By Amarachi Okpunobi
You’ve long dreamed about the shores where fish are washed ashore just for you to pick them up. He promised you everything, including a safe passage, and a paper upon your arrival. He said you will make decent money to send home to your family. You dreamed it; you lived it. You were ready for it. You walked into the coffee shop at 10 rue de la Navigation in Geneva and ordered a cup of cappuccino from the beautiful Ethiopian lady who you couldn’t stop imagining naked on your bed. Each time you imagined this, you reminded yourself there was no bed. You sighed. You had slept under the bridge during the summer and found your way to the asylum house in the winter. There you are now, where the mental patients scream and moan in the dead of the night. Strings and white magic powder lay on the toilet floor each morning while you make your way to clean yourself up. You knew you did not have to do that. The most important thing to you was your sanity. You needed it. You needed it more than anything and as you have passed through the rough road of life, you’ve braved it all and still kept your sanity. You can’t waste it now.
You sipped your coffee and lit a cigarette; let it go out through your nostrils while you watched the Ethiopian lady clean the desk, her curves all in your face as she bent to get to the edge of the table. You coughed. You think that it is just a matter of time before she falls in love with you, just like home, just like Njedeka, your last girlfriend. You understood the psychology well enough, but maybe the geography eluded you. You let the thought go down with another sip of coffee.
The pain, it comes occasionally, like the light train at the back of the asylum centre in Geneva, it hits and waits for another five minutes before coming back again. You have had so many bad experiences that they are beginning to hurt in silent moments. You don’t want to think about them. You have avoided them. But today you couldn’t. It sticks, it does.
You could see yourself making it through the sandy deserts of Niger and into Libya. Once again, you recount the number of men lost in the heat while your guides rode on camel back- John, Kufo, Obialita, and Njemanze. You met them during your travel, which was arranged by a payment of a solid two thousand dollars to get you to Europe. You are still hunted by the fact that no word has gotten to their family back home and probably their families still think they made it to the shores, of the Mediterranean.
The sea experience wasn’t the worst of it. It was the most soothing. At that point you had given up in your soul after months of breaking rocks in Tripoli just to make extra money for the next path of the journey. Two months after you left, heavy artilleries fell on Tripoli. You still think you are lucky to have made it out of Tripoli alive. Libya was no place for a black man you thought, the racism, the pain, the mindless quarry masters who made you toil just for a paltry sum. You struggled with the thought of it.
You could feel the waves pounding the boat as it lies in the bay in the open sea. The Somailan Captain struggled to subdue the waves or probably trick the masters of fate. You knew your fate on that moonless night with the roaring sea. It was sealed, and even the devil knew it. Death was your fate. You had cheated him many times in your life. You still wonder if he will ever catch up with you.
In your head you could hear many people shouting in different languages and pleading with whatever ancestor or god they believed in. You just prayed. You just bowed your head, ‘chineke ka onwu a di nfe’. That was it. You prayed for an easy death.
Beyond the rising and beating storm, the voice of a thousand monsters rose from the pit of the ocean. You heard it all. They called with familiar voices, that of your mum, your brothers and sisters. Your late father was the last to shout your name. The boat splintered into a thousand pieces and bowed to the roaring lion of the sea.
You found yourself lying on the shore, after passing out for several hours. At the other end of the shore, you could hear sirens blaring and the Italian police speaking on a loud phone. You managed to stand. Fell. Stood again and fell. Water came out of your nostrils as you hit the beach with your stomach. You knew you had to move. You knew it was a miracle that you had made it out alive. You knew. You knelt on the white beach and thanked God. Quickly you made your way to the street. That night you knew bullets had been fired too, but you didn’t have the luxury of finding out who got shot, maybe it was the immigrants? You wondered still, and that’s one puzzle you can’t still solve.
The pain came to you; thinking about it was another trauma that makes participation in its lighter. You don’t want to think about it. It’s too heavy, heavier than anything you could ever think of. You wished you could brush it all out of your head, just like bleach on a stained floor, but memories cannot be scrubbed, they stick, and you understood that.
Soon you realized that the Sicilian Island was no place for you. Njoku told you. The kind hearted Nigerian man who you met on the street while looking for shelter dressed in the winter jacket you collected from some hippies who were meditating and told you they were trekking to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. That was your first real encounter with the society. You imagined what they were looking for in life, and then you reminded yourself it was the same way you left home to be on their shores. The road might be different, but the aim is the same.
Salvation, you thought, you understand the word well enough, and you know what salvation means. Salvation is just like you are seated in the chapel and praying to the infant Jesus to grant your journey mercies. If infant Jesus had brought you to the shores of Sicily, there will be no problem with him taking them to his birthplace. Njoku took you in and helped you more than anyone would have. He told you how to get to Geneva without papers, just hit the train and pray there was no search party out in the night. You knew what fate had left you with, you are surviving, and that’s all you can do each day of your life, survive.
