Escape From Desert Snakes: A Ghanaian Struggle To Reach London


One post-modern irony is that we are all economic migrants now. Into that truth is the fact that we live in a more liberalised world of liberty, opportunity, tolerance and adventure. Daily, thousands of mankind leave homes, families, friends and neighbours behind to search the world for opportunities and survival. There is no way we can placate a restive spirit fighting to break out of its prison of lack, poverty and disease. Man, with all his terrible faults, is a homo realist who likes to work out a plan of survival in order to preserve his own specie.

Since the creation of the world, human beings have been on the run. There are Biblical precedents in the great passage of Exodus from Egypt to Israel through the Red Sea and other movements embodied in the personalities of Moses, Joseph and Jacob. God, in his awesome wisdom, laid down the principle of survivalist migration in the Bible. As Jehovah Tsebaioth, the Lord of Hosts, his words are:”Do not be terrified; do not be afraid…….” Faith in the word of God has led to a growing migration industry of Africans who roam around the world looking for opportunities and survival. Daily, many Africans have to reborn in their imagination a new place, country and continent. Intrepid adventurers with brave souls have dared challenges to cross over into a new place, a new country and a new continent. Their morbid dread of poverty, capsized destiny and fear of losing in the lottery of life has brought them perilously close to death but somehow survived against all odds to enact epic stories of courage, endurance and wit.

When I met Richard Kuffour, nothing prepared me for his story of self-creation, self-discovery and self-fashioning. He is the embodiment of globalisation in a human form. One Saturday evening, I drove down to my North London Ghanaian restaurant hideout called Lomlova in Tottenham. It is in my gene to go to any length to assuage my appetite for haute cuisine. Lomlava, without being apologetic, serves the best fish and roasted plantain that side of London. Unlike Nigerians, Ghanaians are cultural preservers who love their music above western rubbish. In Lomlova, there is a palpable mad contempt for western music except Ghanaian high life. As a man about town, my body chemistry would not revolt against a bottle of chilled Guinness, a hot bowl of fish and roasted plantain and the socio-sexual gyration embedded into Ghanaian highlife.

With my glasses perched precariously while my eyes roamed round like radar, I saw a dashing man coming toward my table flashing his teeth. What draws people to me like magnet, I still could not understand! As a writer, I see every man as a piece of my unfinished story of humanity. I prey on people and sound them out to add to that awesome repertoire of human knowledge and experience. Shall we hear Richard in his own words…….?

“I lived in Nigeria between 1986 and 92. I used to live in Olodi Apapa, a place of real squalor, poverty and heroic pointlessness. I came at the invitation of my uncle who had been living in Nigeria since 1982. Charlie, that experience betrayed the picture of Nigeria I had in mind. My uncle had a successful business in Ghana but due to the Busia purge, he lost everything and voted with his leg to Nigeria. In Nigeria, mu uncle first worked as a gateman for one big industrial company in Apapa Wharf. So when I came in, I had to look for work. First, I worked as factory hand but that job was too hard then I turned into a nomadic tailor, the iconic ‘obioma’ or ‘ejika ni shop’ to control my time and freedom.

From dawn to dusk, I had to bear so much insult, taunts and jeers from Nigerians, who, believe it or not, are not better than me. After about one year, I got a job as a teacher of English in a private run school in Gbagada. Sorry, I did not mention that I graduated with 2:1 in English Literature from Legon, in Ghana. The teaching job was like a thread that held my life together. I worked harder than most Nigerians, stayed late and even worked on Saturdays and Sundays.  After 2 years I gained the trust of the headmistress and she entrusted the affairs of the school in my care. I changed home from the shacks of Olodi Apapa to a small, well appointed one-bed flat in Gbagada. There my story changed!

In my spare time, I used to write a cousin in London who had been a source of support and encouragement for my migration to Egypt as first port of call for my eventual UK destination. After five years at the school, the proprietor got me a travel visa to Egypt with a Nigerian passport. There is no apology for that impersonation, I was desperate and hunger for success and Europe. I lived in Egypt for an agonising two years in the slums of Cairo and sold household wares in the busy city to motorists. There, I came face-to-face with barely disguised Mediterranean racism against their African brothers. To them, they are better than us, black Africans, because of what I and other transit travellers did for our survival. While there, I met hundreds of Nigerian marooned in Cairo and eking out living doing dehumanising jobs and some women offering their body to the highest bidder in order to have enough dollars for the journey to Libya. In Cairo, we were treated like animals. I suffered brutality and daily my liberty was dependent on the dollars I gave out to the policemen who harassed and threatened me with deportation. In the evening, I will go and see friends to swap stories of struggle and survival and exchange intelligence on our mutual mission.

