Chukwuma ate sand for the umpteenth time. His eyes hurt. He can barely see.
Dear Lord! What have I gotten myself into?
The sandstorm bites harder, feeding him gratuitous servings of fine particles. As his mouth filled up, his mind emptied – delirious from the howl of the wind and the sting of desert grains. Even the ragged grey muffler given to him by their Tuareg guide could not stop the dust from finding a route to his parched lips, silencing any shred of defiance he still had. The petroleum jelly he was forced to rub in his nostrils at the start of the trek was useless against such arid opposition. His nose was cracked and bleeding- his eyes sore and heart weary.
Chukwuma could barely walk. He could barely stand. He could barely see. When one trudges through the raging simoom of the Sahara Desert on a dark moon-less night, visibility is a premium. One has to rely on other senses for orientation as the eyes are usually engaged in a battle of their own with the elements. Chukwuma rubbed his eyes frantically with his left hand while gripping firmly to the hem of another man’s shirt with his right. The loose cotton shirt he clung to was worn by a lean figure in front of him who led the way aimlessly, in Chukwuma’s view. Behind him was a Malian boy from Gao who also clung for dear life to him. Chuks felt the traction on his shoulders as he tried to move forward, making his every step heavier and sinking him deeper into the sand.
Nobody wants to be lost in the Sahara. Nobody wants to die here. So far from home.
They walked in single file, their backs hunched and their necks retracted like buzzards in a vain attempt to shield themselves from the storm. They found little solace in this posture and the wind laughed at their antics, lashing their humps severely for the cheek! But they trudged on- nothing else to do even though the strain was too much. A cry escaped someone’s lips every now and then but was muffled to a whisper by the raging wind.
Is there no place to take shelter? Is there no reprieve from all this? I don tire ooo! Make person die abeg!
Chukwuma is a Nigerian- the first of nine children. Six from his mother and three from the other woman. His father, a school teacher in a community secondary school, had died three years ago of kidney disease. For almost a year before he died, they had been treating him of malaria- moving him from one hospital to the other- one church to the other. But when they finally identified his ailment- he only had a few weeks to live. The poor man died in his sleep. He deserved no less for all his sufferings- in sickness and work. Upon his demise, Chukwuma had to drop out of school and find a job since Mother was a petty trader. He found it hard to get work as he had no qualifications, no capital, no skills, and no supportive relations. What’s more, he was too proud to beg and too honest to steal.
“We stop here! We stop here! Sandstorm too much! We lie down!”
Ah! The sweet voice of sanity in the form of a Tuareg.
The Tuareg’s silhouette in front of him sank to the sand. The rest of the group followed suit. Chukwuma lay on his back feebly, pulled his shirt over his face and shut his eyes tight to sleep. The flying sand still tore at his eyelids causing him to wince. This was going to be a long, painful night.
Damn you, Ehis! Damn you for your advice! Damn you! I would never have embarked on this journey!
Chukwuma had met Ehis the year before while working at Apapa Wharf in Lagos as a labourer carrying cargo. The young man had told him of brighter prospects in Europe, of his peers who were building mansions in their villages and buying pricey cars for their parents upon their return from overseas. He had learnt of how they eventually got green cards and became citizens, of how they could now breeze in and out of the country without issues. Chukwuma was left in awe. And all that was required was to hustle for yonder abi? No shaking. I am game. How do we get there?
“Through Niger Republic,” had been Ehis’s stoic answer. “There’s a woman here who organizes such things. They call her Mama C. All we have to do is board a bus from here to the Niger border. She has a friend in Customs over there who will stamp our passports so we can cross over to Niamey. From Niamey, we will take a bus ride to Agadez- a large town in central Niger- then connect a train to Libya. When we get to Tripoli, we will then board a ship to Europe and that’s it! Shikena!”
That wasn’t even the half of it. Ehis had gone a couple of weeks’ ahead of Chukwuma because Chuks had not been able to raise his own two hundred and fifty thousand naira in time. His family had contributed all they had to his appeal fund as he was their last hope but even then it was not enough, he had had to double as a night-watch at a Chinese company in Okota and still borrow some money from his pastor to join the next batch of emigrants.
