by Jubie Morgan
An illegal immigrant's journey, through dunes of the Sahara & waves of the Mediterranean
Aquarius II! The words stretch in white paint across the blue hull. I slowly stretch my hands over my face; the piercing beams from the sun stabbed my eyes with the intense summer heat. I could see the seagulls gliding and screeching overhead. Finally, there's hope, Salim said, holding my other hand tightly I felt a pain from his grip...that's our rescue boat, you know? We are going to be saved. It reminds me of the lucky animals selected after Noah must have finished the ark.
As the ship glided to us, it pushed the bouncy dinghy off the way as the ripples echoed from its sides; Aquarius II must be the new hope. I shivered as the other immigrants quivered to find the best spot to get immediate attention, the rubber boat made a sharp twist towards the starboard, there were yells, screams and prayers, revealing the varieties of faith and belief on the small vessel, the diversity of belief in the quest for hope. The dinghy bounced several meters back with an enveloping splash, the chaos was getting intense and I could taste the bile reeling tension in my mouth. After several minutes of the terrifying meeting with The Aquarius, a blonde soldier with a public address system peeped through the hull, with the mouth piece by the side of his mouth he made an announcement, first, it was an inaudible screeching feedback from the megaphone, then a clearing of throat and a baritone, from where he stood, he had a lot of decisions to make...stay calm, everyone! Just stay calm! The accent was heavy. We are getting everyone out of there, he continued.
Salim smiled, our dreams finally came through, our hopes restored, after escaping a gun battle between our smugglers and the Libyan coast guards in Misrata. We waited several minutes thinking of what or how the angelic blonde sailor was going to do to save us from the building waves. I remember seeing news of drowned immigrants on this particular sea, The Mediterranean Sea. The gateway for illegal immigrants to hope, Europe! The newsreels I have seen and wept over became a nightmare of my own struggle; these lingering moments for me made time seem so slow, everything happened too long, time was taking its time.
The social criteria has become plain for all to see, even those who are in denial could not fail to see it right on their nose, but they chose to use the brooms beneath the mat. To some it was a business venture, others became victims of circumstance while the key holders watch and speculate politicking or politricking.
We waited close to an hour, then the blonde officer came back to our side with over a dozen more men, they hurled life jackets at us. The unity of several nationals on the boat was broken, everyone scampered to get one, then the unexpected expectation happened, pandemonium, the little boat housing a little over hundred souls toppled, like lead balls I saw two handsome Ethiopian twins plunged into the side of the anchored ship, they were holding each other and didn't let go, the fairest one must have broken his neck with the impact and angle his head made with the ship. He was catapulted directly into the steel walls of the ship, with a terrified look Salim held unto the next person he could feel, he must have thought I was the one close to him, but the Libyan man shrugged him off his shoulder, He slipped off the raised stern of our boat which was slowly giving way to the surface tension of the salty sea. I could feel the salty air penetrate my charred lips as I screamed his name, a splash and plunge then he was nowhere, I couldn't decide, to dive or pray. A life jacket landed at my feet, I quickly strapped up as the Libyan looked at me with caution, wondering what I was pondering. I ignored him, diving into the cold waters, a cold and dull push weighed across my sternum; I had seen a whole lot in the sea of sand, now I am losing the few friends I have in this crowded but lonely place.
