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Motor yacht deals with a third-world stowaway

Jan 1, 2003

As I watched the little boy being taken away to the "catch house" by Djibouti police and immigration officials wearing various mismatched and ill-fitting uniforms, the enigma of a small but poignant story was becoming clearer. A story insignificant to the social disaster in the Horn of Africa, and yet possibly a microcosm of the whole human crisis in Africa.

Ten-year-old Elo Talbey became a guest and fellow crewmember of the 133-foot motor yacht Fiffanella, although his presence aboard was not known until almost a full day after the vessel departed Djibouti.

Spirits were high among my seven-person crew as we steamed away from Djibouti into a gentle Northeast Monsoon wind, bound for Southeast Asia. We all felt good about having negotiated this fuel stop in the poorest area of the world with a minimum of bureaucratic hassles. We also felt excitement for our next port of call, Sri Lanka. I was especially relieved knowing the fuel we took on was clean; I wasn't so lucky my last time through Djibouti.

A small resource-poor nation measuring 8,958 square miles, Djibouti is located at the entrance to the Red Sea and wedged between Somalia to the south and Ethiopia to the north. The local economy depends primarily upon a fueling depot for ships transiting the Suez Canal, as well as a military base manned by 4,000 French Legionnaires (plus the prostitutes that cater to them). Djibouti has been flooded with thousands of refugees from civil wars and famine in neighboring countries. Clan rivalries and conflicts within its borders contribute to the teeming mass of displaced people. I had chosen Djibouti as a fuel stop because it is considered to be the most politically stable country in the area.

Shortly after handing the watch over to the Chief Mate Curtis Stokes and burrowing into my bunk, I heard a pounding at my door. The mate was saying, "Captain, we have a problem on the bridge," using a very controlled, but emotion-packed tone I had not heard before. The fright of the unknown had gripped me in such a way that pulling my trousers on seemed to be a task beyond my abilities, taking three times to get my foot into the correct pant leg. Standing in the bridge was a little black boy, barefoot and wearing a grimy T-shirt and shorts. A stowaway! I don't know if I was thinking it or saying it, but my thoughts were reeling. I also felt myself repressing an instinctive smile of relief: A little boy was the least threatening form of intruder I could imagine.

We were 200 miles from Djibouti and had been 20 hours underway. Who is he? Where had he been hiding? Where did he come from? Are there others? What to do? The confusing stimulus and emotion of so many questions and thoughts was an intense contrast to the sense of peace, solitude, and well-being that comes from a tranquil ocean crossing.

Although stowaways are common in this part of the world, the port complex where we had been docked seemed to be as secure as a fort. There were aggressive-looking Djibouti soldiers cradling automatic rifles everywhere in the port. Just to leave or enter via the main gate required enduring five minutes of a guard turning our official pass over and over while glaring into our scrubbed white faces -- what he was trying to detect I don't know. Before departing Djibouti the crew completed a cursory inspection of what was thought to be all the accessible spaces. I then put the thought of stowaways to rest. Ultimately, I let my guard down and was now presented with a very real problem of a kind I had never encountered in my seagoing career.

The crew washed Elo on the aft deck with a garden hose and a bar of soap, giving him clean, but oversized clothes. I brought the yacht about onto a heading of 267° true -- rhumbline for Djibouti. I then sent an immediate telex to our agent, secretly hoping he would make it all better; how, I was not sure. It was clear to me that this stowaway was going to cost us 1,500 gallons of fuel, at least two days of lost steaming time, and more exorbitant agency and port fees.

After giving the boy a thorough cleaning, the crew began a benign interrogation as he took mouthfuls of tabouli, string beans, and bread, prepared for him by our chef, Nancy Gates.

Elo claimed to be Ethiopian, having arrived by hopping a train into bordering Djibouti. His mother and father were "gone" and his siblings -- four brothers and three sisters -- were "somewhere." He learned to speak bits of English in the "catch house"t -- he place they put those who are caught trying to stow away aboard visiting ships. He showed what happens in the catch house by putting a fist up to his mouth near a gap where two teeth once were and saying "Djibouti, fighting." He had tried to stow away three times before, the last time on a German ship which had also been one day out before returning. He worked for the port police sweeping floors to earn food and clothing saying, "one month T-shirt, one month shorts." At night he was returned to the catch house. He said the police paid him to stow away. This frightened little boy was a seasoned pro!

The crew went about their duties with the cooperative and hardworking assistance of Elo: He helped clean mooring lines, tend the two fishing lines that were trolling for tuna, and scrub away the smell of body odor and urine from the inside of the tender where the boy had hidden under a canvas cover -- suffering from heat and boredom for more than 30 hours. When asked if he wanted to lay down to rest, he shook his head and pointed to the boat; we understood. As the crew worked they had to constantly remind themselves the boy was going back and not to get too close; he was one of millions of refugees from the region -- and besides, there was very little we could do for him. The boy jumped up and down along with the crew, exulting in the excitement of the catch when a large tuna took the lure, and the line went trailing out with a great rattle. Unfortunately, word did not get back to the bridge fast enough to slow the yacht down, and we lost the fish. Deckhand Jennifer Harrell taught him to use the hand held VHF radio and say "Jennifer, fish" therefore enabling her to continue projects away from the fishing lines. It was a bittersweet moment for the crew, one they had been guarding themselves against, when a soft voice came over the radio 10 minutes after he was on the job, "Jennifer, no fish. No fish." Later that afternoon he looked up to me and said, "Captain, Djibouti?" I said, "Yes, Djibouti," and he hung his little head.

