It was mid-2011 when I first heard about the community of Tanzanian stowaways living under Nelson Mandela Boulevard at the foot of Cape Town, where the high rise buildings end and the docklands begin. David Southwood was the guy who knew about them, a local photographer with a penchant, to quote his writer friend Ivan Vladislavić, “for buggering around in places nobody else buggers around in.” He said he’d been visiting the underpasses for two years with a book of photographs in mind, and felt the time had come to begin collaborating with a writer. Was I interested?
I met him the next day where Christian Barnard Street, named for the city’s world famous heart surgeon, slips under the foreshore freeways and comes to an end at the port’s trident-spike palisade fence. It was Autumn and the hectare of landfill beneath the highway substructure had sprouted lurid green grass and oily puddles. As we clodded across it Dave pointed out a surface deposit of beer bottle shards and bone chip.
“Cow molars,” he said.
“Large groups of Tanzanians used to gather here every Sunday to boil cow heads, bought for R1 a pop from a Woodstock butchery.”
When we reached the far end Dave turned to his right and began climbing the flyover’s steep abutment wall, digging the toes of his boots into the stone facing and pointing out slogans written here and there in permanent marker and white paint.
The power of sea forever and ever
Seaman life no story only action
Today Africa Tomorrow Yurope
We paused by one inscrutable message—Aver Theang Isgoabe Orite—but then noticed the three young men sitting above us on the metal barrier of the bridge, their faces deeply submerged in their hoodies. At the top we collided with their knees and then milled awkwardly around in front of them, bounded by the dizzying drop down to the start of highway on the left, the sloping wall we’d just scrambled up and the cars flying by on the bridge to the right, rushing down to join the highway. Ahead lay a 100 metre slice of lopsided, downward sloping land which was grassed and broken up by three wild olives. Beneath the first of these three more men lay submerged in dirty blankets. At the sound of our voices one of the sleepers wriggled out of bed and pissed against the second tree, all the while squinting in our direction. Dave raised his hand.
“Haiyo Dave,” said the distant figure, zipping up his jeans and raising a hand in reply.
“Yeah is me, Dave, I’ve been in Russia since I last saw you man, in Saint Petersburg.”
“No shit. What was it like?”
“Cold there in Russia, Dave.”
The obscure city ledge was exposed to the wind off the Atlantic and Adam, in a holey black T-shirt, was already shivering, clutching his hands together by his groin. He had a rough tattoo of a container ship all the way up his right forearm, and a much neater tattoo of a nautical wheel atop his left hand.
“You know, Dave, we beach boys call this place ‘The Freezer’ because it’s so fucking cold,” he said, a gold-plated incisor glinting in his grin.
Beach boys. Seamen. Seapower–these, I came to learn, were the names the bridge-dwelling Tanzanians had given themselves.
Skirting back around the knees of the three sitters Dave pointed at the alien-speak on the abutment wall–Aver Theang Isgoabe Orite.
“What does it mean?”
“Tha’s not Swahili, Dave, tha’s Bob Marley,” he said, in the tailings of what I’d have said was a Brummie accent if the likelihood of his having ever lived in Birmingham wasn’t so infinitesimally small.
“Baby don’t worry, about a thing. Because every lil thin, goabe orite,” he croaked, and the three gray sitters cracked wide grins.
While Dave and Adam caught up I absent-mindedly rolled an anvil-shaped rock under my foot, and then tipped it over. Beneath it, in a sweating plastic sleeve, were the emergency travel documents of one Kham’si Swaleh Kigomba. The ink had bled and the beach boys who gathered around to see said that Kigomba had possibly caught a ship, or had more likely been arrested and deported. Nobody could say for sure what had become of him.
“Take it, as a memory,” Adam advised, and I did want to get the find somewhere nicer, drier. In the end, though, I folded it up and put it back on the flattened yellow grass, next to a blanched snail shell, and placed the ship-shaped rock back on top.
The following week I arranged to meet Adam under the Edward VII statue at the southern end of the Grand Parade, where dozens of beach boys gather each day to play a game they call “last card”, betting with R1 coins. If Cape Town has a crucible of cultures then the Parade is it. Here the Italianate City Hall overlooks a market in which francophone immigrants display rip-off belts and handbags, alongside Rastafarians in sack cloth who put out tubers harvested from the slopes of Table Mountain, all for the interest of the commuters going to and fro between the railway station and the inner city. It is the perfect place to hide in plain sight if you happen to be foreign and undocumented and it is here that the beach boys make their living, either pushing the traders’ lockable trolleys to and from nearby warehouses for a R10 fee, or by pushing drugs behind the chip and salomie stalls at the square’s west end. Edward VII, hat in hand, a seagull almost always shitting down the imperial forehead, is something of a beach boy Christ the Redeemer, if only because the elevation of the statue’s stepped plinth makes it easy to spot police a long way off.
It was drizzling on the day I was supposed to meet Adam, however, and the statue steps were deserted, as was the square. I eventually found him by the toilet block at the northern end, where streams of piss crisscross the pavement, the toilet facility having been moth-balled years back. He was wearing an orange overall, and with his caramel skin, gold-plated incisors and home-made tattoos looked–on purpose, no doubt–like a prison gang general. The policeman frisking him completed the image quite nicely.
