Unsung Heroes

“Today’s sunrise will be special, we just need that bank of cloud to lift”  Bart switched his focus from the road to the eastern horizon. We were driving through a rain-washed Durban.  Night neons blended with the early morning light.  Only Penny and I (Pandora) were up to this experience, the others had succumbed to sleep after a six o’clock wake up call.

The beach was wet and crunchy underfoot and I left Penny to sit serenely awaiting the sun’s appearance.  I followed an undulating line of litter washed up on the tide along the shore.  After 28 days of beating a path through river bank undergrowth, boulder hopping and river crossings there was a hint of elation in my unencumbered stroll.  But as I passed easily recognisable everyday items lining the highwater mark, the significance of what lay before me revealed a new direction to the path we now needed to walk.

It’s gone seven.  The soft sea greys merge with darkened cloud and the sun erupts to etch the upper reaches with brilliant white.  Three ladies are playing in the waves, dresses awash around their knees.  Three bottles of seawater are carefully collected, with just a little silica sand at their base.  I walk on and the links to our journey become still stronger.  I pass a blob of candlewax, it reminds me of the traditional ceremony at Howick Falls and of candlewaxed spots at Nagle and at other spots along the river.  Some marigolds lie scattered amidst the sand and I recall the prayer chain I’d seen earlier in the walk below the bridge at Howick.  I stop up short at the pier at the sight of a dead chicken.  Once again memories at Nagle dam and then again yesterday at Blue Lagoon stir my consciousness.  I’m worried about children that may come down to the beach to play later.

I turn and look up.  The beach is now busy with activity.  An eThekweni Municipality vehicle drives above the high water mark.  Three beach cleaners are busy with rakes and yellow bags.  Penny is standing watching the sun blaze through the tops of the clouds and we swop exeriences.  We make our way over to the beach cleaners and tell them about our journey down the river and they tell us about their work.  “Its always much worse after a rainstorm. There is a lot of us out cleaning the beaches – Ethekwini workers this side of the estuary and Working for the Coast on the Northern side”.

We talk about the dumping upstream of the uMngeni.  I ask about the chicken. I notice they are not wearing gloves.  “Sometimes they wash up, other times they are slaughtered on the beach” we’re told. “Even goats at times! – we take about three to four chickens off the beach in a month.” There is no hint of attitude, this is their job and it’s obvious that they love to do their work – to clean these beautiful beaches.  It’s barely seven thirty and I notice a line of green bags.  Penny is recording the gentlemen’s names on a cigarette box.  Mr Chetty, Mr Naidoo and Mr Reddy.  They follow my gaze, “We can’t fill the bags too much, the plastic is too thin,” one remarks.  Penny and I thank them for the work they are doing and make our way to meet Bart for coffee.

It’s midmorning when the team arrives at the Durban Green Hub.  Wendy is there to greet us together with a host of staff.  We’ve had the pleasure to get to know more about this partnership project since we reached Isithumbe and made our way down the Durban Green Corridor.  Hiking trails, cultural tours, youth development projects in the beautiful uMngeni River Valley are the vision of Gary Cullen and his team.

We meet our guides for the day, Siphiwe Rakgabale and Joe Jiyane and we chat a little about the Durban Green Hub and Durban Green Corridor project.  Sphiwe (our cameraman) and Penz can’t resist the bicycles and go wizzing along the paved paths lining the Blue Lagoon estuary.  The scene is picturesque. There are pedal cars and all sorts of activities to do.  A few fisherman line the banks.  Across the water another fisherman expertly throws his net, pulls it together and walks on to the next caste.We walk across a newly made footbridge and into Beachwood Mangroves.  The contrast from city traffic into another world of mysterious mud, crabs and trees, is profound. We stand the gap in the trees through which we had walked yesterday on our last few meters to the beach and look across at the skyscrapers.  We talk about the city and the distressing impacts we have seen yesterday and discuss whether it would be better to ‘shut the city out’ by planting in the gap.  There are differing opinions. “We need a tranquil haven for the stressed at heart,  the city man does not want to be reminded of his stress when he comes here,” says one of our guides. “Perhaps one needs an interface to enable one to open conversations like these” I say. Perhaps it is as well to have a glimpse of the city.

