She sighed. Her rough hands clasped the jembe, hoe in her hands tightly as a rapid song replaced the sigh. Every swing of the jembe was in sync with the fast beats of her song. Her bare feet found solace in the soft, wet loam soil of Butere in western Kenya.

A few feet away from her were ten other women, all donning lesos, linen wrappers around their waists and digging their own neat rows. Every now and then, they would all break into a chorus to which they would dance to as they dug. Then they would retreat back into silence punctuated only by a sneeze, a sigh, a cough or a hum.

Alice Ochami, also known as Mwalimu (teacher) Alice, sighed again and stretched her 5,2 frame to its full length. It was 10 AM and the sun was still gentle on her skin. This was her farm and the ten women were paid hands who would each receive a payment of 100 Kenya shillings (1.5 US dollars) for six hours of intense labor that entailed digging holes, throwing maize seedlings into them and covering them properly with enough soil.

The following morning at 10.30, the women assembled again in the farm. For six hours, they sang, danced, dag, talked, ate lunch, resumed digging, sighed, stifled yawns and ululated when they completed the planting.

After three days, they had completed the task.

Mama Nebungo wrapped her 300 shillings (4.5 US dollars) into a crumpled red handkerchief and placed it in her bosom. Her wide forehead and slender chin broke into a smile as she stepped out of Mwalimu Alice’s living room where they had just been served tea and sweet potatoes. I will buy a new green short for my son’s school uniform. I will also buy 3 gorogoros (2kilogramme tin) of maize. That should leave me with about one hundred shillings for saving. But even as she budgeted, there was a gnawing realization that the maize would last her seven-member family for barely two days.

Mama Namiru left the living room with a frown. She had five children, including her husband. Her smooth chocolate complexion and oval face gave her a distinct attractiveness that not even the forty years of her life could conceal.  

There were ten items on her to-buy list: 2 gorogoros of maize; 100 grammes of cooking fat; half a kilo of sugar; 100 grammes of salt; five bunches of omurere (local traditional vegetables); 4 pairs of panadol; chaguo langu contraceptive pills; 4 pencils for her four sons; one 200-gramme sachet of Royco cooking flavor and a 200-gramme bottle of cough syrup. She needed 620 shillings to buy all these essentials. With 300 shillings in her small brown purse, she was halfway there. The frown turned into a half-smile that lit up her face.

Mama Bwibo and Mama Omutsoi left together. They were cousins who were married to brothers. A tomato-colored cow by the gate seemed to nod at them as they eased themselves through the green metallic gate. Just a few feet away was the one and a half acre farm that had earned them 300 shillings each.

That farm was bequeathed to Willy Ochami, Mwalimu Alice’s husband, by his father. He was one of six brothers who got an equal share of their father’s six acres of land.

After she finished paying all the ten women, Mwalimu Alice tied the leso tighter around her waist and broke into a hum of ‘Amazing Grace’ as she walked back to her farm. She stood at its edge, near the gate and gave it a long, keen and tender gaze. The previous year of 2010, it had given her a paltry 10 sacks of maize and 2 sacks of beans. Yet twelve years earlier in 1998, her harvest had been three times as much.

Why? What had she done back then that she was no longer doing? It wasn’t just the rain because in 2010, the rain came at the right time, just like it did in 1998. She scanned the long rows in her farm and smiled, wondering if 2011 would be a repeat of 2010 or 1998?

‘For this year’s harvest to match 1998’s bumper harvest, I have to repeat what I did back then,’ she murmured to herself. But what is it that she had done back then?

She had been a member of the teacher’s cooperative union in her district. In December 1997, this cooperative awarded her a low interest loan of 30,000 shillings (500 USD – 1997 rate). Armed with this amount, she used January 1998 to plough her farm in a thorough and timely fashion. By the end of February, planting was complete. First-class maize and bean seeds were safely ensconced in the earth, perched in the midst of soft wet soil and chubby pieces of manure.

The rains didn’t disappoint and it wasn’t long before smiling shoots of maize and beans germinated. When the inevitable weeds reared their ugly heads, they were promptly pulled out by a team of dedicated farmhands who received punctual payment for their labors. Among them was Mama Namiru who always did farm work with one of her babies strapped on her back. When it was time for top dressing, she was among the ten women that sprinkled fertilizer around the plants adeptly.

Then came the bumper harvest in early June 1998 – 30 sacks of maize and 6 sacks of beans.

