Berekum, GH

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Ghosts of the Burning Sands

Ghosts of the Burning Sands

We sat leg crossed under the palm fronds hut, everyone waiting desperately to hear from their family whether some money had been wired to us. The sun flecks peering through the hut dispersed into a mosaic which resembled the one behind the pulpit of the Catholic church in my village, Nkoranza.

Father Matthew will always say vociferously during Sunday service, his eyes transfixed, I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. And what was that verse again? After squinting and fixing my gaze on Manu’s face as if I was plucking the verse from his eyes I remembered Philippians 4:3. I was quite chuffed with myself. After this gruesome journey to get here I thought my brain had gone to a pulp. A passeur told me the day before with a mocking grin on his face, the journey gets easier from here. I need that strength Father Matthew talked about more than ever.

There was a rapturous hail when Ali captured all Seidu’s pieces. The game was over, and Ali was the winner. Papa Agadez!! Papa Agadez!!, the campmates held him aloft and tossed him up and down. The call was well timed, almost seemed a deserving one for his win after the long wait to hear from his family. He is the longest resident of the camp, having been there getting to a year. Sometimes it appeared to me the place was almost becoming a home for him. I had been there for barely a month and I was already getting fed up. He hurried to the corner of the banco walls. He paced up and down a little animated, his voice varying perfectly with his gestures. He sounded relieved yet had this sense of bewildering as he came off the phone. We all gathered around him like a pack of hyenas seizing a prey, only that this time we were all itching to hear the news. He mouthed, yeah, it’s in, in a muted voice as he meandered through for the sleeping hall. The compound house, which was about 4000 square feet, was one of many in Agadez, which served as a transit point for many audacious illegal migrants like me who tentatively hoped to conquer the desert. Ali’s good news had made me consider my fate in this place where we were at the mercy of the scorching sun. Life had become monotonous: we huddled around a pan of watery porridge in the mornings; our next meal was a bowl rice mixed with tomato stew which we had during sunset; in between we just waited for that phone call.

When we finished Polytechnic, we knew it was not going to be a smooth ride, but we also did not envisage the insurmountable hurdles we had to overcome. With a two-one in electrical engineering and electronics I felt with a little determination I will find a decent job which will enable me to cater for Maame Efua and to foot the school bills for my two younger siblings. Maame Efua had struggled to provide throughout my education, doing different jobs eventually with no choice she sold the only worthy property she had, the cocoa farm, so I could go to the Polytechnic. I tried unsuccessfully to convince her not to sell the farm and that I will work as a labourer on people’s farms until I had saved enough for school. She was relentless in her defiance not to allow me to take a gap in my education. You are my cocoa Badu, she would say her eyes moist. Manu’s situation was no different from mine probably even worse. After his father, who was the main provider, was shot during an altercation with another krakye, over some cocoa money the other man owed him, things started going downhill. The only consolation was that we were in our final year and so he was hopeful he will be able to secure a job and take care of his family after graduation. The years whizzed by like a whirlwind as I and Manu continued to hustle and sniff out any job we could find. In the third year of our incessant quest, we travelled to Kumasi, the second biggest city, to try our luck but we were back after a few months because it was one misfortune after the other.

Ali told me later that evening his sister told him his mum was on her deathbed when he spoke to her in the afternoon. His eyes downcast, squatting in the corner of the half-illuminated room he mumbled, I have been wondering whether it is worth it. What is the point of going on this journey if the people I am doing this for are dying? I could feel the well of tears building in his throat as I reached for his shoulders to commiserate with him. She is not going to die, I assured him. He responded with a faint nod and started packing his belongings in his rucksack which looked like it had survived several natural disasters, a relic.

