Between a Rock and a Hard Place


The monotonous sound when a hundred hammers hit the rocks are echoing back from Ngwenya mountain.

It’s a few minutes past ten in the morning. Joseph Sohna (15) wants to earn as much as he can before he has to rush off to school in less than an hour. His hand, white with powdery dust, picks a new piece of rock, and starts whacking it with his hammer.

─It hurts right here, Joseph says and points at the wrist of his right hand. The hand that lifts the hammer, every other second. If he works hard he might get a thousand kwatcha ($3) a day for his time and effort.

─I get up at five and make gravel until it’s time to go to school, Joseph tells us. The money goes straight to his mother who is in charge at home when the rest of the family are up here working. We are just a few kilometers out of Lilongwe town, Malawi. Ten bumpy minutes of dirt-road leads up to the foot of Ngwenya mountain. The sound of metal against rock is everywhere to be heard. The workers on the mountain have formed small teams who cooperate. Some of them are breaking big rocks from the sides of the mountain, others are carrying the bigger rocks to the people with the sledge hammers, and finally fist-sized rocks end up next to Joseph. He breaks them into smaller and smaller pieces. Around him are mounds of various sizes of gravel, neatly piled. It is fascinating to see how the hammer always hits the rock, and never the hand that’s holding it.

Joseph has his entire family up here, except his mother. His father is one of the stone-breakers in the mountain, his eldest sister is giving Joseph a hand, and the youngest is roaming the piles of broken rock looking for ways to pass time.

The young man drops his hammer for a second and stretches his back before he picks up the next rock. After another second of hesitation he puts it down again.

─I want to be a journalist one day. I want to do like you guys, travel the world and tell people what I have seen and heard. The people who have gathered around us listening in on the interview are clapping their hands and laughing. Joseph a journalist – fat chance!

They are right of course. The chances of Joseph ever leaving the gravel heap are slim. But let’s for the sake of argument say that he did manage. Let’s say he became a reporter one day. Imagine the insight and compassion of the stories written by the hands of a former gravel maker.

29 Responses to “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”

  1. Reblogged this on swaico and commented:
    everywhere in Africa things such things happen…its time for Africa stop child labour

  2. Remarkable story.
    It should not be a given that this boy will never realize his dream. There has to be some hope for him, or others like him to some day be able to dream a dream and have it happen.

  3. victoriaaphotography Says:

    One would like to think that sometime in the future, all children in the world could have a genuine hope for a good job, but I don’t think it will be in my lifetime.

    Great photos.

  4. I really loved reading this post. It is not so long ago that I was 15, and I also want to become a writer, and maybe even a reporter! How amazing would it be, to meet Joseph while he’s travelling the world and telling the things he has seen and heard?! Thank you for sharing!

  5. i looked in his eyes in your picture of him. They are clear eyes, realistic. He has hopes, a work ethic. He is living his life. He is a brave one…you can tell.

  6. He’s going to school; it seems that this may make his chance of leaving the gravel making less than slim. That he has the dream to do this may well make it happen.

    • P.S. Why don’t you have Twitter as a way to share? I would love to post this on my twitter site, and if I find a way to copy the link, I will post it there. Making more people aware of these stories may make Joseph’s dream become a reality.

  7. Great post and photos. I want Joseph to succeed, and hope that there is at least a chance. I have to hope. He has to hope.

  8. Reblogged this on Lush Productions and commented:
    What a story, bitter sweet, it really breaks my heart that people have to live like that. This earth is vast this land belongs to none of us, why do people have to live like this … ? I guess I’ll forever be amazed at the ways people are “forced” to live.

  9. sonali Says:

    Thank you for sharing the real story. How many people are deprived of achieving thier dreams, due to the background they have. Its really a pity some times, because the talent ultimately never comes up & reach the world.

  10. Everyone has said it all….I feel sad but also encouraged that he has a dream, a goal ambition. In our so called developed society it has always annoyed me that young folk who seem to have everything are so ready to complain that they have nothing to do….yet do nothing to help themselves (the Bank of Mum and Dad will come to their rescue). I wish him luck.

  11. Stranger things have happened. I’m rooting for Joseph, the journalist. Beautiful story – thanks for bringing it to us!

  12. Thank you for the wonderful story of a young man willing to work such an awful job, in order to give 100% of it to his family. I truly hope that his dreams come true.

  13. A nice reminder of how spoiled rotten many of us are. Rooting for Joseph!

  14. artblablablablog Says:

    anything is possible, a simple twist of fate is all it will take…

  15. Dear Universe: Please help us find solutions to help others rise above tragic living situations. Thank you.

  16. A great post opens up our eyes to the hardships in the rest of the world, thanks for sharing

  17. So glad Joseph has a dream to help the days of drudgery pass. And who knows, he may just attain it….

  18. I like this story, thanks for sharing it. It would be a great subject for a bigger photo essay on Joseph, say over the course a year or perhaps an e-book on that same essay, not real expensive, but perhaps half going to a fund for the children of his village for education . . chances may be slim but sometimes desire is all it takes, and a chance. just an idea.

  19. Joseph has a work ethic and big dreams and I so hope they combine to take him to where he wants to go.

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