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Oral Literacture

Twillight Trek

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 Twillight Trek

Sefi Atta

(Nigeria)

Gao. An agent hands me a fake passport – my name is not Jean-Luc, I am not from Mali and I am definitely no Francophone African.

I am fluent in English though, and luckily the agent can communicate in Pidgin. He leads me through a haze of smoke to a mud hut where I will hide until nightfall. The smoke is coming from the compound where a group of old Malian women are cooking a mid-day meal. The women are shrouded in robes. Being such good Moslems, you would think they would invite a stranger to eat. Anyway, I am happy to go indoors instead of sweltering in the heat like them. I do not care to know the town of Gao. The further north I am in Africa, the more one place begins to resemble the other.

Like me, other travelers in Gao have come from somewhere south. We will cross the Sahara to get to Morocco, and from there cross the Mediterranean to get into Spain. We are illegals. It is not that we do not have enough money to fly overseas; it’s just that the foreign embassies do not grant Africans like us visas.

Half my fare is hidden in my sneakers. To raise the full amount, I sold marijuana. I was not making much of a cut, so I duped my boss. He threatened to send a gang to slit my throat, after they had raped me. I knew I had to leave town immediately. Death, I could live with, but I could not afford to be tampered with like that, against my will.

When I was young, my mother used to smear lipstick all over my face. ‘’Keep still,’’ she would order as I struggled. ‘’See how pretty you look.’’ She oiled my hair with pomade and braided it into cornrows like a girl’s. In the afternoons, after school, I would beg her to let me play football with other boys in our neighbourhood; she would make me sit on a stool and watch her roasting groundnuts. She would be singing that awful nursery rhyme:

 

                             The birds have come home

                               Tolongo

                               One black, one red

                               Tolongo

                               Their tails are touching the ground

                               Sho

 

Instead of clapping, I would be frowning at her huge crusty feet. Even with those feet, my mother managed to walk the streets in high heels and solicit all sorts of men: rich, married, handsome, fat – white sailors like my father. One day she introduced me to a Lebanese man who was known for liking light-skinned boys. ‘’He’ll only only touch,’’ she promised. I ran away from home after that, lived on the streets, played football with a group of louts and discovered just how professional I was at the sport. In fact, for a while, before I warned them to stop understating my talent, my football friends were calling me – what’s his name? – Pele?

 

************************************************************************

 

 

In the hut, there is a prayer mat. I fall asleep on it. In my dream, my mother’s face appears as I remember it: two thick penciled-in lines for brows, a chip in her front tooth, and pink rouge on her cheeks. Her feet are the roots of a tree, with dry bark for skin. She cannot move, and yet she is able to hunt me down and find me, wherever I am, even here in Gao

She tells me that, all things considered, to trek overseas is reasonable. A man she knew hid himself in the wheel well of an airplane that flew overnight to London. It could have been the low temperature or high altitude that finished him. Immigration officers discovered his body two days later. By the end of the month, they had deported him back to his family for burial. 

She says the lesson to learn is that the world is round, which means that if I run too fast I might end up chasing the very homeland I am running from. She lecturers me even in my dreams, my mother. She is the daughter of a schoolteacher, lest anyone forget. 

 

********************************************************

 

When it is dark enough, I come out of the hut. My stomach is fed up with grumbling for attention it is in a silent sulk. I buy myself bread and sardines to eat, enough to last the journey. I buy drinking water, bottles of it. I meet a pretty girl called Patience at the depot where the agent instructed me to wait with other travellers for our transportation out of Gao.

Patience is skinny with a bit of a backside. Her trousers are too tight. Her hair is curly and greased back. She wears a silver hoop in her nostril. She claims to be from Mali, but she has been living in the capital city, Bamako. She says this as if it is some sort of achievement, as if it separates her from villagers who are happy to stay in Africa herding their cattle, hoeing their land or whatever.

‘’You have a man in Bamako?’’ I ask her.

‘’Do you know how old I am?’’

‘’Sweet sixteen at most?’’

‘’You small boy! Don’t cheek me! How old are you yourself?’’

