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 numbers 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 remind yourself it was the same way you left him 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 a football 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.
The snow had melted away, and you could see that through the windows, so you rolled your bed away and locked up your belongings. The room was filled men and smelled like tobacco and gin. You still wondered how you survived each day with a room full of men. Men from all over the world, men like you. You knew that some has lost their way and that no redemption was on the way. You understood it all; and your sanity was the most important if you must return home.
You dreamt of home and how far it has become, across several oceans and lands, a journey that took two years of your life. You walked into the park, and you could feel the sun rays in the cold afternoon, it shone brightly. It was like a blessing. So peaceful in your face, as you dragged the cigarette and felt at peace within yourself. Down in the alley, the pretty girls played basketball in their heavy winter clothes. You just stared at them, and for a second though, you walked towards them.
‘Hei wanna join?’ one of them asked you in a clear English accent and threw the ball at you; you held it in your palm, bounced it once, stamped and aimed at the basket. You made a three point on first throw. They were really impressed by your skills. You felt like a champion.
‘Nice shot,’ the blond girl said. You smiled.
‘Where are you from?’ the first girl asked you. They threw the ball back at you.
‘Nigeria,’ you said smiling, bouncing the ball around and going for your second aim. The Spanish girl sitting down on the bench finished tying her shoe lace and ran to block you. You ducked like a pro and made another shot.
‘Aha, Nigeria, yea I have a colleague from Nigeria, you might want to meet him… I work with UNICEF here in Geneva, my name Gina,’ the first girl said to you with a smile on her face.
‘Sam,’ you said smiling back at her.
‘And these are my friends…’ she pointed at the Spanish girl first.
‘Shina,’ the Spanish said smiling at you.
‘And…’ Gina said pointing at the blond girl.
‘Natasha’ she said and shook your hands.
You know what Geneva, it’s the international city, you know the whole world lives here and is easy to communicate and get along with anyone. You enjoyed that, you are happy you came here after all, but then you remembered your condition and that happiness melted like ice. You wished it wasn’t that bad. You wanted everything to work out on its own, but you are the boxer, you the master of patience. You believe it.
You know that one day you will be able to park your pathfinder by the basketball court, play and probably drop the girls off. You imagined it. You wanted that life, you think you have come a long way and giving up wasn’t part of your plan now. Like the priest used to say back home, ‘the goodness of God comes slowly.’ You believed that more than any other person.
You are tall enough to slam the ball in the basket, so to impress the girls you made a rush for it, your heavy biceps and strength helped grip the basket rim, you slammed the ball into it. They clapped for you; they were really impressed by your skills.
‘Hei, is really nice to meet you, may I ask what you are doing in Geneva?’ Gina asked.
That’s one question you don’t answer proudly, you drag your foot with it, you don’t easily respond. But of what use is keeping it to yourself? You thought, why hold back, after all, to you they strangers and you might never see them again after this, you convinced yourself. So you opened up. You have learned to accept your fate; you have learned to answer that one name you dreaded watching it being used on the televisions when you were back home in Nigeria, that name that should not be called or spoken of ‘refugee.’ To you it spells nothing but poverty, homelessness and someone in need of help. You don’t like asking for help, you like to do it all by yourself. You prepared to take your chances on the street rather than wait for a paltry sum from the government. You are a hard worker and a fighter. You want to be seen as such and not as a refugee.
‘You know, my colleague is from Nigeria, maybe he will be able to help you with a shelter or something or something… wait,’ she said. You felt speechless, and you wanted to stop her from making the call, but something in you didn’t want to, something that doesn’t want to make you look ungrateful or proud. You have been brought up to appreciate each act of kindness, so you just said ‘thank you.’
She put the phone on loud speaker and you could hear the beep as it rings on the end of the phone. A voice answered, ‘Hi, Gina, today you have remembered to call me, are we having dinner tonight?’
Gina smiled, you knew that smile. It was the type that says I am not calling you to hang out with you, but just for a favour.
‘Hei John, I have a guy from Nigeria here, probably he is from your tribe too, he is a great guy and just in a situation that needs your help…’
The next voice that came from the other end of the receiver wasn’t that of flirtatious lover, it sounded a lot steamier and agitated.
‘No, no Gina, you won’t understand this country, I will explain to you later…’
‘Can you at least speak with him?’
‘Where is he from? Is he Igbo?’
She looked at expecting an answer, you nodded right.
‘Yes he is…’
A pause followed.
‘No, no, no, no, no, I don’t want to speak with him, let’s meet in the office and discuss this first Gina.’
You knew how the country works; you have met good men and bad men from your country. Most of your countrymen are not willing to carry anyone’s burden. Just like in a jungle, every man for himself, nobody cares how you survive or make it or pull yourself through and no one wants to be dragged down with you even with their influence. You knew it. You smiled at her, but she wasn’t smiling. Her facial appearance was more of disbelief than understanding. She nodded her head strangely. The voice at the other end of phone had died out. You wiped the sweat off of your forehead.
