IN ONE HAND HE CARRIED a spear, in the other a crude machete. On his head was a kind of coonskin cap with a bushy tail hanging down in back. Around his neck was a string supporting a leather charm to ward off bad bush spirits. Two underfed mongrel dogs circled his bare feet, panting.
“My name is Ilunga,” he said, extending his hand.
“My name is Michael,” I said, shaking it.
We smiled at each other another moment before Ilunga got around to telling me he had heard my job was to teach people how to raise fish. It sounded like something worth trying, he said, and he wondered if I would come by his village to help him look for a pond site. I said I would and took down directions to his house.
The next day the two of us set off into the bush, hunting for a place to raise fish.
Machetes in hand, we stomped and stumbled and hacked our way through the savanna grass for two hours before finding an acceptable site along a stream about a twenty-minute walk from Ilunga’s village.
Together, we paced off a pond and staked a water canal running between it and a point farther up the stream. Then, with a shovel I had sold him on credit against his next corn harvest, Ilunga began a two-month journey through dark caverns of physical pain and overexertion. He began digging.
There is no easy way to dig a fish pond with a shovel. You just have to do it. You have to place the tip to the ground, push the shovel in with your foot, pull up a load of dirt, and then throw the load twenty or thirty feet to the pond’s edge. Then you have to do it again — tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. After you do this about 50,000 times, you have an average-sized, ten-by-fifteen-meter pond.
But Ilunga, being a chief and all, wasn’t content with an average-sized pond. He wanted one almost twice that size. He wanted a pond fifteen by twenty meters. I told him he was crazy, as we measured it out. I repeated the point with added conviction after watching him use his bare foot to drive the thin shovel blade into the ground.
For me, it was painful visiting Ilunga each week. I’d come to check on the pond’s progress and find Ilunga grunting and shoveling and pitching dirt the same way I had left him the week before. I winced each time his foot pushed the shovel into the ground. I calculated that to finish the pond he would have to move a total of 4,000 cubic feet of dirt. Guilt gnawed at me. This was no joke. He really was going to kill himself.
One week I couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Give me the shovel,” I told him.
“Oh no, Michael,” he said. “This work is too much for you.”
“Give it to me,” I repeated, a bit indignantly. “Take a rest.”
He shrugged and handed me the shovel. I began digging. Okay, I thought, tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. I did it again. It wasn’t nearly as hard as I had thought. Stroke after stroke, I kept going. About twenty minutes later, though, it got hot. I paused to take off my shirt. Ilunga, thinking I was quitting, jumped up and reached for the shovel.
“No, no,” I said. “I’m still digging. Sit down.”
He shrugged again and said that since I was apparently serious about digging, he was going to go check on one of his fields.
Shirtless, alone, I carried on. Tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. An hour passed. Tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up . . . throw . . . throw the . . . dammit, throw the dirt. My arms were signaling that they didn’t like tossing dirt over such a great distance. “It hurts,” they said. “Stop making us do it.” But I couldn’t stop. I had been digging a paltry hour and a half. I was determined to go on, to help Ilunga. How could I expect villagers to do work I was incapable of doing myself?
Sweat gathered on my forehead and streamed down my face as I continued, shoveling and shoveling. About thirty minutes passed and things started to get really ugly. My body buckled with fatigue. My back and shoulders joined my arms in screaming for an end to hostilities. I was no longer able to throw the dirt. Instead, I carried each load twenty feet and ignobly spooned it onto the dike. I was glad Ilunga wasn’t around to see this. It was embarrassing. And then I looked at my hands. Both palms had become blistered. One was bleeding.
Fifteen minutes later, my hands finally refused to grip the shovel. It fell to the ground. My back then refused to bend down to allow my arms the chance to refuse to pick it up. After just two hours of digging, I was incapable of doing any more. With a stiff, unnatural walk, I went over to the dike. Ilunga had just returned, and I collapsed next to him.
“I think I’ll stop now,” I managed, unable to hide my piteous state. “Take over if you want.”
He did. He stood up, grabbed the shovel and began working — smoothly, confidently, a man inured to hard work. Tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. Lying on my side, exhausted, I watched Ilunga. Then I looked hard at the spot where I had been digging. I had done nothing. The pond was essentially unchanged. I had moved perhaps thirty cubic feet of dirt. That meant 3,970 cubic feet for Ilunga.
Day after day, four or five hours each day, he kept going. He worked like a bull and never complained. Not once. Not when he hit a patch of gravel-size rocks that required a pickaxe and extra sweat. Not when, at the enormous pond’s center, he had to throw each shovel-load twice to reach the dikes. And not when he became ill.
Several weeks later, Ilunga drove his shovel into the earth and threw its load one last time. I never thought it would happen, but there it was: Ilunga’s pond, huge, fifteen by twenty meters, and completely finished. Using my motorcycle and two ten-liter carrying bidons (cans), I transported stocking fish from another project post twenty miles to the south. When the last of the 300 tilapia fingerlings had entered the new pond, I turned to Ilunga and shook his hand over and over again.
Ilunga had done it. He had taken my advice and accomplished a considerable thing. And on that day when we finally stocked the pond, I knew that no man would ever command more respect from me than one who, to better feed his children, moves 4,000 cubic feet of dirt with a shovel.
I had a hero.
Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985-87) is the founder and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the impacts and solutions associated with global warming in Maryland, Virginia, Washington D.C., West Virginia, and nationwide.
He is also an author and filmmaker who predicted in vivid detail the Katrina hurricane disaster in his 2003 book Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast.
His most recent book, focusing on Katrina and global warming, is titled The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Race to Save America’s Coastal Cities. His 2004 documentary film, We Are All Smith Islanders, vividly depicts the dangers of global warming in Maryland, Virginia, and D.C.