“Haiyo Sean, the police just searched me for drugs,” said Adam, sauntering over a moment later.
“I take it you’re not carrying?”
Adam opened his mouth and rolled a white plastic cube around with his tongue.
“It’s no problem. I’ll just vomit it up later.”
Adam felt like a smoke so we headed for The Freezer via the chaotic taxi deck above the railway station, where he spent more time walking backwards than forwards, cursing people at the top of his voice and making enquiries about their narcotic wares. “You got Swazi? No don’t talk to me about Swazi, don’t ever talk to me about fucking Swazi!” Everyone seemed to be on something, or looking to get on. I’ve been up on the deck a hundred times and the people around me have always seemed like ordinary folks, on their way to jobs in Edgars, Shoprite or KFC. In Adam’s company it was an entirely different relational dimension, alive with criminal opportunity.
We descended to the foreshore, aiming at the port, and came once more below the Nelson Mandela Boulevard flyover, where he lifted a metal lid in the pavement and revealed a washing machine tumble of rags. “Tha’s my bed folded up in there. Tha’s my wardrobe.”
Up at The Freezer we ran into a 19 year old called Daniel-Peter, whose lips were so full they made his entire face look distended, until he smiled and his features claimed the golden ratio of facial beauty. Daniel-Peter had been staring intently at the harbour, and now pointed to a vessel with a flag of Jamaica painted on the smokestack. He said something to Adam in Swahili.
“The boy says it’s a good ship because it’s low in the water. That means it’s loaded and ready to go,” Adam explained.
“We’re going to try to stow that ship tonight, me and this boy. I love this boy,” he said paternally. “He’s not scared of anything. He’s a little boxer from Keko in Dar es Salaam. All these Keko boys are little boxers.”
Notebook against a knee, pen poised, I asked Adam for a short summary of his career as a stowaway.
He finished mulling his weed and quickly rolled a joint, which he lit and puffed on a few times before beginning theatrically in the third person:
“Adam is a outcast boy from Tanzania. His daddy, who he never knew, is from Greece. His poor mummy is a black girl from a place called Mbwera, where the people are all witches.”
My immediate thought was that I was being fobbed off by a canny wide boy, my over-eager pen fed a meaningless blend of myth and stereotype. But if it was Adam’s intention to hide himself behind the general he had not factored in his side-kick’s eagerness to please.
“His name is Memory Card,” Daniel-Peter broke in. “That is what we call him.”
Adam sighed—“that’s right’’–and like a family pariah playing to the hero-worship of younger cousins pulled off his shirt and pointed out where he’d had the nickname tattooed on a pectoral in crack-cocaine font.
“They call me Memory Card because I always remind the boys what is good and what is bad behaviour. I’m a peacemaker. I don’t like to see people fighting.”
“Who is Aniya?” I asked, pointing to a tattoo on his shoulder.
“Princess Aniya is me daughter,” he said, pronouncing it door-ah and putting the provenance of his accent—Birmingham—beyond doubt. He went on to relate the story of his passage to England, how he had entered through the Port of Hull in 2003 concealed in a Maltese bulk carrier called Global Victory, which he had boarded in the Port of Richard’s Bay on South Africa’s north coast. In his first months in the UK he had lived in Sheffield with a benevolent Cameroonian before bussing to Birmingham, where the Jamaican gangsters around Handsworth had permitted him to hustle small amounts of marijuana. Aniya’s mother, a second generation Jamaican immigrant, had tried to save him from the streets by convincing her own mother to take him in, but with no other way of making money Adam continued to hustle by day and was eventually done for dealing. He met Aniya for the first time in the visitors’ room in Winson Greene prison. Two months later he was put on a flight to Dar es Salaam.
I scratched it all down.
“Tell them,” said Adam, “that I’m fucken West Brom for life. Up the Baggies, yeah!”
As quickly as it had appeared the football hooligan in him receded behind plumes of blue smoke, and we talked about the thrill of stepping out into the unknown. I regaled him with short biographies for Ibn Battuta, Wilfred Thesiger, David Livingstone, and he said, “Tha’ Dave had the heart of a seaman, man.” Then he became broody.
“You know we rob the new boys, Sean? We do. We bring them some place like this and ask them questions. Where you from? What you doin here? Where’s your money? Then we search the guy. In ‘99 this Tanzanian boy came here, about Daniel-Peter’s age. Nobody knew him from before, so we took his clothes, his phone and his shoes. That night the guy stowed a ship. Three other guys stowed in the engine room of the same ship. The crew found those three guys after a few days but they only found the other guy when they opened the hold at the next port. The captain called those three guys and said ‘we have a dead body here, do you know him?’ The guys said they did not know him but then the one guy started to cry. You see Sean, that night when they stole the boy’s things, this one guy felt bad and took the clothes back to him. The dead person was wearing those clothes so he knew it was the same boy.”
I asked if he was the person who felt bad and he shook his head. “No, that was another guy.”