A young man in bright orange overalls is sitting head in hands.  The slogan across his back arrests my attention.  “Working for the Coast”  I go over and introduce myself.  Penny joins us and we tell him about our work and he tells us about his.

“Today I’m here because I have a headache.  We are cleaning the beaches, walking from La Lucia to here, picking up litter. We tell him this is the first time that we have heard about this project. “No-one mentions a word about us.  eThekwini push us hard, put us under pressure and then take the credit for what we do.  For us, doing this work, it has become something that we like, something that we enjoy.  We see that the salaries are not there but we enjoy to take care of our environment.  Let them take the credit, its ok, but one day it will come out.  Most of us are very young, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one – the oldest is twenty nine.  We are very very young, and the government is suppose to empower us but we feel oppressed.  Sometimes we sit during lunch times and we discuss our problems and the things we meet on the beach.  We are like a family now.  We love cleaning the beach.  You know if I wake up in the morning and its Saturday, I feel sad because I won’t be going to the beach. I feel like going there and working.  Sometimes we work holidays voluntarily, like June 16.  We work holidays with no complaint but the most sad thing is that they take the credit away from us.  We speak to the relevant people and they just say, ‘that’s the way the game is played’.

The most that we pick up from the sand are papers, juice bottles, plastics, dead fish, everything that you can imagine – those things that are blown by the wind into the ocean or washed down the rivers – we pick it up.  We even pick up condoms.  I’m trying to analyse the work that we do.  It’s some kind of dangerous work.  We feel oppressed, sad, angry…but we love the beach. We aren’t saying we want to work in the office but the safety must be there.  We have to lean into the bins to clean them, it is not pleasant and the smells affect my chest.  I believe I should be provided with something to close my nose and with proper gloves to pick up broken bottles.  Ethekwini workers have sunshade glasses, but we don’t have.

But we love working for the coast.  We learn and get to understand nature and the environment in another way.  I get to teach members of my community that you don’t throw everything around because it gets washed down and it comes onto the beach or affects the fish and I have to find dead fish on the beach in the morning.  I grew up in Durban and went to school here.  I didn’t complete my studies due to poverty.  I cannot even think of going to University now because I have two boys that I must look after. I thought that the government would help us…I wish… I get R74 a day and for me it is hard.  I have two children and have to pay rental and transport…”  The young man turns around with a smile and continues, “But as my overall says, we love ‘Working for the Coast.’ “

We emerge from the mangroves onto the beach.  Piles of green bags line the highwater mark.  “And I thought the beaches were always like this” Penny is surveying the beautiful clean sweep of beach stretching as far as the eye can see.  The team that is responsible gathers around us and I take photo’s.  We shake their hands and give them credit.  I hope others will do so too.

As we travel back to PMB after the most amazing 28 day journey down the uMngeni, Penny and Bart are having an animated discussion about bio-control, sand mining and other issues we’ve witnessed. We’ve left Preven in Durban; Mike is already back in Howick.  Penz and I are dozing in the back.

I think of this morning’s sunrise and of our 28 days down the river. What I’ve seen, heard, sensed and felt.  I think of neglect, abuse and degradation. I think about the river and its secret of restoration and healing. I think of the children we’ve met along the way and of Mtini’s message of interconnectedness.  Safety, commitment, respect, accountability, encouragement and attitude. We are in this together, for better or for worse.  I think of the interview with young Sipho from ‘Working for the coast’ and of his love for his work despite disappointment and disillusionment.  I think of our Durban Green Corridor guides, their knowledge and passion for their work.

Yes, sometimes dark clouds do obscure the light, but as Sipho had pointed out earlier today, someday the truth will come out.  And with it a brighter future for our rivers and for our youth and children. I hope that day comes soon.

Submitted by: Pandora Long


About Nikki Brighton

I live in Howick, between the river and the hills. I enjoy pre-dawn walks in the streets with my dog, sitting on the veranda with crochet and tea, and harvesting vegetables outside the kitchen door.
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