The beautiful Ethiopian lady served you breakfast with a smile on her face that quickly faded away as she placed it in front of you. You have seen that smile a thousand times; you are no stranger to such smiles. You know the meaning, simply I don’t like you, but I have to serve you. You finished your meal, and dipped your hand in your pocket. You had only five euro left, as the money promised by the government for the asylum seekers had not been paid for the past three months. You nodded your head, knowing that it is not your right, it is just a privilege, an expensive one that comes out of mercy and keeps you going. But that’s not how you make a living.
‘Merci beaucoup,’ you thanked the beautiful lady.
‘Merci,’ she replied with a smile that soon faded away and she started rumbling with the glasses in her back. You knew she was in no mood for a conversation so you left.
You joined the light city rail on the street before the Tanzanite East African Bar. You could see your friends, well, not your friends, you knew it. Right from your days in Lagos, you have had the impression that there is no brother in the jungle. The street is your jungle. You have mastered it well enough to realize that no brother exists on it.
Those that tried have been kidnapped by the police or have gone missing. You knew it. The rule was to keep to yourself, that’s a survival instinct you have never ignored. You walked down the empty alley, dipped your hand into the inner pocket of your jacket. You counted the wrapped kilos you had with you. They were all in order and as supplied. You know the severity of missing one of them or messing with their money, some have paid for it with their life.
‘How is it going today?’ you asked the tall Senegalese who could speak a little English. He looked at you and smiled.
‘My territory you know, right? But fine,’ he answered and bounced in his Mac Jordan air canvas and walked to the street wall and leaned on it. You understood him well enough. You knew what he meant, and you do. The business was about territory, that’s how you make sales. Each peddler marks his territory, just like animals in the jungle.
You headed north, beside the red window rooms with girls flashing their goodies. You’ve been in there a number of times; when you had extra money to spend. You don’t mind doing it there, eighty euros for a good time is nothing to you on a good day. The Madame was walking out when she saw you, and she waved at you. You knew her. She liked you, but you didn’t like her. You thought she was too large and had big breasts. Yes you made love to her twice, and just like licking a bitter lemon, you swallowed it. You knew the taste of it.
‘Bonjour Sam,’ she greeted.
‘Bonjour, comment êtes-vous corps?’ you added the beauty to make her feel good about herself. You felt she was too cheap and a whore, but if everything is on the street, why not take it? Even a bitter lemon, you said to yourself.
She walked into your arms and embraced you; you knew she was going to do that. You kissed her cheek, just where she wanted you to kiss it. She smiled as you walked away.
You took the end of the street in the alley. A white man with long hair and a greying mustache walked towards you. You knew him, it was the old guy Kent, the American who never left and was always in constant need of your white powder. You removed some grams from your pocket, pushed it into his hand, and used your left hand to collect the money and put it into your pocket. You trusted him, he doesn’t miss a dime, and he doesn’t cheat your business. He was a regular. You looked the other way as he made his way into the street.
The snow was getting heavier. You rolled the jacket back flap over your head. Morning hustle pays better. You don’t understand the urge they have, but you knew they would always want it at that time of the day. So you hustle early in the morning and late at night. You could hear the sound of the police siren beyond the dead end street where you stood by. You hurried back to the red window brothels, peered into the street from the end of the walls. The siren had stopped but the police car was getting closer. You weren’t a stranger to hustle in Geneva; you have been here long enough. You had seen men get caught and sent back to Africa. You hurried back on the main street. At least you made some sales.
You stood at the light rail stop. Your hands in your pocket, you were muttering tunes to yourself, as you watched the young lad skate cross you. You didn’t grow with such toys. You couldn’t imagine going to school with a skateboard in the community high school you went to in Nigeria. The few times you took footballs to school, the headmaster seized all of them and you never got them back. Their life is easier and freer, you thought. You whistled lightly as the light rail approached.
You made a stop at the gym; you always practice just to keep fit. You walked in, submitted your identity to the lady at the front desk. You walked into the dressing room, changed into your boxing gear. The sand bag starred at you. You have been doing this all your life. Aim and punch. You danced around it, held your posture, and swung your fist against the earth bag, it stood still.
You adjusted your poster once more, took another aim at it. Severally you punched your fist into the earth bag. Slowly it moved. That’s how your life has been, you always try, you’ve never given up, through the desert, in the sea, you always keep your posture, and you always punch into it. Life always gives in.
You knew you were a true boxer, one that never gives up, one that the earth refused to swallow and the sea spit out. You have defeated many things; your greatest was against death itself. Each pore on your skin opened, sweat poured out. You gave it another punch, you are not a quitter. You muster the strength in your body, you gave it all. It swung; it respected your wish, just like life, just like any other affair that required hard work.