‘I am really sorry, I wish I could have done more for you,’ Gina said. From the lines on her face, you could see the sincerity in her words. Pity lined up as well on her forehead. You wanted to see more, compassion, maybe that kind of compassion that you are used to, that kind of compassion that would make a man do anything for the survival of another. But none of them appeared on those lines. These are the same lines have seen in many of them that came to Africa as missionaries working at the Village.
It is a line that defines special care for the poor African man rather than equality or dignity. To you, it was like having a pet you care about and yet willing to let him die when the time comes. You have seen movies about wars in Africa and how some of them get on the plane to leave with the same care and pity on their faces. You are used to it, so you watched her get into her car and drive away. Maybe you are wrong, maybe you are right. But you are still waiting for someone to prove you wrong, and up till now, you haven’t seen that person yet.
The sun has gone down bright like an orange in the distant cloud. You walked a few meters into the open park, sweaty and cold; you removed another cigarette from your pack and lit it. You dragged it and felt at peace as if each drag came with a consolation.
It’s all in my head you thought.
Making your way back and close to the asylum house gate, a young man approached you, tipped his hat at you and adjusted his jacket. You knew he wasn’t from around here. You have seen many like him since you came to stay in this place. You knew what he wanted, just statistics and facts, that’s what you are worth to them and you knew it. In his eyes you know you have no dignity, you are just another number stealing from the government. You are no stranger to that feeling. Somehow you still managed to smile.
‘Sprechen du deutsch?’ he asked you with a smile on his face too. You have been around for a long time around here. You have met people from all over Europe, you know a little bit of everything, especially languages, so it wasn’t a problem replying in German, but you knew you couldn’t communicate effectively.
‘Nein, English oder französisch,’ you responded with your little knowledge of German and let him know the languages you understood better.
‘English will be fine Sir,’ he said courteously.
You don’t like being addressed as Sir, so you corrected him immediately.
‘Samuel, call me Samuel and how may I help you?’ you inquired.
‘My name Burk, I am a PHD student in Political Science from the University of Berlin,’ He said. Definitely you knew no person would walk into the refugee area apart from refugees and the educated ones looking for numbers and statistics.
‘May I just ask you a few questions Sir, if you don’t mind,’ he smiled.
You knew they would always ask a few questions with a smile on their faces, not a welcoming smile, but one that longs rather for answers. That smile wasn’t sympathizing; instead it was filled with awe and curiosity. Maybe when you tell your story they will think you are another lunatic that tried to cross the ocean at the risk of his own life. You laughed in your mind, after all the frustrated among them have no place to go rather than commit suicide.
‘May I ask how you came to Geneva and became an asylum seeker?’ he asked you.
You have told that emotional heart wrecking story over and over so that you didn’t even want to repeat it again. You have been here long enough to realize that nothing comes out of it.
‘I arrived in Geneva four months ago for a conference, due to the political instability I decided to apply for asylum,’ you answered.
‘Do you think they are treating you fairly? And will you rate the facility, good, fair, poor or excellent? ’ He asked, scribbled a few words on his paper.
‘Poor,’ you answered.
‘And may I ask why?’ he asked looking into your eyes as if the answers will correspond with your facial expression.
‘Well, many promises never get fulfilled, look at our quarters, they are nothing to talk about…’ you answered. You are not a man of many words. You easily get irritated talking about things like this. The young scholar felt your irritation and refrained from asking further questions.
‘Thank you Samuel for helping with this project,’ he said.
You smiled, shook the hand he offered and walked into the building.
The Ethiopians and Palestinians took different corners in the room smoking Shisha with their hookah. You are the only West African in the room. You don’t smoke with either of them. You rolled your bed and lay quietly. You are hunted. You are. The memories flood your head once again. A fighter in the desert that watched men die. A fighter in a sea that was saved by a miracle. You slept.
The night has come; the lights are shining from in the distance. You looked at your watch and it was 12 AM. You made your way to the night club. That was where you wanted to be. You just wanted a coloured room with girls dancing, and that’s where you went to. You sat in the lounge; the pretty girls were shaking their asses and sashayed past you. You bought a glass of whisky. Took the first sip and let it burn your mouth before burning your throat.
Then you gulped the rest of the whisky and walked into the ballroom. You just came to feel yourself. To dance alone no matter how strange it looks. But you don’t mind if a pretty girl walks into your space. That night you made more money from selling your drugs to the young men in fine suits and a lady in a nice party outfit. It is about your survival and nothing else. You understand that better. No girl came your way till the dancing light went off and you went home.
You are up again, back at the gym. The boxer doesn’t miss his practice. Life has punched your head and to balance it, it was necessary for you to punch something, so you chose to be a boxer. You knew the sun would shine on you in the future and you would find your heart within its rays, on that tiny stream of light.
You now knew there were no thousands of fish washed ashore, but you could still grab a handful of them. Home was only in your heart, a place you longed for and went to through the desert and sea each day you of your life. It is the most difficult and painful path one could take. A pain only a boxer could bear.
About the Author
Chika Onyenezi was born in Owerri, Nigeria, in 1986 and currently lives in Houston, Texas. He is a graduate of Peace and Conflict Studies from European Peace University, Austria. His short stories have appeared online and in print in Story Time, African Roar (2012), literary master Inc., poor mojo, long story short, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a collection of short stories.