Sweet sweet strawberry taste
At an abandoned building’s fence, we sat on old ashes and traded banter. We gathered supplies on torn glossy pages between our splayed legs. The pages were brochures from American colleges mailed free of charge upon request. The brochures showed students smiling and holding folders close to their chests or sitting with legs crossed on stone benches, lecture halls with semicircular tiers, beautiful young ladies playing handball on well-manicured turf.
The young ones amongst us wanted to be in those lecture halls overseas. What tongue-wagging, envy-provoking recompense could be greater than getting into an American college when you could hardly make it through secondary school in Kano? We gathered around the brochures with astonished eyes and took rounds sniffing at their glossy pages. We loved the perfumed smell. One of us asked if the air in America smelled like the brochures, as though he was tired of breathing the air here.
We had our doubts about studying in America. First, there was the school certificate exam which we had to pass, and then there was the SAT. What about the money? We could get scholarships if we made high SAT scores, but then we would have to worry about money to register for the exam. Not to mention the ever-elusive American visa if the admission worked out.
“The interviewers always frown their faces and never look at you in the eye. My uncle did a visa interview and came back empty-handed despite days of fasting and prayers for divine intervention,” one of us said.
Our doubts grew bigger, and our dreams of a foreign education became like the ashes we sat on.
Our supplies consisted of flammable things, things collected— used mosquito coil, dead cockroaches, matchsticks, camphor, dried lizard feces. We ground the ingredients into little bits and rolled up fat joints. We smoked with our faces towards the hot, sunny sky, swatting flies with our free hands. Some of us pulled the smoke in gradually; others took long clean drags, drawing the smoke deep into our lungs and holding it in before releasing in little puffs. We huffed and snorted as smoke rose in thick, dark rings, like exhaust fumes from a faulty car. Fresh ash gathered in the dirt.
Then a time came when we competed on how many joints we could shove into the corners of our cracked lips without whooping. Several of us barred our teeth like rabid dogs. Some of us slid our eyeballs into our skulls, showing the white of our eyes.
We also made cocktails of crushed tramadol tablets, codeine cough syrup, and Coca Cola. We drank from plastic bottles and allowed calm to settle on our spirits. Our voices turned hollow and hoarse. We waded slowly through time, the world’s traffic bogged down before our eyes.
Some of us leaned back against the grimy fence and took long pauses between talking.
Some of us danced to the languorous rhythms in our heads, tottering about on uncertain legs.
Some of us dozed off with our backs to the wall. One of us curled up close to the fence, muttering quietly to himself. Another spoke loudly about the abandoned building. He said he would one day buy it and turn it into a big apartment for all of us. The rest of us mocked him for his foolish talk.
The building used to be a textile factory. When the government shut it down, they boarded up the windows, barricaded the doors with iron bars, and padlocked the gates. We could easily have broken in if we wanted to, but we loved gathering at the fence. As much as we were careful not to draw too much attention to ourselves, we wanted the thrill that came with displaying our vices in the open. We loved it when a lone pedestrian eyed us with contempt or a group of women shook their heads in pity as they trudged along the garbage-strewn bush path close to the abandoned building. We loved it when wandering children took one look and ran off like scared mongrels. How our watchers felt about us did not matter. What mattered was that they did not ignore us.
Some of us came from the edges of town. Some of us came from houses made of mud with straw roofing. Several of us were not indigenes of the north but Igbos and Yorubas and Ikwerres. A few of us were sons of army officers, artisans and traders and drivers of three-wheeler taxis. Some of us never knew our fathers or were left under the care of grandparents and uncles. Three of us had no place to call home and home was wherever night fell. A few of us were delinquent teenagers from Christian homes. Some of us had fathers with too many wives to give us any attention.
The youngest of us was sixteen and lived in a gray crumbling bungalow in the city, a house also inhabited by his now wizened and senile grandmother, whose job it was to sit out front and watch the new world go by, understanding little of it.
The oldest of us was a man in his forties with dreams of playing football in Europe even though he walked with a pronounced limp. He lived in the same room apportioned to him by his father when he became old enough to have a room. In that same room he had grown, become a man, and had kids of his own, kids left to grow untended like weeds.