Clearly, the difference between 1998 and 2010 could be summed up in one word – timing. She had tilled her farm when she was supposed to; planted at the right time; weeded at the right time; applied manure at the right time; top dressed at the right time; weeded at the right time and harvested at the right time. The reason she had done all these things at the right time was because she had the resources to do so.

Then came 2010. Mwalimu Alice had already retired from teaching and most of her pension had been spent in paying school fees for her children. So when January 2010 showed up at her doorstep, she didn’t have the seven thousand shillings that was needed for oxen-ploughing. It wasn’t until mid-February that she was able to pay for this initial farming activity.

Though her tilled land was now ready for planting, she wasn’t ready to pay the planters. She had to wait for mid-March when the combined sum of her monthly pension, together with her husband’s monthly pension, was channeled towards the planters’ remuneration in its entirety. Consequently, the farm wasn’t ready when for the rains that showed up on time. As a result, the shoots that heaved and sighed to the surface were skeletal and gloomy.

It was no surprise that the harvest which followed in July was totally dismal – 10 sacks of maize and 2 sacks of beans from land that had once given her three times as much.

When 2011 came, she was hopeful, but apprehensive. If only she could get the resources that would enable her to replicate 1998! With sufficient resources, she would be able to till at the right time; plant at the right time; weed at the right time; top-dress at the right time; harvest at the right time and store at the right time, in the right way. 

If only, Mwalimu Alice thought as she walked into the weekly meeting of Rising Star women group.

The meeting started with a word of prayer from the plump chairlady. She thanked God for His unfailing love and pleaded with Him not to forget the hardworking mothers who were gathered there that day. The prayer ended with a collective proclamation from fifteen women that, ‘together, we are going to rise from poverty!’

 

A few minutes after the meeting started, the gathered women were informed about a new farmers’ initiative known as One Acre Fund.  

Seriously, that river was something else. Kept me cool when it was hot. And boy, it sure was hot during the August holidays.

You see, every holiday, the day after the schools closed, Papa would see to it that we boarded the train for a fifteen hour journey that would deposit us right into our local town.

‘100 years ago,’ papa usually told us whenever the train hooted as it approached the dusty, green town, ‘the railway was so tired when it arrived here that it stopped here and refused to go further.’ I believed him then and even today, I still get the sense that the poor railway just had to call it a day when it arrived there. Fifteen hours from Nairobi. This is the time the journey from the capital city to the village town took. Fifteen fun-filled hours.

The first thing I did within an hour of arriving in the village was to sprint to the shy whistling river. It was right where I had left it three months earlier. In the middle of trees whose names I still don’t know. The trees towered over thickets from which they grew.

I stood there, unable to move forward. My legs, hands, nostrils and my entire body parts were mesmerized by the transparent brownish waters before me. It was whistling. Sssshhhh... the waters whistled. My, my, my.. I had missed that whistle. I closed my brown eyes. Clenched my fists as if afraid of something. But it wasn’t fear. It was awe.

Sssshhh...the whistle was even louder with my eyes closed. The thought that soon, I would be right in the middle of that whistle flicked open my eyes. Rustling. This is the word that best describes what I had at that moment.

“To make a succession of slight, soft sounds, as of parts rubbing gentlyone on another, as leaves, silks, or papers.” This is the description I got when I entered ‘rustling’ into the search box of dictionary.com

It is a description that brings back what I would feel a quarter a century ago whenever I stepped into the hallowed banks of River Firatsi. There was a succession of sounds – crackling leaves as thicket creatures crawled left and right; distant mows of cows approaching the river to quench their thirst; soft thuds of fellow boys as they raced to the river to do what I was about to do; hushed sounds of leaves kissing each other as the river breeze brushed by them. And the staccato beat of my heart as it danced at the utter joy of the flowing river.

Finally, I step forward. My fists unclench; my heartbeat mellows; my lips part into a wide smile; my brown denim shorts drop to the moist riverbank sand; the Kimbo T-shirt covering my eleven-year old chest is yanked over my head and thrown behind me as I jump gleefully into the shy whistling waters of the river.

The climax comes when I dip my head into the cool waters. For a few moments, I can see and feel nothing. Zero. I am in the arms of the river and everything else ceases to exist. A moment later, my head bursts back to the surface and I feel as if the little grey bird that is perched on the branch of a nearby tree is cheering my union with the shy, whistling river.