Ali was a muscled man with a skin tone like ebony. He was an imposing figure with a height of 6 foot 4 but unusually soft-spoken. He had a deep cut across his temple which he will later explain he obtained from a brawl he had with a group of thugs who wanted to extort him and the other migrants when they were travelling from Niamey to Agadez. Ali was a Gambian who came from one of the suburbs in Banjul. In many of our dusk lamentations about our respective countries, he will moan about how Yayha Jammeh was plunging the country into total disarray. He struggled to understand why people had to struggle to get jobs in a country of only 2 million people. At the end of each of these discussions, which sometimes got heated, Ali would say, Baadu you need to go home mehn there is still a place for you. He had confided in me that he left school after class six because of the hardships at home to fend on the streets. Most of them held Ghana, my country of origin, in high esteem and at the beginning felt I only deserved to be a spectator in these conversations. They talked about how Ghana is peaceful, and it has one of the highest economic growths in Africa. To these assertions, I partly or maybe totally disagreed. What about the cost of the Bui hydroelectric dam inflated to about thrice the actual cost? What about the tribal conflict in the northern region which have been going on for decades? What about the broken-down national health system? And the list goes on.

As I made my way to check up on Manu who was ill with diarrhoea, Ali muttered, we leave at 2 am this morning. I swiftly pivoted waiting for him to clarify where to, Banjul or Tripoli. The tears trickled down his cheek and contoured into his half-opened mouth. He was going to brace the desert in a hope to make it to Tripoli. He looked ashamed and remorseful. Had he let his family and his mother down? A part of me thought he would give up and go back but who was I to question his decision? Maybe I should be the one to go home.
In the morning Ali’s corner was empty. He had meticulously folded his sleeping mat and leaned it on the wall. Resting underneath the mat was his water jug and his punctured flipflop. The camp felt deserted, there was a void. He carried the energy of the camp; everyone clamoured around him and he loved the attention. It felt it was the oxygen he thrived on. I wondered where they had reached on the journey.

Manu’s diarrhoea had worsened. He told me he had used the latrine eight times in the night. Maybe he must have seen Ali leave, I wondered. Should I ask him? I wouldn’t bother. He laid frail on his mat struggling to string words. With one hand across his back and the other holding his right shoulder, I helped him to sit up and propped him against the wall. His eyes looked jaundiced; his brows bulged as if they had been filled with extra fat; his cheek had caved in and the gap in his teeth had become ever more conspicuous. During breakfast, I begged the guys to scoop a few ladles of the porridge for him. This sickness had shockingly razed his body. As he took every gulp of the porridge my eyes followed that wasteful journey: the mouth to the oesophagus to the stomach where the porridge rumbled, nothing absorbed or assimilated, straight to the anus waiting to the discharged. When the sun went down later in the day we circuited the compound for him to get some fresh air. After revolving once he complained he was tired, so we sat down on a log bench. He hugged his knees and rested his cheek on the fold to catch his breath. At that moment I appreciated the extent of his sickness. I thought this was one of those runny stomachs we got which vanished after a day, but it appeared what was happening to him required proper medical attention but where were we to find it. That evening I knew I nearly lost him. The vomiting and running were ceaseless. He went pale and the pupil in his eye was nearly gone. With the help of some of the boys, we took him into the compound and poured some water on him before he gained full consciousness.
I was woken by the persistent annoying ring of Manu. He was snoring heavily, with snot pulsing in and out of his nose. Both of us had been up most of the night. I slid slowly on the sleeping mat like a sloth as I grabbed the phone and hastily pressed the green icon.
Manu! Manu! the person called.

It’s me, Badu, not him, I responded after some hesitation.
Oh, Badu! How are you? Where is your brother? Its Maame Yaa
He is still sleeping, I replied.
At this moment Manu’s eyes were half opened and were looking at me with a piercing look which communicated whatever he wanted to say. He has been a person of few words since we were kids and so I had learned to understand his non-verbal cues more than his words. As kids when we used to play we were wary of his long silence than his unusual loud outbursts.
Can I speak to him? Maame Yaa inquired.
Manu wagged his finger and shook his head in objection.
He is far asleep Maame Yaa, I said quakingly turning to Manu for approval.
Ok Badu, Maame Yaa sighed after a long pause.
Tell him I miss him. I wanted to tell you two that we have sent the money, Maame said in a dampened tone.
After she gave the details of the transfer, she told me that she and Maame Efua got the money from a creditor in a neighbouring town and their prayer is that when we eventually got to Europe we can pay it back.