We came together five months ago, the way wild mushrooms gather out of nowhere. One met another. Two met two more. Some idle talk here, some crotch grabbing there. Smokes passed from hand to hand. The group kept getting together and kept taking in new members. No one was turned aside. No one was made to stay, though no one left. At the abandoned building’s fence we became one, yoked in our idleness and anger against the forces bent on crushing us.
We were happy with the universe, as long as we could forget about our problems for a while, smoke, and get syrup-high on the sweet, sweet strawberry taste of codeine. We clung to the thing we knew, the one thing tangible to us——the sweet, painless tenderness of drugs.
Our dreams, when we had any, were fleeting, easily engulfed by our own disbelief. We only began to imagine better times when the CEO showed up.
He came to the abandoned building’s fence one hot afternoon with the oldest of us. His head was a fuddle of bushy hair and whiskers, from which his eyes peered at us. He wore an oversized, snuff-coloured jacket and carried a big leather briefcase covered with faded stickers. They had words on them like “NO BLOOD” and “GOD’S KINGDOM ON EARTH.” Was he a Jehovah’s Witness?
We watched as he slowly set down the briefcase and introduced himself as Ben Ten, the CEO of a travel agency he called Boys International Airport. He said he could get us overseas without a visa. Ben Ten’s news put a happy jitter in the oldest but didn’t convince most of us. For we had heard stories of people going to Europe by road, but we had also heard that the journey cost a lot of money.
Ben Ten showed us a map wrinkled and stained with oil. He whipped it out of his briefcase and unfolded it on the ash-covered ground.
“This is how the journey will go. From here we move to Zinder in Niger Republic, then proceed to the desert town of Agadez and then Sabha before we land in Tripoli, the Libyan capital. From Tripoli we will take a speedboat across the sea to Europe. Very simple,” he said, tapping his fingers on the map. A few of us moved close and peered straight down, but several of us craned our necks from where we stood.
From the briefcase Ben Ten brought out something else, photographs this time, and passed them around. Pictures of tall buildings flickering with light, arched bridges, narrow streets with cobbled roads, and train stations with high ceilings. Photographs from Europe, he called them. There was no excitement, only curiosity. The photographs looked old and smelled of camphor, not like the sweet smell of the brochures.
We found ourselves wondering what trick was left in his briefcase. We wondered when he was going to get to the point, the point being how much it would cost us for the journey. We wanted the dream to die before it became a dream.
He brought out sheets of paper he called contracts. He read the contract out loud. He said the contract stated we would remit to the last dollar the money committed to our trip. It was in dollars. Thousands of dollars. The contract would give us a minimum of three years to work in order to pay off our debts when we reached Europe. We would not pay anything at the beginning of the trip. We would also work along the way in Sabha and Tripoli. We were to do whatever it took to earn money: manual labor for building projects, dishwashing at cafeterias, bartending at local hotels.
“So we will need no money to go on this trip, right?” one of us asked.
“Yes,” he answered in a voice laced with confidence. “You will work for the money later. We have been doing this for years at Boys International Airport. You can ask around. One hundred percent guarantee to get to Europe.”
That was when we all moved close.
The next time Ben Ten came to the fence, a witch doctor came with him. The witch doctor wore a heavily embroidered white kaftan, which he removed as soon as the rituals started. Tied over his trouser brocade and across his waist was a red skirt with a set of beads stitched to it in the shape of a human eye. Wasn’t Ben Ten a Jehovah’s Witness? By this time, we’d made up our minds to go on the journey.
By this time, we were ready to do anything Ben Ten asked us to do. By this time, we saw Ben Ten as an angel sent to save us from wretchedness. Who would agree to organise such a life-changing journey without receiving money up front?
The witch doctor recited incantations. He asked us to repeat lines after him as we walked around in circles. He gave us a gourd, which we hit on our foreheads and chests three times. We proclaimed that we were beneficiaries of Ben Ten’s kindness. We invited the gods to visit us with sickness, misfortune, and death should we under any circumstances snitch on Ben Ten before the police or Immigration. We invited the gods to visit us with wrath should we fail to remit to the last dollar the amount specified in the contract paper.
