I Had a Hero
- Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo
- Personal Essay
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 really show the people of Kalambayi something about fish culture. I was an extension agent for the government's Projet Pisiculture Familiale, or Family Fish Project.
Six days a week, I left my house around 7 a.m. and rode as much as 40 miles over unspeakably eroded dirt roads and down narrow paths. I visited villages and expounded the virtues of fish culture to anyone who would listen.... "No thanks. We've got enough work to do already." Around 6 o'clock, exhausted from equal parts of sun ... and foreign language, I'd return home.
It was after a few weeks of this ... 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 10-foot-tall grass along the trail, signaling for me to stop. Had he not 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 was a string supporting a leather charm to ward off bad bush spirits. Two underfed mongrel dogs circled his bare feet, panting.
When I stopped and saw Ilunga for the 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 stared at him openly, 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, both 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, shaking it.
We smiled at each other another moment 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] into the bush we went, hunting for a pond site.
"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 20-minute walk from Ilunga's village. Together, we paced off a pond and staked a water canal running 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 20 or 30 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 10-by-15-meter pond.
In many ways, the work is like a marathon. If you go too fast, you invite physical ruin. If you go too slow, you may never finish. You have to pace yourself. You have to dig a few hours each day, carefully spreading out the pain over time. But no matter what, you can't take a break. You can't stop. Not even for a week. To do so is to risk losing the rhythm of the fight and so become suddenly overwhelmed by the task at hand. Once the shovel enters the soil the first time, the work must continue every day—tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt—again and again, meter by meter, 50,000 times, until the marathon is over.
But Ilunga, being a chief and all, wasn't content with an average-size pond. He wanted one almost twice that size. He wanted a pond 15 by 20 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 10 seconds as I walked away the sound of a shovel-load of dirt hitting the ground after traveling 20 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 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 winced each time his foot pushed the shovel into the ground. I groaned inwardly at the sight of his clothes, ragged, full of yawning holes that revealed a glistening, overworked body. 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 20 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. It hurts, they said. Stop making us do it. But I couldn't stop. I had been digging a paltry 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. About 30 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 20 feet and ignobly spooned it onto the dike. I was glad Ilunga wasn't around to see this. It was embarrassing. And God it was hot. The hottest day I could ever 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 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 then refused to bend down to allow my arms the chance to refuse to pick it up. 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 piteous 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 pond was essentially unchanged. I had moved perhaps 30 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 gravel-size rocks that required a pickaxe and extra sweat. Not when, at the enormous pond's center, he had to throw each shovel-load twice to reach the dikes. And not 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, 15 by 20 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 10-liter carrying bidons, I transported stocking fish from another project post 20 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. Where before there had been nothing, just grass and scrub trees, had come watery life.
To celebrate, I had brought a bottle of tshitshampa, the local home-brew, and Ilunga and I began pouring each other shots and 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 spread from our stomachs to our limbs and soon, strongly our heads. Ilunga expressed his dream of digging three, no six, no 12 more fishponds, 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 for some reason, and we fell on our backs and stamped our feet and laughed so hard we couldn't stand it.
Oh, sweet joy, the pond was finished. Ilunga had done it. He had taken my instructions and accomplished a considerable thing. 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.
I had a hero.