They are the Beachboys, a fourth generation subculture of young men escaping the slums of Dar es Salaam and Tanga. These intrepid souls stowaway on ships, temporarily basing themselves in the ports the ships call at before once again sneaking on board the next vessel that presents an opportunity. Often, they don’t know where they are headed.
Many have found regular bases in South Africa in Cape Town, Richard’s Bay, Port Elizabeth and Durban. Some have asylum permits, others are undocumented. Communities also exist in such ports as Mombasa and as far north as Djibouti.
A book, just published, gives a captivating account of the Cape Town Beachboy community. In Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard, Sean Christie says of the great flyovers on the city’s foreshore (from which the title of his book is drawn), that these soaring overpasses have ‘disconnected the city from the sea, not only physically but psychologically, metaphorically’.
It is precisely this rift between the city and its port that the Beachboys have occupied, making shelters ‘under the city’s forbidding bridges and in the freeway culverts in small tents of wood and plastic’. Here they sit in limbo, closely monitoring the sea traffic; some make drawings of the container vessels and oil tankers that anchor on the horizon.
As ships can take days to load or unload, in ports that mostly export, such as Cape Town, the stowaways look for ships that are low in the water ready to leave; in other places, they look for ships high in the water that have offloaded and are about to disembark. They sneak up ropes, gangplanks and anchor chains. If they hide in the anchor locker, they risk being pulled apart or crushed. Hidden on board they can suffocate, starve or dehydrate. Christie recounts one youngster who succumbed to the insecticides sprayed on stored grain.
How they are dealt with when they reveal themselves or are discovered aboard is determined mostly by the captain. Christie explores in detail the unintended consequences of international law, national regulations, the financial interests of shipping owners, and possibly the biggest factor of all, insurance company policies.
The stowaways may be treated well and ‘adopted’ by the crew and captain, or they may be incarcerated, or repatriated to Tanzania at the next port, or, if very unlucky, dumped overboard to drown. Sometimes a blind eye is turned and they are allowed to skip ship and they settle for a while in such cities as Singapore and Jakarta or with a bit of luck Liverpool or Rotterdam.
What emerges though is how increasingly restricted and difficult it is to stow away as port authorities and shipping lines tighten up security.
In this lawless world, these outliers have their own decorum and their own egalitarian code of living, which they call Sea Power. Meetings are called when there is strife in the community; deals are reached with local gangs and neighbouring communities; collections are held to pay for the repatriation of a body if one of their number dies.
Christie, who is a soft-spoken, gentle giant, has solid friendships in the Beachboy community. He immersed himself in their underworld for several years, including stays in Dar es Salaam with the families.
Part memoir, part ethnography, part investigative journalism, Christie, who never loses sight of the humanity and the individuality of the men (and sometimes women) he encounters, closely traces the history of one Beachboy in particular, Adam Bashili, with whom he is still close friends. The result is a remarkable document on a subculture that may well pass into oblivion or transform unrecognisably in the next few years.
The Beachboys survived, among other things, the xenophobic violence of 2008, the repression of the FIFA World Cup of 2010, the Central City Improvement District, and the ever-tightening compact between big business, the city council and law enforcement.
Many were relocated to Blikkiesdorp (one of the city’s temporary relocation sites that have become permanent features) in 2009, where a Tanzanian community now exists. Now, their territory is rapidly shrinking as it is hemmed in and fenced off with property developments and the growing privatisation of the Foreshore precinct.
But perhaps the biggest threat is from within. The community of Dar es Salaam Beachboys or ‘bongomen’ – perhaps as many as 300, which dates back to the 1990s, are being pushed into the railyard territory of Tanga Beachboys and local Hard Livings gang.
Exacerbating this is that the recent arrivals stem from a gang called the mwiba mwitu (‘wild dogs’ – a term outlawed in Beachboy community) of Mbagala in Dar es Salaam. They fled a violent campaign waged against them by the Tanzanian police in 2015.
They have reformed into subgroups who reject and actively undermine the Sea Power code. Violently settling differences with stabbings and beatings, even male rape, seems to be replacing the old order.
Already, writes Christie, many of the encampments he describes no longer exist as the Beachboys move into town. And once in the city, street rules supplant the Sea Power. As Bashili says: ‘When the boys move away from the sea they are not Beachboys any more. They become more like South Africans.’