They were going down Jubba River, only disturbing the calm waters of pre-rainy season. The band of vegetation on the river banks seemed to be lying in wait for the first rains to revive them and extend their lush greenery onto the land beyond. The boat, which paint had mostly come off, now felt like their home; they even had neighbours from time to time, though they were travelling much shorter distances on the river, an occasion for small trade and to replenish food stocks. In this region, available inland navigation was preferred to unmaintained roads. They had lived on the boat for the past few days, ever since they had embarked where the Genale and Dawa rivers form the Jubba.
That was in Ethiopia, right before their crossing into Somalia.
They had not known each other beforehand, coming on the boat together was like a first day at school. A mixed bag of different personalities brought together by necessity. Already on the first day, a brawl bursted out between the navigator and a man named Muchman, a colourful character dressed in the most sumptuous Sape costume. He was not of the region, speaking only in a broken English. The dispute erupted when Muchman declared the boat to be unfit for his presence. It is true that the ship was not only run-down, but its deck had seen its last scrubbing in the rainy season three months earlier. The words came as an insult to the captain, and so he refused to start the engine unless the sapeur apologised. While everyone was waiting patiently for this to blow over, a small man sitting in the middle of the boat seemed preoccupied by the confrontation and decided to try and defuse the situation. In his success to calm down both parties, he told Muchman everyone was aware of the filth, to which the captain growled, and that if they wanted to make to the coast they had to make concessions. Muchman protested with pride:
“You kno’, our dress is way for people to put on liberty. I no want dirt my liberty”.
In the end, Muchman was given a tarp to protect his freedom and everyone started their journey on the boat.
The Sun was now setting to their right, projecting a fiery red onto their world. Even the ferrous waters carrying them had turned into a bloody ichor running through a burning country. The coming evening was one for celebration, they were half-way through the trip. Earlier that day they had made preparations, buying drinks and the finest food from the floating markets met on the river. First, the drinks were drank, then one after the other they sang their traditional chants, each time carrying everyone to sing along. For diner, the captain had put on the radio, the signal only allowing a fluttering oud lute on a white noise background; their light vessel sailing on the reflected Milky Way now that the night had settled. All of them then lied on the mattresses they unrolled on the deck, content of that night they shared together and of the relief they only had another half of their journey to go.
The next morning, after the sun coloured the land all around, the captain vigorously woke everyone up: there was a missing person. The small man had disappeared, the suitcase he boarded the boat with still hanging from the sheet metal roof. While travellers had no feelings for the man, after all, the only time he had appeared to the group was during the fight between Muchman and the captain, the sudden disappearance of someone on board in such narrow space without anyone noticing was very odd to say the least. Muchman tried to lighten the mood talking about the possibility a man that small had not even boarded the boat after the dispute with the captain. However the unease among the rest of the group was noticeable.
The rest of the journey was set to be glacial, contrasting with the evermore hot and dry weather.
They finally met the end of the Jubba river and the immense opening on the Indian Ocean. For days now, they had been chased by clouds bearing the heavy weight of the start of the rainy season. Despite the menacing clouds roaming the land on their right, most of the people were focused on the open sea to their left. The fear of pirates was still on everyone’s mind. Piracy was rare but still existed. Since the recognition of Al-Shabaab’s regional administration by the Somali Federal State, the group had dropped any piracy activities, even chasing down remaining pirates. A severe drought a few years back had brought change to the country, it led to the quick and brutal expansion of the Al-Shabaab insurgency on a desolated land. Then followed violent attacks against the government, bombings and fighting against the national forces. That is up until the Somali National Intelligence and Security Agency reported the security of Eyl industrial port was threatened. The Chinese government was in charge of the development of the port to make it a major hub for naval trade routes passing Horn of Africa. In light of the threat, China deployed its full diplomatic arsenal, alongside economic pressures to bring to the negotiations the Federal Republic of Somalia as well as the Republic of Kenya another victim of the terror attacks and a tremendous display of power threatening Al-Shabaab. The offer to leave the administration of the region to the Al-Shabaab group and conjoint efforts to develop the port of Kismayo and the surrounding area group led to a power struggle amongst its ranks and the rise of moderate members that ultimately took control of the organisation. China’s success was to give them something they could now be afraid to loose.
