School by the sea extended to the starfish gardens between the shore and the reef, courtesy of Saidi and his dugout. Saidi has been fishing this stretch of coast since he was a boy, his entrepreneurial spirit has grown over the years to include the short tour such as the one Hat and I went on.
Saidi punted us out to the starfish where we piled out into the shallow water. Starfish of myriad colours abounded: lime green with yellow spots, midnight blue with orange, almost black and red. The starfish feast on the spiny black sole-of-foot puncturing sea urchins. They feast well here and lie fatly upon the sand.
Suddenly our sea life reverie is disturbed with a squeal from Saidi; we turn to find him wrestling an octopus clinging stickily with its Velcro-strip tentacles to his arms. Hat, intrigued, moves to touch its super-glue suckers and have Saidi point out its eyes and mouth and ink sack.
Why didn’t it release its ink, I want to know.
Because I am too quick, said Saidi, who had unearthed the octopus from under the coral it was trying to wriggle beneath.
Hat and I returned to our starfish; it’d be impossible to reproduce their colours faithfully on canvas: Mother Earth has patented her work skillfully; so many of the hues found in nature cannot be copied truthfully.
As we clamber aboard the dugout ready to return I enquire as to the fate of the octopus.
‘He is here’, says Saidi, proudly pointing to the creature, lying almost inert now in the bottom of the dugout. ‘He is for soup; he will make very good soup’.
How do you make octopus soup I want to know (for what else is there to say when your marine biology lesson has morphed into one on cuisine?)
‘First’, says Saidi delighted that I should ask, ‘you hit the octopus very hard ten times on the beach (and he demonstrates: as if slapping a wet towel several times against the sand). If you do not hit the octopus’, he explains, ‘his flesh will be very tough. Then I will clean out the ink sack and take him home and chop him up. I will put him in a pan and boil him, with no water’. The octopus, he elaborates, contains enough water of its own. No salt either, he warns, enough of that too. Courtesy of its saline habitat no doubt. When the octopus has emitted its liquid, the flesh must be drawn out, and fried with onion, tomato and pepper and then the stock can be returned to the pan and your soup is ready.
‘It is delicious’, announces Saidi, ‘you can eat it with ugali’.
With thoughts of my own imminent lunch (distinctly less adventurous fish and chips) we set sail for home, Hat takes the tiller.
And I watch the octopus dying at my feet.
A math lesson is disrupted by a ruckus emanating from the beach.
Voices and cries and shouting.
Recent history in mind I fear a tribal clash taking shape at my feet.
It’s nothing so sinister.
Shoals of sardine have swum close to shore and excited fishermen are noisily organising themselves into teams to net them.
As the tide ebbs so does the hullabaloo. Hat and I go down to the sand to inspect the catch. We are not alone; the fishermen’s families have joined them and women and children are merrily dividing the spoils and cleaning the fish at the water’s edge.
Later, at sundown, I walk on the beach. It is quiet now but for the distant crash of surf and the rasping whisper of palms. All that remains of the morning’s activity lies in the sand which has been churned by the tread of dozens of pairs of scampering feet, and which is sifted with the silver of scales.