Whenever I looked at myself in the mirror I saw a different person. I had morphed into a caricature I couldn’t find in any of the childhood books I read. The gully under my eye was enough to hold water. My hair had folded into unsavoury ridges like the beads of faeces of the goats we raised back home. My skin was that of crocodile demarcated into patches inhabited by different odour making bacteria. I wondered how this piece of art I was creating out of my body would look like in the end. My thumbnails were festering with dirt and my overgrown sideburns had clouded my face. My emotions had drowned my tears such that my well of tears was empty. When the van taxied into Tripoli the extent of the damage of the war was glaring. Buildings that looked like they were skyscrapers were reduced to rubble. Shrapnel was scattered everywhere and almost every surviving or half surviving building was darted with gaping bullet holes. Reverberations of gunshots could be heard in the distance every now and then. Any time we heard gunshots the van veered into a safe spot until it was deemed safe for us to go back on the road. After evading several hotspots of fights between different militias, we were offloaded at a construction site north of the city. A group of men emerged from nowhere shouting and gesturing aggressively for us to line up. We hurriedly huddled in a file with our bags clutched to our chests. We were asked to drop our bags, turn and stretch our arms facing the wall. We were patted down, and our pockets emptied. I had left 10 Dinar in my wallet as bait and sewed the rest of the money in the sole of my shoes. After the search, we were led into a tiny claustrophobic room where we were asked to put on an overall ready for work on the site. The atmosphere at the site could best be described as that of a termite mound where the worker termites laboured to maintain the mound and provide food and the soldier termites protected the mound. The site was nothing more than an ugly skeleton, fenced with barbed wires. Cement mixers, rickety bulldozer, and a decaying girder were sparsely positioned on the site. The site was swallowed in a cacophony of noise from the rattling of the mixture; the grinding of the bulldozer; and the moaning of the girder. The labourers yelled across to each other in a myriad of languages. Everyone on the site was bathed in sand and mortar as they zigzagged carrying mortar to various parts of the building. Some of the labourers also stood on crippled scaffolds chiselling or hammering different parts of the building. I pondered why anyone would build knowing clearly the building might be destroyed by a bomb sooner or later.
After a week on the site, my lungs were begging to explode. My nose and ears were blocked. I realised my sense of smell and hearing had deteriorated badly. I was in agonising pain and couldn’t eat or drink properly. It was a dog’s world, each one for himself. I hoped someone would show some empathy to help me with some of my tasks but what I got mostly was scolding for being lazy. I was warned I was showing a weakness which will not survive in the Mediterranean. I was told I will be one of those who died on the site and never saw the result of their toil. I missed Manu. Manu would have fetched water for me; he would have helped me do my daily task, and he would have fed me. My heart sunk, and my sorrows deepened. I found myself in this alien land surrounded by vultures wishing for my carcass. The days got longer, and my health worsened with it. I wondered how I was going to raise the 1000 Dinar to pay the smugglers for the 200miles journey to Europe. Maybe I would die on the site. How true could they be? My strength had left me, and I was feeble so there was no way I was going to make it on that sea journey. I began to accept and brood on the reality. The more my thoughts wandered, the more I thought of Manu.

When we left Agadez that misty dawn it appeared the pickup truck knew there was a bad omen awaiting somewhere in the desert. After several unsuccessful starts, we gave it a hard push before it gave in. After some farts, it stuttered a few times before bolting into the night darkness. The cold and heavy air slapped across my eyes as the truck jetted. We were arranged like sardines such that there was absolutely no space to spare. I, Manu and other guys sat on the peripherals of the trailer. A lady with a 2-year-old son and two other ladies, I imagined would be in their early twenties sat in the space in the middle. We were all dressed like beekeeper’s or ninjas to mitigate the beatings from the desert sand. Once the truck had driven off a sudden silence descended amongst us, everyone’s eyes fixated on this unending road in this barren-brown desert. Everyone looked pensive and deep in their thoughts. The cry of the 2-year-old boy heralded the rising of the sun four hours into the journey. His mother opened a bowl of Cerelac, made a porridge from it and fed it to him. He looked at his mother with fondness, stroking her face as she fed him, but she couldn’t manage a smile back. A mother’s pain, her face contorted from years of toil. Like any two-year-old, he was innocent and carefree. Every now and then he will mumble what seemed like a nursery rhyme. I will later learn he is Josiah and his mum, Martha and they hailed from Aba in the south-eastern part of Nigeria. She was fleeing persecution after being accused of using juju to kill her husband. She sobbed uncontrollably as she narrated the story.