She laughs and swings slaps at me. I am a year older than I was on the day I left home, is all she needs to know. African women are proud of their ages. I bet patience is taken by my looks. I bet she has taken rubbish from men not nearly as good-looking as me. I bet she is used to it. In my old neighbourhood, a pretty girl like her would have been beaten up several times by her man.

Our trucks arrive while she is still busy trying to snub me. They are small trucks with tarpaulin covers. We do not scramble for them. We all believe we will get in one way or the other. Our guides are Tuaregs with indigo cloths wrapped around their heads. They know the desert routes. They will drive us through Mali, Algeria and beyond. There is talk that travellers are sometimes attacked by bearded Moslems and bandits; that trucks often break down and there is no guarantee that gendarmes on patrol will arrive on time to rescue us. This makes a few women turn around at the last moment, especially those with children. I hop into the same truck as Patience and sit by her.

‘’You again?’’ she says.

I wink. ‘’I’m just here to protect you.’’

There are seven of us under the tarpaulin. I check out the others while cracking my knuckles: passenger one, tattered shoes; two, greasy skullcap; three, lopsided headscarf; four, chapped lips; five, gold chain and red eyes. Nothing new.

 

 

********************************************************

 

How long can I bear this god-forsaken place? We can only travel at night when the cold winds blow. During the day, the sand – you cannot understand – is like needles in my eyes, ants in my nostrils, cobwebs in my chest. It is everywhere. I eat bread and crunch on grains. I gulp down water and grit gets stuck in my throat. I cough so hard my head could detonate.

I am telling you, in the most crowded cities, I have ridden in taxis with wobbly wheels and no doors, hitched rides on highways in lorries that bounce from one pothole to the other. I have slept in villages where dogs will not stop to take a piss, had bouts of diarrhoea, fever to get to Gao. I cannot understand these Tuaregs. Only camels are meant to survive in the Sahara.

At first, Patience would say, ‘’Mr. Protector, how now?’’ and I would mumble, ‘’Cool.’’. Then I could not be bothered to answer because my tongue started to swell. Then she stopped teasing me, perhaps because she realized that joking around might eventually exhaust her.

Now, she is choking away like everyone else in our truck. We spit where we crouch. We reek badly. Our legs are cramped. The man with the skullcap says he is suffering from piles because of the constant jolts. His wheezy wife complains that she cannot breathe. ‘’Shut up!’’ I want to shout.

 

****************************************************************

 

Day two. We stop for a rest, finally. I fall out of the truck and roll underneath to avoid the afternoon sun. There is sand even in my underpants.

Patience slides next to me. ‘’Are you alright?’’

‘’Yes.’’

‘’Sorry I teased you earlier.’’

‘’Don’t worry.’’

‘’It’s just that, to me, you’re young. Too young to be on your own crossing the desert.’’ Her breath smells of sardines.

‘’I’m not that young.’’

She stretches. ‘’You know, in Bamako, I heard that this is the same route the Arabs used to traffic African slaves in the olden days.’’

Who cares? I think.

‘’Do you have someone to meet overseas?’’ she asks.

‘’Nope.’’

‘’What will you do when you get there?’’

‘’Play football.’’

‘’Yes?’’

‘’Yeah, and I’ll be famous, then I’ll get a white woman. I hear they’re less trouble.’’

‘’Sure.’’

Sometimes I am too afraid to think, especially about my mother and that Lebanese. Perhaps that is why I am this way: braggadocious. Perhaps that is why it is impossible for me to worry about where I will end up. Patience pulls a white Bible out of her pocket and begins to tell me about Moses who led the Israelites. It is a good story. It puts me straight to sleep.

*****************************************************

 

Again, my mother finds me. This time, she wants to know if my girlfriend is aware that she is reading a testimony passed from generation to generation. She says if only we Africans take time to compile our stories in a holy book, we might just learn from our past. How many of us have sought the Promised Land and ended up driving taxi cabs, guarding buildings at night, washing dirty plates and toilet seats, sleeping in cold ghettos and on streets?

