An extract from the book by Sean Christie.
‘I don’t remember the name of the first ship I stowed. I’ve stowed nine ships since and I remember all their names but not the first one. I was in a hurry at the time. I was 17. I had been living with the Durban Beachboys for six months, trying to get a ship every night. Nobody was trying harder than me. One night, February I think, a cargo ship docked at Pier 2. I was with a friend called Nnanani, and another guy called Bambo. Nnanani had already stowed a ship about a month before. He was caught and deported to Dar es Salaam, and he had just arrived back in Durban that day, and already he wanted to stow another ship. We came closer to the port and noticed that the crew was Chinese. Bambo decided to turn back when he saw this because Beachboys were too afraid of Chinese crews at this time. A lot of our guys had already been thrown in the sea by Chinese seamen in the nineties. It is better now, but in 1999 people were proper scared, especially of the mainland Chinese crews. Hong Kong Chinese are better, but you can’t tell who is who from a distance, so Bambo left,’ said Adam.
When Adam and Nnanani saw that the gangway of the bulk carrier at Pier 2 was unguarded, they sprinted up the steps and made it onto the deck, which, at 1 a.m., was clear. Skirting the cabins, they came to a place where fuel drums had been stacked one on top of the other.
‘We each climbed in a drum and made our bodies small,’ said Adam, folding his arms against his chest. ‘After an hour a guy came and shook the drums but he never looked inside. Afterwards I felt the ship going. I don’t know what he was thinking but Nnanani climbed out of his drum and came and shook my drum. I thought I had been caught until I heard him whispering to me. When I came out I saw the sea all around the ship, and the land far away. I thought, What the fuck, Durban is leaving. I’m at sea for the first time. It’s a feeling I can’t really explain.’
The two friends needed to find somewhere better to hide, and decided to climb the tower of the ship’s cargo crane hand over hand on the vertical ladder until they reached a platform which, if they kept their bodies flattened, shielded them from view.
‘It is very high, if you drop you’re dead, but I grew up climbing coconut trees in Tanzania so it wasn’t a problem,’ said Adam.
The ship tracked South Africa’s east coast in the darkness and by mid-morning drew towards another port.
‘Nnanani knew what was going on. He said, “Yow, we’re docking at Richards Bay,” a South African port in the forest, near the border with Mozambique. He said we needed to stay hidden until the ship left, but after five days we were still there. I said, “Nnanani, we don’t know when this ship is going to leave and we can’t go on like this. I’m going to try and escape.”’
Having observed the deck-top activity for days, the stowaways knew exactly when the crew took lunch and, at this time, scuttled down and made for the gangway. Rounding the cabin block once more, they ran into a Congolese security guard.
‘The security officer radioed for chief officer, who came and said, “Where you stow?” I said, “Durban.” He said, “You sure?” and then he punched me. He asked again. Nnanani said, “Durban,” so he punched him too, and almost broke Nnanani’s thumb. After that he locked us in a cabin and brought us food and water.’
The Beachboys slept for hours, and when they woke it was to the barking of sniffer dogs, searching the ship for other stowaways. When this process had been concluded, the cabin door was opened and a man the boys had never seen before ordered them down the gangway and into a minibus with the name of a stowaway detection service written on the side. The sniffer dogs went in the back, and Adam was guided into the passenger seat, with Nnanani behind him on a bench.
‘I had big amount of ganja in my sock, seventy grams or so. I was thinking, They’re going to take us to the police station straight, so I decided to leave it under the seat of the car. But they just stopped the car outside the port area and said, “Come off.” Richards Bay harbour is surrounded by a big forest and they just left us there in the bushes. We hugged each other then, me and my brother, because we were free to carry on with our lives.’
Adam and Nnanani were too naïve to know it then, but their sudden release was not out of the ordinary. One of the unlisted services that stowaway detection outfits provide to shipmasters is the removal of stowaways from under the noses of port authorities. The procedural processing of stowaways costs a great deal of time and money – up to R100 000 a case, according to insurers – and shipping companies happily pay for alternative outcomes.
Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard is published by Jonathan Ball. Save R40 when you purchase online at Bridge Books before 27 April 2017 (type AERO in the box that says “Discount” at checkout). You can collect your purchase in-store or get it delivered via courier (delivery fees still apply).