Dunga had resurfaced for the third time. He held the side of the canoe and the bucket of sand was hauled up by Didier inside the canoe. Dunga took deep breaths. He heaved lightly. He wiped the water from his face. He blew bubbles from his mouth as he exhaled. His upper torso was well chiseled. The bucket was emptied and handed back to Dunga. Dunga took a last breath, upturned the bucket and let himself into the sea with the bucket that was attached to a rope. Dunga dived down to the bottom of the river – about 20 feet deep. He scooped sand from the seabed and filled the bucket and started the upward maneuver. The current was dragging the boat. After about fifty seconds Dunga resurfaced, wiped his face, took some deep breaths of air while Didier pulled the bucket up and emptied the sand into the canoe. The cycle repeated itself.
Each time the bucket of sand was tipped into the canoe, the posterior of the canoe, dipped and inched more into the sea. Dunga’s team mates resurfaced and poured some more fine sand into the canoe. When the back end of the canoe was fully loaded, the paddle men set out to the shore. They paddled the canoe in unison. It was a tortuously slow process. The paddling took every ounce of energy from them. They paddled with a smile. They were topless. Their bodies glistened in the hot sun making them look like sculpted pieces. They rowed the canoe in silence. You could only hear the sound of the oars gliding its way in the water.
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Didier brought out a stick of Benson and Hedges cigarette, lit it and took a deep inhalation. He let out the smoke slowly and the smoke curled and twirled in the open sea. A crow flew past and dropped a piece of poop in the boat. Didier let out a swear word – “Bastard!” Ansa leapt from the boat into the sea and came out thirty seconds later with a big sea bream fish. Ansa and Didier laughed at the luck of the unfortunate fish. Lunch was sorted.
“We always get blessed by these fellas” Ansa announced.
“Yes. They understood the toils and sweat of men working for a living” Didier concurred.
The half-smoked stick of cigarette was passed to Ansa. He grabbed it and started his ritual. His smoking was more of a ritual. He took exactly five puffs and passed the glowing stick to Dunga, who was resting on the sand. He was exhausted.
“No man! I am not smoking again. It’s affecting my stay in the seabed. I have to quit smoking for my health.”
“That’s good news,” Didier said excitedly. “More puffs for the homeboys now.”
They all cackled.
The process of going to empty the canoe and coming back for some more was a very tedious one. Once they arrived the shore, they would grab the spades and scoop the sand out and heap the sand at an allotted space. The middle men would come and purchase the sand. The tipper truck would roll carefully down to load the sand and disappear in a fury. The tipper trucks were old and rickety. The thread in the tyres of the truck were not visible. Each time the truck stopped, as it reversed to where the sand was stacked, somebody would place a piece of rectangular wood behind the back tyres. The truck puffed and huffed smoke. Thick black fumes pervaded the air. These men knew nothing about pollution. Their keyword was survival.
Dunga turned the boat around and they went back to the sea to continue the process. The drive back to the sea was more relaxing, it would be Didier’s turn to dive in now. The sea current was swift. Didier let himself slide into the water and twenty seconds later, he was out. The bucket was pulled up by Dunga. Ansa was keeping the canoe steady. Dunga wiped the water off his face. He breathed quickly. He had less stamina. He must quit smoking, he thought to himself. The empty bucket was let down and down went Dunga too into the seabed.
Dunga, Didier and Ansa were skilled divers. They were not necessarily excellent swimmers. They did this all day, six days a week. They got paid daily.
Saturday evening- Didier and Dunga got paid their wages. They went home and changed into their casual outing clothes. They strolled down to Marvin Gaye spot. They sat down and ordered for beers, the bartenders were young girls who winked at them. They ordered pepper soup and they drank and ate merrily. They were happy for having work to do. They were hot cakes because they worked. They did not go to school. They did not speak fine grammar. They were skilled men. Men who knew how to wake up early in the morning and fight for their daily bread. They fed themselves. They clothed themselves and from all criteria set out by their society, they were men. Men of courage, men of deed and men of character. They were eligible bachelors.
Dunga and Didier worked the sands together. They lived in a rented one room apartment together. They had dreams. They lived together to cut costs. They shared the bills equally. Their one room had two mattresses spread on the floor. It had two standing fans and a ceiling fan. The room was divided into two halves with an unseen mark and each person had a section of the room to himself. They minded their business. They dreamed their dreams. Dunga wanted to own his own boats and rent the boats out to the folks who went digging for sand in the sea. He wanted to be a successful businessman. He wanted to own his own house, marry Mercy, a girl whom he fancied. He wanted to raise a family. He wanted to help his poor mother in the village. He wanted to own farm plots. He just needed two years of working the sand and saving money to be able to buy his farmland.
Didier wanted to go to school. He was saving money to go to the big school in the city. He had finished his high school and his parents could not afford to send him to college. His dream was to work for two years and save as much money as he could for college. He hated the job he did. He felt exploited. He felt betrayed by his country and society. He wanted a better life for himself and he believed that education held the key for him. He worked the sands six days a week. Dunga was a god sent. They lived together and dreamed together. They would save money for two years together and then start their separate lives.
Dunga had almost gotten enough money for his first boat, just two more month’s work and he will have his first boat. Didier had saved enough money for a year’s fees at the university. He still had a long way to go. Dunga had promised to help support him at the university with his business until he graduated and came and worked, then he could pay him back, it was a deal.
Dunga bought his first boat and they started using Dunga’s boat for the sand diving enterprise. They were saving money now on boat hiring and sometimes they would rent out their boat on their off days. Things were working well for them.
Ansa had been off work for about a week. He went to the village to visit his mother. The trip was supposed to be for just two days. Ansa was the professional paddler amongst them. His late dad was a boatman and he continued the profession of his father.
Tuesday morning as the boys were getting ready to head into the sea. Ansa appeared.
“What happened to you man?”
“My mother very sick. Me I can’t leave her. This trouble me. Don’t know what to do” he almost burst into tears as he narrated this ordeal.
“Why don’t you take her hospital?” Dunga suggested.
“Me, already take her hospital. More money needed for treatment. Me I tell doctor, treat my mother, me I go to work. Come back with money to pay you.”
The sea was particularly rough this day. Didier brought out his stick of Benson and Hedges and lit it and they all shared the cigarette except Dunga. They rowed till they got to where they mined sand.
The first person to dive down was Ansa. The bucket was dropped first and he followed suit.
After about thirty seconds, Dunga plunged in. Didier was watching keenly. The current was getting swifter. The boat was moving swifter too. Dunga resurfaced and plunged in again. The signal was clear. Didier blew the whistle and in a jiffy, the other canoes surrounded the area and jumped in to the water. Intermittent dips and resurfaces were made. There were about twenty divers scourging the area looking for Ansa. The weather wasn’t helping matters. The winds came from nowhere, then the rains. The divers did not give up. They searched far and wide. They expanded the areas for search. The clock ticked slowly away, and slowly, exhausted, one by one in the rains, they climbed backed into their boats and canoes. Their tears fused with the rains. Their hearts bled. Their bodies ached. They mourned inside them. They dirged! Another soul gone down. That was the ninth person they were losing in three months.
Who would pass the news to Ansa’s mother? Who would pass the news to Ansa’s family? Life can be so cruel at times.
Didier brought out his Benson and Hedges, tried to light it in the rain, Dunga screamed “Annnnnnnnnsaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” and plunged into the sea.
The next day the miners were back to work, hoping and wishing that news would arrive, of the sighting of Ansa’s body.