The Price Of Oil
FATHER MICHAEL walked unhurriedly through the palm trees for his daily visit to the inferno. A natural reserve and thirty years of West African missionary work had caused his wit to turn inwards and the inferno was his private name for the small factory he had set up across the square from his church. It was not much more than an oil press and a few barrels under a wide, low shed. The end facing the square was open - wire meshes on a wooden frame could be pulled across at night for security but now they had been removed and the whole inside of the building could be seen. It appeared dark against the harsh glare of the sun and invitingly cool, but this was an illusion. The tin roof absorbed the sun’s heat and radiated it downwards again with a vengeance. Outside was hot enough but entering the shed was like going into a furnace. The noise heightened the impression. Hammerings echoed from the roof, the press sent out tormented shrieks like a chorus of the damned and above all rose a shrill hubbub of chatter. It was amazing how people could produce such a volume of noise and at the same time do a job of work.
To the eye and ear the factory entrance did indeed resemble the gates of hell, but you had only to cross the threshold to realize that this was really an extremely happy place. Father Michael regarded his daily visits as pure pleasure, so much so indeed that he had recently begun to feel twinges of conscience and had considered reducing them to a weekly inspection. When he had mentioned this to his head supervisor, however, the hurt look on the latter’s face had instantly caused him to drop the idea.
The palms gave way to a line of acacia in front of the church and Father Michael followed their dappled shade until he was opposite the factory. Then he stepped out boldly into the full sunlight of the square. His white soutane brushed through the dust, sending up little orange-brown clouds behind him. Three small children ran up to fight for the privilege of taking his hand; they were very brown, pot-bellied with worms and completely naked. They screwed up their faces and gazed at him, shouting ‘Fada, Fada’, and then, greatly daring, ‘Give-me one-penny’. Father Michael raised his hand in mock severity and they ran squealing away, stopping a few yards off to dance about and laugh and squeal again in embarrassment at their own bravery. Father Michael continued on his way, outwardly serene as before. Inwardly, the little incident had clouded his enjoyment. A child asking for a penny might be a trivial form of begging but he hated it all the same. He could have been accused of an overly paternal attitude towards his flock, but he had struggled for many years to establish among them feelings of pride and self-reliance. That was why he had set up the factory.
It was a terribly simple idea. There was a type of nut that grew well in the area. From it could be extracted an oil that was good for cooking. The village farmers used to take their crop to a city trader, who paid them little for it although cooking oil was expensive to buy. By pressing the oil from the nuts and then selling it themselves, the villagers could for the first time get a fair return for their labours.
Michael had fought long and hard for the scheme. There had been endless discussions and submissions, to the Bishop and to the Government. He had cajoled and threatened and pleaded. Everyone had put up objections. Some things he had had to give way on - he still regretted the loss of the thatched roof, but the Bishop had been firm on the point, as had been the District Administrator. The latter’s attitude had been understandable - he had the local monopoly of corrugated iron.
The hardest task had been persuading the people themselves. The conservatism of the rural poor is more deeply entrenched than any other, and these people were poor indeed. Patiently, at meeting after meeting, in home after home, he had explained the scheme and in the end persistence had won. It had been operating for a year now and even in that time had brought a little prosperity to the village. The farmers had a bit more money in their pockets; the half-dozen landless families, the poorest of the poor, had found employment in the factory. Nobody had become rich, or was likely to, but penury was that much further off than before.
A line of women were sitting at the factory gates, each one with her legs straight out in front of her and with a small bundle of nuts, firmly wrapped in banana leaves, in her lap. Some were nursing babies at their breasts. Others had tied theirs tightly to their backs with brightly printed sheets of cotton. A man was slowly moving down the line, weighing each contribution of nuts on a battered pair of kitchen scales and noting in a school exercise book the amount due to each supplier. He was the recipient of a fair amount of abuse concerning the accuracy or otherwise of his scales but he gave as good as he got, and each of his sallies was greeted with appreciative roars of laughter from his audience. It was an entertainment as much as a business. Father Michael greeted each member of the queue gravely in turn. He shook hands with each and made the traditional enquiries about family, home and fields. Each woman rose to curtsey, and with bashful eyes cast down intoned the customary responses. These never varied: it was unthinkable that they should. This was an essential ceremony, not an exchange of information. The proceedings disturbed the babies, who set up a concerted wailing that added to the cacophony from the shed. The mothers sat down again, smiling smiles that displayed their perfect white teeth and telling each other how they had greeted the priest. Father Michael at last entered the factory.
Inside, men with hammers were sitting around a large pile of nuts cracking the tough shells one by one. Each blow echoed from the roof like a pistol shot. The supervisor hurried up to Father Michael, anxious to discuss some semi-technical point. Together they went to inspect the oil-press, where Arrio, half-naked and glistening with sweat, was exerting himself against a massive cross-bar.