In the middle of the afternoon under heavy rains, the boat finally reached its destination: the port of Kismayo. One of the passenger, who had not returned in years, was amazed at how striking the change was. The place had long been in disarray, only serving as a local trade outpost. But in front of them, within the last of the three bays of Kismayo, was a labyrinth of pontoons, uncountable anchored ships and an eclectic range of goods being loaded, unloaded and taken inland towards the city beyond. Commerce grew to never before seen wealth for the region when the Somali diaspora, spreading across so many African and Western countries, came back to this time of peace. The captain guided his ship to a dock to the side of the cove, away from the boiling daily life of the port. Before disembarking, everyone thanked the captain for his service, awarding him a bonus for bringing them safely to their destination.
Muchman was now making his way to the inner city with a few people from the boat, his shiny suit catching the gaze of few dockers. He was talking about how good it felt to finally be touching ground, but he was met with silence. People from the boat were treading cautiously on uncharted territory: one cannot engage much with refugees; their travel was the only thing they thought about. They had been temporarily settled in Ethiopia for so long with so little, and to find a smuggler for Europe Kismayo represented the perfect getaway as Al-Shabaab’s members had been using their connections to make the port a central trade depot for black markets in East Africa and the Middle-East.
They had reached the town, only distinguished from the docks by its lack of pontoon; the same kind of wooden buildings sprawling all around. The Moon had already switched places with the Sun, and all were searching for a meal and accommodation. They sat together in a café/hotel among dockers, leaving on the floor the long sticks they used to organise boats. As much as they were still strangers to one another, the time they spent together meant more than unknown faces. They were served mill bread and grilled fish, a plentiful meal they hadn’t had for days; well, since the disappearence of the small man. While they were eating, one of their co-traveler wet from the rain now pouring entered the café and sat on his own not even to looking at them. Everyone at the table grew tensed as they spotted the suitcase belonging to the missing small man he put on the floor; everyone except Muchman who was paying only attention to his meal, pausing ever now and then to rate the many food he enjoyed throughout his travels since he left his home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Shortly after, a couple of white men passed the front door as well. The refugees immediately dropped their head, they recognised the outfit they were wearing; camp top, commando vest and jeans, mercenaries employed by local merchants and smugglers to protect their merchandise. The hired men unhesitatingly rush to the table of the person with the small man’s suitcase. In an instant they had him tied up and were dragging him out. The event reminded the refugees they had still a long way to go, and other hardships to fight off before they could reach their new home. The group then quietly went up to their rooms, only Muchman renting one by himself.
In the dead of the night, Muchman still awake was seating upright on him bed. He was meditating. It was still heavily raining outside, the clouds had finally caught up. The crackling sound of the water battering the sheet metal roof helped him clear his mind, and let it be filled with the power of the Earth beneath. A knock on his door, followed by a few others in rhythm. He got up to unlock and open it. A bent figure came in, a round back below what appeared to be a brown tarp sewed into a raincoat. Frail hands lifted the hood and dropped it behind a the face of an old Asian woman. She sat down on the chair at the desk, Muchman was back on the bed.
“The decoy worked wonders”, her crackling voice uttered in a British accent.
“He knew the risks”, Muchman said.
“You have the package?”, she asked.
Muchman showed her the suitcase he had been carrying. The exact same model the small man had left on the boat.
“You are a colourful man”, she pointed out.
“I already am a coloured man, why not add some more?”, he said in perfect English, a smirk hanging from the corner of his lips.
She did not acknowledge the pleasantry. He continued:
“I draw people’s attention and yet none of them seemed to notice I was also carrying a suitcase unusually similar to the one a missing person left behind.”, he finished letting out a sigh.
