Friday, February 8, 2008

The Gravel Crushers

The hill where they have built their tin and tarpaulin shacks is called Bololo. From its summit, Sugarland, where sand is mined from the beach, is visible as are the many fishing boats that pull into the crescent harbor down below.

It's a lovely hill, actually. The ocean is at its foot, and the wind blows steadily keeping the air comfortable and clean of the dust that suffocates the low-lying fields and roads. There are no trees left, just grass growing well over an adult's head, smelling sweet and moist even late into the morning. Shallow and deep pits appear suddenly as clearings in the grass. Some are smoking with small fires lit to force the bedrock to expand quickly and crack in a tracery that will allow the muscled young men to break the rock lying just below the topsoil into large chunks.

Women who look aged except for their eyes that tell their true ages to be in the twenties or thirties sit next to piles of these chunks and use sledgehammers to break them into still smaller chunks and form neat piles of stones all of a size. A few children are seated next to their own piles of the smallest rocks, hammers in hands. There is no shade. Other children criss-cross the hill carrying dirty plastic jugs of water from the pump down below and across the beach. Fishermen pull in their nets, and a few women are tending cassava and sweet potato patches half-way down the hill. Small fires for cooking are surrounded by the rock-breakers' and fishermen's huts. Old bags of woven plastic once used for grain, and tarpaulins left over from one of the United Nations refugee camps are now walls and roofs held down with large rocks, rusted tea kettles, and pieces of wood.

Almost everyone is barefoot and stares at me as I cross inexplicably through their settlement. "Kushe, kushe," easy smiles and warm welcomes from all sides. I am looking for a boy in class one whom I had brought home sick the day before. I find him, and he is better, no fever. I tell the parents I will return in the morning to check on him.

One of the boys in class two, whom I now discover lives in one of the huts with his father who is away fishing for a few days, spots me and yells my name, his bright white teeth all visible. He wants to show me his house, so we go to one of the huts, padlocked shut, and I wonder who has the key with his father away and his mother dead.

I ask him who feeds him and he tells me it is his father. "Did you eat chop today?" "No." "Yesterday?" "No." The answers are disappointing but no longer surprising. "I'm very hungry this morning, Auntie." And I nod my head. "Everybody say you carry pekin [child] to London." After I tell him that I don't live in London, but in America, I tell him I cannot take him with me because he has a father who loves him, but he is ahead of me, so I cannot see his reaction as he keeps up his rapid, lopsided pace on the way to school. He eats four of the five bananas I buy for him in quick succession and places the fifth one in his pocket for later. He shakes my hand when we reach school and rushes to a group of his classmates.
When he returns to Bololo in the afternoon, he will most likely be put to work with a small hammer breaking up the stones.

A week later, it is for him that I come looking in Bololo. He has missed nearly the entire week of school, and I find him huddled by a cooking fire, wearing a knitted hat and a jeans jacket in the ninety-degree heat. The left side of his face is swollen, he cannot open his left eye fully, and his ubiquitous smile is gone. His father has returned from fishing and reluctantly agrees to accompany me as I take his son to the clinic. Everyone in the community seems to feel that the free clinic run by an Italian NGO is more hassle than it is worth. According to them their children won't receive treatment unless I take them. I have been totally unsuccessful in convincing them otherwise, so I find myself at the clinic at least once a week.

The boy is diagnosed with malaria and given medicine. He is back in school in time for the start of free lunch, and within two days he is smiling again.

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