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The Joy of Digging

Zaire

Equipped with a motorcycle from the United States Agency for International Development and administrative support from the Zairian Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, I set out to show the people of Kalambayi something about fish culture. I was an extension agent for the government’s Projet Pisciculture Familiale. Six days a week, I left my house around seven o’clock in the morning and rode as much as forty miles over unspeakably eroded dirt roads and down narrow paths. I visited villages and expounded on the virtues of fish culture to anyone who would listen. “No, thanks,” they often said, “we’ve got enough work to do already.” Around six in the evening, exhausted from equal parts of sun and foreign language, I’d return home. It was after a few weeks of this routine that I met Ilunga Mbumba, chief of the village of Ntita Kalambayi. I was riding my Yamaha 125 Enduro through an uninhabited stretch of bush when he appeared from out of the ten-foot-tall grass along the trail, signaling for me to stop. Even if he hadn’t waved, I’m pretty sure I would have stopped anyway. Ilunga had been out hunting antelope and he presented a sight worth inspecting. In one hand he carried a spear, in the other a crude machete. On his head was a kind of coonskin cap with a bushy tail hanging down in back. Around his neck hung a string with a leather charm to ward off evil bush spirits. Two underfed mongrel dogs circled his bare feet, panting.

When I saw Ilunga that first time, I saw a man living, it seemed to me, in another century. Inside the tall grass from which he had just stepped, the clock ran a thousand years slow, if it registered any time at all. Unable to help myself, I openly stared at him, taking him in from head to toe. He, meanwhile, stared back at me with the same wide-eyed incredulity. And no wonder. With my ghost-white skin and rumbling motorcycle, with my bulging safety goggles and orange riding gloves, with my bushy brown beard flowing out from under a banana-yellow crash helmet—with all this, I suppose I had a lot of nerve thinking of him as a museum piece.

For a moment we just kept gawking, Ilunga and I, mentally circling each other, each of us trying to decide whether to burst out laughing or to run for safety. In the end, we did neither. We became friends.

“My name is Ilunga,” he said, extending his hand. “My name is Michel,” I said. We shook hands.

We smiled at each other some more before Ilunga got around to telling me he had heard my job was to teach people how to raise fish. It sounded like something worth trying, he said, and he wondered if I would come by his village to help him look for a pond site. I said I would and took down directions to his house.

The next day, the two of us set off into the bush, hunting for a place to raise fish. “The first thing we need,” I told Ilunga, “is water. Do you know a good spot where there’s a small stream or a spring?”

“Follow me,” he said. Machetes in hand, we stomped and stumbled and hacked our way through the savanna grass for two hours before finding an acceptable site along a stream about a twenty-minute walk from Ilunga’s village. Together, we measured off a pond and staked out a water canal that would run between it and a point farther up the stream. Then, with a shovel I sold him on credit against his next corn harvest, Ilunga began a two-month journey through dark caverns of physical pain and overexertion. He began digging. No bulldozers here. The task of carving out a pond from the valley-bottom floor was left to the farmer himself.

There is no easy way to dig a fish pond with a shovel. You just have to do it. You have to place the tip to the ground, push the shovel in with your foot, pull up a load of dirt, and then throw the load twenty or thirty feet to the pond’s edge. Then you have to do it again—tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. After you do this about 50,000 times, you have an average-size, ten-by-fifteen-meter pond.

But Ilunga, since he was a chief, wasn’t going to be content with an average-size pond. He wanted one almost twice that size. He wanted a pond fifteen by twenty meters. I told him he was crazy as we measured it out. I repeated the point with added conviction after watching him use his bare foot to drive the thin shovel blade into the ground.

“A pond this big is too much work for one person,” I said. “It’ll kill you.” “See you next week,” he said. “It’s too much, Ilunga.” He started digging. “Okay,” I said. “Bonne chance.”

I left him at the pond site and began heading toward the village, hearing every ten seconds as I walked away the sound of a shovel-load of dirt hitting the ground after traveling twenty feet through the air.

For me, it was painful visiting Ilunga each week. This was the part of the fish-culture process I had been dreading ever since arriving. I’d come by to check on the pond’s progress and find Ilunga grunting and shoveling and pitching dirt the same way I had left him the week before. I calculated that to finish the pond he would have to move a total of 4,000 cubic feet of dirt. Guilt gnawed at me. This was no joke. He really was going to kill himself.

One week I couldn’t stand it any longer. I found Ilunga at the pond site with his body covered with the usual mixture of dirt and sweat.

“Give me the shovel,” I told him. “Oh no, Michel,” he said. “This work is too much for you.” “Give it to me,” I repeated, a bit indignantly. “Take a rest.”