To celebrate, we rolled up joints and mixed cocktails. Ben Ten declined to join us, but that didn’t cause any kind of problem. He was an angel sent by God to save us from wretchedness.
We deliberated on our journey after the two men left.
“What if we still want to go to America?” one of us asked.
“Abroad is abroad,” answered another. “People even say Europe is better than America.”
“Can we go to America from Europe?” a third boy asked.
“It will be easy to go anywhere from Europe,” another one said.
We all agreed that going to Europe would give us whatever we wanted. We weaved about slowly, trampling on the ashes. We had hope.
We each had to make choices—whether to tell our families and guardians about our journey, how to tell them if we decided to, how to answer those who questioned our decisions. Some of us didn’t bother to tell anyone until we left. Some of us stole the little our guardians earned to get supplies for our trip. Some of us summoned the courage to proclaim our love to the girls we long admired, vowing to come back for them when we were wealthy. Some of us sold the few belongings we had. Some of us settled longstanding scores. Some of us left with nothing but the clothes on our backs. Some of us went to pastors and imams for prayers and consultations.
There were some who were more than a little relieved to see us go.
We had only three days to prepare for the journey. Ben Ten said we had no time to lose, and we believed him. He also said our journey would be easy if we knew what to do.
“Everything in life is a risk, even common eating is a risk. You can take in food through your mouth and it will end up in your windpipe,” he said the morning before the journey. “There can be no success without risking something.”
He taught us how to keep our money in empty toothpaste tubes, tucked away from police checkpoints. He taught us how to wrap muslin cloth around our heads to block the infernal dust of the Sahara. He taught us how to kill fleas and mosquitoes, how to wear layers of clothing for the night. He taught us how to avoid rousing sheltering snakes or scorpions or beetles. He advised us to bring along dates and mint tea. He advised us never to trust our eyes in the Sahara because the landscape never stopped changing. He advised us to urinate into plastic bottles because we might have to drink it.
Some of us were nervous, but we all knew there was no turning back. We thought about the good jobs we would get in Europe. We thought about the girls we promised riches. We saw ourselves sending money home to prove to our families that we weren’t a lost cause after all. Our thoughts gave us comfort and allayed our fears.
In the afternoon, we all met at the main motor park with everything we owned. An eighteen-seater was waiting for us. The driver, wearing a dust-stained Jjellaba, didn’t speak much. We clambered into the yellow bus, and he crammed our belongings in the back and in the spaces between seats. We grew tense as the driver checked the engine. Ben Ten, who sat beside him, led us in a long, rambling prayer. We shifted in our seats and coughed.
Finally, the engine growled. The gears ground violently and the bus jerked forward, spitting clouds of dust and exhaust. The driver tooted the horn, and the steering wheel trembled in his hands as the bus lumbered out of the park, lurching over potholes. He picked up a rag and wiped away the film of dust on the windscreen. His bald head shone with sweat. The bus hurtled on, the tarmac stretching ahead as far as the eye could see. Cool air rushed in.
The trip to Zinder took almost four hours, which got us hungry for food and itching for a fix. When we came to a border checkpoint, a Nigerian soldier set his eyes on the vehicle and, as our driver pulled over, peered through the windows at each of our faces. He looked at us with the gaze of a man investigating something suspicious.
“Oya, everybody get down,” he barked, and for few moments we looked at each other anxiously.
Ben Ten got down from the bus and had a few words with the soldier before going with him into the customs building by the side of the road. Within minutes, Ben Ten was back and ready to move. The soldier came out with a smile on his face and waved the driver onward.
There were more checkpoints after we crossed into Niger, but we didn’t stay long. Ben Ten took care of them all. With each stop, his prestige grew. We became more and more relaxed.
Zinder was brown with dust. We came upon buildings of ancient mudbricks, Tuareg nomads herding flocks of cattle and scrawny camels across the fields, Niqab-wearing women trekking home with their children, farmers returning after the day’s work, carrying their implements. It was dusk when we reached the city center. Stalled vehicles honked. Hawkers milled about, hoping to benefit from the jam, dangling their wares in at car windows. Exhaust-belching motorcycles tried in vain to wind their way through the confusion.
