An Unexpected Lesson on Social Capital

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Article by: Peter Gatuna

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After working non-stop for six months crunching weekly articles for the Qazini columns, I decide to take a small break in the middle of June. I happen on this story on the first weekend away, on a sunny Sunday morning. As the others prepare to go to church, I decide to take the road less taken. I head towards the nearest river to seek some communion with nature.

A samaritan kind of situation

The route is abandoned on this Sunday morning, with little foot or motor traffic. The perfect recipe for when you want to be alone with your thoughts. My chain of thought is disrupted by the appearance of a broken-down milk delivery motorbike ahead. Still loaded with a crate and empty milk bottles, the rider has pulled up at the side of the road and is now busy at work repairing it.

He straightens up and greets me so cheerfully that I think he must know me from somewhere. But he only introduces himself briefly, then invites me, equally as cheerfully, to “share my cleverness” with his small problem.

One wheel has broken a wheel sprocket or something, which is unfortunate because he hasn’t even finished his morning rounds yet. That sounds like a real emergency worthy of support, except I don’t know the first thing about motorbikes.

My initial attempts to help

“Do you know anybody who might be able to help?” He presses and informs me that his biggest problem is that he does not have pliers. If he did, he might be able to tinker with the wheel to enable him to finish his milk rounds.

So I place a call to a bodaboda friend of mine, hoping that he might have the contacts of a spare parts seller or a mechanic. However, it turns out that no one is available to provide this easy-fix solution. “Good riddance,” whispers my milkman friend, as he does not have the cash at hand to buy one anyway.

Let’s do it ourselves!

For the next five minutes, we get our hands dirty fiddling with that sprocket. Even though I don’t know what I am doing and the milkman cum bike repairman has no pliers, we make slow progress.

We bounce around ideas about a possible fix, but it all comes down to that missing pair of pliers that will do the rough repair work needed. But without the pliers, it is slow and theoretical work, and I am starting to feel pretty bored. I don’t see anything that I am adding to this stranded milkman's situation and are considering leaving him to his own devices.

Social capital to the rescue

In a cloud of dust and engine noise, another battered bike pulls up. The milkman wastes no time in stopping him and explaining the situation all over again. By a lucky coincidence, this rider happens to have a pair of pliers handy.

But he can only stop for a few minutes because he is going to church and it is starting to get quite late. I know the riders by sight only – those familiar faces you’ve seen but never met.

He also happens to know my face, so he agrees to leave the pliers with me as the guarantor, with the promise that I will make sure it gets to him after the work is done. The milkman and I go back to our tinkering, and off the rider goes to church.

What happens when we come together

It is inching closer to midday, so the milkman is now incredibly late for his rounds. His customers – shopkeepers and hoteliers – are starting to call him in panic. The churchgoers need milk to make their after-church tea.

But now that we are working with pliers, the repair work is coming up pretty nicely. The ball-bearing is returned to the sprocket and fastened well. With a prayer that it will be enough to complete his rounds today, the milkman redoes the wheel.

After a few more minutes of tinkering around, we manage to get the wheel in order, refit the brake pads and stuff, and we are good to go. Before heading across the river to fill his milk cans, we take a detour to church and return the pliers to the owners.

After bidding me thanks, the milkman disappears into the horizon in a cloud of dust. As for me, I am quietly impressed with my part in getting that broken-down bike fixed. Even though my only effective contribution was securing the pliers between those two bikers, I am happy.

It was a good morning to learn about the benefits of social capital and to be part of a lesson on how perfect strangers can work together towards a common goal. What more can one ask of a Sunday morning than to witness the human spirit in perfect harmony?