So Chukwuma ended up travelling to the border in a bus with thirty strangers. Sixteen of them were Edo girls. He made friends with one of the pretty ones. Her name was Osas. Coincidentally, she was from Ehis’s village and like his friend, they were all looking forward to a bright future for themselves and their families. There was no future in this bleak nation where the old refused to give way to the young and the young wandered aimlessly round the country staring up at a glass ceiling that shielded them from the sky. The sky was certainly not their limit- it was their myth- their unattainable seduction. Like the femme fatale that sat there beside him, one could not make any progress without money.
Pretty Osas was a polytechnic graduate with prospects. But after banging on the glass ceiling for two years, she too fell for the lure of ‘overseas’. She was going to Italy to make it. Make it at what, Chuks had asked. She was visibly irritated at the question but answered that she did not know yet. What she knew was that her friend, Adesuwa, sent plenty euros home to her siblings and they now lived ostentatiously in Benin City. She would do whatever it takes- and perhaps more- to make it. It would only be for a while. Hustle now, enjoy later. It made perfect sense- and Adesuwa had told her she would be at home in Rome because they were so many of them there.
So from Sokoto they had crossed to Niamey, the capital of Niger Republic. Not without each parting with twenty thousand naira to Customs officials. So much for Mama C’s contact. Chukwuma should have sensed something was wrong from then on but he didn’t. The thought of a bright future had dulled his senses. Even when they were joined by Ghanaians, Sierra Leonians and other migrants from Nigeria on their way to Agadez, he still felt nothing out of the ordinary. The bus had only grown tighter and slower. It took them two days to get to Agadez as a result.
There was a stark difference between Niamey and Agadez. One was a modern, cosmopolitan city along the banks of the River Niger while the other was a dusty brown town in the middle of the Sahara with traditional mud houses and camels everywhere. It took a while for Chukwuma to recover from the shock. It was totally different! He looked around in bewilderment for a long while trying to understand where he was. His eyes roamed over the city nervously for a while pausing at the Grand Mosque with its tapered earthen minaret and many stick-like projections. Was this still Earth or another planet? Osas clung to him nervously as they disembarked from the bus. He would have relished the contact if not for the glares he got from passers-by as they squeezed through the crowd in the motor park searching for food and water. There were hisses and swears everywhere as they rushed by. Thankfully, the group didn’t stay long under the scorching sun and scornful eyes of Agadez. Before sunset, they were all ushered into a big truck and driven northwards to the Algerian border.
It was a gruelling journey as they were all crammed in the truck like sardines. Inside the truck was stifling hot so Chukwuma took his shirt off in protest. He was only wearing a singlet now. Around him, people fought to get close to the tail-end of the truck for some fresh air but were forced back inside almost immediately by the desert sun. There were people of all ages and works of life in the truck. Teenagers, middle-aged men, artisans, pregnant women- people you would never have imagined would be there. All with their own story. All with their own dream.
This was when Chukwuma met the Malian boy from Gao. His name was Abdoulaye. Chukwuma had gotten that much from the passport around his neck- a mandatory tag for these trips. Their own truck driver had abandoned them in the desert after taking their money. Seventeen of them had been left to roam the desert for days without meeting a soul. They had followed the sun by day and stars by night but this had been of little help. So, following a heated argument, they had broken up into smaller groups and gone their separate ways. By the time the truck came across Abdoulaye by the roadside, he was almost dead. The rest were nowhere to be found. They must have either died of thirst, run mad from sunstroke or gotten lost in the desert. Abdoulaye was the only survivor of an ordeal best imagined. When he finally came across a dusty road, the boy had decided to lay down and wait for a vehicle to pass by- or for death- whichever came first. Abdoulaye was only fourteen years old. In the truck, Chukwuma observed that the boy’s mind drifted alot during conversations and he would smile feebly to himself occassionally- possibly haunted by his recent experiences.