We parked close to a mosque and ate what we could buy around: biscuits, bread, soft drinks, coconut flesh. We brought out our supplies. We made cocktails. We smoked while lying on our mats, which we’d spread out on the ground. We did not say much. We were too tired for that, but we were thankful to be done with the first leg of the journey. The azure sky deepened. Soon we pulled out our blankets, ready for sleep.
We reached Agadez Bus Station with faces worn from several hours on the road. The streets were jammed with pedestrians, tricycles, and cars. The station was even more crowded. People came loaded in buses like us or crammed in the backs of lorries, a drove of men, women, and children.
“Tomorrow evening we will make the journey across the desert to Libya,” Ben Ten said, craning his neck from where he sat beside the driver. “We will enter the city, eat, and rest. We will spend a day and a night, okay? Once we get to Libya, Europe is not that far again. All of you will achieve your dreams in Jehovah’s great name.”
A chorus of amens followed. We nodded like schoolchildren.
“As you know, they speak French here, so you don’t need to talk to anybody. Let me do the talking,” Ben Ten said, brushing away imaginary obstacles. “We will get a room in a place they call the ghetto. Also no drugs in the city. The police are always patrolling. If they catch you, no one will pay bail. Don’t cause trouble for the rest of us.” We were ready to comply with anything our benefactor said. A day of abstinence would do us no harm and was a small sacrifice for our newfangled dream. We gathered our things and moved.
Our room was one of many in a group of bungalows fenced by mud-brick walls. There was only one window, and the only ventilation came from an electric fan that emitted a bone-crunching noise. The plaster walls were cracked and peeling and covered with scribbles. Some of us removed our shirts and lay flat on our backs, tired and drenched in sweat. Some of us took turns relieving ourselves in the adjoining squat toilet. The floor was hard concrete, where cockroach- infested mats lay over tattered mattresses, but it didn’t matter to us. There was no sacrifice too big for our newfangled dream.
After Ben Ten led us all in a prayer of thanksgiving, he went out with one of us and came back with rice, beans, and stew. Ravenous, we ate with one hand and swatted flies with the other. We licked our bowls clean. Some of us played cards afterwards. Some of us tried to call home with our phones. Some of us gathered around Ben Ten as he told stories of crossing the Sahara, of bandits appearing from bushes and caves, pouncing on cars. Bandits armed with belts of ammunition, automatic rifles, some even grenades.
“We have nothing to worry about,” he said to allay our fears. “God is on our side. The God that has been on our side since the beginning of the journey will not leave us now. You see, there is another path, unknown to the bandits. It’s longer, but it’s worth it.”
His words gave us great assurance. We knew we were safe as long as he was here. The oldest of us pointed to sentences written on the wall. The first was in a language we didn’t know, but the other was in English.
The oldest of us recognized the foreign language as French because he took French in high school. He said the English was a translation of the French. He read the words aloud.
L’Europe ou rien. Dieu est là! Mieux vaut mourir en mer que de mourir devant sa mère—sans rien.
Europe or nothing. God is there! Better to die at sea than to die in front of your mother—without anything.
Laughter rose from our midst. Ben Ten sprang up and went on about why God loved the Europeans more than the Africans.
“We worship idols in Africa, that is why we are so poor,” he concluded. “They worship the only true God. That’s why God has blessed them so much.”
The next day before sunset we were back at the bus station. The bald driver did not return. Instead Ben Ten introduced us to another, whose face we didn’t see because he had muslin wrapped around his head. He came out of a dirty white Toyota Hilux pickup vehicle with blacked-out windows and ripped-off license plates. The driver produced a sack and fished out cloths for our heads also.
In no time, we were crammed in the back of the pickup, jamming sticks between our legs to steady ourselves and keep from falling off.
Other pickups were also ready to go. One roared to life, then another, and soon they were rumbling back and forth, trying to find their way out. Ben Ten asked us to close our eyes for prayer.
