I couldn't believe it when I heard the news. I had been selected to be a crew member of a big boat that was leaving for Msumbiji, Mozambique in a week’s time.
‘Alhamdulillah!’ Thanks to God!
I said several times in between mouthfuls of miraa, the green leaf that keeps me fully alert. How could it be possible that I, Magoma, a poor young man from Faza Island, would now be traveling all the way to Msumbiji in a brand new boat!
‘Ni kwa uwezo wa mwenyezi Mungu,’ It’s because of God’s help, I told my wife Mariamu later that night. She was my seventh wife and was pregnant with my third child. I was really hoping that this unborn baby would be a daughter. I planned to name her Zeinab, after my late mum.
My other two children were from my immediate ex-wife. The previous five marriages had all been short lived and childless. At first, I was left with serious questions about my potency but I later realized that all those women had birth control injections embedded in their arms. It's as if they trusted me to be their husband but not father to their children.
Msumbiji! My friend Ali said the word over and over, shaking his head, his red eyes shining with excitement. At twenty seven, he was two years younger than me but looked a lot older. He was a seasoned hamali, luggage carrier. Years of ferrying luggage to all corners of the island had left his him with the reddest eyes you will ever see and more wrinkles than his years. When I sometimes joked with strangers that he was my father, they would believe me.
Like me, Ali was also amongst the eight crew men selected. Unlike me, he had been married for ten years to the same woman and had five children with her.
‘Inshallah mwaka hunu Ramadhan ikisikilia, nitawanunulia zijana zangu nguo nzuri kabisa!’
God willing this year when the Holy Month of Ramadhan arrives, I will buy for my kids the best clothes ever! Ali said in our kiamu dialect of Swahili.
He had been born on the island and had the fair complexion and soft hair of most Arabs. Fair-skinned islanders like him were known locally as vijoho. Their ancestors were Arab traders who arrived in Lamu in the medieval era, settled there and married local Pokomo women. In that regard, people often joke, truthfully some would say, that Pokomos are the real owners of Lamu.
The departure day was finally upon us. All my fellow jack-of-all-trades young men were looking at me enviously, wishing that they were in my shoes. When all the eight of us plus the captain and white manager had finally stepped into that big boat and we were ready to set sail, I whispered a dua, prayer to God.
The captain was a gentle, bearded man known as Bakari. He rarely spoke but when he did, we all paid attention and did exactly as he wanted. He had been sailing along the western Indian Ocean route since 1980 and was highly experienced. His friends often said of him that apart from his blood, the salty waters of the Indian Ocean also flowed in his veins.
The luxury boat could sit 150 people and had been made in Lamu by Fundi Bakari, a well known boat technician whose late father had also been a renowned boat technician. We were delivering the boat to its new owner in Mozambique. Due to its sheer size, it could only use an eight cylinder engine that we would be purchasing in Malindi then fitting it into the boat. Between Lamu and Malindi, we would be using the sail just like our ancestors had done for millennia.
After mounting the sail, we set sail. Apart from the ten humans on board, the other living organisms on board were thirteen goats. These goats were of course for feeding ten hungry men. But they also had another purpose.
The ocean has invisible doors. These doors can either usher you into calm waters or lock you away from these calm waters. We encountered the first door at the Shella area of Lamu. The key of unlocking the door of calmness is sacrifice.
I uttered a Muslim prayer as I sliced open the goat’s throat. Blood gushed out as if I had just opened a tap of blood. The ocean calmed down. Oral tradition teaches us that the ocean thirsts for blood and if you don't quench its thirst through animal sacrifice, it will find its own way of quenching the thirst and might just go for human blood.
The same goat slaughtering ritual was repeated several times along the month-long journey.
We spent almost a week in Malindi fitting the massive eight-cylinder engine and testing the boat. If you are going to sail for thousands of miles in the waters of three different countries, you had better be sure that your boat and engine are in the best possible shape.
‘Ng’oa nanga!’ Unhook the anchor! The captain shouted at me from the deck.
Ali and I started pulling the anchor from the sea bed where it was firmly hooked. Less than ten minutes later, the boat was free to finally commence it's epic journey to Mozambique.
I remained perched at the front of the boat so that I could scan the vast ocean and inhale fresh air as the breeze caressed my face. Malindi’s receding shoreline soon disappeared from my view. Before long, the palm tree-thatched local houses and fancy looking tourist hotels also disappeared from view. The only sight all around us was the ocean’s shimmering blue.
It seemed to me that at some point in the far away distance, the ocean and sky became one. A giant blue space that made our boat appear like a brown speck of sand in the beach.
Our boat was about fifteen meters long and fifteen meters tall in its highest mid section. It was made almost entirely from mvule (African Teak) hardwood. It was extremely sturdy and durable.
‘Lunch tayari!’ Lunch is ready! Omar, one of the two chefs called from below.
I wasn’t hungry. Although I am an islander born on Pate Island, I had never travelled this far by boat and was relishing every moment. The sights and sounds of the ocean had filled my stomach. You would feel satisfied too if any upward glance would leave your eyes feasting on those White Sea birds that are better fishers than islanders like myself.
But I couldn't turn down fresh roast goat, so I descended down to the inviting aroma. There is something about roast meat that mellows men completely. For the fifteen minutes that we were eating, all the ten men had the serene looks of someone who has just arrived in heaven.
