Of Ships and Men–Cameron Conaway’s Poem about the Children Who Break Ships Apart in Bangladesh
Of Ships and Men
There are ships like hotels horizontal
and there are children and children
breaking, dragging these dead vessels
through beach sand soiled with oil
through the swirling peace rainbows
of slavery, a six month deconstruction
of scrap metal and tiny little lives
scraping by one then two then twenty
broken walls of asbestos at a time
when there is no gear, no gloves
and masks only of signage bold fronted
“No Child Labour, We Take Safety First”
while Nasima, 8, of Chandan Baisha,
tries to hide just beyond the gates.
Bits of rust from the iron plates jump
into my eyes. Tomorrow? Don’t know.
We have too much work to do today.
And Sohel, 11, who came from Comilla:
My mother works at the jute mill and I
started working last year at the yards
as a cutter helper. My father never visits.
He sometimes looks for me in the streets
and tries talking to me, but I refuse.
He harmed my mother too much.
In the village, no work. Here, work.
My ambition is high. I want to become
a cutter-helper. Maybe in five years.
And Robani, 12, from Moheshkali Island
who left his village to come here after
the river took his family’s strip of land,
who watched as his father was crushed
by some falling part from the floating
dustbin, who saw his father’s shin bone
jutting white out from temple red
and who was told by the foreman
Your father was too weak for this job.
Now is your time to be the real man
of your family, a strong man that does
not break. Robani recalls not the years
when he and his father caught fish
or the time they played hours of cricket
with a bamboo bat and old compass case
but of that white and red mangle of man.
At night as he sleeps he hears orders
and he hears the hushed sound of heavy
steel ship part thump into black sand,
the sound that killed his father as if
his father had not stood between
the black steel and the blacker sand,
the weight of it all so fast that a man
can’t sound, no moan, no emotion,
bones and memories and history ground,
crumpled quietly, unlike a paper sheet
loud in crumpling and capable of reuse
or the sagor waves out beyond the black
or the thunder or of an echo which is
not even alive but an imitation, no,
his father was pestled silently unlike
the rice or flour or tea or other fined
things at the mad market. How much
to buy the silence of a man crippled?
Depends on how crippled. 10,000 taka
if one can still walk, talk, use both arms.
It’s been forty years since the first vessel.
No facts for flesh, only for things metaled:
Bangladesh is world’s largest shipbreaker.
Bangladesh is world’s first shipbreaker.
Gets 30% of steel shipbreaking.
Has thousands of jobs from shipbreaking.
But what of shipbreaking beating out
child prostitution in dangerous jobs?
Or the people, miles away from the yards,
who have for generations survived on
fish that are no longer. Their choice:
be broken by labor or by starvation.
What of how 20% of the workers
are preadolescent boys? Or the activist
who knows Chittagong needs these ships
but wants only safety and no child labor,
who says to me: You watch. When they
kill me nobody will care. One replaces
another here. The steel of these beasts
has shaped more than our men’s bodies.
Cameron Conaway is the Social Justice Editor at The Good Men Project.
He may be followed on Twitter by going here.