“Has the competition been properly diverted?”, he asked.
“As I said, the decoy worked out perfectly, and the one who took the copy suitcase granted us with a great opportunity…”, she started answering coldly.
“Poor guy…”, interrupted Muchman saddened. He washed away the face of the desperate man, “the two mercenaries were oblivious to my presence”.
“They were American operatives”, she said, “they are generally in charge of tracking down US citizens of Somali origin who left the country to join the ranks of the few remaining extremist groups in the region. The captain is a Somali agent. He got rid of the decoy, but did not get the opportunity to steal the suitcase before one of the refugees did.
“Here, this is the pass you will show the dockers”, she extended her weak arm, a plastic card in her hand bearing the seal of a Chinese character. “The contract is ongoing: make the delivery and you will be done”.
That last sentence resonated in his head as both an incentive and a warning. The woman felt the unease and added, “a new life will be for you to undertake soon”.
She got up and left, a raincoat as shrivelled as her wrinkled face swallowed by the dark corridor.
The next day, Muchman set about to find a smuggler and get into Eyl port, a task not difficult in terms of navigators available to make the journey, but in terms of conviction it would take to go all the way to Eyl. For the first time in his expedition, the suit he swore to wear everyday was proving to be hindering his efforts to find transportation. After roaming the shady parts of the port for so long, he reluctantly gave up and rejoined his usual group of refugees. They were suspicious to see him try to get a ride as dressed up as he was, he would make the trip more expensive but they also knew they were less prone to be the target of preying hyenas: potential human traffickers. After a full day of searching they finally made a deal with the owner of a fishing boat, a common repurpose for this kind of boats and their captains especially since fishing was now restricted to high-sea farming.
They were to leave in the dead of the night as to arrive in Eyl on the next, and to increase their chances of not being spotted by security forces roaming the sea around the trade port.
Under dark skies that not even the Moon could penetrate, the boat was drawn towards a hub of light: Eyl harbour, a lump of land unnaturally set onto the sea. Piles upon piles of containers were sitting on the docks, a patchwork of steel bars waiting to be chosen. The place had all of the facilities found in modern ports. Automated machines were lifting shipping crates from and to enormous ships sitting stoically in the port. The mountains of containers were surrounded by walls a few meters high, mounted with rails where platforms were driving containers around. Robots set on rails were doing patrols to carry out random security checks.
As they approached the harbour, the captain of the boat swapped his thermal engine for his electric one, so as not to make noise. The most dangerous part of the journey was now taking place: to move their ant-sized ship closer to one of the monstrous freighters roaming in and out of the harbour and stay in their wake without being carried away by the swirl and thrown onto the path of another gigantic vessel. The passengers could feel somewhat reassured by looking at the captain and the confidence in his handling of the situation, and anyway, there was nothing they could do. The smuggler’s experience paid off and they stopped as the freighter anchored to drop off his load. Then they noticed the rough serrated-like ladder cut directly into the concrete of the dock. The captain silently motioned for the passengers to ascend that way, the climbers hoping the ship would not rock before they reached the top. Once on the dock, the smuggler had left them with a docker they had to pay again, some of the group giving him down to their last penny. Looking at Muchman, the Asian man extended his arm, as if aware of Muchman’s reason to come here. Passed his surprise, he could feel the others stunned by the scene as well, Muchman took the card out and handed it over to the worker who scanned it using a portable device to analyse the material inside the Chinese character drawing. He nodded.