Chukwuma and Osas couldn’t wait to leave the truck.
Djanet in Algeria was a hundred degrees hotter than Agadez. To get there, they had passed a hundred checkpoints and their truck had broken down a hundred times. Chukwuma was hungry, thirsty and broke. They had had to bribe their way through every roadblock to keep going. Everyone had to be bribed- gendarmes, guides, immigration officials, fruit sellers, you name it- everyone. After resting for a few hours in Djanet, they continued eastwards to the Libyan border. It was not long before their truck finally gave up a few kilometres to the border. They had no choice but to cross over to Libya on foot. As the Tuareg driver was most familiar with the terrain and knew a short cut, he was naturally selected to act as guide. Of course, this was not without an upfront payment for this extra service.
So that was how they all got stuck in this infernal desert sandstorm.
Osas rued not travelling by air. She had told Chukwuma this so many times during their journey that he knew when she was about to say it again and how. If not for the confounded NAPTIP that was hot on Mama C’s trail, she would have been reclining in a plane seat en route Rome by now. Mama C’s contact could not help them with visas any more because “good jobs were hard to come by”. So Osas and the other girls had opted to travel via land and sea as they couldn’t wait any longer and were desperate to leave. Now, in the desert, they were desperate to live. Over the past few days, her voluptuous frame had grown lean and dark from hunger and heat. She knew she had lost her attraction. Even her mother would not have recognized her now.
Chukwuma peeped over his pulled up shirt nervously. This bloody desert! Where’s everybody?
He heard nothing. The storm had abated and there was now a deafening silence. Could it be he heard nothing because he was now deafened? Aha wait! He hears something now- the sound of a residual breeze…then frantic voices, urgent voices…panic. He pulled the shirt away from his face and sand cascaded into his left ear. He shook his head vigorously and cleaned his ear with his index finger. He had to hear everything!
Abdoulaye groaned to Chukwuma’s left and sat up groggily. He dusted cakes of sand off his shoulders and tugged at his caftan to rid it of soil. The boy has nine lives, I swear. Chukwuma patted him on the back warmly. More sand fell off the boy’s garment.
Men everywhere staggered to their feet feebly in response to the Tuareg’s call, their shapes rising slowly in the twilight sky. Some did not rise at once. Some never rose again. They had continued their journey on another plane of existence.
Osas! Where’s pretty Osas?
In order not to offend the sensibilities of their Arab hosts, the women had walked in a separate line beside the men but as the journey got more arduous, they fell behind. It was of little consequence to the men at the time. After all, the mantra in this godforsaken place was “All man for himself and God for us all.” As the women were now some metres behind, Chukwuma decided to step back to search for Osas. He stumbled across the knee-deep sand to where some women were gathered trying to find their bearings.
“Osas! Hello? Have you seen Osas?”
The women did not speak a word of English and were too flustered to understand his gesticulations. They wailed in Arabic and French to him, showing him their bruises and cuts. Chukwuma turned away. She had to be somewhere around! He scanned the dunes frantically in search of something Nigerian and soon he saw another cluster in the distance- this time a gathering of both men and women. He recognized four of the women as Osas’ friends and made a bee-line to them. He could no longer shout because his throat was dry and abrasive. The saliva in his mouth was now a thick paste and he could neither spit nor swallow.
“Have- have you seen Osas?” he managed to say when he got to them.
“We’ve been looking for her oh! For the past thirty minutes! We lost her during the storm… She couldn’t hold on and we couldn’t go back for her…We just hoped she would be here when the storm cleared. Six of us are still missing! Oh my God!” One of them started to cry uncontrollably. Another followed suit.
Chukwuma was too dehydrated to shed tears. Nothing would have come out. He didn’t bother trying. He slumped onto the white sand and lay there, feeling a pang of guilt. Not because he wasn’t there for Osas. Not because he had lost his friend. No. He felt guilty because, in his exhaustion, he was not thinking about her. He was thinking of something else. In fact, he was thinking of only one thing.
Damn you, Ehis! You must be downing a cold glass of water in Italy right now.