Nothing prepared us for the Sahara. Arid grassland faded into sand dunes. At night, cold winds tore through our layers of clothing and chilled our pores. Dust filled our eyes and ears and noses, afflicting us with bouts of coughing and shortness of breath.
When the sun came up in the morning, the heat dried our skins and lips. After nine hours we were left with no water in our bottles. Our tongues were shriveled in our throats. We wanted to strip to nothing, but we couldn’t. The whole of our skin had been soiled by dust, even the parts we shielded.
We tried to distract ourselves by gazing at the vast expanse of sand dunes that stretched before us. There was nothing else to see. It was all dry land and rocky mountains with a sprinkling of trees and plants.
One of us dozed off and tumbled out of the truck. His body hit the ground with a loud thud. He fumbled for a few seconds before lurching after us, screaming, his head bleeding, his sandals slapping his heels. We panicked and shouted at the driver to stop, but he didn’t. The more we shouted, the more dust blew in our mouths and noses and eyes. Ben Ten, who sat with the driver, called back loudly that we couldn’t stop. He said other things, but the revving of the engine drowned his voice.
The poor boy ran for a while, until the cloud of dust raised by the pickup veiled him. By the time the dust settled he was far away, a tiny dot on the horizon.
We tried to hold our composure. The youngest of us started crying. One of us started to pray. Several of us started to pray. Ben Ten shouted us down.
We fell silent, each of us busy with his own thoughts. As the truck sped through the endless sand, the danger of the journey dawned on us. We realized it was no longer up to Ben Ten to keep us safe.
When some of us caught ourselves dozing and clung to our sticks, the oldest of us suggested taking turns to sleep so we could protect each other. We all agreed to the plan.
“Let us pray that the border patrol will pick him up before the bandits. Who wants to die?” Ben Ten said after turning off the highway for fuel near Sabha. “Stopping in the desert would have been very risky. I am trying to help everybody here. That’s all I am trying to do. You should be grateful for what I have done for all of you.” A rigid frown clamped his desiccated face, his beard brown with dust.
We gazed at him with sleepy eyes, morose and dog tired. We did not want to deal with the matter. We were happy we’d survived the treacherous journey. We just wanted food, water, and rest.
The streets of Sabha reeked of sweat and sand and spices. They were lined with shops, boutiques, and passageways. We drove to a guest house with double-decker beds and musty checkered curtains. We showered, ate, took a nap, and when we woke up, Ben Ten gathered us and announced that we would work for two weeks in Sabha.
“I have arranged for jobs for you here,” he said. “I will be gone for two weeks. I will travel to Tripoli to prepare the journey to Europe.” He went away and came back with a tall, bearded, heavyset man. “Serge is one of our consultants,” Ben Ten said with a smile. “He will take good care of you.”
Serge waved at us. Some of us nervously waved back.
The next day Serge showed up again as Ben Ten was getting ready to leave. This time he was with a woman, tall and pregnant, with skin scarred by old smallpox. She wore four gold bangles on each wrist and rings on all her fingers. Serge said nothing to us. He simply smiled.
We packed our things and moved out of the guesthouse. A pickup was waiting, a taxi for Ben Ten, and a black saloon car for Serge and the woman.
Our convoy moved through the zigzag roads of the city. When Ben Ten’s car left us, we turned up a dirt road, growling to the summit of a hill, and stopped in front of a gate. It swung open and Serge’s car moved in.
Moments later, the gate opened again and a truck drove out to us. Bearded men with pistols jumped down and ordered us to get out.
They frisked us from behind. They searched our clothes. They took what they could find in our pockets and bags: our phones, our money, our supplies. They ordered us to raise our hands and spread our legs wide. They ordered us to open our mouths. They searched the insides of our ears. They prodded every recess of our bodies. When they were done searching, the gate swung open again and they let us in. We drove past a beautiful white house surrounded by flowers and trees. Serge’s car was out front. We drove past blocks of hostels. We drove on for several minutes, to a fenced compound chocked with tents.
