RIDING THE TURTLES

 

This is a story of childhood, fun and the invention of something unique.

 

Here, in this bay, bathed by the calm and tepid waters of the Atlantic, there is no sand, only mountains of shells rising imposingly from the water line; accumulated over the years. These are shells of Mabangas, a common mollusc on the West African coast that is much appreciated as an aperitif and as an accompaniment to the pirão, a kind of puree made with manioc flour or maize, the basis of Angolan food. Each of these shells was broken and opened by skillful hands, hands of countless women who worked here to sell the mabangas in the markets that orbit the capital. What is left of this hard and endless work are skeleton mountains that grow a few centimeters more every day and now gain new life with groups of children who ride on them as if they were rollercoasters.

 

In this part of the world there are no sophisticated toys and no dazzling amusement parks like in other most other parts of the world. Here, games and toys are invented with imagination and built by skillful hands, taking advantage of what the sea lays on the shores as it retreats at low tides. Empty plastic bottles, aluminum cans, pieces of wood and styrofoam, bird feathers, the remains of fishing nets and everything that the so-called civilized world no longer has a use for and throws away. Everything serves as raw material and is carefully worked and recycled, taking shape as boats, cars and other things that only the imagination can interpret and that provide unusual moments of play.

 

The 6 or 7 youngsters, that form the group that I documented, are all friends. Maybe it's better to call them comrades, because they remind me of soldiers who share everything they have in a trench to survive in some no-man's-land. It's not uncommon to see some of them split a piece of bread, a portion of mabangas, or the few coins they earned by helping their mothers, grandparents or aunts; working hard until the sun goes down on the bay.

 

Actually, with a more romantic head on, this gang reminds me of the children of the Jorge Amado's novel Captains of the Sands. The captains I speak of, however, command real vessels made of turtles carapaces, found dead on the beach after the fisherman have eaten the meat and that, ingeniously, they convert into toys, objects of fun and enjoyment. Besides this shared poverty and an almost orphaned life, that characterizes them as true captains of the sands, they also share a wonderful camaraderie, enjoying every moment; no matter how simple; sharing the joy of play as if it were the last day of their lives.

 

Yes, they are children like any other. Despite what some may see as their misfortune of a life with no facilities and no abundance, they know no world other than this beach. They know that there are schools but they have never passed through the gates of any. No, their life is ruled by the sun, the wind and the sea. They wear rags that barely cover their bodies and wear old slippers, or whatever they can adapt to avoid the cut and tear of these broken shells.

 

Countless hours climbing these slopes and innumerable skirmishes that almost always ended well, leave cuts and bruises on their legs and arms as if they were tattoos to be proud of, badges of honour. Despite this and behind the dust and salt of the sea that covers their bodies, there are smiles and wonderful expressions, tender and sincere looks of these most real of children.

 

One day, one of them decided to sit inside a turtle shell and tried sliding down one of the slopes of the shell mountains. How quickly the brilliance of this idea was realised. What a success! They had everything they needed to invent this new game, another attraction in their amusement park. Now, after developing the idea, working together to build a fleet of such riding craft, some of these children are owners of real fine vehicles; large carapaces of leather turtles, which accommodate rolled rags that serve as a pillow. Others ride worn-out and broken shells, but no matter, the poorest shells are actually the lightest, the coefficient of friction thus reduced, they are the fastest. 

 

They already know the best slopes to glide safely or those where only the most dashing and experienced dare to challenge the height and inclination. Sometimes, and only when room allows, two or three are thrown on the same carapace at the same time. To make transporting them back up the slopes easier, they tie ropes to a hole made in the front of the craft to pull them by. These are moments of speed and euphoria, as, feeling the wind in their faces, they career with penetrating rumble down the cliffs. The sensation of joy and some relief for not having had a fall when everything is over, are enough to light up their faces with the widest of smiles and a glow in their eyes. When the crazy descent comes to an end, amidst laughter, shrieks and shouts, they hurry back to the top of the hill, leaning on each other as they skid on the gravel made of loose shells. Over and over again, they climb and glide, climb and glide down until they almost run out of breath and tiredness overcomes them.

 

The youngest are not forgotten and are initiated in the lap of the most experienced. One day, they too will have their ‘speed machines’ and will launch themselves from the highest peaks, feeling that delicious and tempting adrenaline.

 

Invariably, this game ends in the calm and low waters of the bay. Exhausted from so much climbing of the hills by serpentine trails among the women who are working, they throw themselves without constraint into the sea. A watery playground they have known since they were little and where they feel at home as if they were dolphins.

 

It is as if it were a baptism, the baptism of a healing water that makes them forget the tiredness, the scares, the bellies yearning for food and the wounds gained in the euphoria of play. In the water, they get rid of the dust, sweat and salt crusts accumulated since the last dive while they invent new games, now in the true realm of turtles.