As dusk fell the driver slowed down and parked the car to catch some sleep before the next stage of the journey. He advised us to eat some food and take a rest as well. I gave Manu who was deeply asleep, his head frailly dangling in between his legs, a nudge to get down. After several attempts, he was still unresponsive, so I lifted his head. His face was painted in the sand; his eyes were dazed, and his lips were pursed with saliva drooling from one corner. I sought the help of the guys to bring him down and hastily washed his face with some water before he slowly opened his eyes. I sat him and leaned him against the tire of the car. I forced some gari and water down his throat. He had not uttered a word but just looked at me as if he was looking at something inside me. Something which was fleeting and intangible. Everyone except the driver was terrified by what had happened. The driver stood there, his arms folded on his chest and his eyes wide open looking at Manu pitifully. He looked as if he could foretell what might happen later.
‘’Ghana man?’’ the driver inquired.
I nodded with surprise. I imagined with his years of experience and the different people he had encountered, their nationally had become unconsciously imbued in him.
‘’Your brother?’’ he continued.
I nodded again. Yes, Manu is my brother I thought to myself. Our experiences and bond transcended bloodlines. I looked at him his face mercilessly carved by the illness, his neck curved backward and his head resting peacefully on the car tire, the well of tears started building in my throat.
‘’ This land, many unhappy ghosts. I call ghosts of the burning sands’’ he muttered, his head pivoted, and his eyes fixed on the horizon.
‘’ You see far away?’’ pointing his finger into the distance, ‘’ all graves of people, died. Pray for brother ‘’ he sighed. He turned quickly and hopped into the front of the car.

That night I kept a vigil, monitoring Manu closely. The desert was bitterly cold, and the air was heavy. Everyone had curled up at different corners around the car. I wondered why the driver was being that gloomy earlier on. I appraised the desert into the distance until the darkness on the land merged with that of the sky. The expanse of the desert was overwhelming. I was overtaken with fear and trembling as chills run down my spine. I must have been dozing off when a tuba cough by Manu jolted me. He slanted unto me like a felled tree. The snot from his nose and phlegm from his gaping mouth soaked the shoulder of my shirt. I hurriedly stood up and held him by the shoulder shouting his name. His breathing was intermittent. He was trying to speak to me, but his tongue had filled his mouth and was foaming. He wiggled violently in my arms struggling to breathe. At this point, all the others had come around. We tried our best to stabilise him, but the concussion continued until he heaved a big sigh and went quiet. The driver quickly went into the car to get a torchlight. We studied his eyes, but his pupils were frozen. I touched his temple and face which felt unusually cold. I felt numb and out of the body. I wondered when this dream was going to end. My legs and hands felt heavy and shadows of the others looming over me were suffocating me. I howled with a loud cry. The tears dropped freely like a waterfall. I felt that which had arrested my tears had finally released them. I cupped my hands and cried into them some more. The driver told me to stop crying as it was an abomination to cry in the desert at night, but the more he insisted the more I cried. He searched the dead body and removed any documentation and belongings on it and handed them to me. He organised the others to carry the body to bury in a mound of sand some distance away. I watched in this unending dream as they carried my friend and vanished into the night darkness. The driver told us to quickly get into the car when they came back to continue with the journey as it was not healthy to stay there until morning. As the day broke and the sun rose from behind the clouds it appeared the desert was vomiting the many souls it had swallowed at night. There were carcasses and bones strewed haphazardly across the desert. Everybody looked exhausted as the truck hummed along.