The river Firatsi has at least fifty-six other siblings across Kenya. There are many more but these are the ones I know. Sadly, some are no longer whistling consistently. That’s a story for another day. For now, meet these queens of refreshment:

 

Gura River. Nzoia River. Yala River. Nyando River. Sondu Miriu River. Awach River. Itare River. Kitare River aka South Awach River. Gucha River aka Kuja River. Migori River. Riana River. Mogonga River. Mara River. Suguta River. Kerio River. Lokichar River aka Lomenyangaparat. Turkwel River. Suam River. Olarabel River aka Ngusero River. Molo River. Perkerra River. Njoro River. Gilgil River. Malewa River. Turasha River. Southern Ewaso Ng'iro. Seyabei River. Lagh Dera. Lak Bor. Lagh Kutulo. Lagh Bogal. Ewaso Ng'iro. Isiolo River. Naro Moru river. Milgis. Dawa River. Tana River. Kathita River. Mutonga River. Thiba River. Thika River. Kiama River. Ragati River. Kururu River. Muhuhi River. Galana River. Athi River. Mbagathi River. Ruiru River. Nairobi River. Tsavo River. Tudor Creek. Voi River aka Goshi River. Umba River. Jipe Ruvu River. Lumi River.

Standing short and expansive with its thorny branches is the gum acacia tree, also known as gum arabic. The tree is a short distance away from the banks of Senegal River in the southern part of Mauritania. This tree is part of Mauritania’s 0.2 percent forest cover, the lowest in Africa.

Indeed, Mauritania is a lonely place for forests. There are ten times as many red Indians in the US than trees in Mauritania. To put it differently, the percentage of black US presidents is more than the percentage of Mauritania’s forest cover. Now, that’s a pretty lonely place to be, because President Barack Obama is the only black US president ever.

Mauritania’s forests don’t earn it much even though deforestation costs the country $84 million every year in lost earnings.

Back in 1998, the desert country’s forest imports were valued at $733,000, which was one third of what the country spent to import forest products worth $2,442,000. The situation is even worse now because the forest cover is less than it was back then. In 1930, Mauritania came tried to come to the rescue of lonely trees by introducing prosopis juliflora also known as mequite. These efforts were stepped up more than half a century later when 22,951 hectares of the tree were established between 1990 and 1997. Unfortunately, these efforts were not built expanded. Instead, fires, overgrazing, drought and agricultural expansion continued clearing trees.

As the lonely trees continue to fall by the wayside, bringing in bringing in less and less revenue, fish and iron are earning the country handsome amounts.

Fisheries and iron ore extraction are the country’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi – they are the top earners. Forests are definitely not playing in the big league or even in the second tier like oil, which was discovered in the advent of the new millennium. While fish and iron are playing in Mauritania’s champions league in terms of revenue generation, forests are more like beach football – refreshing and fun but with minimal revenue.

Iron ore accounts for approximately 40 percent of Mauritania’s export earnings. Unfortunately again for trees, mining iron ore contributes to deforestation. The debate between keeping trees alive and kicking or felling some of them to extract iron, is one that trees can’t win.

Luckily, trees don’t have to make way for fishery to thrive. Mauritania’s proximity to powerful coastal upwellings of cold, nutrient-rich waters has greatly boosted its fishery sector. Such waters are fertile fishing ground. With the exception of Morocco, Mauritania leads Arab countries in export of small fish to Europe.

However, government-provided fishery subsidies to overseas vessels have often threatened to fish stock sustainability. In 2006, Mauritania entered a fisheries partnership agreement with the European Union. It was worth approximately €108 million annually for 6 years and has since expired. A recent fourth round of talks in Brussels failed to yield fruit concerning renewal of the agreement, leading to suspension of talks. Critics are opposed to the previous agreement which allowed 200 EU vessels to fish in Mauritania’s water.

Jamila is a young lady who lives with her parents and five siblings in the beach town of Jreida. Her father is one of Mauritania’s approximately ten thousand artisanal fishermen. The government wants people like him to get more jobs from any new partnership with EU.

In this regard, fishery provides well paying jobs as well as direct revenue for the government. The same cannot be said of forests. EU has a forest cover of 31 percent, a far cry from Mauritania’s 0.2 percent. In this equation, it is easy for trees to be relegated to near irrelevance, as they are seemingly unimportant to the country’s strategic interests.

That should however not be the case because an exponentially expanding forest cover would turn the tide of desertification, consequently opening up more land for agro-forestry which would in turn improve food security and open up diverse green economy opportunities. In addition, other invaluable ecosystem services would be revived, proving the adage that trees are a lot more valuable alive than dead.

