With two feet apart, firmly anchored on either side of the old leaky ‘dug out’, Sale stands quietly – casting his net into the depths of darkness. Alone and drifting down the Shire River, on a dark and moonless evening, he listens to the sounds of the night; the odd splash of a fish, the rustle of the reeds as something slides into the water and the guttural song of frogs. It’s risky fishing at night – that he knows. His father taught him how to fish when he was 12 and had cautioned him since a young age. He remembers the friends he has lost to the river and recalls the many fire-side stories told by villagers; of disappearances, of drowning and frightening encounters with crocodiles.
Despite the danger, Sale is under pressure to catch fish. He has 4 young children to feed. None of whom go to school. Sale and 4 other men rent a dug out from the chief. He gets to use the dug-out boat between 2 and 3 times a week and must pay 300 kwacha to the chief every time. An average catch will make him around 500 kwacha – giving him a small profit of 200 kwacha per fishing trip, less than 50 US cents. And to put things in perspective, 5kg’s of rice costs around 4000 kwacha. A loaf of bread costs 450 kwacha. Some days, he strikes lucky and can afford to buy some flour. With the flour he makes bread to sell, which he says is a much more lucrative business than fishing.
“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
The sticky October air hangs heavy well into the night. The mosquitoes seem to come in swarms, knowing full well their victim is fully occupied with throwing a net. It’s tempting to wash away the sweat that trickles from his brow and to momentarily chase the marauding insects with a splash of cool water. But he knows better. Crocodiles lurk in the deep water, patiently waiting for a careless hand or a foot to grab onto.
There are things a man must do to support his family. Feeding his family daily, medicating them when they are infected with the deadly malaria virus and providing a roof over their head. These basic needs are as far as Sale can afford to think. Things like school are a luxury and being able to buy clothing happens rarely. But there is one thing Sale believes he must find money to pay for and that is for his safety on the river. Every year, Sale pays the Sangoma for a spell to protect him from the aggressive Shire crocodiles. Though he’s not able to give his family much, he provides the basics and keeps them alive. He must protect himself from the crocodile, for he is all they have.
“To those who believe, no proof is necessary, For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.” – Stuart Chase
The wooden boat drifts slowly with the current. Sale, balancing carefully, swings the net like a lasso into the water – a skill he has taken years to perfect. He pulls up his net and lights the small paraffin lamp to inspect his catch. He must be quick and must resist the false security of light that the lamp gives off. A lamp is known to attract the crocodiles, like bait attracts fish.
Unknown to Sale, it is already too late. The crocodile is here, submerged and beneath the boat. The 10 foot crocodile – an experienced man-killer – loses its patience. It thrusts its head up against the hull, lifting the nose of the boat right out of the water. Sale begins to fall and split seconds are stretched into a lifetime of memories. As he falls backwards into the darkness, instinctively expecting the cool water to envelop his body, followed by the bone-crunching jaws of the crocodile – he lands hard, knocking his head against the wooden floor of the narrow dug-out.
“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.”
– C. S Lewis
I stand on the bank of the Shire River and listen to Sale’s fishing tales. He openly talks about the floods, the changes in the river, the problems, the future, about the time he found a human foot floating down the river and his absolute belief in the Sangoma’s spell for protection. I question him about that, knowing full well that the crocodiles in this region have a fierce reputation.
“Are you not afraid, Sale?”
He laughs and says not. “If it’s your time to be taken, it’s your time.”
I ponder his fatalistic belief; wondering whether his belief in the Sangoma’s spell and that his story has already been written, might be an early invitation for fate? Or maybe his beliefs are granted. Maybe after all these years and with all these encounters – he’s proof of his beliefs?! Maybe it’s an issue of education? Had Sale been to school, might he think differently? Maybe he’s just a lucky guy when it comes to surviving the Shire River. Or maybe, in a place where death happens often and is as much a part of life as living – it’s a luxury to believe anything else other than ‘your time being your time?’
There is much to disagree about Sale’s way of doing things, but my beliefs and thoughts are completely irrelevant. It’s not me who lives Sale’s life. I do not know what he knows, what he has learned, experienced and seen. And maybe while my beliefs are different to Sale’s, I might just learn something new from a life far from mine.
Just then, I hear an almighty splash. Not far from where we speak, two men gallop into the water – striding out until they are chest-deep. They splash wildly and shout with joy. I look at them with disbelief. Are they drunk? It’s been excruciatingly hot in the Shire valley, a heat wave some might say. I understand their need for cool water. But only 30 metres away on the riverbank, sleeps a 7 foot crocodile. It slithers into the water and disappears.
Sale goes quiet for a minute. Then says with confidence, “these people – they are protected.”
“This above all; to thine own self be true.” – William Shakespeare