They were now on the move, the docker was using his smartphone in which a map displayed their current location inside the harbour and the positions of security cameras and robots. They would move as one or sometimes break up in smaller groups, from one bling spot to another. Using his ID card, the docker led them through a series of magnetic doors. They finally reached a bulk freighter ready to leave the port. They boarded ‘The White Cloud’, a vessel painted of layer upon layer of brown, blue and white colours, flying the Maltese flag, and greeted unmindfully by a Turkish crew. It was the time for Muchman to leave his crew, even though they were boarding the same ship, he had a reserved spot. The refugees were relieved to see him go on his way, the secrecy of his true nature and the reason to take this route created a gap between them. They wished each other safe passage into their new home before being separated: them, sent to a stuffy room down below and, him, led to a container on the deck. Inside, he was met with a rich setting: bed, chair and desk, overall slightly decorated to feel like home.
During the trip he was brought meals and allowed to walk on the deck; up until they reached European Union waters because authorities were routinely boarding and searching freighters for refugees and illegal goods. The bulk freighter arrived in Le Havre after days at sea. He heard shouts and cries, his travelling companions he had spent so much time with had been discovered by the French authorities and were now being escorted onto the land. He felt a lump in his throat; he did not know them, their stories, why they made such journey, but to hear all these efforts shattered weighed heavy on his mind. Alas, there was nothing he could do. He was let out when the situation had calmed down. A utility vehicle was waiting for him at the other end of the gangway. The French driver once again scanned the card with a Chinese character. He got into the back of the van. The two of them exchanged trivialities, talking in French about the difference in weather. After all it was spring here in the northern hemisphere; Muchman had left a sudden green land for another one, though this one was scattered and sprinkled with colourful spots. After moving among the containers and through the industrial part of the harbour, the van arrived at a smaller port, where big cruising ships impressed by their size compared to the tiny area they were anchored in. At the end of a pontoon not far Muchman was presented with a long barge. The captain was your typical bearded seasoned sailor, a cap with an anchor emblem on its peak; except they were about to follow the Seine river upward. Upon entering the cabin, Muchman realised he was in a houseboat cruise: the comfort of a home navigating on waters.
This short journey felt like a breath of fresh air to him. Of course, the weather was much cooler, yet without it being cold, but it is the scenery that eased his mind: the calmness of the waters their vessel was slightly disturbing, the countryside unfolding peacefully, fields after fields, groves here and there. The captain spoke about his many travels on the seas of the world, his stopovers a collection of adventures. When they reached Paris, the barge moved through a few of city’s canals, giving Muchman a little tour of the city’s most iconic buildings. He disembarked at Musée Du Quai Branly, a place he knew held some his home’s historical artefacts. After giving his navigator a heartfelt goodbye he began his last trip: a stroll through the busy streets of the old city centre.
Again he felt the invigorating energy of a busy city life, his Sape catching the look of a few passing by without being a burden. He reached the place not far from the Eiffel Tower. One of those modern buildings that were built out to see if Paris’ historic architectures and mansard roofs could ever evolve, without great success. Muchman presented his card to the camera of the intercom that also acted as a scanner. He was buzzed in and followed a long corridor before going up a large wooden spiral staircase. Contrary to the outside, the inside of the building was still decorated in classic 19th century solid wood furnitures. On the third floor, he was met by a pale slender figure, dressed in a suit, a loose scarf around his neck.
“Did you have a look?”, questioned the willowy man pointing at the briefcase and leading Muchman through a couple of double doors. Muchman shook his head. They entered a vast room darkened by a large library, spanning a whole wall. An only window was hanging on the opposite wall, the light coming out of it trying in vain to fight the obscurity in the thinly lit room. The man set the briefcase on the desk in front of the oppressing monumental library.
“Don’t you want to know what’s inside? After all these travels, you won’t even take a look?”, asked the man.
Muchman forced a smile and turned to look by the window; outside the city was waiting for him. He had a new life to put on tracks, everything to build. The impatience and excitement making him restless.
The man opened the briefcase and let out a sharp gasp as if the content had surpassed his wildest expectations.
“Hum, very well”, he said, “our binding contract has ended”.
Muchman relaxed his tensed back, nodded and left the room, the building, ending up on street outside. Hope was on the horizon. First stop: Barbès, the vibrant hub of La Sape.