Unemployed, by Pirates

December 16, 2008


Kennedy Mwale, 32, pictured, is a freelance tour
guide in Mombasa’s old port, a claustrophobic melange of Arab and
Portuguese architecture with one small stone pier. A week ago Monday,
three small cargo ships were tied to the pier. Scores of shirtless
stevedores lugged bags of cement and tossed them into the ships’ holds.
The stevedores might earn a couple dollars for hours of hot,
back-breaking work. That’s just enough to survive in Mombasa. Mwale, by
comparison, earns up to $15 for an hour tour.

Five years ago, Mwale escaped Mombasa’s maritime
economy. He had been a fisherman, plying the waters as far north as the
Somali borderland in search of tuna and other big fish. But with piracy
taking root in lawless Somalia, fishing and sea trade were becoming
riskier and less profitable by the day for the small operators. One of
the final straws for Mwale was a close call, in 1999, with a band of 14
pirates that sneaked up on the 11-man refrigerator ship where Mwale was
the chief engineer. (The reefer ships follow behind the fishing boats
to store fresh catches.)

They came at night, as the ship was anchred near
Mdoa island, surprising the sleeping crew and their one Somali
bodyguard. When the pirates failed to wrestle away the guard’s rifle, a
standoff ensued. The pirates demanded the crew’s money and possessions,
plus all the diesel fuel stored on deck — and wanted the ship sailed to
the Somali port of Kismayo. If the crew didn’t comply, the pirates
would start killing people, they said. The crew coughed up all their
cash — just a few dollars for most, but around $700 in the case of the
ship owner’s secretary — and handed over possessions including a new
boom box stereo. But the captain refused to give up the diesel or to
sail to Kismayo. He would not allow the ship to enter in to captivity,
nor strand it at sea. The captain had only as much leverage as was
afforded by his one armed guard, but it was enough. The pirates
compromised. They agreed to go to Mdoa and continue negotiations.

That apparently was a clever bit of strategizing
on the captain’s part, for he had called at Mdoa earlier, seeking the
ruling committee’s permission to fish Somali waters. The committee had
endorsed the expedition. And when the pirates rolled in with Mwale and
his shipmates in tow, the committee immediately branded the captors
criminals and had the local militia seize their weapons and return
everything they’d stolen. They gave back the boom box, but denied
taking anything else. The penniless Kenyans now were free to sail home.

This story has a happy-ish ending, but for Mwale,
it was another near-miss in a career full of them. Every day the
arguments mounted against working at sea. Already, three of his friends
had been killed by sharks. And with piracy making profitable fishing a
dicey venture, Mwale soon decided he’d had enough. He went ashore, for
good, and for five years was unemployed on Mombasa’s sweltering streets.

Today, as a tour guide, he survives, and surely does better than
many of the city’s 700,000 residents. Not that freelancing for curious
tourists is an easy way to make a living: it’s just a Hell of a lot
safer than grappling with Somali pirates.

Read my piracy series here.

(Photo: me)