She says she knows of African women overseas who are recruited as domestic servants and service their masters in bed. She says she has heard of African men who will marry any sort of woman for the sake of being right with immigration. These men call their wives darlings, eat their bland stews, father their children. Yet, they cannot open their mouth to talk because their wives are liberated. Their children have rights too, so if a father dares to raise his hands to discipline his son, he might find himself sleeping in jail. She says she hopes I will not become that type of African man, a whitewashed African. 

I wake up so fast Patience says my eyes look like they are about to pop.

 

*****************************************************

 

That nasty Tuareg is making us pay him extra. I cannot believe the lunatic. He beckons that he is about to drive off. He pats his palms, all dried up like beef jerky. He wants more dollars or else he is leaving us here, stranded in the scorching desert. He is yelling in bloody Berber or whatever. The wheezy woman is pleading that she is suffocating; can he not take pity on us? Her husband with the piles begins to weep. I could punch him. Why do we Africans make spectacles instead of fighting for ourselves?

Patience says, ‘’Look here, Mama and Papa, I want to get to Morocco. I don’t want to die in the desert. Pay the man, you hear?’’

The Tuareg calms down when we give him an extra $100 each to continue our journey. How I wish I could curse him to his face, but his eyes never seem to blink.

As we set off, I see the sun setting through a tear in the tarpaulin. It is orange and sliced in half by the horizon. We pass two trucks almost buried under the sand, like giant carcasses. I shiver, not because of the wind. For the first time, I think we might not make it to Morocco after all.

Two birds, I keep humming. One black. One Red. Their tails are touching the ground. Their tails are…

 

*****************************************************

 

 

Tangier. Well, almost. The Tuareg drops us at the foot of a mountain. It is the end of his own journey. He has driven us hundreds of miles and none of us is thankful to him, the cheat. We have prayed, cursed, and crossed the border with our fake passports. Our feet are numb, and now we have to walk to a camp in a forest on the mountain where travellers stop.

Patience says it is unfair. Climbing up a mountain is not what she bargained for. She is meant to be in a guest house somewhere in Tangier, overlooking the Mediterranean. ‘’I am not doing it,’’ she says, bursting into tears. ‘’I did not leave Bamako to sleep in a bush like a common villager.’’

Three women surround her. The wheezy one rubs her back whispering, ‘’Sh, it’s okay.’’ Patience gasps as if she is expelling something bitter. ‘’All right,’’ she says, wiping her tears with her thumbs. ‘’I’m ready now.’’

Her trouser seams have burst; her hair is so covered in sand she resembles an old woman. I am surprised she is capable of crying. Every drop of water I have drunk is dried up after the desert. My brain is like fried gizzards at this point. It is almost evening and I think I might have forgotten how to fall asleep. If someone shows me the sea and says, ‘’Here, walk over it,’’ I will. Still, I want to give Patience some assurance, so I reach for her hand.

‘’No, no,’’ she says and eases mine away.

She hobbles up the mountain like the rest of us.

****************************************************

 

Honestly, it is like finding an open sewer when we reach the camp. People sure can stink whenever we are like this: in deep rot. I fit in well, I am in a shirt that has not seen soap since before I got to Gao. The people here are not like any villagers; they are like refugees on television, squatting under plastic sheets: men, women and children, mothers nursing their babies. They are coughing, scratching, and slapping their arms and legs.

‘’I can’t’’, Patience whispers, and collapses by the root of a tree. She begins to sob again. This time she says that fleas are biting her all over. She gets on my nerves. While she sits there with her head in her hands, I build a tent for the two of us. One good thing: the others are willing to help. They give me a plastic sheet and show me how to tie it to a tree. They tell me to be prepared for thieves, the Moroccan security forces, and to look out for conmen that will take my money. Even the air we breathe may carry plagues.

All they want to do is work. They would work in their countries if they can; they will work overseas. They have worked in Casablanca, in Tangier. It is easier for me to venture to the port, they say, because I am – you know – a mulatto. No one will suspect I am from pays-z’amis – you know, black Africa.

I lie under my new tent and catch what conversations I can in English: who has reached Ceuta, who was caught by the guardia civil and sent back before they could make it to Ceuta. Before I can find out where Ceuta is, I fall asleep with my sneakers on, just in case they get stolen.

