The Life Righting Collective runs courses to encourage self-exploration through life writing, raises funds for course fees and brings people together to share their stories and grow community.

Book review: Poacher

Vonni Romano

Poacher by Kimon de Greef and Shuhood Abader, published September 2018 by Kwela Books

The book opens with the immediacy of a dramatic thriller. Shuhood is at the helm of a boat with a huge haul of abalone (locally known as perlemoen) on board as they race ashore from a sanctuary within the military base at Langebaan. It is November 2006, his fourth year of poaching, when things begin to go horribly wrong. This is the first of many occasions that will require steel nerves of the reader; for what lies ahead includes chases on road and sea, gunshot, flashing lights, clashes with police, shark attacks, almost fatal dives, near drownings and, finally, deaths at sea – mostly due to inexperience and inferior equipment.

Shuhood Abader’s manuscript about his life as a perlemoen poacher had been dormant for nearly a decade. Abader met freelance journalist Kimon de Greef and a fruitful reciprocal collaboration ensued. Shuhood sought help with the ending after its initial rejection by the publisher, on the basis that he had shown no remorse. Kimon could help.

Kimon de Greef is a freelance journalist from Cape Town who has become an authority on local abalone poaching. He contributes to local media, especially through GroundUp, and has a growing readership at the New York Times, National Geographic and The Guardian, with a particular focus on illicit trades.

Poacher is de Greef’s first book and he provides an exposé of the effect the trade has on the poachers themselves. It includes Shuhood Abader’s first-person account of his 15 years as an abalone poacher, drawing us right into the murky vortex – and holds us there.

De Greef had found the story he needed to complement his abalone poaching research. He succeeded in evoking empathy with the protagonist by revealing the many facets of Shuhood’s character including compassion, humanity, gentleness and rapport with nature. As a professed nature lover, he abhors the practices of the wanton killing of life or keeping animals in captivity. Glimpses into his humble rented flat show him living his religion and sharing a Ramadan feast picnic-style on the floor with his young wife and their four children.

As a twice-married man with seven children to support, Shuhood is deeply committed to his family and Islam and is always in search of a better way - trying to escape “the bind that had come to define his life”. We follow the personal arc of his inner world from his unwitting introduction to abalone poaching via an Afrikaner who conned him into thinking that the shells, not the flesh, were of value! Naiveté gives way to an automaton mechanically shucking abalone: “gouge, lever and twist”, with him still thinking that it was “hard work and not causing anybody harm”.

 The reader can only marvel at Shuhood’s kamikaze-type courage and willingness  to take inconceivable risks, knowing that he could very well be killed in the process. Never one to resist a challenge or be outdone by his peers, he enjoyed the adrenaline rush sparked by the novelty and daring involved during the fifteen years of poaching that he describes as “a chapter of my life as a man who chose abalone poaching to provide for my family.” The proceeds are an estimated four million rand - of which nothing remains.

Under the apartheid regime, Shuhood’s family was uprooted from Simon's Town and dumped in Ocean View, a dog-eat-dog township with no street lighting, law enforcement or public telephone. Deprived of their historically legitimate right to harvest from the sea, they shared the same fate as thousands of other displaced families compelled to redesign their existence around lucrative poaching activities.

Interestingly, the illegal stripping of marine resources actually started with whites before coloured and black communities got involved. For several years their initial target had been crayfish until international syndicates pushed the price of abalone up to well beyond the reach of local consumers. The lure of big money then became the impetus for poachers to switch from kreef to abalone.

Shuhood’s tight-knit middle-class Muslim family then moved to Grassy Park, where he grew up among under-privileged kids, where “I always had to prove myself”. Only by adopting the tough persona of a fighter was he able to steer clear of drugs and gangs. This reputation would also stand him in good stead among fellow prisoners who generally tended to leave him alone.

According to a recent report from Traffic, over 50 000 tonnes of abalone has been exported to Hong Kong, amounting to an astounding 130 million abalone. But Poacher is not simply a book about a vicious black market.  It also charts a compelling portrait of Shuhood and the forces at work that prevail at grass-roots level for him and its huge fraternity of poachers. With hindsight he sees the stark reality of the racket, saying, “it makes you think – who benefited? Probably the middlemen and the Chinese”.

Gradually we witness Shuhood’s road to recognition and acceptance: “I saw the abundance; it struck me I was here to participate in its destruction”. On his last dive from a boat in St James, he says that the rocks were “almost raped to oblivion ...  and that he was part of it in every way”. He admits to “a certain sadness that it’s come to an end... and that anxiety now – how am I going to fill the gap?” With a prison record, only menial work is available and he’s currently training a few horses “to get by”.

In the Epilogue Shuhood states, “I made the choices and today I live with the consequences. This is who I am and this is what I do”. He also says, “I would like to make the pilgrimage to Mecca to atone for my sins against mankind and nature”. On a personal level he wishes that he could afford to remove his family “from the social ills that surround the coloured communities. As a family we sometimes fantasise about our dream farm.”

Poacher demonstrates that, apart from the racial and financial inequality that prevails in South Africa, there are many organisations which, instead of stopping poaching, are riddled with corruption. These include the police, fisheries department and national parks service. In our befuddled legal system, convictions are rare. The ultimate irony of auctioning off confiscated abalone to the poaching syndicates speaks volumes about a state that appears to have little interest in putting a stop to poaching.

Sadly our indigenous perlemoen, relished since the days of the Khoi San, has been illegal to harvest for some years now. Reading Poacher evokes my own feelings of disenfranchisement that make the recall of a unique taste misty - a faint buttery quality mingled with a hint of white mussel, foraged along die plaat past Grotto beach in Hermanus. Gone are the days when we could freely enjoy the perlemoen who have fallen prey to what de Greef terms “a smuggling epidemic of snail feet, for displays of social rank”.

Poacher is a brave book with courageous writing from two intrepid writers; an investigative journalist and a convicted poacher who enter into a very unusual and risky collaboration that could so easily have backfired. Instead, it turns out to be a resoundingly successful one, neatly dovetailing their diverse reciprocal needs. As co-authors, they have to negotiate challenges and boundaries to reach fair and honest compromises between journalistic duty and the need to protect Shuhood’s anonymity. Its excellent writing walks that tightrope magnificently.

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