As the boy's third nightfall aboard Fiffanella came, we set him up in a lounge to watch a National Geographic documentary about sharks and later the Walt Disney movie The Jungle Book. I would not have been surprised if these were the first movies he had ever seen. Earlier in the day he had expressed great interest in sharks while thumbing through a scuba-diving magazine. An agent later told me stowaways often risked their lives by swimming through shark-infested anchorages in hopes of boarding a vessel by crawling up the anchor chain and through the hawsepipe. Maybe the dramatic footage of sharks will encourage him to stay out of the water in the future.

The crew and I discussed at great length what the effect our benevolent treatment would have on the boy. Was the kindness we were showing him subconsciously designed to make ourselves feel better? In sharing some of the delights of the western world were we encouraging him to continue risking his own life by trying to stow away? Once he was returned to the catch house, would this brief brush with the modern world sharpen the pain of the poverty surrounding him or simply provide exciting stories to tell his friends, memories to ponder, and dreams for the future?

The agent's response to my telex was not only surprising but also very worrying: "Will do the necessary with Immigration Dept. without guarantee of disembarking." A follow-up satellite telephone conversation led me to conclude that I would have to prove the boy's voyage originated in Djibouti, and that he was a Djibouti national (I believed him to be from Ethiopia); otherwise they didn't want him. I asked what I could do with him and was told, "Keep him, leave him in Sri Lanka, put his head underwaterI don't care." The agent suggested I return to Djibouti where he would do the best he could to disembark the stowaway, but the possibility remained that I would not be allowed to leave the child in Djibouti.

I knew Sri Lanka, Thailand, or any of the other countries that were scheduled ports of call would not grant me clearance with an Ethiopian child aboard lacking any kind of identification papers. If I kept him hidden, I ran the risk of being jailed for smuggling aliens. The agent's reply sounded suspiciously like a bluff before the bribe, a strategy practiced in many third world countries. If it wasn't, I could be stuck with an Ethiopian refugee no country would accept.

I reduced speed to accommodate a morning arrival in Djibouti, contemplating the chances of seeing a fisherman along the way whom could be paid to take the boy ashore. I tried to visualize all the possible scenarios and twists of events that could take place. If caught by authorities taking or sending the boy ashore, I could be jailed in Djibouti. My thoughts soared to the consequences of being stopped by a local naval vessel after sending the boy off in a fishing boat and having to prove I didn't "put his head underwater." This all became an exercise of the imagination as we did not see one fishing boat on our way back to port.

Slap! The immigration official was glaring at the little boy and yelling harshly. The child bravely stood his ground, looking solemnly up to his attacker and trying to hold back the tears as his lower lip quivered. As the official was winding up for another blow, I quickly moved between him and the boy, raising my own fist to the man's face and saying with a clear and uncompromising voice, "You will not hit the boy on my bridge." My action was in keeping with the absurdity of the event. The official growled, "If you want him, you can keep him!" The agent moved in and expressed his great sorrow for the trouble the boy had caused me. "Why should you be sorry?" I said. "The boy makes you, the police, and immigration rich." He responded with a knowing smile. I felt I was becoming a character in a preposterous drama being staged for my benefit. The official was striking the boy who was both his victim and accomplice, as the agent was making a feeble attempt to comfort me while concurrently extorting the yacht's money. The person bearing the greatest burden but receiving the least compensation was the little stowaway.

Upon departing Djibouti for a second time, the pilot candidly shared his thoughts with us, confirming our suspicions. "The agents, police, and immigration officials put the boys on the ships, then make money on their return." He went on to say, "They tell the boys to say they are from Ethiopia, that way Djibouti is not required to take them back." Pointing to a merchant ship anchored off our port bow he said, "They put three stowaways on that ship, then charged three thousand dollars to take them off." I suspect the pilot's openness was because he didn't get a share of the bounty; but maybe, just maybe, he thought it was wrong.

It was difficult to differentiate the truth from the lies. All I know for sure is that Elo Talbey (if that was even his name) was resolute in his desire to not return to Djibouti. I had to admire this little boy's courage and thirst for a new life; maybe the danger he faced by stowing away was no worse than the danger of surviving in Djibouti.

We continue in our struggle to understand the many questions and realities of our encounter, having experienced firsthand that many of Africa's problems are not due to the mass of drifting refugees as the immigration official claimed -- while boxing the boy about the ears -- but, rather, to the corrupt and immoral authority figures who exploit and repress the defenseless. How can a boy be expected to help his impoverished nation or even help himself when his only role models are the men who beat and manipulate him?

John A. Terrill is the master of the yacht Fiffanella, which has steamed to SE Asia, Australia, Japan, and, most recently, to Juneau, Alaska.