Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Elevator Story

At my office, our elevator is a bit moody. Or “tired,” as we often call it.

You see, our elevator was never meant to carry people up and down all day. It’s actually our building’s service elevator, so its purpose in life was to make a few trips each day – probably with a heavy load, but not too frequently.

Moreover, it was built for hirelings: non-white cleaners, handymen, etc.

A different elevator was built for the day-to-day operations of the white people.

In 1994, however, New South Africa was born and it was no longer acceptable to (officially) segregate people according to skin colour or social class.

I don’t know if this event changed our elevator’s usage significantly or not. My guess is that its trips decreased since everyone would want to use to main elevator. Maybe our elevator got a couple years’ rest. Maybe it got sluggish and lazy during that time.

Then something happened to our main elevator that changed the dynamics of our building forever.

One evening, shortly after people left the office to go home, a group of workers showed up and told the security people that they had been called for elevator maintenance. Within a few hours, they managed to strip away the entire operator and drive it away without security expecting a thing.

You can imagine the scene that played out the next morning. It wasn’t pretty, to say the least.

Everyone at work suspects that the heist was organized by the elevator maintenance company that MHA had recently used. Soon after the incident, the owner left South Africa and was never heard from again.

To replace the main elevator would cost a significant amount of money. I don’t remember the exact sum, but it was something like a million rand, which is in the ballpark of $100,000 CDN.

Since our building had another elevator anyways, the directors decided it wasn’t worth the cost. Consequently, one elevator shaft now sits empty while another is used continuously throughout the day.

As mentioned before, this elevator is moody. For some reason it doesn’t like the 4th floor (which I’m on). It often chooses to pause, wiggle the door slightly, then continue downwards. When it’s in that mood, you have to tap the “down” button over and over until the door shudders open. I didn’t believe in that strategy when I first arrived, but experience has shown me the wisdom of the “tapping” method.

Furthermore, the elevator doesn’t like going up. It takes the same amount of time to travel from the 4th floor to the 5th floor as it does to go all the way down to the ground level.

About once a month, the elevator breaks down completely and a repair company has to be called.

Amazingly, however, no one gets stuck in the elevator. Even though it doesn’t like to follow directions, it does like to sit on the ground floor with its door open. Good luck getting those doors to close and the thing to move somewhere, but at least you can always get out.

In Canada, we would deal with an elevator like this by keeping the emergency staircase open, right? My building only has five floors (although ground floor is considered Floor 0 so back home we would call this six floors). Personally, I would much rather walk up those flights of stairs than argue with our elevator every morning. Today I had to ride it up to the 5th floor and back down to the ground floor again before it decided to go up to the 4th.

But that’s not the way things are done in South Africa. Our Emergency Exit stays locked with iron bars over the door. No joke. The keys are kept in a glass box in our kitchen.

I mentioned this to a friend a couple months ago and he responded, “That’s normal. I guess you have the choice of getting robbed or potentially burning people to death.” He then laughed. I didn’t.

I understand that statistically, it makes more sense to keep the doors locked. But that mentality it still weird to me. Moreover, it means I have to play Russian roulette with our elevator every morning.

Maybe its racist. Maybe some days it needs to make a stand and rebel against carrying everyone – white, black, employees, directors. Maybe it is just tired. Maybe it wants sympathy. How many times have I heard, “Shame, man. The poor thing can’t handle us today”?

Or maybe we need to change our mentality and unlock the emergency exit door every day.

Maybe that will be my legacy here!

“Moved to South Africa to help alleviate poverty, but most lasting impact was getting people to use the stairs more often.”

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3 thoughts on “Elevator Story

  1. Brenda on said:

    ha,ha…love it. Perhaps next you can come to my workplace and get people to take the stairs instead of the elevator….especially when they’re going DOWN one floor. signing off, from downtown Vancouver…..

  2. Gee, I can’t imagine being without a set of stairs to climb! I’ve been living on the 6th floor of a building and every day I skip the elevator and use the stairs. Great for exercise, and I save electricity by not using the elevator~

  3. Hi there! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after browsing through some of the post I realized it’s new to me.

    Anyways, I’m definitely glad I found it and I’ll be bookmarking
    and checking back frequently!

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