Ehis gulped down his last drop of water and flung his plastic bottle into the deep blue sea. How did it get to this, abeg? When will this suffering end?
By the time they were smuggled into Libya from Algeria, only twenty-two of them were still alive out of an original forty-six. The others had not made it. Out of this number, some were in dire need of medical attention. Some were traumatized from rape and other horrors they had witnessed or experienced in the desert. Only a few were still in the right frame of mind to continue the journey. Ehis was one of them. However, while he could persevere mentally, financially was another matter as the desert had taken all he had. It would still have another go at him- this time as they journeyed northwards to Sebha. There another ocean of sand lay in wait to drain him further of strength but Ehis was no quitter. He could not turn back- not even if he wanted to.
Ehis had been expelled in his third year at Yaba College of Technology, Lagos, for ‘excessive and negative student unionism’. He was never recalled, neither were his transcripts ever released for him to seek education elsewhere. Disillusioned, he had abandoned tertiary studies and tried his hand at his father’s lumber business in Edo State. This did not go too well for him so he had returned to Lagos. He recalled how this ordeal had affected his relationship with his sweetheart. She no longer wanted anything to do with him. He remembered how, one day, he had paid her a visit on campus and was told by her roommates that she was not around only to find her in the hands of a rich old man, or ‘aristo’ as they were called, in a parked Benz outside. She had hurriedly turned her face away and left him feeling like trash along the road. Man, was he crushed. He could not believe he had planned to marry this lady. No! he had said. It could not end this way! He was going to show her and all those who had mocked him that he, Ehimigbai Ehichoya, would rise from the ashes. Like a phoenix.
But the rise was too slow. He worked as a clearing agent at Apapa Wharf for the next three years. Frustrated by his slow progress, Ehis decided to hasten his rise by migrating to Italy. If necessary, he would run three jobs over there to make ends meet and have enough savings to return home. No matter how menial, he would do it. After all, who knows him in Rome?
No, Ehis was no quitter. He had a lot at stake. Another shameful setback would kill him. He had to cross over to Europe or die trying. So after one week in a dingy Sebha prison, he was sold by the Tebu militia to one Alhaji Suleiman who lived in Tripoli and bundled into a pickup truck with thirteen other illegal migrants on a seven hundred kilometre ride to the capital. When they arrived Tripoli in the evening, they were driven straight to the ports where a fishing boat was waiting. Ehis was amazed to see hundreds of migrants standing there in the moonlight eager to board. He felt a bit reassured by their number- he must be making the right decision. All these people couldn’t be wrong, could they? Surely, they couldn’t. By midnight, they had set sail for Italy.
“Eh Chaly! Wetin we go do for food now? Abi you still get some for there so?”
Ehis dragged his weary eyes away from the plastic bottle he had just thrown into the sea. It moved farther and farther away as it bobbed up and down in the water. When it was just a speck, he peeled his eyes away and stared feebly at Achampong, trying to gather his thoughts. Achampong was his new acquaintance from Kumasi. They had met in prison.
“Chaly, you turn deaf and dumb so? Man dey hungry here o.”
Ehis shook his head soberly in response and looked over Achampong’s shoulder at the crowd of people on board. There must have been no less than three hundred people in the fishing vessel- all crammed together with no elbow room. Out of these, at least a hundred were below deck. He wondered how they were breathing down there. These smugglers could not care less about their comfort. So far, he had counted three dead bodies they had thrown overboard. Majority on board were Arabs escaping war in their country. Thirty percent were blacks from sub-Saharan Africa. All were from different works of life. There were families here with infants and breastfeeding babies. There were old and young people, sick and healthy people- all suffering for a dream they were chasing.
Ehis had been at sea for four days now. So far, they had faced two terrifying thunderstorms, survived a leak scare and bribed four navy patrol ships who had threatened to turn them back. Ehis had seen it all.
A fight broke out to his left. No doubt for food again- or water. He could not be bothered. Ehis stared at the clear blue sea again with its foamy white streaks and wondered why the Maker had made it all salty. He had to find water somewhere. Forget food. He was dehydrating under the sweltering Mediterranean sun and knew his life depended on getting water soon.
