Like the biblical story of 'The tower of Babel,' that was never completed as God confounded people's speeches (Genesis 11: 5-8), a communication blackout between locals and the Chinese has caused the construction of the Lotsane dam, 50km west of Palapye, to move at a snail's pace.
Picture this scenario: It is lunch time, a young man of Chinese origin moves towards a small group of young locals who have been working on the reservoir construction site. The Chinese, who happens to be their supervisor, cannot utter a single Setswana work, let alone a single word in English. The Chinese makes hand gestures towards the young men, moving one of his hands from the other towards his mouth, and this, I was told, is a sign that it is time for lunch.
But, before they can go, he makes another gesture, this time touching his wrist before flashing his fingers towards the sky. The young men now look at him puzzled, seemingly not understanding the last gesture. For the next 10 minutes they are wondering what he might be saying and this makes the supervisor annoyed as he keeps flashing. Finally one of the young men grasps that he means they should knock off after lunch and come for the night shift, hence the flashing of the hands was signaling lights switching on. "Rona rra re bona one a! (These are the problems we are facing)," they tell The Monitor. Actually this is what they have to endure almost on a daily basis. The language barrier is really creating a problem that will in turn hinder the smooth progress of construction work at the site. One can only imagine what happens when the supervisor gives instructions of the day using sign language when the locals struggle to understand only one instruction. To make matters worse, no one from these people has been trained in sign language, let alone the supervisor. Now with Chinese companies carrying out more construction work than any other company for the government countrywide (about P20 billion worth), this should be expected to be a widespread problem that is a cause for concern. Asked how they take instructions from their supervisor, the locals say most of the times they work by assumption as they try to interpret his sign language signals.
Despite the contractors having earlier said communication was not creating any problems for them, it was a different story when the media toured the construction site. The majority of locals are hired as unskilled labourers on the site, while most of the supervisors are Chinese. The contractor, Sinohydro has hired only five translators to work at the massive construction site. "We hear they are translators here, but we never see them on site. The only time they are called is when a dispute erupts between us and one of the supervisors," explained one of the labourers. They complained about the young supervisors who are brought from China to work as onsite foremen while they know absolutely nothing about the job.
"This boy here is supposed to be our supervisor but he does not know anything about the job we are doing here.
He can not even remove a bolt using a spanner, but he will be quick to recommend you be written a warning letter if you try to advise him on anything," they said. They say their relatively younger and inexperienced supervisors have the powers to fire, suspend and even cut their wages at any time. Government, through the then Ministry of Infrastructure, Science and Technology (MIST), last year acknowledged the problems of language barrier during a meeting called to address the problems encountered with Chinese companies hired to do construction work for the government. The government had then proposed an introduction of a universal construction language in form of 'Fanagalo' that was used in the South African gold mines years back. The language helped to ease communication hurdles between various tribes from Southern Africa who went to work in the mines.