A loud shrill sound awoke me from my afternoon siesta.
I bolted to my feet and ran to the upper deck. A blue boat was hurtling towards us with the siren blaring. I instantly knew that it was the navy. Ever since al shabaab ventured into Lamu’s Manda Island in 2010 and kidnapped a handicapped French lady, the Kenya navy had heightened patrols in the ocean.
‘Who are you, where are you from and where are you going!’ A gruff voice demanded.
Several navy officers climbed into our boat and commenced a thorough search. They had a tiny black gadget the size of a TV remote that they hovered over every item in the boat.
We all produced our identification as Bruce the white manager showed them the approved list that contained our names. After ascertaining that everyone on the boat was on that list, they disembarked and sped off.
At about eight PM, the captain commanded us to anchor at Mombasa’s Nyali area. I threw the heavy anchor into the raging waters and waited for my hands to feel the firm tug that would tell me the anchors hooks were firmly embedded in the sea bed. The tug came and I thanked God, ‘Alhamdulillah!’
Sleeping in a boat that is being rocked by the restless waves of nighttime is like sleeping in a giant rocking chair. I fell asleep within moments of lying down in one of the soft mattresses that lined a section of the boat’s lower section.
I dreamt that my wife had given birth to Zeinab right there in the boat. Just as the baby was starting to let loose that virgin cry, I woke up with a start. I always wake up suddenly as if someone is chasing me in my sleep.
After jolting awake, I realized that Zeinab’s cry was in reality the wake-up bell. Since the boat could only start after I did my job, I raced up the stairs as if my very life depended on it.
‘Ng’oa nanga!’ Unhook the anchor! The captain’s rare voice followed hot on my heels.
Barely moments later, I was pulling the thick rope with all my might, happy that at that precise moment, I was more important than Captain Bakari and Manager Bruce. Soon enough, the anchor was free from the embrace of the sea bed and the boat was on its way.
I didn't notice when we passed South Coast’s famous Ukunda Beach because we were cruising in the deep waters and could only see ocean waters all around us. But I noticed when we cruised by Wasini Island since the strait was narrow and both the island plus Shimoni on the mainland were clearly visible.
Within an hour, we passed Vanga then shortly crossed into Tanzania. The ocean is however one singular massive mass of water that doesn't care about all these boundaries. I didn't even realize that we were in Tanzania until the Captain pointed out Zanzibar in the distance. From the deep sea where we were, Zanzibar was just a few palm trees that appeared like ants.
I took my position at the head of the boat and readied myself to anchor it. We would be spending the night about half a kilometer from Zanzibar’s shoreline. Because of the boat’s sheer size, docking too near the shore would present mobility challenges once the tide receded.
I needed a bath. It was late at night, maybe midnight or 2AM. I had no watch and my phone had fallen into the ocean months earlier during a fishing trip. But I didn't miss the white man’s time. My grandfather always told me to internalize time.
‘If you can’t tell the time by looking at the sun, just sniff the air,’ he would say every time I asked him what time it was.
Despite the ocean’s cold wind, I was sweating so I arose from my comfortable mattress and walked to the boat’s lone bathroom. Although it didn't have those smooth white bathtubs that I had seen in some of Lamu’s luxury hotels, it had a beautiful shower and an ocean painting that stared at you silently as you took your shower.
Five minutes later, I stepped out of the shower feeling refreshed and full of energy. Instead of going back to sleep, I ascended to the foremost part of the boat, where I normally stood as I anchored it. I just stood there listening to the mysterious whispers of the ocean.
From that moment onwards, I would steal as many moments as possible at night when most people were asleep to stand at that spot and listen to the whispered voice of the ocean. I even stopped chewing miraa because this peaceful yet rapturous voice of the ocean filled me with so much peace that I felt sad when the boat finally arrived at its destination in the north coast of Mozambique.
Days later, it was payday. The biggest payday of my life.
Thick white envelopes were wordlessly handed to each of us. There was silent ecstasy in the air. For me, the moment just before I clasped the envelope in my hand was like that split heavenly second just before I make love to my wife.
As I grasped the envelope, I felt its soft, smooth texture and smiled.
‘Alhamdulillah!’ I said loudly, unashamed of my total joy.
I scratched my flourishing beard as I paced the carpeted floor. The other seven deck men ceased to exist as did the white Englishman who had purchased the boat. He is the one who was personally paying us, muttering a muffled, ‘thanks’ every time he dished out the blessed envelope.
In those few moments after I had been handed my envelope, I was in dreamland.
I saw Zeinab, my unborn baby, in a cute green dress that had a blue ribbon at the front. I am the one who had bought for her that dress using the contents of the white envelope. Her mother was wearing a brand new stylish buibui like the one that Lamu’s First Lady usually wore during important functions. We had shifted from the makuti (palm tree leaves) structure that we were currently living in and had moved into a two bedroom house just near Lamu main street.
As I boarded a Dar es Salaam bound bus, I knew that these dreams could not come true, thanks to the blessed envelope in the back pocket of my black jeans. Thanks to the Indian Ocean, without which I would not have earned this money. Thanks to my boat skills that had earned me a place in the brand new boat.
But most of all, ‘Alhamdulillah.’ Thanks to God.
P/S Magoma is a qualified and certified coxswain who however often works as a hamali (luggage carrier) due to lack of opportunities. He can be reached through the email below, upon which his mobile phone number will be availed.