The waves raised itself above me, I had lost track of time, the tingling and head spinning feeling came back, just like when I first stepped into the rubber boat, Salim had told me it was a normal feeling, he knew too much for his age, yelling and shouting his name, I heard an echo of his name, but it wasn't my voice, it was the Libyan, he dived into the water just a little beside the already capsized boat. Sal-eem!! Salim!!! He swam towards me, I was boiling with rage but I held control of it. He said: Me fisherman back in Zuwara, I swim well. I go deep and get Salim for you, sorry! I was delighted, feeding on hope again to get me going, I remember back in Misrata, when I saw his beady eyes challenging a smuggler who was hitting a woman, his courage was attractive, it made me wonder what brought a bold seventeen year old boy to this part of the world. My name Ghalib, the Libyan said interrupting my reminiscing trance with his Arabian laced pidgin, I couldn't tell whether he said Ghalib or Khalid but in my thoughts I saw his legs slip into the water after his body, few seconds after his introduction. Salim surfaced from the bundling waves holding on a floating jerrican, he held tightly unto the plastic container. I yelled! Taking a mouthful of the saline solution down my throat, it choked and hurt, I tried pushing myself towards the skinny boy in between me and Salim, he was struggling between putting his life jacket on and staying afloat, I didn't think of leaving him yet the saggy feeling of making a right decision weighs my intellectualism down, there were too many people to save but I needed save one that won't imprison my conscience. Salim had no life jacket on; he was trying to balance the weight of not plunging back into the sea depths by gently holding on to the plastic. After few meters of pushing myself towards the scared drowning boy, I helped hooked on his life jacket and headed towards Salim, there was a little girl floating on a flat wood and her older brother trying to redirect the wood from straying away from the drowning pack. I was losing hope on Salim when the Libyan popped up behind him, he pulled him towards the rope ladder dropped by the crew of Aquarius II, I hadn't noticed how much activity had gone around me while been enveloped in my own struggles, the crew and rescued immigrants were shouting, trying to give us hand signals to head towards the swinging ladder, I looked back to see how far we had come, my heart was laden by the sight. I could see struggling children flapping through the waters, crying mothers who would rather drown along with their sinking kids. Men who don't know how to kick or stroke to safety, the air was bitter and salty, the water couldn't quench thirst nor could it wash away tears. Ghalib pulled me out of my trance as he pointed to Salim being pulled up by our saviors, slowly and devastated I pulled my weight towards the back of the metal beast that would carry us to the Promised Land. As I laid my wet feet on the cold board floor, I felt an innocent part of me washed away with the drenching drops that streamed my feet. It will be alright whispered Salim, I immediately hated him and everyone. Sorry I pushed Salim, said Ghalib trying to impress, I panic and almost blurted at him but my little friend squeezed my hand again.
As I lay still on the cold floor over my thoughts on what brought me this far, far away from home, how I came to be in a faraway land where no one cared, where no one looked you in the eye to ask how you do or what you feel. Now, I truly appreciate the good morning a stranger whispered to you when you look at them too long in the eye or the hawkers that smile and shove their wares in your face or the bus drivers and conductors giving you a real feel of the need for speed, Lagos was that kind of city. It was a modern jungle but people still cared, people still showed they care, pregnant women were allowed to jump the queue or offered an occupied seat in a crowded bus. But this part of the world was a strange feel to me, people only want to take you or what is left of you, some were even ready to take you out if you are with whatever they want.
At the thought of all these, I remembered Fela's warning, his stories were more exaggerated than it sounds back then. He had told me about the story of one of his late uncle who tried crossing in the early nineties, I didn't believe him, no one did. Fela told us about the atrocities committed in the lawless routes to Europe, where hope eloped with death and never returned. But I had to witness it, the struggle for hope and the experience it held first-hand, this was something to make you appreciate the hustle, these were the words I murmured each time we had the argument; after all, a wise man once said, 'no risk, no reward, no guts no glory', I didn't want an ordinary life, I wanted more, an extraordinary to secure my name in a rich heritage. I was tired of my eight to five job and the perils of living and working at the extreme edges of the state, the daily trauma of travelling sixty-three kilometers across the city, shuffling between the traffic of Lekki to Ikorodu. I was gradually draining life out of myself, my soul felt paler with each passing day, I could feel the mental and physically strain weighing me down. Yet, I earned so little for these, probably few thousands above the country's minimum wage, this swallowed by the cost of transport before the end of each month, such mediocrity!
Sometimes we were encouraged to do extra hours to meet up our daily expectations, it got to me and I was just done with the tricks the government keeps playing on its leaders of tomorrow, I had to find a way, crime wasn't an option and I really didn't have much to get much, so the dues had to be paid in a way. It wasn't a fair thing but fair wasn't here, not being born with a silver spoon, people like me had to pay extra dues to get what was normal. And normal wasn't even up to the global standard of average, just to get food to eat, get some secondhand clothes to wear at Yaba or Oyingbo, a roof on the outskirts of town since I couldn't afford a room in the entire Conurbation, house owners want a two year advance, agent fee was same as rent, the sum was way above two years income, it was a dead state living in a city as a struggling graduate.
Soon after graduation followed the national youth service, it was an overwhelming welcome into the real world, having sponsored myself halfway in the university, my struggling parents had to meet me at the other end of it, I couldn't even afford a laptop during the final year project presentation, I had to hire one from a friend's customer in Computer village, his prices were ridiculous but I had no choice.
