[Mr. Asante, age 53, has been a timber contractor for about 10 years. He has 11 children by five wives, three of whom he divorced. Five of his children live with him in the household, along with his youngest wife and several nephews. Mr. Asante has completed middle school. He lives in Kumasi, Ghana's second largest city. Stephen Obiri-Yeboah met with him on a day when he was returning from one business trip and starting out on another. They spoke in Mr. Asante's well-appointed sitting room.]
I work as a timber contractor in one of the nearby rural areas. There is no formal qualification to take up this work. All that is necessary is enough capital to acquire the basic machinery. However, it is helpful if the contractor has acquired some level of education. Contractors who are completely illiterate usually employ a literate relative as a clerk to deal with the various documents in the business.
Timber contractors who are highly educated benefit in many ways. They learn current developments relating to the timber industry in the Ghana. They meet influential personalities in both the Forestry Department and the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources. Such contractors cannot be cheated by some chiefs and elders who demand financial assistance for the development of their areas. Contractors donate to the locality when and where necessary. Those who have forest concessions also know the right procedures to follow to maintain their lands permanently.
After completing my elementary education, I worked with a timber firm as a clerk both in the bush and in the office. I developed the desire to work as a full timber contractor in the future. I became curious about the procedures in the timber business. My father was one of the elders in the traditional area. With determination, I was able to influence my father to acquire a sizable land concession. All papers were in my name although the inhabitants knew that everything was for my father. About 15 years ago, after my father died, I started working as a full timber contractor. This surprised most of the people, because they did not know the whole concession was mine.
At that time I had limited capital. I was compelled to team up with some companies that had their own equipment and work crews. The concession had some highly-demanded species, including odum, mahogany, and sapele, as well as other rich timber species like redwood. The company did not hesitate at all in forming the partnership.
I was the bush manager to be in touch with all the activities that went on there. This position enabled me to know the quality of the logs felled. They were transported to Kumasi where the company had its station. I was the managing director for my own affairs and also the bush manager for the other company. I was in charge of felling the trees, conveying the logs by tractor to the substation in the bush, writing my concession number on them, and transporting them to Kumasi. All the activities in the bush were in my hands: all reports concerning compensation to people whose farms were destroyed in the course of felling or transporting the logs, all labor issues. At the end of the month, I made all payments after I had gone to Kumasi to get the funds. I did both office work and bush activities. It was very tedious.
I decided to employ one of my nephews as the assistant bush manager. He did only the daily bush activities. I then restricted myself to the office and only visited the bush from time to time. The contract with the Kumasi-based company ended last year. With my share of the profit I have bought some machines and have started the work on my own. I still hire some equipment like timber trucks, but I now work as the full contractor of my own concession.
I feel proud of my job because it generates enough income for me. Often the town and surrounding villages invite me to chair their developmental activities, like fund raising Easter convention parties. Both young and old respect me because I help them with jobs and in some cases with money. My work has put me in the core of their activities. Unlike the 1960's when I was working under some contractors, I am self-employed and therefore have my liberty to do as I wish provided it will not lead to the collapse of my work. The job has enabled me to educate almost all my children. Now some of them have important administrative positions.
The work has given me some enemies. Some people accused me of destroying their farms even after compensation had been paid to them. And I nearly lost my concession to the state because they alleged that I had not been paying my taxes nor renewing my documents. But despite these attacks and the tedious nature of the job, I still think timber contracting is among one of the most lucrative self-employed jobs in the country.
Timber work is such that as the contractor, I may be called upon at any time. I therefore don't have specific hours of work. However, the office is open after 9:00 a.m. and closes around 5:00 p.m. I don't go to the office on Sundays or on days that I'm out of town. The official hours for my workers is between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. from Monday to Friday. On Saturdays we close at twelve noon.
The equipment that timber companies have varies, depending on the size of the operation. It may include various sizes of caterpillars which are used for loading, road construction, and conveying of logs from the bush to the station. Smaller companies cannot afford caterpillars, so tractors are used for loading and conveying logs. Other equipment includes timber trucks, buses to convey workers in and out of the bush, and chain saws. There are as well as other minor items like the workers' boots, spare parts and first-aid box.
Due to financial constraints, I have been able to provide only chain saws, one tractor, cutlasses, one car to transport workers, and other minor items like a first-aid box. I must contract out for the larger equipment. Our production level and quality are up to expectation. I always make sure that the best logs are sold for export. The lower quality ones, called "rejected logs," are sold at a lower price to local operators who use chain saws to cut various sizes of wood for both building and furniture purposes.
Timber work, though highly lucrative, is full of hazards and discomforts. It is very common for trees to fall on workers. This normally happens when the tree being harvested falls in a direction different from what the chain saw operator intended. The chain saw also cuts workers--mostly their legs. There are some superstitions that some species like the odum are abodes of idols who curse the workers when the trees are felled. And farmers are insulting when their farms are destroyed by the trees, even though they know very well that they will be paid compensation. The bush is full of harmful animals like the leopard, lions, elephants and so on. There are also some harmful insects like the tsetse fly, mosquitoes, bees and other insects that deform the skin. And there can be road accidents when the logs are transported; there is some uneasiness until the logs reach their destinations.
Timber work is tedious and requires high energy, making the workers weak during their old age. Some workers further reduce their life expectancy by abusing drugs. Such problems have led some people to describe timber workers as among the poorest and most wretched persons in the society. In spite of this I like my work. With carefulness and God's guidance we will succeed.
There has been a cordial relationship between me and my workers and my timber firm partners ever since we started. I have worked hand in hand with all my employees and all my trading partners. There has not been any conflict, although minor misunderstandings have occurred. But because of mutual understanding we always end with peace. However, there have been instances when local buyers of rejected logs hesitated to settle their debt. And in spite of my numerous contributions to both the town and individuals, some still show signs of dissatisfaction about my efforts. For example, an influential person in the town commented that I have used my father's position as an elder in the traditional area to acquire wealth which should have benefited the entire community.
All the timber contractors in the country are grouped into unions on a regional basis. The union helps present our grievances to the appropriate government agencies about some policies that affect our operations. The union also unites all the contractors and enables us to solve disputes. As we come together, we learn the various equipment that each contractor has. We thus know where to borrow or hire it when the need arises. The union also donates help when one has certain needs, such as funerals.
All benefits I receive as a self-employed person depend on my profit margins. I don't have specific days for leave, nor promotion opportunities. I pay my workers according the function they play in the firm. For instance, chain saw operators receive higher pay than peeling boys or chain saw assistants, who are called operation boys.
There is, however, no money set aside for their accommodation, medical, or leave claims. They enjoy only casual leaves, whose duration depends on the case at hand. Since almost all the workers are from the same town, we don't go to work when a prominent personality in the community dies. There is no formal procedure for promotion. One is promoted when there is a vacancy in the senior positions.
The work has an effect on my family. Sometimes, I am compelled to travel without even planning it with my wife. And I may not return on the suggested date. My children are then left in the hands of their mothers, which results in many inconveniences.
On the other hand my social life has improved since I started working as a timber contractor. I have come into contact with people of diverse status and races. My level in the society has also gone up. My daily prayer is that things move on in the same direction.