We worked in their farms. We worked in their factories. We worked to build their hotels and malls. We worked till dust filled our lungs. We got cuts and bruises from clearing debris from construction sites with our bare hands. We hammered things. We shoveled stones. We cleared bush. We hoed under the skin-searing rays of the sun. We hauled things—small things, big things, things heavier than one person could carry. We loaded long vehicles with boxes. We worked at odd hours. We worked without stopping. We worked in the dry heat. We worked till the dusk cooled our bodies. We worked with empty stomachs. We worked with clipped moans and small sighs. We had no helmets, we had no boots. Sometimes we were sick, but they made us work anyway.
Days became weeks and weeks piled up. We waited for Ben Ten to return. We asked the bearded men his whereabouts. They answered us not a word. They spoke nothing of payments.
They took little notice of us when they did not need us. When they did, they screamed. They battered us with slaps. They beat us with sticks. They said we complained too much. They said we were impatient and undisciplined. They said we shouted like wild animals. They forbade us to smoke or drink, not that there was anything to drink or smoke anyway.
After each day’s work we were marched to the cluster of tents in the compound. The tents had no beds. We defecated in the bushes close to the fence. They rationed our food. We drank piss-coloured water. They gave us little time to eat so we wolfed down our meals, often while standing. When night drew in, we slept without washing the filth and stinking sweat from our bodies. Mosquitoes feasted on our blood.
Serge sometimes visited the tents to talk to the guards and size up his merchandise, but he never spoke to us.
We tried to convince ourselves we would soon make enough money to cross the big sea into the promised land. The bearded men would pay us. They would have mercy on us. Going home was not an option.
If you go home, you will bring shame to your family. If you go home, no one will pay you any attention—why would they celebrate your presence if they didn’t miss your absence? If you go home, the police will arrest you for stealing from your uncle before you left. There is nothing at home.
We wondered if somehow it was all our fault. Perhaps we should not have fallen for Ben Ten’s lies. By this time we knew we had been tricked, sold to the bearded men. Perhaps we should have been content despite our wretchedness.
We had nothing to numb the pain in our bodies or our hearts, so we sneezed frequently and our noses ran. A few of us came down with diarrhea and the youngest of us soiled his trousers at work. Some of us shivered, our temperature shooting up, sweat drenching our bodies in the night.
The oldest of us could not work as hard as the rest of us. He winced in pain and panted as he hopped about on his bad leg.
The bearded men did not like that he was slow. One day they beat him until he passed out. We poured water on his face, talked to him, and lifted his head. When he came to, we made him sit up and rest his back against the wall. We left him in the compound for the rest of the day and, after work, came back to see him still in the same spot, only now his head drooped on his chest and his legs were flung wide.
One of us tried to shake him awake. He flopped to the ground.
We buried the oldest of us in a shallow grave close to the fence of the compound. The bearded men made us dig it. We took turns with the shovel, our hands trembling with grief as we scooped up the earth.
“Let us send his body home to his family. Let him not be buried without honor in a strange land,” one of us said, but the bearded men shut him down.
We found ourselves longing for the abandoned building’s fence.
We settled into a kind of routine. We prepared for the worst, even as we prayed for our suffering to end. We told ourselves we might never go home, not to our fractured families, not to the abandoned building’s fence. Surviving each day became more important to us.
Serge’s partner gave birth to a baby boy and he came to the tents with bottles of wine for his men. He drank with them and came to us after a few glasses.
“My lovely girlfriend gave me a son today! She gave me a son!”
We feigned broad smiles and applauded.
“Thank you. Thank you very much. Today is a day of celebration. You will celebrate with me.”
Later that day, the pickup came for us. We were driven to a hostel, where we were told to shower. They served us hot meals: rice with vegetables, simmering in a spicy sauce. We consumed it with the tears that dropped from our eyes.
In the lobby of the hostel, the bearded men covered a desk with bales of cash. The person behind the desk, moistening the tip of his finger in a bowl of water which he kept for this purpose, counted the notes.
“Single line,” he barked.
The pickup drove us into the city. The bearded men said we had two hours to spend the money however we liked, but not without an armed escort.
We knew what we wanted. We knew what to look for.
The smoke of chemicals, the sweet sweet strawberry taste of codeine.