The loneliness away from schoolmates was profuse, I was getting used to enjoying the lustre feel from my friends way back, they were supportive, we clubbed, dined, studied together, like some distillation, we all dispersed to face our careers; Fela left for Italy to study his master's in IT security. Bello also won a scholarship to continue his study in Canada. Hassanah got married and moved to Ireland with her Irish boyfriend, it was the greatest surprise after school, everyone thought she was a runs girl (escort) who followed men for their money, we all thought O'Brien was going to dump her as soon as he was done with her, but we were wrong. They were in love and we couldn't come to terms that our beautiful black sister was gone with a foreigner, we were just haters; according to Bello. Even Bimbola, my ex-girlfriend had also gotten into a University in Houston. It was the last straw I could take, being ditched for not having enough to get out of my own country, I felt a sense of betrayal, I was reminded of all the emptiness the moment I stepped on the Aquarius, a stern looking crew member brought a grey blanket and covered me, the air was filled with a strong fish smell, I saw men and women sobbing and crying.
My memories were filled with my past, it blurred so much of the future, Salim, walked up to me, holding the railings of the ship's hull, the waves were still malicious, it rolled bundle after bundle, splashing liters of water high across the dancing vessel, the skies were starless, the horizon void and we were in the middle of nothingness but a metal island moving towards what we hoped.
At the first touch of light, we were counted, recounted and our names put down, a baby was even rescued earlier during the night rescue by the divers, everyone kept muttering 'Miracle baby', I had little to say on it when asked. As Aquarius II set out for the coast of goodwill, we were very hopeful, fellow immigrants shared felicitations of making it close to their dreams, some counted their loses and some recounted theirs but in all we were mostly grateful our Noah's ark came on time to save us from drowning, I sat so still with eyes focused on the silver lining trimming the horizon.
It was mid-December when I decided to take off, Fela had warned severally about what he saw frequently on Italian news, wrecked dinghies and floating lifejackets, he hammered on how bodies were washed up sea coasts and beaches, how the world reduce the numbers that perished and how life was not so important to cherish, especially when it was from the other side, but during the journey, all I ever thought of was the festive season I missed back home, Lagos will be glowing with Christmas lights and lit up plastic trees with bright and loud fireworks and crackers banging everywhere, the varieties of aroma from different delicacies around the neighborhood filling the air. My stomach grumbled at the thought of fried chicken and pepper soup, it brought me back to the reality of my dangerous path to glory, freedom and grace. Our smugglers Illyasu and Bako from Maiadua insisted we travel only at nights till we get to Agadez, this mainly from fear of Nigerian airstrikes or attacks from Boko haram, the Immigration officers were not even seen anywhere near as we speed through the border town. It was a sunny Monday, the only departure days were Mondays, I became aware of the porosity of our borders, armed herdsmen roamed with their cattle, smugglers flowed in and out, with cars laden with bags of rice, sugar and other merchandize, the scanty savannah trees were now well spaced and sparse, I looked back and saw the sun beaten town vanish in heavy dust. The journey was beyond perilous, engaging in rickety and bumping, with sweats from other skins sliming with yours, the dust making a pastry cake out of it with time.
After eleven long hours, I had a few chatters from other passengers, we got into the city of Agadez, it was like a marketplace and illegal immigrant processing center, you could get your traveling connections, required provisions for the trip and book for further transportation, it was the starting point for illegal immigration in West Africa, the major routes to Europe connects to this hub. Once you get to Agadez, with your dollars, your trip is sure but 'safe' is a word not guaranteed. I met a good looking Eritrean girl who asked me why took such risk, she wondered why a citizen of the 'Giant of Africa' flee a supposedly land filled with milk and honey, I turned and pointed to a starving boy who wore a plate around his neck like a jewelry, then answered, that's why, the milk and honey is being channeled through unknown canals. She looked dazed by my words; Samira could hardly believe but responded saying: if your father is nothing in Africa, you need to do something or become nothing, we later had chats about how she always admired both positive and negative news that came out of Nigeria. After three days in the Tuareg city, we departed the clay baked city after finding a suitable four wheeled truck with double cabin; we zoomed off on the sandy Algiers - Lagos road. The chit-chat going on in the truck compensated for the festivity I missed and for the migraine punching my head, Illyasu disembarked at the outskirts of Agadez and handed us over to Bako, a short tempered and hasty Libyan driver who already had his mind on his next trip, I tried to stay conversant with Samira to overcome the fear in me, she seem lost in her cocoon of thoughts too, I held tightly on the beams across the four runner as it sped across the dunes, the driver informed us of our next stop - Qatroun, he advised those with no money, few provisions and little strength to stay behind at the last border checkpoint before heading for the dunes, only few listened and took in his advice, an Ibo woman, with her two kids who couldn't be more than seven and five years' old decided to stay back, a light skinned lady who had caught a bad flu from the stinging winds of the night trips ended her journey too, a man accompanying her who everyone suspected to be her trafficker was nagged down for trying to persuade the girl to make the trip. The remaining passengers agreed with themselves that the journey was good.
