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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Yaounde Falling Buildings

Three multi-storey buildings have crumbled within the last four months in Cameroon’s capital city, Yaounde. The first of the series of failed constructions recorded last February killed 4 persons, and the latest on August 16 injured at least 7. The last two that occurred within 8 days in the same neighbourhood (Elig-Essono), less than 20 steps apart has left the residents terrified.
In the wake of these dramatic incidents, the Government Delegate to the Yaoundé City council Gilbert Tsimi Evouna, blamed the mishap on the owner of the construction project who continued building despite a stop-work order. He added that in both cases the owners either did not have a building permit, or constructed bigger facilities than they were authorized to.
An explanation which many observers have judged too simplistic, and a pale attempt by the city to transfer blame.

Rise in Sub-Standard Construction
As engineering consultant Jean-Baptiste Tchoffo of Gestor Technologies explains a couple of factors can be responsible for a failed construction. “These could range from poor studies, to the absence of control during the project or simply the wrong application of construction standards”.
A view shared by Tankoh George Nuga an experienced builder and civil engineer carrying out various construction projects in the city “You cannot do a building in Bamenda and try to do the same building in Yaounde without taking into consideration the soil characteristics of the two regions” he observed rubbing off the sand on his palms.
Contractor Puene Francoise whom I met by her sleek Mercedes supervising a construction facility in Bastos Yaounde says “It is true contractors must check the quality of materials in laboratories but the government must not allow that sub-standard materials be imported into the country.”

Construction Material
The General Manager of the National Civil Engineering Laboratory (LABOGENIE), Philippe Nouanga, on his part expressed regrets over the fact that his agency does not control building material produced locally or imported into the country.
Speaking behind his modest office table at the Ekounou neighbourhood he said “It is only LABOGENIE that has the lab equipments to test and assess the quality of construction material that go into the market.”
Importers themselves have disclosed that some importers trade in iron rods of diameters that are not authorized by the state. And other construction material dealers put cement on the market with no specifications on how to use them.
It is impossible at first glance to say how resistant an iron rod is, or the strength of a concrete mix. Even engineers need a bunch of equipments and standards to assess this. The National Civil Engineering Laboratory is the country’s best bet in the domain. By ignoring its best brains in the domain, the government of Cameroon cannot guarantee the quality of the construction materials used on the country’s construction facilities. Even the head of the committee tasked with assessing standards of building materials Mr. Tchoffo is convinced there are sub-standard products on the market.

The new Standards and Quality Agency has now promised that every bag of cement entering any of Cameroon’s ports will be checked first, as part of a wider control scheme to be set up. The only problem is the members of the standards agency, yet to have an office of its own, confess (off-the-record) that they don’t have the money to match the lofty promises it is making so far.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Memories of a holiday…

It was a long time ago… or so it seemed when I fell in love with the volcanic sandy beaches of Limbe. It has for its fond memories gathered since December 1998 become the perfect holiday getaway for me. I spent the last week of July 2010, idling on its black beaches praying for sunshine, as it became clear with the incessant rainfall that I had picked the wrong month for this holiday.

When I had a few hours of sunshine, I read Thomas Hardy’s The Return of The Native, in between swims, on a private beach in Bobende. A once small village on the outskirts of the oil-producing town. I had first been introduced to the Atlantic on these sands, and since I seem to have nurtured an intimate link with the place.

Twelve years later many more hotels seemed to have blossomed on the waterfront, adding to the beauty of the town where missionaries and colonialists had anchored in the 1800s. I had also spotted two new oil exploration rigs along the coast and heard word of others soon to be erected. However the radio talk shows of Ocean City Radio, a popular urban radio in Limbe, again reminded me that the plight of the people had for the most part remained unchanged. As I tried to film the national petroleum refinery that sat on the horizon, for my video archives, I came across a young man and a young woman who emptied their bowels in the refuge of the rocks along the shore. The young man even relished the moment in the breeze with a cigarette hanging in between his lips as he released his body waste for the waves to pick up.

On another day, I made the trip to Down Beach, Limbe’s reference point for grilled fish avec vue sur la mer. Across the road a good number of shacks lined the road, their weather-beaten roofs only held in place by old car tyres, and stones that left the on-looker wondering if the carabot houses (wooden houses) as they are called here, will not collapse under the weight of the patchwork. At the far end, some dug-out fishing boats returned from a seemingly unfruitful trip out in the high seas. As I relished the bar fish and brochette of shrimps, feeling lucky, I stared emptily into the horizon. The petroleum rig that sat less than a nautical mile away, again reminding me of the resource curse that had befallen most of Africa.

A few mouthfuls later, my thoughts were halted by a floating odour. Not the familiar smell of fish that haunted the place, but a different odour, fresh for the farmer’s nose…yet disturbing for a man dining by the sea. Horseshit. I thought aloud. The big curiosity of Down Beach, this time around had been the horse ride business. A host of teenagers of Fulani descent offered most of the tourists and locals a chance to get on horseback for 500 CFAF (about 1 USD). The scene became very comic as very few persons could even get on the horses, and others tried desperately to give their children the boost to take the challenge. Many just broke down in tears, while the bravest posed for a snapshot on the horses, and the less adventurous just stood next to the horses for their snapshot.

But I really began to get upset as the smell of horseshit wafted by again. The beach itself seemed to have amassed the entire city’s waste probably deposited into the sea by the runoffs. I started looking around for some answers to the questions that came tumbling. Why are those in the horse ride business not picking up the horseshit that now dotted the beach? Why does the beach look like the city’s trash? I could not meet any council worker but I tried to get a few answers. Watch my video below...