I felt his hot breath over me as the call to prayer bellowed incessantly in the distance. He kicked me continuously belting out at me to get up for work. Hey! Hey! Are you crazy? Crazy? time! time! tapping his wrist impatiently. This was Abdul the boss of the site whom I will later learn is a Sudanese. He came to Libya with the same plight as me but after years of working with the different militias and realising how lucrative their shady undertakings were, he relinquished those dreams. He ruled the site with an iron fist. He had an eye as resolute as that of an eagle and ears as sharp as that of a bat. He always looked very alert and, on edge, waiting to sniff out any insurrection that might be brooding.
Bones cracking and muscles almost rigor mortised, I gripped a pillar and lifted myself up. Abdul looked raged that I overslept. He threw a pan and a head pad to me and gestured for me to go towards to the mixer. The day was painfully slow with everyone being impatient and unforgiving about my sluggishness. Later in the afternoon Adbul, having had enough of my turtled and unproductive day, pulled me aside.
‘’Do you want to live or die? You are becoming of no use’’, he muttered in an unusually soft tone.
‘’The way things are going I do not think you are ever going to make it to any of the boats. I do not know how you are going to pay for the fare’’ he continued.
‘’There is only one option and if you are willing to do so that will be a quick fix to this problem’’ he said looking around.
‘’ If you are willing to sell one of your kidneys that will fetch you more than enough money for the journey’’ he said in a hushed tone.
I was gobsmacked and totally surprised by his suggestion. The beads of sweats trickled down the sides of my face as I picked up my pan and limped off.
‘’ Think about it. It’s quick no pain’’ he shouted, his words reverberating in the air as I walked away.

It’s quick no pain, the phrase kept playing in my mind. Maybe I needed something quick because I felt he who controlled time had slowed it but with pain, I was its friend. We have been a pact since childhood. We were inseparable. Abdul should have said it’s quick and painful, that would have convinced me, I thought to myself.
It felt like some spirits had possessed my body. I was overcome with the urge and totally deafened and blinded by it. If I was going die, it might as well happen in my attempt to cross the Mediterranean. I joined a group of guys on the site who were going to sneak out and make it to the coast and try to get to Italy on a dinghy. They warned me even though that was the cheapest, it the riskiest way to get to Italy. The riskier, the better I said to myself with a grin.

About eighty of us were crammed into the inflatable dinghy. Just like on the journey from Agadez to Libya, there was a nursing mother but this time there was also a pregnant lady. We were people from different walks of life: Syrians; Sudanese, Libyans, Gambians, and me, the Ghanaian. Maybe I was the most undeserving. There is still a place for you at home, Ali’s words echoed in my ears. The dinghy set sail and drifted slowly into the unknown. Everyone looked horror-struck and regretful as the dinghy rocked with the waves into the distance. The sea smelled of brine as it vaporously exhaled its mist. For the first few hours of the journey the sea was peaceful and accepting, carrying us under the showers of the full moon but suddenly it went berserk. The waves came in mountains and caves as the dinghy bobbed violently. The sea was turbulent and vengeful as if we had disturbed its sleep. There was a frenzy as we cried and prayed to God. It’s burst! It’s burst! Someone shouted. Everyone scrambled to safety as the boat capsized throwing everyone underneath it. A wave abruptly pushed me down. After a few seconds, I was tossed unto the surface. I tried to hold onto the dinghy, but it slipped away. Water rushed into my mouth and nose viciously as I gasped for breath. My sight went hazy, my hearing went muffled and suddenly everything went quiet.
They appeared fuzzy as I squinted my eyes at the scorching sun. I felt bound and struggled to free myself from the aluminium foil I was wrapped in. One of them quickly gave me a hand. They were in white overalls and helmets standing around me. I was handed a bottle of water and a pack of food. They assured me they will come back to check on me later. When my sight was clear enough I realised we were arranged in rough rows on the floor on the boat like a big catch. The boat smelled of a mixture of urine and sweat. I tried to get myself up, but my bones cracked, and my muscles twitched excruciatingly so I could only manage to lift my back into a concave from the foil which was plastered to my back. I decided to push further by turning on my belly but as I tried to do so I saw one of the white-helmet carrying a distressed child who was crying uncontrollably. His hiccupping cry and the wail saddened my heart. As the white-helmet turned the corner I could clearly make out the child’s face. It was Josiah. Josiah, the child I travelled the desert with. Where was his mother? The desert swallowed, and the sea swallowed as well. The tears dropped in streams once again.







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