From Think Home Africans
Artwork by Jan Mun
The following day, I did my morning duty and headed to Piazza Bologna to catch my bus. The bus stop close to the park is fifteen meters away from a Carrefour.
I hoped to catch the next bus so I walked a bit faster. I had tracked the location of the next bus with my smart phone. The bus will arrive in seven minutes. Just a few steps from the bus stop, I bumped into a boy who usually begs all day in front of a bar. He greeted me with a charming smile that reminded me of how I would miss my target, the bus. Yes, I once promised to buy him a cup of coffee. I asked him if he wanted some coffee and he obliged. When we entered the bar, he ordered an espresso café, while I went for a cup of cappuccino. I asked him if he cared for corneto or any other thing but he said he was okay with just a cup of coffee. Then I initiated a deep conversation.
“So which part of Nigeria are you from?”
“Benin,” he said.
“Wow, that’s good.”
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“I am an Igbo girl, didn’t you notice?” I responded with a smile. “Do you care for sugar,” I asked as he tried taking his coffee without sugar.
“No, I do like to take bitter things sometimes.”
“Maybe I need bitter things too,” I said as I kept the sachet of sugar in my hand and began to sip my cappuccino.
“How long have you been in this country?” he asked.
“Three years, but it has not been easy,” I answered.
“I am here for one year now.”
“Wow and up till now you haven’t found a job?”
“Yes, I am still looking for a document.”
“Nawao, after one year they haven’t given you your documents?”
“Yes, I was in Serena before I was transferred to Rome last September. Then I wrote my petition and applied for a document but no response. It’s like you work at night.”
“Yes, the man I am taking care of is handicapped. He is paralyzed so I sleep in his house at night after laying him on the bed and cleaning him up. The person working for him during the day will be there around 9 am,” I added. He nodded in accordance. “So how has life been treating you in abroad?”
“I can’t say it’s good nor bad, in any condition I must thank God first. I believe that it’s just a matter of time. Where I was in Serena is even better than this Rome. There in, I have friends but here, none. When I came newly, I did not stay in the camp for four months without going out nor doing anything. But that was my fate when I came here.”
“Well, it’s good you now go out.”
“Yes, after a while I decided to giro [wander about] and I met people who advised me that if I don’t carry cap, I won’t survive in this Rome. That was how I began to beg; even the first day I started, I was even ashamed of myself.”
“The way the bike was flying, if you aren't careful, you’d fall off. What kept me going is that I already knew that traveling is part of education. The things I know now, I didn’t know them in Nigeria.”
“So how did you come to Italy? Did you come through Libya?”
“Yes,” he answered.
“Mamma mia,” I exclaimed, “that’s terrible! Tell me your story please.”
“Let me show you some pictures.” He brought out his phone and continued talking. “The journey was not easy at all. When I was in Nigeria, I was even living a better life than this mess.”
“Were you doing something tangible then?”
“I was doing weathering job but people were saying that with my hand work, I would make it in Europe. I was also tired of the situation in Nigeria. There, a customer will give you a job only to find out that you did not do it because there is no electric power supply. You know, it was my own personal business, and I usually rented a generator from my neighbors. I wanted to buy my own generator but I couldn’t because of this journey.”
“So how did you even prepare for this journey?”
“It was my friend in Libya that called me and said, Osaz! are you still doing that your business? Why not come and join me here, this-this, that-that. Come here and hammer like your mates.”
“Indeed, so you took his advice?”
“At first I didn’t but when I thought about it, I called him to tell him that I had made up my mind but his number was not reachable anymore. So then I went to Abuja when a friend of mine called me. I went to his house and from there we moved.”
“So you planned this trip for a long time?”
“Yes, I was supposed to travel since 2013 but the money I had was not enough.”
“So you paid money to travel to Libya?”
“Yes, in 2014 I had enough money so I paid for house rent for my brother in the university and then I gave him 400,000 naira and asked him to take care of my business. I didn’t want to sell my property so that, if I am deported, people would not laugh at me.”
“But that money would have been enough to buy you a nice generator and boost your business, don’t you think so?”