He shrugged and handed me the shovel. I began digging. Okay, I thought, tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. I did it again. It wasn’t nearly as hard as I had thought. Stroke after stroke, I kept going. About twenty minutes later, though, it got hot. I began wondering how, at 8:30 in the morning, the sun had suddenly reached noontime intensity. I paused to take off my shirt. Ilunga, thinking I was quitting, jumped up and reached for the shovel.

“No, no,” I said. “I’m still digging. Sit down.”

He shrugged again and said that since I was apparently serious about digging, he was going to go check on one of his fields. “Good idea,” I said.

Shirtless, alone, I carried on. Tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. An hour passed. Tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up…throw…throw the…dammit, throw the dirt. My arms were signaling that they didn’t like tossing dirt over such a great distance. But I couldn’t stop. I had been digging for only an hour and a half. I was determined to go on, to help Ilunga. How could I expect villagers to do work I was incapable of doing myself?

Sweat gathered on my forehead and streamed down my face as I continued, shoveling and shoveling. Another thirty minutes passed and things started to get really ugly. My body buckled with fatigue. My back and shoulders joined my arms in screaming for an end to hostilities. I was no longer able to throw the dirt. Instead, I carried each load twenty feet and ignobly dumped it onto the dike. I was glad Ilunga wasn’t around to see this. It was embarrassing. And, God, was it hot—the hottest day I could remember. Even occasional breezes rustling through the surrounding savanna grass didn’t help. And then I looked at my hands. Both palms had become blistered. One was bleeding. I took a short break and then began digging again. The pain resumed, cracking out all over my body. Fifteen minutes later, my hands finally refused to grip the shovel. It fell to the ground. My back refused to bend. I was whipped. After just two hours of digging, I was incapable of doing any more. With a stiff, unnatural walk, I went over to the dike. Ilunga had just returned, and I collapsed next to him.

“I think I’ll stop now,” I managed, unable to hide my pitiful state. “Take over if you want.”

He did. He stood up, grabbed the shovel, and began working—smoothly, confidently, a man inured to hard work. Tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. Lying on my side, exhausted, I watched Ilunga. Then I looked hard at the spot where I had been digging. I had done nothing. The hole was essentially unchanged. I had moved perhaps thirty cubic feet of dirt. That meant 3,970 cubic feet for Ilunga.

After the brief digging experience, my weekly visits to the pond became even more painful and my awe of Ilunga grew. Day after day, four or five hours each day, he kept going. He kept digging his pond. He worked like a bull and never complained. Not once. Not when he hit a patch of rocks that required a pickax and extra sweat. Not when, at the enormous pond’s center, he had to throw each shovel-load twice to reach the dikes. Not even when he became ill.

His hand was on fire one morning when I arrived and shook it. “You’re sick,” I said. “I know,” he said, and resumed digging. “Then quit working and get some rest.” “I can’t,” came the reply. “I’ve got to finish this pond.”

Several weeks later, Ilunga drove his shovel into the earth and threw its load one last time. I never thought it would happen, but there it was: Ilunga’s pond, huge, fifteen by twenty meters, and completely finished. We hollowed out a bamboo inlet pipe and positioned it in the upper dike so canal water could enter the pond. Three days later, the pond was gloriously full of water. Using my motorcycle and two ten-liter carrying bidons, I transported stocking fish from another project post twenty miles to the south. When the last of the 300 tilapia fingerlings had entered the new pond, I turned to Ilunga and shook his hand over and over again. We ran around the banks hooting and hollering, laughing like children, watching the fish and marveling at what a wonderful thing a pond was.

To celebrate, I had brought a bottle of tshitshampa, the local home brew, and Ilunga and I began pouring each other shots, slapping each other on the back, and talking entirely too loud for two men sitting alone on a pond bank in the middle of the African bush. A warm glow from the drink spread from our stomachs to our limbs and, soon, strongly, our heads. Ilunga talked about his dream of digging three, six, twelve more fish ponds, and I concluded that there was no biological reason why, if fed properly, tilapia couldn’t grow to be the size of Land Rovers. At one point, we decided to assign names to all of Ilunga’s fish. Straight-faced, signaling each other to be quiet, we crouched next to the water and began naming the first few fish that swam by. After four fish, though, we lost track of which fish had which names. This struck us as absolutely hilarious, and we fell on our backs and stamped our feet and laughed so hard it hurt. Oh, sweet joy, the pond was finished. Ilunga had done it. He had taken my instructions and accomplished something important. And on that day when we finally stocked the pond, I knew that no man would ever command more respect from me than one who, to better feed his children, moves 4,000 cubic feet of dirt with a shovel.

Michael Tidwell (Zaire)

Mike is the author of The Ponds of Kalambayi, a book about his Peace Corps experience that won the 1991 Paul Cowan Prize given by RPCV Writers & Readers. He is also author of In the Shadow of the White House: Drugs, Death and Redemption on the Streets of the Nation's Capital and Amazon Stranger. He is a freelance writer and lives in Tacoma Park, Maryland.

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