What happens when you’re buried alive

(In February of 2016 three office workers were trapped underground after a subsidence at the Lily Mine in Mpumalanga. Rescue operations continued for a week, and had to stop when another collapse happened.)

Imagine you go to work each day in a small office. Maybe you like your job, maybe it bores you, maybe it’s just a job and you don’t give it much thought at all. Maybe you’d been unemployed for a while and you’re grateful for the work and you want to make a success of it because you have kids to support and it’s not a lot of money but look around you – you’re one of the lucky ones.

Imagine one day you’re at work as usual but instead of seeing out your shift and going home, something unexpected happens. There’s a lurching and a grinding and a strange sound neither high nor low, or maybe both at the same time, that seems to come from the earth itself. You probably don’t know this while it’s happening, you work it out later, but what happens is the ground literally opens up beneath you, a hell-mouth opens and you and your two colleagues and your tiny office inside a storage container turn on your side and you start to fall. How can you fall? You were on the ground. Just seconds ago there was continent there, there was planet, you had a job, you were a breadwinner, but now there’s nothing and you’re falling and earth and rock and pieces of Africa are falling after you.

Do you wake in the dark? Do you open your eyes and see nothing and blink hard and open them again and still there’s nothing and are you suddenly afraid you’re blind? Do you think, “Am I dead?” Does the ungodly thought occur that maybe you’ve been asleep, that all your life and the sunshine and the love and all those memories of the air were just a dream, but now you’ve woken and this is what life really is? How do you make sense of this? One moment ago you were safe in the sunlight or centimetres from it and now you’re in darkness underneath the world.

Perhaps the walls have collapsed and you’re pinned, or perhaps the entire office is preserved as it was, a doll’s house buried in a back yard. Maybe your colleagues are close friends and they are precisely the people you’d choose as your only contact with humanity, pressed against each other in your own shit and piss in this heat under this weight, breathing each other’s oxygen. Or maybe these are the people who sniffed and burped and clicked their pens across from you all day, who ate your crisps and pretended they hadn’t, and they’re the last people on earth or underneath it with whom you’d choose to die.

What happens next depends on your temperament. Maybe you scream and sob. Maybe you go mad. Or maybe that is one of your colleagues, and you are the one to take his wrist and soothe him and tell him the only thing that you know for sure, which is that they’ll be coming to find you.

Maybe you remember Los 33, the Chilean miners who came up after two months underground, or the Russian submariners in the Kursk who didn’t. You know the three of you won’t last two months, but maybe your situation is different. For all you know part of the hillside fell on you and it’ll take half an hour for five guys with shovels to dig you out. You aren’t beyond the reach of hands. They will come for you soon.

And then days go by, a week, ten days. You’re there while people eat and wake and make new friends and break up, you’re there while politicians pose and strut and make speeches about other matters. You’re there while students burn things and sports teams win or lose and people hate each other on cellphones. While people live their lives, either wasteful or well, you are there.

Maybe after the first days pass something crumbles inside you and you dream you are a baby again, in your mother’s arms. Maybe you cry for your father to come, to please just come and pick you up and tell you that you’re safe. Maybe your heart breaks at what you’ve done to him by being here: you’ve left him on the surface with empty hands, scratching at stone. You’ve made him feel he’s failed you. You want to tell him, Don’t cry, daddy, please don’t cry, it’s not your fault.

Every day this week and last week I’ve thought about Pretty Mabuza, Solomon Nyarenda and Yvonne Mnisi, buried in rock. I’ve asked myself whether I’m strong enough to die that way. I’ve thought about Pretty Mabuza, Solomon Nyarenda and Yvonne Mnisi, who once were babies, beloved of their parents, who loved the light like I do, waiting in the dark for someone to fetch them.

Times, 17 February 2016