Nearly one thousand feet below ground in Section E, 17-year-old Bafozi removed his hard-hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. While he waited for the loose coal to be loaded and removed, he thought how this place could sometimes be as warm as a maiden’s sleeping place on a summer’s evening, and as damp and moist as her young fertile womanhood.
It reminded him of the touch and pleasure that Selena, the 14-year-old girl who had just entered womanhood, had shared with him back in the wattle forests near Mbabane, Swaziland.
Here at Scallyclare, female contact was rare for most of the 3 000 men, for the only women were the wives who lived in the married quarters. Fortunately, Bafozi’s exciting new way of life gave him little time to think about Selena.
The work was hard and fast, with few breaks, and he looked forward to the end of the shift and the chance to rest.
In his new sleeping place in the compound room, which he shared with 23 other Swazis, Bafozi had repaired the thin mattress (inherited from the late victim of a mine accident) by stuffing it with the soft grass that grew in early spring.
He had seen some of the men covering themselves with sacks when they slept, but he didn’t do that. The room never got as cold as the high misty hills in Swaziland where he had often spent nights searching for lost cattle. At Scallyclare, the small stove that filled the dormitory with sulphurous warmth while it burnt the magic black rock made sure of that.
As the youngest of the men, he got the bunk furthest from the stove, and it was his job to keep the fire burning when he was not working. It fascinated Bafozi how the dark stone burnt much hotter and longer than the dead trees from the forests. It was a gift from the spirits that there was always an endless supply of coal to burn.
It was on this coal stove that the winning span would cook their prize of ox innards. The sweet smell would fill the poorly ventilated room and tantalise those who were unfortunate enough not to share in the feast.
The windows were kept shut at night to keep out the evil Tokoloshe spirit. Apparently the lingering food odours blended with those of the sleeping men were not tempting to the evil spirit. To Bafozi, it almost felt like staying in one of the grass and clay huts at home - only the fire smelt different.
Bafozi thought how happy he was that nine months before, his brother, Gungu, had invited him to work on the mine with him. Gungu had arrived back in Swaziland, proud of his first year’s wages and with the news that Scallyclare was offering jobs to fit men. All they needed were men who could work hard in the confines and humidity of cramped, narrow tunnels nearly 1 000m beneath the Earth.
So Bafozi, his oldest brother, Edward, and their uncle, Goodwill, whose family lived with them in their kraal, decided to join Gungu to travel the 300km to Northern Natal where the black gold awaited them.
After sad farewells, they left for the coal fields with only the clothes on their backs and the Muthi from Sakela, a wise old witchdoctor. Sakela said that the evil-smelling potion made with blood from a puff adder (one of Africa’s most venomous snakes) and other ingredients they never dared ask about, would placate the ancient spirits.
He had added in his hypnotic voice, referring to the white people: “Those whose sacred burial ground they might be plundering.” He continued in that same tone of voice: “This was as they were doing it for the white man’.
Bafozi enjoyed the challenge of the work. It was Gungu who had suggested to Bafozi that he become a pick-boy who cuts slots. His thin, wiry frame would make it easy for him to slide into the narrow space under the seam overhang to undercut the coalface in order to make it collapse when it was blasted with dynamite.
The time at Scallyclare had been rewarding for Bafozi and his brothers. With little to spend money on, most of it was saved. Today was their last shift and he looked forward to soon taking his hard-earned wages back home. How pleased his mother would be when she learned she’d be able to pay for clothes, books and a small blackboard for Bafozi’s nine- and 10-year-old brother and sister, who could then attend school.
What a good Christmas this would be for the family.
Back underground, Bafozi placed his hard-hat on a jutting point of rock. He positioned it so that the cap lamp shone deep into the narrow slot. Even though it was against the safety rules to work without head protection, only one thing mattered to Bafozi: Meeting the day’s quota of 38 tubs for his span, so that he, the two loaders and the trammer could be first to clock out of the shift and win the ox innards.
He felt beside him for his pick-handle and gripped the familiar, intricately carved meranti wood. Pressing himself flat against the shards of shale and coal so that it cut into his cheek, he followed the beam of light into the claustrophobic space. Moving the light from side to side, he picked up the slight changes in colour and hardness of the rock face.
As Bafozi looked at the dull, black, bituminous coal seam, where it butted up against the sandstone, he signalled to Gungu, Edward and Goodwill, his span mates, to be quiet.
The millions of tons of rock and coal, only inches above his head, were silent. Singing gently to this mass to co-operate, he co-ordinated his arms and wrist movements in the limited space. Bafozi swung the pick head at the sandstone, neatly driving in the sharp point where he knew the coal face would be the softest.
The sound of steel against rock was just trailing off when something inside him made Bafozi pause.
Then he heard it.
A distant groan, like an angry bull, that coursed through the earth somewhere way up above them.
“Take care, my brother’s son.” Goodwill’s whisper barely worked its way through the narrow space.
Bafozi listened intently for the earth to speak to him.
For an instant he wondered if he should have supported the overhanging coal face with the two, short, wooden sprags, but then pushed the thought aside. He could speak to the coal. Besides the sprags got in the way, and time counted for everything.
Once again Bafozi’s sweet voice harmonised with the steel as he swung it at the shale. It penetrated the visible soft layer, and then suddenly the shock kicked back down the handle into Bafozi’s hands as it struck an aberration. The wall of coal shuddered.
Shards of razor-sharp shale spat on to his neck as tons of fossil that had lain undisturbed for 250 million years briefly complained and then swallowed its annoyance in a deep grumble.
Bafozi gripped the carved handle, but the rock face refused to release the pick. He wedged his shoulders against the smooth roof above and the gravelly bed below as he wrestled to remove it.
Now, the only sound was the wood as it twisted but refused to surrender in the forged iron sheaf of the pick head. Only a few grains of coal lightly dusted his cheek as the Earth’s crust seemed to go back to sleep again. His span mates shifted their weight uneasily as they waited.
“Be still, my brothers.” Bafozi held his breath and listened.
Hearing nothing, he pushed his shoulder up against the roof to feel for any tremble. Somewhere far above, a sound, like rolling thunder, gained momentum and then faded.
Bafozi twisted and squeezed back out of the slots. “Bring me another pick,” he said as he looked up into the glare of the cap lamps that were trained on him expectantly. “And water to drink.”
Refreshed, Bafozi handed back the battered old jam can water receptacle to Goodwill. His uncle’s eyes seemed to be pleading with him to take care as he slithered back into the narrow slot, to the welcome of a faint rumble. Bafozi knew only one thing mattered: To finish the quota as quickly as possible.