“When I was in Nigeria, I was doing well, people were learning work under me. You know how Nigerians are with information about Europe. They want to work for Euro and dollars, not naira, I am bigger than naira and all that, that’s the latest. Then I and my friend took a bus from Esha to Abuja and another from Abuja to Kano. Even the people in the bus were talking of going to Libya so I asked them to connect me to the traffickers and then they did. We arrived at Kano by ten in the night. There was control at the border so then I met the Muslim man who they connected me to. So the man took me to meet other people whom he would take across the border on that day.”
“Wow, so have you met those people before?”
“No, I have never met those people before. So he asked me to pay him 25,000 naira. We bargained until he accepted to collect 20,000 naira.”
“Was that man a police officer?”
“No, he is just a man who helps people to cross the border. He has connections. After a long time, he brought his car and five of us entered, three of us entered the trunk of the car, that’s because you cannot be in the front, else, the police will control.”
“So he knows that his job is illegal, did he ask for your passport?”
“Well no, but you know, I did an original ECOWAS passport and a fake one too.”
I laughed, “Why pay for a fake one too?”
“I did the fake one with 5,000 naira in the Benin emigration office. The fake one has my photo passport and it says I am Ghanaian. The Libyans do not read English so when they see your passport and the stamp from the embassy, they will allow you to enter. The journey was not easy. When the car crossed the border around twelve midnight, the man now hid us in the bush. Later around 2 am, two power bikes came immediately and carried us. You can’t even say anything. “Fast-fast!” they yelled, so we entered the bike and they drove off. We were two-two in the bike. The journey was going as we were grooving through that desert.”
“Grooving at midnight? That’s breathtaking.”
“We were speeding very fast. Later, policemen started chasing us and were shooting at us. I was the one in the back, the way the bike was flying, if you aren't careful, you’d fall off. What kept me going is that I already knew that traveling is part of education. The things I know now, I didn’t know them in Nigeria. I like to go to places my father has never been to, I like traveling.”
“So does that mean that you have no plan of going back to Nigeria?”
“I want to go but I just want to be comfortable first. I have seen the kind of life people live here. Just a simple life, after all there’s nothing in this life. Whether you have estate or not, one day we will still die. If I just have a good flat in Nigeria for my mother and a nice one here for myself, finish. What else will I be asking for?”
“Does your father own a house in Nigeria?”
“Yes but I am just saying.”
“Do you think it’s easy to own a flat here?”
“I know it’s not, but I am just saying, if I should have two flats in Nigeria, I will not be here in Europe stressing my life, I will just keep my mother in one and have one for myself.”
“But your father owns a land in Nigeria right?”
“What does it take to build a house? If you can call your friends together, mold blocks and work for a month, you will have a very large apartment for your mother. That is how most houses in your village were built, you know?”
“Yes, but now people don't like working like that. I want to build a house that an engineer will draw on a paper, one that many workers will be there, fetching water, gravels and sands.”
“My friend once told me: ‘When I went to Nigeria last year, my father’s house was much unkempt, so with a few gifts I convinced my neighbors who helped me lay ties and repainted the house. From there, I was able to price bags of cement, sand and gravels. I realized that two months allowance of 20,000 naira was enough to start well with the renovation.’”
“And I believe him,” I said. “Anything the heart conceives, that it achieves. With few months of hard work, Osaz, you would have built a befitting house for your mother as well, instead of spending 350,000 to come to Europe only to end up as a beggar in the streets. Well, I am sure that you had the intention of building mansions in your mind when you were coming here; but now that dream has been lowered to building flats.”
“You don’t have to blame me, my dear, I was totally ignorant.”
“Are you aware that when you go back that most of your friends will even be richer than you?”
“Yes,” he answered, “but if I go back, I will be respected because I will just be telling my friends that my goods are on the way coming, and some people will even give me money because they know that I came from Europe. But I really don’t want to go back to do that. If I want to do it, I will just go to my friends and ask for 1000 naira. I will show the person 500 euro and tell him that I don’t have change, that I will give it to him when I have change. Just like that, I will make a lot of money and travel out again. Here, it is very difficult for people to make money.”
“I know what I saw. I know how terrifying it was for us that night that we passed through different kinds of sea, white, red, and black, before we now got to the blue sea where the Italian rescue saw us and came for us. From three in the night till in the morning there was no tree, grass, nor boat. We were just sailing on the sea.”
I stared at him for a while. I realized that he was becoming uncomfortable, so I changed the topic.
“Nawao! I thought it was only the sea that kills. I didn’t know that the Libyans also shoot travelers. Yet, people are still traveling to Libya.”