As soon as we got into the nearest town, the driver picked up a Sudanese man with a little boy of about eight years, and several women with goods and more children, one of the women was a trader, all she did was sell provisions for the journey while following the caravan to the next checkpoint, I decided to stock my leather bag with what I could need; menthol ointment, sunglasses, extra stockings, a bigger water bottle, shemaghs in case of sandstorms and all, the necessities on the way to hope could have passed for junks back home. Here in the desert, they are treasured relics, her prices were ridiculous and we weren't given much bargaining power. On the third day, our caravan had grown from three pickup trucks to five, the trucks had undergone several modification to fit this purpose; overcome the terrain, with several welding jobs here and there, our pickup was extended at the back with extra packings to house more passengers, the floor of the pickups were usually not padded and they stung during the day and iced our feet during the nights, it also housed the extra fuel in used in refilling anytime we ran out, our movement pattern changed as we tried to make up for lost times, the laden back of the trucks made the bonnet raise from the trenches and dunes of the road.
It was midday when we stopped to cool the overheating, Bako was saying his afternoon prayers when we heard rattles and bangs from the distant, he immediately stopped his prayer and rushed towards the driver's seat, he told us to pack up as quickly as we can and try to hold on and not fall off, the other trucks were revving before its passengers were filled, a curious man asked what happened, he simply murmured something about the Bedouins, i quickly raced for the closest truck, Bako had taken off before half of the passengers made it into the four runner. As I leapt into the other vehicle, I looked back and saw the stranded travelers running and wailing towards the fleeing convoy. As we hit a big dune few meters from the scene, I saw a woman let go suddenly, she left her boy behind and couldn't stand the thought of living with it. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I watched the woman roll violently in the enveloping sand. I looked around me and couldn't see Samira, I shouted her name trying to see if my only friend was lucky enough to get redemption from drying up in a desert, I stretched to view the other trucks in front and behind, I couldn't imagine the misfortune that would befall them, more tears came streaming down as a little boy became a man amongst men, Salim held my hand with so much passion saying; it will be alright, we made it, all we can do is pray for them, again he brought me out of my trance...
SLAVES OF COLONIA
The darkness lingers as we trail the course of the devil, the sails bulging and flapping with mountains of waves looping against the wooden monster, responding to the wavy roar with only creaks and splashes. The only occasional sight of light was the oil lamp and aggressive flashes of lightening brightening the deck. The ship staggering like its drunken sailors, the air was stiff yet breezy, heavily thrusting through our nostrils, piercing our chaffed lips with its heavy laden saltiness. Weeks had pass since we came across the last pirate islands. Our oars were heavy, the whips now painless as we resist the ache in our arms to cushion the pains on our backs; the crackle no longer strike fear into our hearts, our minds was ready for it, every swing, every sting...it no longer mattered.
The nights were cold, long and dead. We could swear we all see the angel when he comes to harvest souls; we all did...a dark shadowy figure with smoky aftermath, gliding over the rows of bodies changedÂ from glance to glace, taking different shapes at each flash of the lightening, our bouncy cabins will soon be a temporary coffins before being tossed into the blue depths. We all longed for it, it became more of a desire over the previous months.
From above, we knew things weren't going well, the captain, the crew, everything was not in place, and sometimes all we hear are whispers, sometimes grudging yells and loud arguments. This morning was different; it was a bang, a thud and dripping of blood, sipping through the planked floor above, it was the warmth we felt in a long time; it oiled our skins like gladiators in an arena. It was a long time from warmth we felt, as it tickled down our shoulders, we knew all was not well on Olympus, we have heard whispers of mutiny, murders
As I hand measured the gari, I hear her say; 'e go better', something equivalent to Jesus is coming soon. I edged. As I raise my stiff back from the low wood rack, I heard a cracking sound and I felt relieved; the slight tingle dragged me back to the morning hustle, the encroaching work that bond you starring down on any type of screen; the zombie apocalypse, Zitto calls it. We now have a new God and His name is technology, I remember him quoting that and putting it on his pinned tweet. I must have googled something then gotten into youtube which led me to watching almost how to do everything. Here was where I learnt the little I know, at least technology still has its upsides. With a spoonful of the sugary mixture, I was back to reality, the cold water relaxed my