Adam called one day in June 2012 to say he had seen a ship he liked the look of in the Ben Schoeman Dock, and that he would probably be gone before the end of the day. We met at The Freezer where he smoked the usual procession of joints and unpacked his travel bag at my request.
Of the two 2l coke bottles of cloudy water that emerged first he said, “The glucose makes it like that. You must have glucose to survive.” Two packets of tennis biscuits followed some Jungle Oats yoghurt bars, and that was it for food and drink.
“It lasts me maybe ten days.”
He also had a torch, a short length of tubular metal and five or six empty plastic packets.
“The best place to hide is inside the cargo hold,” he explained.
“The only problem is they lock the hatch and don’t open it again. It’s fucking dark down there so you need a light.”
The length of metal had a more vital function.
“When your food and water run out you need to use a small iron like this to hit the hatch, so that the sailors can hear and let you out. Otherwise you die down there.”
I had been under the impression that the beach boys aimed to remain hidden for the duration of their sea voyages.
“Never,” Adam corrected.
“That ship can be at sea for 30 days. You can’t carry that much food and water.”
Adam explained that any beach boy who successfully hides himself onboard an outgoing ship will aim to remain hidden only until the ship is beyond the reach of the national coast guard before coming out into the open. It is at this point, he said, that the really difficult part of being a stowaway begins.
“The first thing the crew will do is report you to the Captain, and the first thing the captain will ask is ‘where did you shit in my ship?’ That is why I have these,” said Adam, holding an empty plastic bag up in each hand and flashing his wide boy grin, much the way he would, I imagined, when presenting a week’s worth of shit to some unfortunate ship master.
The next morning, at 5:46am, I was woken by a text message from a number I didn’t recognize, though there was no doubting its provenance.
“Yoh i m going last night i jup on ship name bluu sky. pls keep on touch with me family. fhone my daughter mum pls. pls tell her what is hapen. Memory Card. sea power.”
Five minutes later the phone went again.
“Sean can feel the ship is moven braa sound so nice. alone this time and have no food. i have only wotar but still me go make.”
The 2012 winter seemed to draw out with Adam gone, and whenever I was sluicing down Nelson Mandela Boulevard in my Renault when clouds like giant box jellyfish were dragging skirts of rain across Table Bay, I couldn’t help but think of the beach boys below, huddled around their fires cooking rice in blackened pots, and of Adam, presumed dead by some of his lieutenants. In fact the whole seaward view was permanently changed for me. Where before the light playing off the Atlantic had turned the flyovers, cranes and ships into an oil painting, now I saw only cracks and chinks: bent palisade struts, tunnels, portals, hatches–not just flaws in a postcard perfect view but rents in the great system of human control. And I saw the human nobodies crawling through them, or curled up in utter darkness. Some lines from a poem by local poet Stephen Watson kept playing in my head. In Definitions of a City Watson’s imagination walks a deeply ground path on the face of a mountain, Table Mountain, and fancies that the path pre-dates human settlement. It then occurs to the poet that the paths he is walking do not end where the city begins, that
… should you follow these footpaths really not
That much further, they soon become streets,
Granite kerbs, electric lights. These streets soon
Grow to highways, to dockyards, shipping lanes.
You’ll see how it is—how these paths were only
An older version of streets; that the latter, in turn,
Continue the highways, and the quays of the harbour,
And even, eventually, the whale-roads of the sea.
I found myself missing Stephen, who’d been a friend and mentor until his sudden death from cancer the previous April. And I worried about Adam, my guide in inner city matters, a man whose experiences outreached even the poetic imagination.
Then one day in September the sun appeared without warning and lashed the peninsula with the sort of heat-bearing rays that unseal, lift and give voltage to the smell of every urine stain and beetle carcass on the city floor. It was a perfect day for lifting beach boy graffiti from the highway substructure, because the Herzog Boulevard boys, who guarded the entrance to the underpasses, would be too busy washing themselves out of 25 litre paint drums to mind our snooping. Down under Nelson Mandela Boulevard Dave and I skirted a tree which had been turned into an eerie mobile of home-made coat hangers, and we began transcribing slogans as defiant and crude as the men soaping their genitals on the island at eye level with the passing vehicles.
