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The Stowaways

by Samora Chapman / 09.10.2013

The answer to the riddle came by luck. I was walking the area near the docks one day when I came across another settlement on the railway lines. I was feeling desperate for closure on the whole whoonga saga, a hook to make some sense of the situation. So I summoned up all my courage and climbed down onto the tracks, watched by about 30 pairs of burning eyes.

A skinny guy in a Slipknot jacket came running to the entrance to confront me. “Wha d’ya want boy.” He says as the entire community freezes, waiting for my next move.

“I want to know about the paintings on the wall. And I want to take pictures. I’m looking for the person who paints the boats.”


The gatekeeper trots back to the leaders and they have an argument about my motives. They are speaking a foreign tongue and I can’t pick up any words as I await my fate in absolute fear.

The gatekeeper returns and says: “Okay you can come… but stay close by me.”

As I we walk through the camp, a couple of guys shout and grumble warnings, so I stick close to my guide with all my senses on edge; ready to fight or fly. But mostly people just carry on with their business. A couple of guys are playing one bounce soccer, others are doing washing. There are about five fires going, with makeshift tin can pots sitting on the flames – a feast is brewing.

Suddenly a mighty crack rings out behind me and I turn with eyes like saucers… someone has tossed a wooden crate off the bridge, which has smashed into splinters on the tracks – firewood.


A ripple of chuckles spreads around the camp, so I smile good-naturedly and try breathe. As we head for a tunnel, I get to know my guide.

“My name is Omar, I am from Dar Es Salam.”

“Is everybody here from Tanzania?” I ask.

“Yes. We stay together. We are all from Tanzania.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Seven years. But I come in and out on the boats. We are stowaways.”

Suddenly it all makes sense. As we enter the tunnel, I see a collage of pictures and drawings of the mystic ship.

Mystic Ship

“Where do you travel to?” I ask.

“Anywhere away from here.” He says. “Things are bad here. A lot of people are smoking whoonga, stealing, killing. So we try to ride the ships to a better place. If you get to Australia or Canada… things will be better.”

I take some photos as shafts of light collide with the darkness of the tunnels and mingle with the smoke from the cooking fires.

A heavy set guy in an huge coat joins us, so I offer him a cigarette. His name is Bomfas. Omar takes a cigarette but he wont smoke it now.

“I smoke later,” says Omar. “We are fasting. That’s why we are making big feast so we can eat well tonight.”


“Does anyone here smoke whoonga, or go to Whoonga Park?” I press.

“No. Those people have a madness. They have no hope. We don’t go near there.”

At that moment, an older guy comes and whispers to Omar, and I get the feeling I need to leave. An argument breaks out back at the camp and suddenly shit gets real… a burning fire is kicked causing flaming splinters to shower the tracks. Smoke bellows and piercing shouts fill the afternoon air. Again I find myself running, ducking low and making a beeline for the hole in the fence. As I escape I turn and glimpse a vicious brawl between two or three guys. I scramble up a muddy bank and into the light with Omar at my side.

“Don worry boy. It be okay. It not ya problem. Come back anotha time okay?”

Hope to Sea

Hope to Sea

So I leave it all behind me… with nothing to show but some evocative photographs and a sense of emptiness. Today the refugees are still perched on the tracks… smoking whoonga to numb the pain. Living in hell.

I have no resolution except to juxtapose the two forsaken communities. The one has turned to drugs for absolution. The other has an escape plan, whether it is real or imagined. The stowaways have hope and that is their redemption.

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That concludes our Durban whoonga investigation. Read the entire series from the beginning here.

*All images © Samora Chapman.

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