Gonna Be a Big Man Some Day

He climbed into the boat with eyes wide and fearful and then squinted towards where he knew his destination should be, far across the lake. Grateful to lower his pack from his head – it was so heavy that it felt as if it was pushing him into the earth – he tucked himself into the driest corner he could find and used it as a seat. A middle aged woman sized it up and silently daring him to complain she deposited her abundant bottom beside him. Once they both knew she had won, she took some bread from her bag and passed him some and even though he’d had some rice before he left the village, he would never say no to food.

The boat started filling but it was the first of the day and the ferrymen knew that once it was three quarters full, it was pointless waiting for more passengers. His mother had woken him early to have the best chance of getting to the other side ahead of the crowds. He had the garments she had made and was taking them to the market, on his own for the first time. The ‘All To Jesus’ engine fired up and they gently steered a path through a flotilla of similar boats, still moored, as they left Yeji. The ferryman looked skywards, said a prayer and sang along to the gospel music that was blaring from the beach. Others joined in, but the boy was too shy, so he pretended to check that his pack was secure. It was going to be a scorching day, and the boat boys raggy vests were stuck to their bodies already. They were bailing out the pool of water, which threatened to drown the crated chickens, with small metal pans. He was only a little older than them, but he thought himself too grown up to chat or play their childish games. He believed that he had an important job to do, the start of his new career as a market trader. They turned away, and made percussive sounds with their pans until the ferryman shouted they were out of tune.

The woman beside him delved into her bag again and brought out a stew pot wrapped in cloth. As she unwrapped it, a smell so pungent flew to his nostrils that he reached in to grab himself a Kenkey, she slapped him hard.

‘You have Cedi? Give me Cedi I give you Kenkey,’ she knew he had no money and planned to give him the leftovers, but first she sold nearly all to the other passengers who gathered round the pot and dipped into spicy pepper soup. The remainder she shared with him, ‘Because I know your mummy and your big mummy also.’ He thanked her and said he would help with her bags on the other side.

With everyone’s bellies sated the boat gradually fell quiet in the heat. He began to think of ways to shelter from the sun. He’d seen slit eyed tourists from across the world going around the big City with umbrellas over their heads. They didn’t want their skin to go dark, especially the women, who seemed frightened even to have the sun smile on them. Maybe mummy could stitch a cover for a boat like this he thought, and then the ferryman could charge more to keep his passengers cool. He decided he would price some white cloth and tell his mother his idea. He was so absorbed in how they would spend the riches his ferry umbrellas would bring, maybe he would go back to school, or just work hard to become a big man, that he didn’t notice the noise at first. And then everyone was shouting at once.

‘What is happening mummy?’ he asked the stew pot woman.

‘Shush boy, keep your head down and pray, they go rob us.’ He felt spice burn as his food rose in his throat, so it was true; pirates had left the ocean and were on the lake now.

Two men, heads wrapped like Bedouin, one wearing a traditional shirt, the other a T shirt emblazoned ‘Chelsea’, boarded the boat with machetes in their hands and ordered them to open their baggage.

‘You, give me your watch and get on your knees,’ the Chelsea pirate demanded of a westerner. The boy made himself as small as he could, watching and listening. He saw them drag a tiny child from its distraught mother. The one man, with scars on his arms and a bird skull strung around his neck, spoke tenderly to the baby, smiled as he pinched its cheeks, and then looked at everyone in turn, before throwing it towards his own boat. The mother screamed as if her heart had been torn from her body and it seemed like they all held breath until another man caught it in his arms. The boy looked for a way to help.

‘How much for the baby?’ ‘Who has money to keep it from drowning?’ Angry voices broke as people argued and pleaded with them to have pity on the mother. ‘This child may fall in the lake if no-one has money for me.’ Pockets were opened to find Cedi, goods were offered and all the time the pirate looked at the westerners.

‘Give me Cedi 500 and we will leave in peace,’ the voice coarse and demanding.

‘I don’t have that much, only . . .

‘Your wife, get her wallet and give me all you have. Hurry the child is getting heavy and will fall soon.’ The mother threw herself on the westerner who got to his feet and handed over the cash. A jerk of the head signified that his shoes were wanted too; they were swapped for the child and the boat roared off into the heat haze. ‘Quick, quick, we must go fast now’ the boy found a voice, ‘Of course we go fast, far away now and we go Water Police’ the ferryman replied, cranking the engine up. The boy watched intently as the distance opened between the two boats, ‘Look now, they have stopped’ he said, they squinted at the pirate boat that had indeed stopped and seemed to have trouble starting again.

‘Is this important?’ he asked holding up a length of hose and a chunky bolt.

‘Boy, how you get that?’

‘I pulled it when everyone was shouting and screaming.’

‘They go nowhere now less they paddle, is a long way to land, you go grow up like big man, give him palm wine. Hallelujah, praise His name.’

And the boy was blessed.