Memory Card Me Like Ship No Like Pussy
Easy to Die tough to Get
Opportunity Never Come Twise
God Yucken Bless Mi
Don’t West Your Time
No pain to spain
Nothing is tough Accept tough is yourself
Sea never dry
Escape from cape
Our next destination was the Lower Church Street bridge over the N1 highway, an area the beach boys call “Vietnam” on account of the number of palm trees growing from the verges there. The grassy banks, bright green from the winter rains, were a-bloom with drying clothes–exploded views, when seen from the elevation of the bridge, of the beach boys’ winter uniform: Peruvian beanie, hoodie, overshirt, second overshirt, undershirt, second undershirt, pair of baggy jeans, fingerless gloves and the notable absence of underpants and socks. In a rare sonic lull between passing vehicles we heard the strains of reggae, and followed these beneath the bridge to find Rashidi Mwanza and his friend Ngaribo Masters wedged like overgrown pigeons up where the abutment wall met the underside of the bridge. They had just smoked a joint and giggled uncontrollably when we spotted them. When we explained we were there for the graffiti they almost fell off their perch they laughed so hard, though they both agreed to look at our transcriptions once we were done. 20 minutes later they were running their eyes down a list of markings that had made no sense to us. They were no longer laughing.
Junior No More
Some Win some Lost Some die
“TMK is for Temeke in Dar es Salaam, where we are both from, and this number is a permit number. We write out permit numbers on the walls so that we don’t lose them,” Rashidi began.
“Who is Junior?” I asked, and Ngaribo, who taught himself to make Rastafarian amulets out of beads and fishing gut rather than push drugs or trolleys, rubbed his hands together worriedly.
“Junior No More,” he said.
“He means Junior is dead,” Rashidi clarified.
“He was crushed last year by a truck, crossing by the highway to The Freezer. He was Ngaribo’s main man,” he added. Ngaribo looked away and for the first time I noticed the tattoo: three tears spilt from the corner of his right eye.
“Some lost, some win, some die. It’s no fucking joke,” said Rashidi.
It was Moses who eventually explained the ubiquity of the overall. At 38 Moses was the oldest beach boy I knew and also the smallest–a bantam weight proficient in English and endlessly troubled by a cut in his right hand the size and shape of a fish’s mouth. He claimed to know everything there was to know about beach boy life, and I came to rely on him to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, something we did away from the other beach boys, sitting next to the kugel fountain outside the Woolworths HQ on Longmarket street.
Every beach boy owns an overall, he explained, for the same reason that most owned work boots, a safety helmet and safety goggles.
“So that the security guards in the dock will think you are dockworkers?” I said, pre-empting the rest of the answer.
“That is true, man, that is true. But it is not how we come to own these things. That is another story.”
To get to this other story Moses described his first journey to South Africa from his home in Dar es Salaam’s Ukonga township, “which we call Mombasa”. It was sometime in 2003. He had heard it was possible to leave Africa hidden in ships but not from the port of Dar es Salaam, “because Dar es Salaam ships travel only to other African ports, or to mainland China, and nobody wants a mainland china ship,” he said. Moses hitchhiked south to Malawi and jumped the border into Mozambique at the southern end, near Deza. He thumbed his way through the Tete Corridor to Mchope, and pushed all the way down to Maputo, where he found “so many Tanzanian brothers”, especially at a market his brothers called “Australia”. From Maputo he travelled to Ponto d’ouro, where he jumped the border into South Africa and came to the outskirts of Manguzi, where he helped a woman carry her bags in exchange for a fare into town. In town he found “other brothers” who took him to a “hook house”, or shack, down by the Gesiza River, where he found “Bongo people, my people”. Bongo, he explained, was the Swahili word for head, and it was what all Tanzanians called people from Dar es Salaam, “because we use our heads to make money, right.” His brother Bongo men in the hook house told Moses to go to the Boxer supermarket in Manguzi, “where people come past, looking for work crews”. He found employment with a woman farmer who had him “dig her field with a djembe for R10 a day plus food.” After a week he had R50, which he used to pay for space in a Durban-bound truck.
“We reached Durban at about 2am and as soon as that truck opened everyone was looking everywhere to see where they could go, and we were running, running, running, you know. But me, I’m a sailor man, I know only one place, the docks, straight to the docks, man, and there, of course, were the brothers again.”
The first ship Moses caught was called the Cape Belle, a handsome red-hulled reefer which disappointed him terribly by proceeding directly to Cape Town and not Athens, his destination of choice.
“I was found by the chief officer, who took me to the captain, and he said ‘do you know this port of Cape Town?’ I lied and said ‘yes’ and he gave me a port workers’ uniform, which we call chamzebenzo. He gave me food, and said ‘walk’. At the boom the security asked me for a permit and I gave them the permit the captain gave to me,” said Moses, thumping his shirt against his heart.
“That is why too many beach boys have the overall,” he concluded.