“Many people are still traveling through the desert now,” he said.
“So how many days did you spend in the desert?”
“Four days with Hilux. When I was experiencing the risks, I felt like not coming, but I had no choice than to continue.”
“What if the Italian government becomes angry and decrees that everyone who has no documents should go. Will you go back to Nigeria?”
“No I will not go.” Then he showed me the picture of that Hilux again. “That desert is too risky. The reason most people die is because they always carry charm. Especially the girls. Those that their mothers do give charm for protection, they do not know that the desert and sea does not support charms. I know that because there was one girl with charms in the Hilux I entered. When we all entered into the Hilux, the Hilux refused to move, but when we came down, it moved. It was doing that until we were asked to search ourselves. Boys were searching boys and girls were searching girls, so when one of the girl’s private part was searched, the girls found a charm hidden in there. So when the charm was brought out, the girl fainted. After she woke up, she started confessing that it was her mother that gave her the charm.”
“So the spirit of the desert does not support charm, juju, magic, or voodoo of any kind?
“Yes, after our Hilux moved, they started telling us stories of people whose Hilux had accident, and it was only the girl who had the charm that died.”
“Was she the only one that died?”
“Yes, because she had charm on her. That road is too risky and it is not a place for girls. I know what I saw. I know how terrifying it was for us that night that we passed through different kinds of sea, white, red, and black, before we now got to the blue sea where the Italian rescue saw us and came for us. From three in the night till in the morning there was no tree, grass, nor boat. We were just sailing on the sea.”
“So if you are to talk to the government about this, what will you tell them?”
“The government should better do something about this. Because I need to get my commission.”
I laughed as I asked him for his contacts. “You are really determined to succeed in Europe, I like that.”
Then he continued by telling me how Libyans kill and rob foreigners. Then he showed me a video of people who were been deported to Libya. “My dear, it’s not easy, there are people here for over eight years and yet they have not been given documents.
“My dear, life in Libya is not easy,” he continued. “All these people that they have captured, they will send them back to zazoo [prison] and I have a friend there now. The prison is usually a big container with rod-plated protector. The Libyan police jam-pack people in there and anyone who runs is always shot, just like that. There’s no escape. Some can be in there for three to four years without coming out. My friend was there for close to a year before he escaped. The journey through Libya is not easy. If someone told me I would survive all that, I wouldn’t have believed it. That’s why I still thank God. There’s one boy that was later deported from that prison and he is in Nigeria now because his parents were praying for him. My father does not even go to church nor does he worship juju. He is an atheist and a farmer.”
“That means you ate well while in Nigeria.”
“Food is not the problem. The problem is money. The man just married six wives, and has 19 children. He has money but it is not enough for everyone. Nigeria is a good country. I remember when I was there, I can flex with my friends and I was having money. But even with that money, nobody recognizes you. It’s only those abroad that they respect. Then in that country, after working, I will go back home and it will be like from fire to fry pan. Even if you go out to buy water, it will be a hot water because there is no electricity. So those things made me leave Nigeria.”
“But did you experience cold in this country?”
He laughs, “It was jacket that saved me.”
“So you see that Nigeria is not that bad?”
“The country is not that bad, sha, but I wish the Nigerian government live like the white men here. Everybody that has an estate should relinquish some part to the destitute. And if they can pay workers and provide electricity, especially. Sometimes then, when I go home I will not sleep because of the noise from generator. Even the cultists, the evil men and those things. Look at me now, at 4 am, I will wake up from sleep to come and stand here, there’s security here in Italy. Sometimes I am even tired of this life.”
“How much do you make by standing here in a day?”
“Sometimes I make 20 euro.”
“That is about 4,000 naira. Don’t you make up to this a day in Nigeria?”
“I do not stay long here. This Italians, when you tell them, da mi i soldi per favore [please give me money], they will tell you, vai a lavoro [go and work]. Where will I see the work?” If I can get a job that will pay me 20 euro a day, I will stop begging. In Serena I will just buy anything and start going house to house pressing doorbells. If they cannot buy, they will at least give me something, that’s the way most people beg there, but here I decided to stand in front of this bar.” He breathed heavily and said, “I really appreciate this, at least, I finally met someone who could give me a listening ear.”
“Thank you too, Osaz.” I encouraged him to keep his hope alive before we parted.