If we break down far from human habitation, then we sleep without food in the evening.
The most unpleasant is trees falling on the workers. When the chain saw operators fell a tree, it sometimes deviates from its intended direction and kills the workers. In the late 1980's a driver I knew was collecting firewood and was crushed to death. And there are road accidents associated with my work but thank God that I have not fallen victim to any.
During the rainy season it becomes very difficult, and sometimes impossible, to climb some high lands where roads are not tarred (paved). Some roads also pass through river valleys and become muddy and hard to get through. I remember being stuck one time in an area near Katepei. Mosquitoes and coldness attacked me after I had sent my mate to Kumasi to request a tractor to free the truck from the mud. I felt sick for a week after that. I was not able to leave the truck, because the load contained some foodstuffs that thieves might steal.
My work also affects my family. My two-year old son sometimes cries in the morning when he realizes I have already left for work. But it is even worse when he wakes up before I leave. My wife knew of my work before our marriage, but she sometimes comments that I leave her alone with the children in the house and enjoy myself elsewhere. My wife becomes very worried if I don't arrive to eat the food she has prepared for me. She may sit in the corridor for hours before going to the room for her sleepless night. All these problems make her fall sick repeatedly. My son may even end up not acquiring the basic training he needs as few females can care for or train males well.
The manager is satisfied with my work as a driver, and as chief driver. The managing director even comments that my efficiency has reduced labor strikes, which were rampant, to almost zero. The short morning meetings, which help us learn the basic worries of the drivers, serve as a medium of communication between the managerial board and the timber truck drivers union. The board tries to solve complaints that are within their control. The drivers and the mates respect and like me. They say I practice what I preach, proving that "leadership by example" is right. The workers just call me chief without mentioning my real name. The bush manager also sometimes calls me chief, which I like most (laughs). Our drivers obey all road signs, and do not threaten other drivers as do timber drivers in other companies.
I get gifts--mostly foodstuffs--from the rural people who like me because of my respect and services to them. Last Christmas, somebody who took me to be a Christian gave me a cock for helping him get compensation when some of his cocoa trees were destroyed. Our company's chain operators cut a large tree that fell on them.
My promotion to chief driver was very satisfying. And I have been assured that I will be promoted to bush manager when the current one retires soon. On that day, I will thank my stars, as I will get a Land Rover vehicle to use. I will have a big say on the managerial board though much will be expected to me. I will also get higher pay and many allowances like an inconvenience allowance whenever I have to spend a night in the bush. Promotion in the company depends on the number of years one has served, his conduct, and his relationship with the workers and with the managing director.
I am satisfied with my pay when I add all the other benefits to it. But I sometimes feel cheated when I consider the size of the allowance given the chief driver, who works more than the managing director or the other managers except the bush manager. My duties range from mechanics to teaching to driving. I work as foreman to the drivers. For all these responsibilities, I receive as an allowance, an additional one-tenth of my regular pay, or 5,500 cedis (then, about $11). The housing for my household is a single room--the same as given to laborers who sweep the yard. The only benefit is that if there is a new truck, I can decide to hand mine over to another driver and take the new one.
We have a general break from work during the Christmas holidays and in addition, when we celebrate our "sala" (Islamic festival). Each of these is only one week. I do not go to work if I am sick, but I pay all my medical expenses. Casual leave does not exceed three days, except when the case involved is very delicate. After work, I do not have any control over the company's vehicle which is kept in the yard. I pay for my own transport to and from work, but I hope the company will consider my application for transport allowances, which workers in some other companies enjoy.
I am a member of the Timber Workers Union which includes all timber workers, from the laborer to the manager. I am not an executive member in the union. The managers have taken all those posts, hence we workers do not have much say in issues. I do not attend their meetings. I only pay my monthly dues of 500 cedis ($1) a month which is meant for funerals and an end-of-year party. The union executives, on the other hand, enjoy loans, birthday parties and snacks after executive meetings--all paid by the dues.
Besides the effect the work has on my family, it also makes me look dirty, which my wife and friends complain about. And the poor food or lack of food most of the time, and the tedious work has reduced my weight. I weigh about 55 kg. while all my brothers weigh over 70 kg. And people think I am not sociable when I leave their social gatherings, but it is due to the time factor. I scarcely go to the village where my parents live. I just give money to a passenger car driver to take to them. He lives nearby and goes there nearly every day.
My motto is, "seek ye money first and all other things will be yours." I believe that after getting enough money all my enemies will worship me. I can even become one of the sub-chiefs in my town if I am able to donate generously during fund raising activities. My prayer is a long life. I do not play with my five prayers a day, so God is on my side and everything will be successful.