Logisticians, like children, should only be seen when something goes wrong. The old adage is that logisticians should make everything run smoothly behind the scenes – if logistics is noticed, then it is because something has gone wrong, something isn’t in place that should have been. In Punia, our team of logisticians were responsible for keeping the vehicles and generators running, for stocking the warehouse and arranging the monthly medical deliveries, for managing construction projects, for anything that needed buying, for security, and for keeping the base in touch with the outside world through satellite internet and HF radio. To keep up any level of functioning internet, I had to embrace the role of pornography policeman, marble polish for our pillars of the churchgoing community.
In the early morning, I shut my domestic concerns with our stray animals behind the bamboo fence, and wave a cheery greeting to guard Philippe, who hurriedly puts down his schoolbooks to man the gate. The half mile walk took me past the empty brick warehouse, Punia’s largest building, where the last fleeing army sheltered, and where children sometimes congregate after school. I share a wink and a joke with the local policemen leaning on their round-less guns and refuse the peanuts for sale at the gates, where I am usually greeted by our head of security. Moussa is a barrel of a man, with a shaved head, flat cap and meticulously styled beard. He has a childlike laugh that carries all the way to our house, and his chosen ringtone is a baby crying. On first hearing of a security incident, he will run to my office like an oversized penguin and squawk through a gabbled version of events, sneaking worried glances up at me between sentences in search of reassurance.
It was a good day if I made it past Moussa’s small shack at the gate without being dragged off to the mechanics’ hut or the warehouse. On one occasion, I arrived to find much of the base flattened by an overnight storm. Bamboo fences toppled, torrents eroding away the foundations, warehouse floor flooded, motorbikes and benches collapsed under a pile of wood and palm leaves that had protected them. Another morning, having succeeded in a long campaign to start my days with more than sugary water, I sat down to find a dead rat in the middle of my desk, next to an overturned coffee pot – I hoped this drug-fuelled mystery would help improve my credibility as a some sort of logistical shaman for Punia’s health sector.
Finally, we would sit down to face the day. Usually the morning would be filled with meetings – working out medical programmes and strategy, managing delivery priorities, checking progress from the field, and most crucially, talking to local suppliers, political and community leaders, and health authorities. Meetings would invariably start an hour or two late. Usually, essential representatives would either not turn up or bring two or three additional delegates. Then begins the most important ritual – each delegate reaches in the folds of his colourful matching trouser-shirt suit combo, and extracts his mobile phone, placing it carefully on the table in front of him. For a man of slightly higher status, he reaches in another pocket, and takes out a second phone, placing it on top of the first. For the men who arrived by motorbike, a third phone. For men of true political clout in Punia, the ominously named ‘Administrator’ or our boy-racer Hospital chief, a fourth handset is added to the Pyramid of telephonic pharaohs. The meeting begins, with a prolonged ritual of thanks and introduction, and just as the critical point of business is arrived upon, the crucial member will pick up their mobile phone and shout loudly into it for several minutes.
Sometimes in the meeting, when a particularly nuanced issue needed to be communicated, one of the older men, wisened into their 40s or 50s (there a few in Punia much older), would pick up his pile of telephones, tug his shirt downwards on his rounded belly, and rise from his plastic chair. The room would fall silent, and he would launch into a warm and well-received anecdote from years when he possessed a smaller number of telephones. Finally, the story coming to a close, it would be summarized with a wise proverb: “the monkey with no tail cannot swing in the branches” or “coconuts will bounce high under a blue sky”.
The assembled delegates would all nod or chuckle knowingly, presumably soaked in such meaning from a young age, and I would join them, not quite understanding, but appreciating the wisdom of one of Punia’s own. After a few such meetings, I began to lean across to my neighbor to try and find out more. On every occasion, he would shrug ‘je sais pas exactement, Papa’. Made up off the cuff, albeit a slightly more colourful one than those in most boardrooms.