When Jaali turned ten years old, his birthday gift was a shovel.
It was much taller than him, with a rusted blade and a brown handle. After his father handed it to him, Jaali couldn’t even hold it straight, so the blade sunk to the ground. His father smiled and said, “You don’t have to worry about school anymore, my son.”
Jaali perked up. “Really?”
His father shook his head. “No more. There is money to be made.”
“Okay!” Excitement beamed from Jaali’s little gap-toothed smile.
The next morning, he and his father trekked to the river under the blistering hot Kenyan sun. After an hour of walking, the duo reached a site filled with sweaty men and kids near his age shovelling mountains of sand into shabby trucks. Jaali stuck close to his father as he led him to their sand pile, avoiding deep rainwater-filled pits that could swallow a person whole.
His father demonstrated how to shovel the sand onto the truck, but Jaali couldn’t do it. Even the smallest amount of sand on his shovel’s blade caused the boy to lose grip on the wooden handle. He struggled for hours and hours until the leader called everyone for payment. Jaali’s father made it first in line, eyes wider than the sun when the schillings fell into his calloused hands. He shoved the bills deep into his jean pocket.
But before they could leave, Jaali noticed the other boys pointing and sneering at him, making Jaali’s cheeks burn and his lips quiver. Suddenly, he felt his father’s firm hands grip his shoulders. “Forget about them,” he reassured his son, wiping a tear from Jaali’s eyes. “Do you know what your name means?”
Jaali shook his head.
“It means powerful. You’ll be a powerful boy if you keep trying, okay?”
And Jaali did become powerful.
He became used to how the coarse sand dried the skin on his arms, his legs, his face. At thirteen, Jaali could lift the shovel as easily as a stick and tossed heaps of sand without so much as sweat on his brow. After a long day’s work, Jaali’s toned arms were cut and bled a little, but they’d heal and leave scars he’d trace with his fingers.
On his fourteenth birthday, Jaali visited a nearby town with friends from the mine and noticed some kids playing at the beach. They giggled as they made sand angels and built sandcastles. Jaali could tell they had never worked a day in their lives. The kids played with sand like it was a toy. Like there was no money to be made.