It was a few months before I bumped into Daniel-Peter again. His once tiny English vocabulary, which had nevertheless contained the words “anchorage”, “fibreglass”, “first mate” and “consulate”–gleaned from the Ukranian crew of a ship he boarded in Durban in 2010–had expanded to the point at which unmediated conversation had become possible. It was an unplanned meeting so the story he told about his life went down on the inside of a KFC burger box, the contents of which we’d just eaten sitting up at The Freezer.
My mother I like too much. Ma, she like me too much. Father made wrong, father no good. I have sister. Sister is die. Ma she sick, one month she never talk. She need blood so I make out blood. One day she look me, sit up and take me (grabs his shirt lapels in his fists), pull me down. I do like this (forcefully opens the fingers of one fist with the fingers of his other hand) and she die like that. I left Tanzania.
The story of his subsequent journey to South Africa had an adventure book quality I found dubious: lions at night with eyes like torches gorging on hapless fellow travellers in the wilds of northern Mozambique, and so forth. I steered the conversation back to the ships. Where did he hide on the Ukranian vessel? Daniel-Peter waggled a mini-loaf in the direction of a cargo ship in the Duncan Dock, clearly struggling for the right words.
Then he had an idea. Reaching into a small blue rucksack he pulled out a large blue faux-leather 2010 diary, the corners of which had swollen and burst. This he opened first at the pastel-coloured continental maps that large diaries have at front and back, where he pointed out Dakar, Jakarta, Singapore, Dubai–some of the cities he had travelled to. On almost every other page he had drawn cargo and container ships in pencil and pen. He began jabbing at them with his callused fighters’ fingers, pointing out the engine room, the lifeboats, the tonnage hatches, even the bulbed area above the rudder—all established beach boy hiding places. Lastly he pointed out the portal to the anchor chain locker, and waved his hand to indicate danger.
“Anchor out, fire in,” he clarified, and to demonstrate what a gigantic anchor chain rapidly paying out through a small portal would do to a human body caught up in the action he scooped up a handful of dirt from between his feet, and threw it out over the N1.
Not all the beach boys welcomed our interest in their business and some, like the crew that had made their beds amongst the restios on the Herzog Boulevard traffic island, were nakedly hostile. The first time we arrived at their island with our introductory speech the six or seven men sitting there on upturned paint buckets just stared back wordlessly. One of the men, just a boy really in a red overall with reflective strips at the knees, was lying back in the warm sand between the plants. With his one hand he was shielding his face with a news poster and with the other he was masturbating inside his overall. He kept his solemn eyes on us while tugging away at himself until eventually his enjoyment of his own insult proved too much, and he cracked up laughing. Some of the others pitched in with mirthless laughter and then they picked up their personal items—jackets, bottles, sun-bleached rucksacks—and wandered off into town.
The friendlier beach boys repeatedly insisted there were no leaders in the community. Without doubt, though, the dominant member of the Herzog Boulevard crew was Juma, a broad-nosed man in his late 20s, whose matted dreadlocks glinted with colourful beads. Juma is as common a Tanzanian name as Dave is an English one but the relationship that developed between Juma the seaman and Dave the photographer was fairly unique. They first met in the winter of 2011. Driving rain had forced the island boys to join the general population under Nelson Mandela Boulevard. Temporarily de-territorialised, Juma was chattier that day than he has been since. Without being asked to, he expounded on the dangers inherent in the beach boy life, foremost amongst which, he said, were the Chinese.
“Not Hong Kong Chinese, Mainland Chinese,” he clarified.
“If the ship crew is all Mainland China you have a problem because they might throw you overboard. On other ships there is a mixed crew—India, Greek-y, Korea—so this is not possible.”
Juma said that a beach boy who had spent time in Cape Town had been thrown overboard by a Chinese captain off the coast of Tanzania.
“He has become our hero because he survived and reported that ship. The captain was given his whole life in jail and the crew were given 20 years. You can still see the story on the internet,” he said, at which point he hauled off his jacket and his hoodie, and several more subsidiary layers, and presented us with the dolphin he’d had tattooed on a shoulder blade. It was, he said, his protection against drowning.
No doubt encouraged by his forthrightness Dave asked Juma if he would mind posing for a photograph. Juma nodded, pulled his layers back on, and smiled for the camera. After taking his portrait Dave asked if he could photograph the protective charm. Without hesitation Juma asked for money, and just as reflexively Dave refused. Dave and Juma have bumped into each other a dozen times since. On each occasion Dave has asked Juma if he wouldn’t mind taking his shirt off and just as reliably Juma has grinned and asked for money. For R50, possibly R20, Juma would happily expose his shoulder to the lens, but Cecil Rhodes will return to govern the cape before either man—the beach boy from Dar es Salaam or the photographer from Pietermaritzburg—will back off a principle.