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25 February 2013

Bougainville Interlude II

With kind permission by Dermott Ryder


For the previous instalment of Dermott's story, click here.


My first three nights on the island I spent in a worldwide donga at Loloho, two hundred metres from a wet canteen, a hundred metres from the shoreline and close to the colourful one-room hut of Ali the Barber. He was a real character who made a living cutting hair and selling his daily catch of fish. Then I moved to Camp Eight, Arawa.

The significant difference between my Mount Newman experience and Bougainville was the climate. At Newman the hot, dry days and often cool and comfortable evenings made the place bearable. The brutally hot, humid days and the hot, airless nights made the Bougainville coast the gusset in the underpants of hell. My Western Australian experiences with Bechtel Pacific and Mount Newman Mining in no way prepared me for the Bougainville job. Compared with the shambolic Territorian companies, Bechtel and Newman run like clockwork.

My introduction to the company office and production facilities was a revelation. The site office, the lair of the project manager, his feral general foreman, who was also the owner's son-in-law, two indigenous clerks, a mildly confused draughtsman with an invisible friend, and an expatriate administration clerk with a number of serious issues, was not a model of modern project management - although it would have made a fascinating case study for my earlier project management course.

Our promised contribution to the Panguna Project, called for the building of an ever-changing number of three types of houses. At the low end was the indifferently cobbled together army barrack style, round roof shanties for selected indigenous workers. The second level houses, for expatriate trade contactors and middle management, were largely in keeping with southern expectations. At the top end the upper crust dwellings were, by Bougainville standards, borderline palatial. This was not a classless society.

Several teams of consummate professionals were in the field at any one time. The building plan, handed down from the project office indicated that construction would occur, in job lots and in theory, in seven activities called days, each day's tasks representing the work in progress for the group of houses in the job specification.

For instance, on day one the concrete slabs would be poured and allowed to set. From day two to day six most of the rest of the construction would happen. On day seven the job would be completed, inspected and handed over to the unsuspecting new owners before it fell down. It would be a flight of fancy to translate this sort of seven days into a conventional week. On first acquaintance this "day build" approach seems simple and straightforward. In practice, experience indicates, that madness lies in this direction, especially on Bougainville where time had an elastic dimension.

The building plan with a bill of material also came to our site office, to the workshop and to the store, traditionally, two days after it should have. Fasteners, fittings, fixtures and roofing iron were not a problem. The small stuff came out of the main store and the roofers called for their iron when they wanted it.

The timber wall frames, various panels and roof trusses all required fabrication work. The crunch came here. Timing was always a problem. Everything had to wait its turn in the queue for the workshop, first for the saw men, then for the assemblers and finishers, finally for the loaders. Of course the guys on the sites always got mightily pissed off waiting for something to happen and blamed the workshop for every delay when the fault lay fairly and squarely with the clown of a project manager who couldn�t organize a romantic night out.

Under normal circumstances the set out of this sort of production unit would put the rough timber yard adjacent to the point of entry into the mill and workshop to streamline transport into process of materials for cutting, assembly and eventual despatch to the construction point. In theory nothing could be simpler.

However, this wrong way round epicentre of productivity, planned and built by the project manager and the general foreman, had the rough timber coming in at the point where the finished frames should have been going out. This brought unnecessarily hard work to everybody involved and especially to the indigenous timber carriers. They paid the price of this cock up in sweat and blood. Naturally, the two great brains of the organization, the ancestors of dumb and dumber, blamed each other for this monumental foul up with vaudevillian fervour.

My place in the great scheme of things, in concert with two colleagues, was to translate the blue prints and bills of materials into a timely flow of timber to the mill, roofing iron and fasteners onto trucks and to get everything to the right place, according to the building plans, and at the right time, according to the building schedule.

I was fortunate in my two associate administrators, Michael from Sydney, a quietly spoken, compulsive counter of things was painstakingly accurate in everything he did. This was, on occasion, time consuming and frustrating but proved worthwhile. Roger, a native born and experienced expatriate from the New Guinea highlands town of Mount Hagen was our wise and trusted guide and advisor. We readily accepted and adopted his approach in dealing with and supervising the indigenous workers. Fluent in Pidgin, Motu and Chimbu, he opened our eyes to experiences we would have otherwise missed. Looking back, his influence is hard to overvalue.

The variables that can influence any construction project are legion and change by the minute. Multiply this truism by a very large number and this will give some small indication of the Bougainville experience.

It took about a fortnight, and numerous visits to the house building sites in the project area to discover and confirm that not one of the printed or typed documents provided by the company to do the job was anything like accurate. The mounds of unused materials at every finished house should have been a clue to project management but for all sorts of reasons wasn't. Eventually the excess material always conveniently disappeared, sold off by and to interested parties or gathered by the cargo cult true believers who never let a chance go by.

When we pointed out this misalliance of documentation and material to the project manager he simply shrugged and said: "Fix it lads, that's what we're paying you for." We did fix it, in devious ways and with a small but reasonable profit. Value engineering has many applications.

The only accurate building location plan accessible to us, we discovered, was a hand drawn section of the project area with roads and house sites marked on it with the traditional, thumbnail dipped in tar. The location plan, thumb tacked to the project office wall of the main contractor, we acquired by stealth, or burglary if you will, at the dead of night. Nobody ever commented on its disappearance.

Getting the house building plans was a little more difficult. Neither the mildly confused draughtsman nor his invisible friend had a clue where the file copies could possibly be. The project manager and the general foreman, comfortably ensconced on their own self indulgent cloud nine, were never in the loop. They were simply not trusted. Fortunately we found Darwin Denis, one of the few sane carpenters on the job. He was a first class tradesman and took great pride in his work. He had accurate drawings of the two higher-level houses and just enough larceny in his soul to open the door to opportunity at first knock. He was willing to share his knowledge and his unique paperwork for a consideration that included a conjugal round trip air ticket to Rabaul, where the dark-eyed light of his life resided. The enlightened self-interest of the person who described our carefully worded requests for the appropriate documentation as "freaking blackmail" made the whole thing possible.

The situation settled down remarkably quickly and, apart from the discovery that some weeks earlier one of the teams had built two houses in the middle of a planned road, there were no major incidents to contend with. Fortunately the surveyor responsible for locating the houses had made a number of errors and after some discussion was willing to redraw this tiny section of the map and re-peg several house sites yet to be developed. When completed the short road would be fifty metres south of where the original planner intended it to be but as far as I know nobody ever noticed this very typical Bougainville discrepancy.

All of this focussed activity begs the question: Why would we, why would anybody, put so much energy and effort into the service of a company so marked by remote indifference and cynical ineptitude? The answer, I think, lies in the strong possibility that it was important to us how we spent our time, and what we could achieve in the process. The desire to bring temperate order to tropical chaos was a driving force few could resist. Add to this our scalding contempt for the project management philosophy and our motivation, in hindsight, seems clear enough.

After the initial frenzy of energy sapping activity that marks the early days on remote area construction things usually settle down. The work becomes a process, mostly predictable but with occasions of heightened excitement to alleviate the tedium.

For the next instalment of Dermott's story, click here.