MY village in the grassland region of south central Zaire was a simple collection of mud huts and barefoot people. The 20th century has paid little attention to this part of central Africa. The men carry spears, and many villagers still use flint and steel to light fires. My recent job as a Peace Corps volunteer was to improve the local diet, which was woefully lacking in protein. I was a fish culture extension agent for the Zairian Department of Agriculture.
A few weeks after I arrived I got my first customer: Ilunga Mbumba. He was a thin, serious-faced village man with three young sons counting on him to keep them healthy.
``I want to raise fish,'' he told me.
``Great,'' I said. ``But first you have to dig a pond.'' I handed him a shovel. No bulldozers here. This was the third world.
There is no easy way to dig a fish pond with a shovel. You just have to do it. You have to place the tip to the ground, push the shovel in with your foot, pull up a load of dirt, and then throw the load 20 or 30 feet to the pond's edge. Then you have to do it again - tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. After you do this about 50,000 times, you have an average-size pond. Long and hard indeed is the road out of African poverty.
For me, it was painful visiting Ilunga each week. I'd come to check on the pond's progress and find him grunting and shoveling, chipping away at the 50,000-stroke total. I winced each time his bare foot drove the thin shovel blade into the ground. I groaned inwardly at the sight of his clothes, ragged, full of yawning holes that revealed a glistening, overworked body. Guilt gnawed at me. Ilunga wanted to improve his life, but the digging was too much. I was killing him with work.
One week I couldn't stand it any longer.
``Give me the shovel,'' I told Ilunga.
``Oh no, Michel,'' he said. ``This work is too much for you.''
``Give it to me,'' I insisted. ``Take a rest.''
He shrugged and handed me the shovel. I began digging. OK, I thought, tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. I did it again. It wasn't nearly as hard as I had thought. I kept going. But after about 20 minutes, it got hot. The African sky fixed me with an unblinking blue stare and the sun pelted me with rays. I paused to take off my shirt.
Ilunga, thinking I was quitting, jumped from a nearby dike and reached for the shovel.
``No, no,'' I said. ``I'm still digging. Sit down.''
He shrugged again and left to go check on his nearby cornfield.
Shirtless, alone, I continued. Tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. An hour passed. Tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up ... throw ... throw the ... darn it, throw the dirt. My arms were signaling that they didn't like tossing dirt over such a distance. But I couldn't stop. How could I ask villagers to do work I was incapable of doing myself?
I kept going. Twenty minutes passed and things got ugly. My back and shoulders joined my arms in screaming for an end to hostilities. I was no longer able to throw the dirt. Instead, I carried each load 20 feet and ignobly spooned it onto the dike. And boy, was it hot. The hottest day I could ever remember. Even occasional breezes murmuring through the surrounding savanna grass didn't help. And then I looked at my hands. Both palms were blistered.
Fifteen minutes later, my hands wouldn't grip the shovel. I fell to the ground. After just two hours of digging, I couldn't do any more. My contribution to the pond was wholly inconsequential. I collapsed on a dike next to Ilunga, who had just returned.
``I think I'll stop now,'' I managed. ``Take over if you want.''
Ilunga grabbed the shovel and began working steadily. Tip to the ground, push it in, pull it up, throw the dirt. Lying on my side, exhausted, I watched him. His determination was mystifying.
Day after day, for three months, he kept going. He worked like a bull and never complained. Not once. Not when he hit a patch of gravel-size rocks. Not when, at the pond's center, he had to throw each shovel-load twice to reach the dikes. And not when he became ill.
His hand was on fire one morning when I arrived and shook it.
``You're sick,'' I said.
``I know,'' he said and resumed digging.
``Then quit working and get some rest.''
``I can't,'' came the reply. ``I've got a pond to dig.''
A few weeks later, it was finished. Ilunga drove his shovel into the earth one last time and there it was: a 45-by-60-foot pond, gloriously finished. We filled it with water and stocked it with fish, and then I turned to Ilunga and shook his hand over and over again.
We ran around the banks hooting and hollering, laughing like children, slapping each other on the back and marveling at the pond, its surface now sparkling with a wondrous poetry of reflected light. Six months later, the first harvest would produce 97 pounds of fish, enough to feed Ilunga's family and bring in cash for clothes and supplies.
Oh, sweet joy, Ilunga had done it. He had taken my instructions and accomplished a considerable thing. And on that day when we finally stocked his pond, I knew that no man would ever command more respect from me than one who, to better feed his children, lifts and throws 50,000 shovel-loads of dirt.