They are so young, so daring and so fast. You have to give them money to see their risky act. Meet the street divers at Lilongwe Bridge on Kamuzu Procession Road, a quartet that risks it all.
They are not professional divers. They are just street boys who make venturous jumps into Lilongwe River when it swells to the brim.
Asani, 17, Binwell, 16, Roberts, 15, and Mazoni, 15, are typical children always in search of a slight opportunity to survive the streets.
This rainy season has provided them with one though erratic. It is the opportunity to make money by jumping and swimming in the fast running waters that abnormally fill Lilongwe River when it rains heavily.
They perch on the bridge guard rails like birds, luring passers-by to part away with some money if they want to see their presumptuously daring jump into the river.
But some doubting Thomases ignore or downplay their touting.
“I have the money. But I cannot give you,” says one man to the boys. “The way the waters are flowing, your chances of survival are very slim. I don’t want to be the messenger of your death.”
This was on a cloudy morning of Saturday March 11. Lilongwe River, not for the first time this year, had once again broken its banks. The heavy and pattering rains from the evening of Friday March 10 to the early hours of Saturday had left the river extremely full.
Its waters were flowing with fury. They swept away anything standing in its way including makeshift wooden bridges downstream.
The gushing waters echoed with a sound of danger and plunder. But it hardly perturbed the four boys who were so determined to make the best out of this anger from nature.
“If you have K500, bring it and you will see for yourself,” says Asani to another man whose face looks fully draped with curiosity.
The man, Edward Kwapata from Likuni, fishes out two K1,000 notes and gives the boys. Immediately, they take off their T-shirts and remain with shorts. Two of the boys keep the money by folding the notes into their mouths. They do not trust anyone around them.
They jump into the waters amid cheers of spectators. They disappear for a few seconds. The weight of their bodies sinks them a little. Then they float, popping their heads out.
Their bodies seem lighter than air when they flip their limbs and swim like that aquatic reptile, the turtle. All you see are floating heads moving together with the currents until they get out of the waters some 40 metres away.
They boys are barely literate. None of them has gone beyond Standard Four in primary education. But their practical application of some principles in the physics of diving, though ignorantly, is astonishing and admirable.
They say they do not dive into the waters with their hands and head first. That would make their bodies streamlined and go deep into the running waters, a risky adventure that would make it difficult to swim back to the surface or worse still fall on the bottom rocks.
For them, it is safe to jump in a straight or layout position with the legs first.
“This helps because the water underneath push us back to the surface, then we float and swim comfortably,” says Roberts. Well, who needs a torturous lesson in physics on Archimedes’ principle of buoyancy?
The boys say they swim for money.
On a good day, they retreat to their sleeping place at Lilongwe Bus Depot K2,500 richer each. The money is often spent on food and watching video shows in some centres around town, according to Mazoni.
Sometimes they swim for fun.
Says Mazoni: “We swim as far as the other bridge along the Kamuzu Central Hospital Road, floating with empty jerry cans or plastic bottles.”
Every act has its own associated risks. For these boys, the risks are hardly within the waters. They are outside of it.
Firstly, they say, it is the police that often chase and threaten to lock them up because of this display.
Secondly, it is the bullying from older street boys who demand a share from the little money they have made on a particular day.
“There are two boys who grab money and food from us. The other one is called Chimzy and the other is Austin,” one of the boys says.
Lastly is that they have trust issues among themselves. For instance, it takes some time for them to decide who should keep the money among themselves before going into the waters.
On a bad day, one of them may decide to disappear with the money and squander it all alone. They argue, they fight, they reconcile and life moves on to another day.
The police say they chase away the children because they bring disorder at the bridge.
“This is a public place and their activities inconvenience movement of people and cars since many people gather to see what these boys are doing,” says Lilongwe Police Spokesperson Kingsley Dandaula.
He adds that this practice could be charged under idle and disorderly or conduct likely to cause breach of peace, which are contrary to sections 180 and 181 of the Penal Code respectively.
He blames people who encourage the boys to jump into the river by giving them money because it amounts to irresponsibility and negligence.
“They endanger the lives of the boys because the area has huge rocks at the bottom,” he says.
Dandaula further adds that thieves take advantage of the situation to steal from people at the place.
Stories abound of connivance between the boys and some men who lurk in the shadows of people gathering at the bridge for the display.
These are said to be men with magical fingers that disappear into pockets and bags of unsuspecting spectators, lifting out valuable items like money and cellphones in a flash!
The boys deny any association with this grouping.
“We do our thing, they do theirs,” says Asani.
The boys say they cannot do otherwise to raise money. They will always attempt one or two displays when it rains heavily, even in the shadows of police.
None of them has been caught so far. It seems the speed of their limbs in the waters is equally translated on land.