Bangui, Central African Republic – As invoked by the setting sun, dozens of wooden canoes loaded with precious cargo come to moor on the banks of the Oubangi.
Young men disembark from the boats and converge in the cool shade of a mango tree, while porters begin to unload their catch. Sweet palm wine goes around as cigarette smoke wafts through the air.
Although they have spent their day on the water, these men are not looking for the river’s staple fish, the captain (Nile perch). Rather, men known locally as “sand fishermen” dive to scoop sand from the river bed for construction.
This decades-old industry supplies essential sand to builders, who mix it with cement to power Bangui’s construction industry. It is also a lifeline for hundreds of people in the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), Bangui, where poverty is rife and work is scarce.
“In one day, I can earn up to 30,000 francs ($ 50) when the prize [of sand] is very high, ”a sand fisherman named Achill told Al Jazeera, although he said his typical daily earnings were closer to 12,000 francs ($ 22).
“Porters unloading the canoe can earn up to 5,000 ($ 9), but you have to be strong to do this job,” he added.
But the livelihoods of these men are threatened by an upsurge in violence that threatens to engulf CAR again, a resource-rich but poverty-stricken country where armed groups control vast swathes of land.
On January 13, an assault on Bangui led by a new rebel coalition vying for the overthrow of re-elected President Faustin-Archange Touadera saw workers abandon the river and flee the city, leaving families with no daily income.
As a diver, Achill, 30, makes a decent living compared to the meager salary earned by most in CAR – where about 71% live below the poverty line of $ 1.90 a day – a salary that reflects the difficulties of his profession. The legacy of decades of instability means that people need to find employment whenever possible.
“Look at our capital. There are no jobs here, so you find whatever you can, ”Achill said.
With an assistant, divers are commissioned by canoe owners to dig and extract the sand.
Depending on the type of sand a customer ordered – fine grit, coarse grit, or gravel – divers have to go to varying lengths to earn their daily bread.
Gravel is the most popular and most difficult to reach material. Resting at the deepest points of the river, it trains skilled divers in perilous waters.
Equipped with nothing but a bucket, they must battle strong currents and cold to blindly dive into the murky waters and fill the only utensil.
Between dives, Joel takes a breath before coolly explaining that the river “isn’t deep at the moment – only six meters (20 feet)”.
During the rainy season, Joel says divers “can go down to 12 meters” – others claim it is 15 meters. Achill simply indicates how deep he plunges by pointing at the top of the towering mango tree.
Joel’s assistant Belphin waits patiently above on the canoe, a rope in his hands until he feels a tug before hoisting another load, his sculptural physique suddenly in motion.
Having reached its fill, the canoe slowly glides towards its owner.
Raphael owns two canoes and knows this profession well; so well, in fact, that he won the title of “delegate” of the sand fishing community of the 7th district of Bangui (district).
“If you ask for Raphael, people might not know who you are talking about, but when you ask for the ‘delegate’ they will,” he says proudly.
At 56, the father of 12 is considered old in a country where the World Bank estimates average life expectancy at 53. That, added to the four decades he spent making a living on these shores, earned him the honorary title that he is. fond of.
With the husky voice of a seasoned smoker, Raphael said that “the diver suffers a lot when he dives. The pressure exerted so deeply over and over often causes their ears to bleed and headaches.
Achill has first hand experience.
“I have to take drugs [to handle the pain] – sometimes I take paracetamol; sometimes I go to the hospital for injections, ”he says.
Yet the men who work in this profession prefer to fight and earn an honest living rather than join armed groups.
The community is part of a growing economic ecosystem in the city that has until recently offered a brighter future – the looming specter of conflict threatens this progress, however.
The last time Bangui fell into the hands of armed groups, in 2013, Raphael said sand fishermen abandoned the river.
The rebel armed groups – which control around two-thirds of the volatile country – launched an offensive a week before the presidential elections on December 27.
They tried to block Bangui and carried out several attacks on major national highways.
The Constitutional Court officially declared Touadera the winner of the polls on Monday, which were marked by a very low turnout mainly due to insecurity.
On January 13, armed groups launched two simultaneous attacks on Bangui but were repelled by MINUSCA, the United Nations peacekeeping force.
On Thursday, the government announced a 15-day state of emergency.
However, the rebels are targeting a vital supply route to the city via Cameroon which is vital for cement imports – there are no functioning cement factories in CAR.
The UN called the situation “alarming” and said 1,600 trucks are stranded in Cameroon.
If this continues, Achill and his colleagues will likely be out of work and construction in the city will come to a halt.
Reflecting on the future, Raphael – who has lived through several brutal conflicts – says a war will destroy their livelihood.
“Peace is the best thing for our work.”