 

***********************************************

 

This place is no stop, my mother says; it is the anteroom to Hell. It is where spirits wait to pass to the other world. It is the only time left for those who have stopped living and are yet to be pronounced dead; the ground between madness and reason; the Mountain of Babel where Africans speak in foreign tongues and nothing they say makes sense, so I need not listen. How is it possible, she asks, that I can be denied asylum in Spain, when this place resembles the aftermath of a war zone? 

 

*********************************************

 

Patience is under the tent with me when I open my eyes. Miraculously, she has magicked a tin-pot and is cooking over burning sticks.

‘’What are you making?’’ I ask, stretching.

‘’Chicken,’’ she murmurs.

Four feet. They are boiling in a sort of frothy broth. My stomach groans.

‘’That’s why I like my women African,’’ I say. ‘’A white one will be of no use here.’’

‘’I’m almost old enough to have given birth to you,’’ she mutters.

So much for your kindness. She brings up my mother.

‘’I’m not that young,’’ I whine like a girl.

‘’Sorry I lost my nerve earlier,’’ she says after a while.

‘’It’s all right,’’ I say. ‘’I suppose you’re used to the good life.‘’

She shakes her head. ‘’In Bamako, I was a prostitute.’’

I do not know what to say to that. I remove my sneakers to air my blisters. She stirs the chicken feet.

 

*********************************************

 

There is a Nigerian here called Obazee. I think he fancies himself some kind of a village chief. He has a university degree. He lays down the laws of the forest, he and his cronies. Patience will not come to consult him though. She says it is only God that can save us now. She is reading her bible again.

Nigerians are an arrogant lot. This Obazee, all I do is call his name without adding a Mr., and he comes so close to me, with his chest hairs all matted like dead flies.

‘’Mr. Obazee to you,’’ he says. ‘’Who’s asking?’’

‘’Me, Jean-Luc.’’

‘’Don’t you know how to respect your elders?’’

‘’I’ve crossed a desert.’’

He could give me that, at least. There are tribal marks on his cheeks and sores have eaten up the corners of his lips.

‘’Parlez-vous Francais?’’ he asks, tilting his head.

‘’Wee?’’

 

He laughs. ‘’You’re no Jean-Luc, but whoever you are, just be careful how you mention my name next time. None of this shouting Obazee, Obazee, all over the place, or I’ll conk your little head.’’

I have decided. I hate him.

‘’How long have you been here?’’ I ask.

‘’Six years.’’

‘’Six,’’ I yell.

He frowns. ‘’What? People have been around longer, for over ten years even. Time is not the object.’’

‘’Why don’t you just cross to Spain?’’

‘’You think it’s as easy as that?’’

‘’I have to cross.’’

‘’You think you’re the only one?’’

‘’Then why do you stay?’’

‘’Come,’’ he says beckoning. ‘’Come before the sun goes down, and see for yourself, since you think we are all fools here.’’

Again my legs carry me, snapping on twigs and stamping them into the mud. Obazee walks too fast. I follow him through the camp, past a group of people singing, ‘’When shall I see my home? When shall I see my native land? I will never forget my home…’’

‘’When I first came,’’ he says, ‘’I used to stay in Tangier, in a guest house near Petit Socco. It’s not easy like that anymore. The security forces, if they find you, they will deal with you; then they’ll send you back to Algeria. You’ll die before you ever see Gao. I moved here to avoid them. I’m trying to sneak overland into Ceuta. It’s what all of us are waiting for. They have a centre there. You’ll get meals. They will decide if you deserve asylum. The trouble is, they have barbed wire around the place, and the guardia civil patrol it. They keep catching me. The last time they beat me up well, well.’’

He stops and lifts his shirt. There are scars on his back.

‘’I swear,’’ he says. ‘’I would have died if not for Medecins San Frontieres.’’

He takes me to a cliff. From there we can see Spain. The lights on the coast are so bright; the houses in the port of Tangier are pure white.