O Chukwuma! I hope you at least had some sense to turn back. It’s too late for me now.
Adesuwa took one last drag at her cigarette then flung the stub onto the sidewalk indifferently. It’s too late for me now.
She straightened her shiny black mini-skirt, moving the slit to the front, then dipped her hand in her bag to extricate her compact mirror from a pile of condoms. Raising it to her face, she looked at herself briefly and smoothened her worn-out Peruvian hair. That was how long she could look at herself these days. Briefly. Because she never liked what she saw.
Adesuwa is twenty-three but looks thirty-nine. She had walked and worked the streets of Rome and Milan for four years now. In a year or two, she would be able to pay back Mama C the fifty thousand euros she had spent on her travel and expenses. Given a year or two, she would be free. She attempted to smile but failed.
Business was slow today. She stayed in the shadows a few metres away from the street light and watched the other girls giggling in the distance. They knew well enough to stay clear of her territory. Poor fools! They are still green, give them another year or two and we’ll see if they can find a reason to smile let alone laugh.
She lit another cigarette. Business was indeed slow. For a country with almost a hundred thousand prostitutes and over two million customers- or so they say- the patronage was low today. Perhaps she should show more cleavage? She needed to pay her rent and the immigration officer had given her three days to pay up or be deported home. He was no longer interested in ‘other forms of payment’ as she was, in his words, old baggage. Mama C was also tired of bailing her out because she had begun to doubt her ability to pay back as her appeal was gradually fading. The girl looked like a bag of bones.
Her hand quavered as she raised the cigarette to her lips. Maybe she should move to the EUR district. She had heard of plans to make it Rome’s first red light district. She needed to book a good spot in time. Somewhere more visible. She took a long drag and exhaled slowly. Then she coughed. She coughed violently. Adesuwa was not well. Perhaps she should go and see Nurse Blessing for some medicine instead. She could not afford to go to hospital. Even if she had the money, she could not risk anyone learning that her visa had expired. Not at this critical time. Her younger brother, David, was graduating this year and needed money to complete his project. He was an intelligent young man. She could not fail him.
She remembered how her family had encouraged her to come to Italy. They were living in squalor at the time. Abject poverty. Then her father met Mama C at the hospital and consented to his daughter travelling overseas to find work as a hairdresser. In their vulnerable situation at the time, her parents could be pardoned for being so gullible. So before she knew it, Adesuwa was forced to drop school and join girls in the middle of the forest for a parting ritual. Samples of their nails, pubic hair and personal items were taken and they were made to swear an oath of silence. Within months, she was on board Alitalia en route Rome. She was really up in the clouds then. But when she came down to earth, it was a hard fall. As soon as she arrived, she was taken to a sleazy apartment at the outskirts of Rome where her passport was seized and she was told what she would really be doing. She had cried for weeks.
Adesuwa threw away her half-finished cigarette and laughed drily. They think I am living large over here because I send money home, abi? If only they knew. If only her friend, Osas, knew the truth she wouldn’t even think of coming. She had sounded so serious on the phone. Adesuwa had tried to dissuade her but could not provide cogent reasons without violating her oath of silence. If she had divulged it in any way, her family would have been cursed for generations and she could not risk that.
Why, oh why would Osas not listen? She had always been the magpie, had she not? Always had a craving for the bling and the luxurious life. “Fine babe like me was not born to suffer,” she always used to say. That is why she fell out of love with that nice boy from her village that wanted to marry her- the drop-out. He was such a nice young man o! Why, Osas? Maybe if she had given him a chance she would not be on her way here now. Maybe. Anything was better than this. Such a nice young man he was. And so industrious. What was his name again? Ohis? No…not Ohis. It started with an E. Ehis? Ah yes, Ehis. Ehimigbai. Ehimigbai Ehichoya was his name.
Adesuwa found herself smiling genuinely again for the first time in months.
Smart man Ehis. She wondered what he was up to now…