Arrio was deaf and dumb, and rated an idiot. He was a friendly man, and popular. Before the factory had opened he had been a familiar sight in the market place where he had made a sort of living as a beggar - every trader or buyer had felt at some time a gentle pluck on the sleeve drawing attention to Arrio’s moon face and immense toothless grin, and the hand held out in supplication. He was a huge man, amiable as a kitten. Most people gave him a piece of sweet potato or an orange but if his request had been refused then he would wander away to find another patron, still grinning broadly and apparently as contented as before. People had tried to employ him in the fields but it had not been a success:
he was willing enough and had more than enough strength but he had been simply unable to grasp what had been required of him. But now, in the factory, he was superb. His task was to turn the handle of the press until the last drop of oil had been squeezed out of the batch of nuts. Father Michael loved to watch him. He would strain against the cross-piece, his eyes fixed on the spout above the waiting barrel. At the beginning of each cycle when the nuts were full and the crossbar could be turned without effort the oil would pour down in a stream. Arrio enjoyed seeing that but clearly regarded it as too easy. His real pleasure came towards the end of each cycle, when the pressure had squeezed the nuts into a solid mass and the handle became locked immoveably in its position. It seemed impossible that the screw thread should turn another fraction but Arrio would hurl himself against the bar and push desperately at it. Every drop of oil that hesitatingly emerged was a personal triumph for him. He would not stop until the supervisor, fearful for the safety of the mechanism, tapped him on the shoulder and gestured that it was time for a fresh charge of nuts. Then he would straighten up slowly, walk over to the oil barrel and peer inside. He had always been thought of as a fool, yet he could judge the amount of oil that could be extracted from each charge exactly. If he considered that the least bit more could be had, he would return to his handle and ignoring the supervisor’s agitation strain against it until a satisfactory number of further drops had emerged.
The supervisor invited Father Michael to inspect the row of full barrels, and explained how many litres had been processed the previous day and how much money they could expect to get for them. He was in charge of the day-to-day running of the factory. Though he frequently sought the priest’s advice, he was actually an astute and excellent manager and Father Michael generally contented himself with agreeing with whatever the other suggested: one more of the rituals so well understood by both sides. At length, their discussion over, the two men parted; Father Michael gave a slap on the back and a thumbs up sign to Arrio, who grinned delightedly and went out through a small door in the far end of the shed. This brought him to the market place. He stood for a moment to feel the slight wind, which dry and hot as it was, was still pleasant after the closeness of the factory shed. He blinked in the strong sunlight and presently became aware of a lorry which had evidently pulled up not long before.
A young white man wearing a tee-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Kansas State University’ was clambering over the top of it. With two assistants he was handing down its cargo, which consisted of shiny tins of some kind. The extraordinary thing was that they were giving the tins away. Already a large crowd had gathered and it was growing larger by the minute. Father Michael foresaw trouble as soon as the supply of tins began to slow but at present they were descending in a plenteous stream.
The young man saw the priest and jumped down to greet him. He was an American of the bright and enthusiastic variety, and in a voice that could be heard for a hundred yards around he began to explain what he was doing. The tins contained cooking oil. They were a gift from the European Common Market and were being given out all over the country. His organization had been given the task of setting up a distribution system for the province. From now on everyone would be receiving a free tin of oil twice a month! That would soon break the malnutrition here!
He was astonished by the bitterness of the priest’s reaction. What did he mean, there was no malnutrition, the gift was not needed? He pointed to the pot-bellied children who had followed Father Michael through the factory and were now peeping shyly round the door. A bit more food would certainly do those kids no harm. Why was the oil being sent? Well, this was a Third World country, wasn’t it, and it was the duty of the rich nations to help the poor. Surely Father Michael had heard of the mountains of surplus food being produced by the EEC?
The youth was bewildered. What on earth could be upsetting the old padre? Some missionaries, he knew, had spent too many years up-country and had gone bush-crazy. They wanted to treat these people like children for ever. Suddenly revelation of a sort came to him and his face lit up. The crowd around the lorry had become vociferous as the supply of tins diminished, and was hovering on the edge of violence. He laughed. ‘Don’t worry, Father. The District Administrator has given us his full co-operation. He’s even lending us one of his offices to work from. We’ll be back every fortnight from now on, and you can be sure that we’ll soon get a better distribution system set up. No more crowding round lorries next time!’
A month later Father Michael repeated his walk from the church through the factory shed to the market. The factory was silent and empty now. Only his footsteps rang back from the iron roof. Five barrels stood along one wall. The oil in them was rancid and foul; even had it been fresh, no-one would have bought it The free oil that was flooding the whole country had knocked the bottom out of the market. Why pay good money for oil when every two weeks the American came to give it away for nothing? It was the same everywhere. With nowhere to sell the oil, the factory was bankrupt. The press had been sold to pay the debts. A pile of unwanted nuts lay in one corner. The villagers were worse off than before the factory had started: now they could not even sell their nuts to the city trader. Father Michael stood at the small door and looked across the market. A crowd had gathered outside the office where the oil was now given out and a squabble was going on over the tickets that entitled the recipients to a can. He felt a pluck at his sleeve. The deaf and dumb man Arrio was sitting on the ground just outside the factory door. It was his usual place now; since the factory had closed he had hardly left the spot. He held his cupped hands up; he had gone back to begging. Recognising the priest, Arrio made a new gesture, a pushing motion, and smiled weakly. Father Michael’s eyes filled with tears. Even had Arrio been able to hear him, there would have been nothing to say.
From the other side of the market the young American saw them and waved. He was not one to bear grudges.