Lies and Misdemeanors

I am going to call my first movie The Hypocrisy. Hypocrisy itself would be a character, and it would go from house to house, city to city, corrupting and annihilating every single thing it touches. I learned, not long ago, it would be better not to announce one’s ideology in any medium of storytelling. But I am not sure if I can resist the temptation to let every single viewer know where I stand, or more importantly, where everybody should stand. That is probably why I am writing newspaper articles, which are limited to a certain word count, and have to be kept to the point – for good old austerity’s sake. No melodramatic allusions or abstractions, I just have to watch my language from time to time.

All engineering fields require the completion of an internship (lasting an entire semester) at a local engineering contracting company. This is done because colleges lack the necessary infrastructure that is needed to give students a practical knowledge of the field they are taking. Ethiopia’s Higher Educational system may be defective in many ways, but the internship programme is the exception. In all my four years as a student at one of the country’s numerous public universities, I hadn’t learnt half as much about the engineering field of as I did in those four months of internship.

And so, in my third month of apprenticeship (most Ethiopians pronounce it ‘apparentship’), the Project Manager of the site I was working on rounded us interns up to talk about the less mentioned trades of the field. What most people don’t know is that Civil Engineering is just as much about the cost of a construction project as it is about concrete and mortar. We were discussing this when a delicate aspect of the Real Estate market came up.

I will not name the Real Estate company, which is also its own contractor, I was interning at. But the project is in its fourth year of construction, when all the brochures, billboards and TV advertisements that were released in 2012 clearly indicated that residents would have the keys to their homes within 18 months. This was very strange, since one of the most important things an engineer is expected to do is figure out how much money and time a certain building, or buildings, will take to make. This is called forecasting – a vital facet of every business venture, not just in engineering. Otherwise, if the owner or investor of the Real Estate doesn’t know how much it will cost to build the houses in the first place, they will not know how much profit they are going to make. And time is money too, especially in the contracting business. The longer something takes to build, the more money that is incurred, as employees have to keep getting paid.

So, why did the project take so much longer than the adverts suggested? There were many reasons. Primarily, there is the natural difficulty of selling through down payments, which encourages home buyers to procrastinate in completing payments. No Real Estate ever builds and sells, but sells and builds. When the houses are first being sold, not a single wooden poll has been erected. Only after the first round of purchases does the Real Estate start doing any type of construction work. And the entire project will never be completed until every buyer has paid 100pc.

But the main reason is the hardship in getting the right currency. Some Engineering materials, especially those used for interior finishing, have to be bought from other countries (mostly China, where else?). And home buyers make purchases in birr, which then has to be converted into dollars, yen or whatnot. And since the Ethiopian government has a shortage of foreign currency, the transaction may take up to two years.

All of this, though, must have been obvious for anyone in the contracting or Real Estate business. After all, I was finding out about it as an intern. The Project Manager, who is young and cocky, was obviously stalling, hoping we would forget or confuse the question. The main issue in discussion wasn’t why the project was delayed, but why the adverts had such a misleading handover date. He finally relented and told us what I had been suspecting the whole time. They knew, of course, that such a vast construction project will never be completed in just 18 months, but decided to lie about it.

More than the location, aesthetic or price tag of a house, what appeals to potential buyers is the date. And that is what they sell – the dream, the hope that anyone can have a house in just 18 months. And the Project Manager even sympathised, acknowledging the impropriety of giving people hope just to take it away. But this is how houses are sold, after all – just an arguably smart way of advertising one’s products. It may be illegal to lie to customers, but not about something so small. More importantly, it was what every other Real Estate was doing. And how could they, even if they knew right from wrong, compete in the housing market through being truthful? The Project Manager wrapped up the discussion up by reminding us that what really matters was how good the houses are built.

It is the little lies – isn’t it? – that make up the big lies. It is very easy to brush off seemingly minute faults of our own when we are not on the receiving end. It isn’t at all strange to hear some rich guy singled out for reproach, damned and accused of selfishness and malevolence by the people he wronged. But does anyone ever ask why it is that corrupt politicians or businessmen cheat? I have never believed it was because they were evil. Some are, of course, but not all. It is for the simple, measly reason that if they don’t cheat, someone who is willing to, will be instated in their place.

But if no one was willing to cheat or lie then there would be no one to replace decent, upstanding citizens with. And that is where the truly evil men come in. It is in fear that they would usurp our jobs; that they are willing to get their hands dirty; that we get our hands dirty. It is all a game, one that we will only win if everyone understands the small lies are the real problem. I am not sure how it is possible to have a nation understand this, but I have always believed that was why we have art – so that humanity could learn to be nicer to each other.


By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye is a film reviewer whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling. He can be reached at

Published on Sep 06,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 853]



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