You see, there is this boat called Al-Bashir. It is a rickety, engine powered passenger boat that sails from the edge of the Nile through a circuitous route to the port of Tripoli. I got on that boat one fateful Friday night and arrived in Tripoli in the early hours of Saturday morning. We were all arrested at the end of the journey. I paid $2,000.00 for my release. I hope I am not boring you…”No, not at all,” I answered. In Tripoli, I helped fishermen at the shore to offload their haul ashore. Every evening, I smelt like fish and had to bath twice at night. I stayed in Tripoli for one year and three months and realised that Libyans were far more racist than the image of a saviour and brotherhood Ghaddafi projects to the world. Some Nigerians died in the hands of their police and immigration officers who are trained to hunt for black African migrants.

In 1996, I bought myself fake papers and got to Dubai, the capital of the Arab Emirate. I stayed in Dubai as a man Friday hired to carry luggage on the head for tourists and the locals. It is a most popular job among black African immigrants. Anyway, this is the kind of job they perceived to befit black Africans perfectly. There, they still thought that we are made for the most gruesome, demeaning kind of job because of the myth of black power and transatlantic slavery. The Dubairates would not touch my hand and the fawning Indians and Pakistanis regarded us as animals. Later, I moved on to be a car washer for the rich Arabs. Living in England now, I now know that Dubai-Arabs are far more racists than the white man. Know what, they throw it on your face. There in Dubai, there are some hotels that would not offer rooms for blacks.  I was in Dubai for 1 year where I worked my heart out. Nightly, I will cry and feel like killing myself. At such low mood, a providential call will come from my cousin in London and there would be another round of hopeful talk. Then I met this kind-hearted elderly Pakistani who had helped so many African migrants escaped to Ireland. He got on my case and with $3,000. 00 paid to this Asian middleman, I waited with baited breath.

Early January 1997, I landed at the Republic of Ireland with my Ghanaian passport. When the plane touched Dublin, I was sweating profusely. I have thrown my last dime on this adventure and could not contemplate a deportation. Anyway, Ireland offered me hospitality, freedom and human dignity. Though the pain of my epic journey to Europe was locked in my memory, Ireland struggled to erase it. I joined a thriving Ghanaian community there and with their assistance, I got my first job as a care worker. Charlie, we Ghanaians are humbler than Nigerians when it comes to doing all sorts. I worked from Monday to Saturday with occasional Sunday looking after old men in their various homes as a visiting carer. Some suffered from dementia and there were several temptations to steal their money and credit cards, but I did not. I reasoned that I had suffered too much to be arrested for stealing and fraud. I declared myself as an asylum seeker. In the late 90s, you Nigerians called it ‘aduro’ or ‘kawo soke’.

You see, in the 90s, Republic of Ireland was a no mans land. It had a liberalised immigration policy and within 5 years I got my European passport. Charlie, the country was a magnet even for those who are living in London and desperate for European passport. Once your case is heard, you are entitled to draw from their social security and live well.

In 2003, I relocated to London and have been living here since. In 2006, I received a British passport and have travelled without molestation across Mainland Europe and have followed my team Arsenal to many European countries. I was in Ghana in 2006 after 15 years on the run. I was in Arizona in 2007 and also travelled to Canada last year. Charlie, I forgot to mention that I married an Irish woman in 1998 and that translated to an open door of opportunity and legal-paper blessing. We are blessed with three children and we live in the Northumberland area of Tottenham. I can tell you that in my journey, I have seen man’s bestial nature, racism, cheating, disappointment, near starvation, resignation and death. Also, I have seen man’s capacity for endurance, patience, determination, sacrifice, hope, faith in God, blind trust, fearlessness and risk taking. Charlie, I just don’t know why I have to tell you this darker side of my life but one thing I love Nigerians for was what your country did for me. The story of Robert Kuffour started in Ghana, my self-rediscovery happened in Nigeria and now my self-refashioning is happening in London………It’s like I have escaped from desert snakes.”

“Did you say you are a writer”? I nodded, entirely engrossed with his tale of penetrating courage and triumph. To my left, a young beautiful, ebony-coloured girl was wriggling her Bakassi basin furiously. Then I heard a propeller of a song…..”I am going to Ghan……No mercy for Alanta……………No corner, corner……..One, two buckle my shoes……….welcome to Kotoka”! Within minutes, I was in Kotoka in the hands of a raging, Bakassi-endowed beauty who would not mind a chance to pirouette with a dangerous stranger. Such is the laid back, easy-going lifestyle of average Ghanaian. Richard winked at me, delighted that I got a partner for the night.

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