‘’See?’’ he says. ‘’It’s tempting, isn’t it? Twenty miles only. El Dorado. You can cross anytime if you have enough to pay a samsara to take you. The pateras carry more passengers. The dinghies are cheaper, but they capsize. People have drowned.’’

I can barely hear my own voice. ‘’Which way is better, Ceuta or sea?’’

‘’I’ve given you the options,’’ he says. ‘’Take your pick.‘’

 

***********************************************

 

I relieve myself in the dark and wipe myself with a leaf. When I return to our tent, Patience is still reading her Bible. I want to tell her all I have found out from Obazee. I want to find out if she has enough to pay a samsara.

‘’Bad news,’’ I announce.

She shines her flashlight on a page and says, ‘’Listen. ‘I have heard the complaints of the Israelites. Tell them at twilight they will have all the bread they want…’’

‘’I’m tired,’’ I say.

Fairy tales can’t save us.

 

*********************************************

 

So, my mother says, my girlfriend turns out to be just another woman of the night. Why then is she reading her bible and going on about the Israelites of the past? Here are real stories from a modern African exodus, she says.

One man from Mali, he could not afford his fare. He crossed the Sahara on foot. It took him several years. The Moroccan security forces got hold of him when he reached Tangier. They repatriated him straight back to the border with Algeria and told him to find his way to Gao. Yes, with the same two legs that brought him to their country. 

Another man from Rwanda came by truck with his family. This was long before the barbed wire was erected around Ceuta. The family got into Ceuta all right; then they were kept in detention for months, waiting for their lawyer to prove that they were really from Rwanda. 

What about the Sierra Leonean who, shortly after the barbed wire went up, tried to scale it several times until his skin was practically shredded? He decided to swim across the sea to get to Spain. He had only one hand by the way. The salt water stung his skin; he still made it to the shore. His missing hand was there to prove that he was fleeing a civil war. 

What about the Nigerian who secretly regretted that her own homeland was not war-town, and hoped that the baby in her belly would be considered worthy of asylum. The baby came out two months too early, right here in the forest. Mother and child never made it to the next day. 

Then there was the Senegalese. She could not swim. She found a samsara to carry her by dinghy, and it was not that the dinghy leaked or capsized. It was the samsara: he said he could not get too close to the shore; the guardia civil might catch him, so he ordered her to jump out of his dinghy into the sea and find her way somehow. 

Perhaps Africans should not compile these stories in any book, my mother says. Who wants to save such stories for posterity? No, she says, these stories are worse than any nightmares, so considering what may lie ahead, it is better that I continue to sleep for the rest of my journey. 

 

****************************************************

 

 

The night is so chilly we sleep curled up like a couple of crayfish. We wake up to the sound of thuds, shouting, pots clanging, babies crying. It is dawn and the sun has not yet dried up the dew.

The commotion is over Obazee and his Nigerian cronies. They have decided to move the camp further into the bush, to hide from the security forces. Some people are protesting that they do not want to move – actually protesting over their little hovels. They follow Obazee as he marches ahead of them saying, ‘’I’ve given you the options. Take your pick.’’

Patience and I watch those who are already untying their tents. I have no doubt how we must leave the camp now.

‘’Do you have money left?’’ I ask.

‘’For food.’’ She slurs.

She is sluggish. She took painkillers. I run my tongue over my teeth and spit. My mouth tastes bitter.

‘’It’s 500 dollars each to go by dinghy and 1000 dollars each to go by pateras.’’

She slaps sand out of her hair. ‘’Who said?’’

‘’Obazee. You should have come. Yesterday. He showed me the shore. He said we can go by sea or wait for months to sneak into Ceuta like people around here.’’

I tell her what I know. I know exactly what she is thinking. She has put her trust in the Lord.

‘’Do you at least have enough to get to Tangier?’’ I ask.

She pushes out her bottom lip. ‘’Mm-mm.’’

‘’How did you intend to get to Spain without money?’’

‘’I don’t know.’’

Perhaps she is waiting for a hand to come down from heaven and part the sea for her.

‘’Where are you heading for after Spain?’’ I ask.

‘’Rome.’’

‘’What will you do when you get to Rome?’’

‘’Work.’’

‘’What work?’’

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