The gum acacia tree together with other trees in Mauritania shouldn’t be lonely. After all, they are in the company of 1,100 plant species and 61 mammal species. However, the death knell of extinction has already sounded for big mammals like elephants. Before 1940, at least 400 elephants used to roam the wild. But today, the gentle giants are nowhere to be seen. Similarly, the long-horned, brown-white Sahara Oryx has become extinct in the world.

Gànnaar, as Mauritania is known in wolof, doesn’t have to remain a predominantly desert country forever. Even more important, human slaves who still toil in Mauritania should not have to put up with such inhuman existence.

In February this year, Gulnara Shahinian, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery stressed that, ‘the Government still has to turn its pledges into deeds, and to take more vigorous measures with a view to eliminating slavery and to fully implement the laws and policies.’

Mauritania must heed these words because the scourge of slavery runs much deeper than the entire Sahara desert.

In the meantime, the lonely trees need some company. It’s time for Mauritania to plant a billion trees.

 

President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, both history and your country are waiting for you to become the billion tree president.

Maria Mutola’s short ponytail was still, her head bent low as she waited for the big race to commence. It was in the finals of the 800 metres at the Barcelona ’92 Olympics Games. Although she was only nineteen years old, Mozambique’s Olympic hopes rested on her young shoulders.

She sped off from the starting blocks with characteristic vigour and by the time the first lap was over, she was ahead of Ellen van Langen, the Dutch runner who ended up winning gold in the event. But in the final one hundred metres, Maria fell behind and finished fifth. Despite the poor finish, she had won the hearts of millions across the world and it was no surprise when she finally won an Olympic gold eight years later in Sydney, Australia.

In the same year of 1992, when Maria stormed the world stage, tiny, popular fish invaded the waters of her home country Mozambique. Known in the southern Africa region as kapenta, the tiny fish are natives of Lake Tanganyika, hence their official name – Tanganyika sardine. Although they were introduced into Lake Kariba in 1967 it took more than two decades for them to finally invade Cahora Bassa, Africa's fourth-largest man-made lake.

They population of the little fish exploded and within no time, they were being harvested through semi-industrial means. They became, together with the Cahora Bassa hydro-electric scheme, leading revenue generators for Tete province in particular and Mozambique as a whole.

Who would have thought that such tiny fish that are not even native to the lower Zambezi, could play such an important economic role for the region?

One of the beneficiaries of kapenta was Pedro, a young man from Tete. In 2004 when Pedro, was a big-eyed ten-year old boy, fishermen from Tete harvested 19,000 tonnes of kapenta. Among them was Pedro’s father who was one of the 800 weather-beaten men working on the 200 Kapenta rigs on the lake. Every night, Pedro’s old man would set out with three other men on a rugged rig that was armed with sufficient lights that they used to attract the tiny fish and sturdy nets to capture them.

The nights are dark and peaceful for Pedro’s dad. They are a million times better than those years before 1992, when the civil war raged across Mozambique. Back then, life was fragile and there was nothing peaceful about the darkness of the night. But now, peace mostly reigns, not just in the country but in his heart, especially out there on Lake Cahora Bassa at night.

Every time their rig dances gently or roughly, depending on the winds of any given night, Pedro’s father – whose nickname is O Rei (the King) – rubs his calloused hands together to keep warm and calm. He looks like Eusébio, great Mozambican born Portuguese footballer hence his inheritance of Eusebio’s own nickname – the king.

Between 2005 and 2008, when his son Pedro first accompanied him to the night-time fishing, O Rei and his colleagues in the semi-industrial rigs plus the artisanal fishermen helped Mozambique to export US$14.6 million worth of kapenta fish. Because of their diligent efforts every freezing dark night and humid hot days, this South African nation earned a handsome amount from its little fishes.

The US$14.6 million export revenue it generated earned kapenta fish a bronze medal, behind only shallow water shrimp and deep water shrimp. However, the little fish took gold when it came to production volumes from commercial vessels, accounting for 55 percent of production.

Indeed, the little fish has given O Rei a livelihood for many years and provided Mozambique with much needed foreign exchange revenue. For a tiny fish that arrived in Mozambique in the early nineties as an alien immigrant, this is quite a fete. It is now a naturalized citizen that is playing its role in nation-building.

 

The big question is whether the nation is replenishing and giving back to the very ecosystems that are building it. Even more important is whether O Rei is a king by nickname and a slave in reality – a slave in the sense that the money accruing from the kapenta will never really make a definitive and lasting difference in his life. Most of Africa’s artisanal fishermen and fishing vessels workers never quite strike the gold that Africa’s fishery deposits into the wallets and accounts of...

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.