Abdullah is a shopkeeper in the city of Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast. His scale of business does not threaten Walmart’s position at the pinnacle of the retail pyramid. However, when it comes to cramming as many different grocery and general household items into a square metre of shelf space as possible he makes Walmart look like bumbling amateurs.
Abdullah has known Mrs Rahman and her family for several years. Mrs Rahman comes in to get her groceries several times a week. Abdullah doesn’t see Mrs Rahman’s husband Abdul anywhere near as often. That’s because Abdul is the 2nd Engineer of a small oil tanker and he is away from home for many months at a time. Until recently whenever Mrs Rahman came into the shop she and Abdullah would spend a while chatting amiably. She would ask him about his wife who suffers from poor health, and he would ask her about her eight school-age children (four boys and four girls, from 15 years down to 7 months).
But a few months ago Mrs Rahman had to apologise to Abdullah for not having enough cash for her purchases. In fact she didn’t have any cash. Her husband’s salary, which supported their family and both sets of grandparents had stopped coming several months ago. The little savings they had were going on school fees. Now she was having to ask Abdullah for credit. Abdullah was happy to provide this while the family was struggling. But now after several months he doesn’t know whether he can afford it much longer. Not surprisingly their conversations are becoming a bit strained.
Brijesh, from Madhya Pradesh in Northern India, is the Chief Officer on the ship whose 2nd Engineer is Abdul. Arunabadhwa, Brijesh’s wife, is to all intents and purposes, a single mother because for ten months of the year Brijesh is away at sea. Their daughter Presha, who is 12 years old, is doing well at school and wants to be an engineer one day. Their son, Punir, who is 6 years old, thinks school is fun some of the time and a real nuisance the rest of the time. Brijesh hasn’t been paid for seven months. When the school fees became due for the current term Arunabadhwa had to use their savings to pay the bill. Unless Brijesh gets his salary they will not be able to pay next term’s bill and the children will not be able to go to school.
When it is working the MV ‘Fateh’, Brijesh and Abdul’s ship, plies the waters of the Gulf carrying petroleum products, usually diesel. It hasn’t worked for many months because its owner is in financial difficulties and cannot pay for its operations. He wants to sell the vessel, and if he can sell it the debts, especially the salaries of the 17 crew, can be paid.
Living conditions on board are difficult. Without fuel to run the generators there are no lights and no air conditioning so it is always very hot and very dark in the inner recesses of what is in effect a detention cell. Living supplies are irregular. The most recent delivery from the agent (a month ago) consisted, bizarrely, or some Arabic bread, some jam, and some mayonnaise! Mission to Seafarers UAE now delivers fruit, vegetables, rice and pulses every couple of weeks.
The crew do their best to keep the ship clean, but it is difficult to remain motivated as far as proper maintenance is concerned. The combination of frustration, worry and anger places them all under severe emotional and psychological pressure. Arguments over petty things punctuate the long hours of inactivity. Of them all Brijesh is the most pragmatic and realistic. He recognises that they may simply have to accept that their chances of being fully paid are almost zero, and that their only pro-active option is to sign off and try and get another job while writing off their salary and the many months on board the ‘Fateh’, putting it all down to painful experience.
The youngest member of the crew is 22 year old Mouvin. Mouvin is from Sudan and is the electrician. Until some months ago Mouvin had never been to sea. His job on board the ‘Fateh’ is his first as a seafarer. Until the end of last year Mouvin worked as an electrician at a factory, earning about $250 a month. The prospect of earning $800 a month (the stated salary) as an electrician on a ship was understandably attractive. In the eight months that Mouvin has been on board the ‘Fateh’ he has received just one salary payment – of just $270. His rudimentary seaman’s training cost several times that amount and now seems like a less than wise investment. Yet his mother, father and two brothers are looking to him as the family breadwinner. He is determined to hold out for what he is owed because to return home with nothing is for him an unthinkable option. But determination may not be enough in the face of cruel circumstances beyond his and his crewmates’ control.