They unloaded the truck in the morning, stacking pieces next to the pavilion in the center of the village where meetings are sometimes held. When I passed by on my way to school at a quarter to eight they had almost finished, and the piles of sides and tops and backs and bracing were approaching head height. I arrived at school and remarked to the principal what I had seen. He jumped up to go remind the carpenters that they were allowed to store the completed desks in the pavilion but not to actually work in its shelter. Repairing damage to the tile floor from a stray hammer blow or errant varnish drip could be costly.
After school I stopped again to watch. The truck was gone. It had deposited a load of sand outside the window of the 10th grade classroom where I was teaching, distracting everyone. Now a large portion of the village center on the north side of the road was filled with freshly glued and nailed desks, perhaps sixty-five or seventy of them. The four carpenters had found an efficient way to share the two hammers, two buckets of glue, and two saws they had brought, and a newly-assembled desk was placed among the others about every two or three minutes. The first carpenter took two opposite endpieces, each with a skid at floor level, a box to support the seat, a beam to support the desk surface, and a riser with a notch cut out at the top to hold the backrest. He then glued the backrest and the seat in place, and added a handful of nails. The next carpenter verified that everything was square and nothing damaged, and fitted the notebook tray at knee level. The third added the desktop, with glue and nails, positioning the groove for pens and pencils at the front of the desk (I only saw two that were backwards). The final carpenter added a brace at foot level, and moved it to the ‘finished’ area.
The fresh desks arranged in rows in the middle of the village attracted passersby other than myself. Many old men stopped to comment on the rapidity of the work, the fact that the wood had so obviously been cut with an electric saw in the city and not by hand, the uniformity of the desks, or just the impressive sight of so many new pieces of scholastic furniture. Children played in the rows, or sat and watched. Small sheep enjoyed the new shade.
I came and stopped again about an hour later, and watched the last desk get nailed together. Eighty new “table-bancs” as they are called in French were more or less arranged in the middle of the village. I think the carpenters where told to work there because it was next to the place where they would be stored, not so that they would attract the attention of everyone who passed by that day. But the effect was important, and valuable. Several people told me directly that it was so inspiring to see all the new desks, ready and waiting for students to fill them. I overheard more than one conversation in which someone lamented no longer being in school (too old, dropped out, etc.) and now wanted to go back, if they could only sit in one of those new desks.
The desks that are currently in use at the school are uneven. Their surfaces are scarred by careless chainsawing at the beginning of their lives and many years (over forty for some of them) of bored students scratching their nicknames and lovers’ names into them with their pens or worse. Most have one or two or three nails that stand proud from the surface, either at the desktop or the bench. Some are wide, some are narrow, some are high, some are short. They have no backrests. Unfortunately, the approximately 300 students currently enrolled this year will need almost half as many desks to be comfortably seated, so many of the current, ugly desks will have to be used alongside the new ones in the new classrooms. I imagine fights between students who come early and get seats at the new desks, and those who come late and won’t accept sitting at an old desk.
Before I went home they had started varnishing. First four gallons of Guinean-made varnish were mixed with half as much lamp oil. I guess lamp oil is cheaper than varnish. When the head carpenter was satisfied with the color and consistency of the mix, brushes were distributed and rinsed in lamp oil, and the varnishing commenced. Gradually the students, children, and even old men sitting and looking on where displaced so their seats could be brushed with varnish, bringing out the lovely light red tones in the wood. I’m not sure if they finished before nightfall.