A while back, say about 27 years ago, my mom received a call from a distant relative. It was a Saturday as I recall, and we very convivial about what we would have for breakfast. It would be a combination of akara and pap or moin-moin and agidi, depending on the mood mom was in. But then, the telephone conversation didn’t seem to go well. I remember mother’s face caking into a frown that left my brother and I a little uneasy.
‘What is it mommy?’ I asked after she had left off speaking and put the phone back in its place. Back then, everything was menial and Saturdays were sort of an avenue for my mom -and probably, every other working class mom in Nigeria-to communicate the ‘mechanical’ state of things that the late 1980s trickling into the early 1990s were. From having to plough through our two bedroom apartment, all covered in thick brown rug to wiping the furniture rid of dust with a dry piece of clothe, blending the beans my mom had skinned, making breakfast, eating it and eventually settling to a retinue of newspaper articles mother made me summarize, Saturdays were almost never fun, even though I still have the Old Lady to thank for it, given the few proficiencies I picked up.
But this Saturday had brought with it much more than the usual drudgery, it had brought pain. ‘Your dad’s cousin has been arrested in Malta, ‘ she flinched. It was a moment rarely seen; my mother to flinch. Anyone who knew my mother easily branded her a hot-head who had little to zero compassion for things she considered stupidity. And getting clamped by immigration in a country you had no business in, seemed like stupidity to me.
‘Where is Malta, mum?’ My little brother asked. ‘And how did Uncle So-and-so get there?’
Mom flinched again but this time, a tear wheeled down her cheek which made us realize that there was more she wasn’t saying. In hindsight, I think my dad’s absence at the time, compounded her reaction. You see, my dad was an aviator and would very often, be away for protracted periods, in the sky, moving people and their belongings from airport to airport, almost never stopping in any location for long enough to phone home except for when he made a major stop which meant his aircraft needed fixing. Uncle So-and-so’s telephone call had coincided with such a time when my dad hadn’t called in about two days.
‘Malta is off the coast of Africa,’ mother said and then continued, ‘near Spain.
‘Your Uncle says he was lured with getting a job in Spain as an electrician, but not having money for a plane ticket, he travelled by road to Agadez in Niger Republic and then through the Sahara Desert to a place called, Tobruk from where he boarded a boat to Malta, where he has now been arrested.’
Mother began to cry. I sense that things were worse than she was letting on but I couldn’t bring myself to begin to cry along with her as did my little brother. Dad had left me in charge. And it was a responsibility I held on to even though I didn’t know how. I kept a stiff upper lip and simply bellowed over and over again, ‘Everything would be alright.’
‘He said he was happy to have been arrested,’ mother said and then continued, ‘that the trip was gory with many deaths. Once the Tuaregs had attacked the truck he was commuting in, taking his money, belongings and his passport and those of every other person in the truck except the driver whom the bandits seemed to be in cahoots with.
Mother seemed very beaten by this news by this time as she relayed it. She was on the floor, her crying becoming a wail which made me wonder.
But that was the story you could share with a child. The real story as I later came to learn was that Uncle So-and-so had been lured, robbed, sexually assaulted, stabbed and left for dead somewhere in Libya. A Good Samaritan had found and freighted him across the Mediterranean to Malta where he was arrested, treated and later, deported to Nigeria.
I remembered the story now because of something I saw on Facebook a few days ago about an Abeokuta-based trafficking ring and their modus operandi. It’s still the same; they lure unsuspecting people-parents of eventual victims and the youngsters themselves-with fictitious jobs abroad, offering incredible pay.
It’s the same tactic that worked on my relative twenty-seven years ago. And need I say, he later died; not from the trauma of escaping the throes of death while crossing the Sahara but from HIV that he got infected with from being sodomized on his road to fortune.
Stories about helping people find work overseas are often not true. They are a lure into prostitution and other forms of enslavement and the sad part is, the trafficking rings make you pay a fee to take you to their hell.
Monies as much as N350,000 to N1,500,000 are demanded upfront by these traffickers to take victims -desperate for a better life-to Italy, Spain, Libya or Malaysia only to make these people pay them an extra amount of money through prostitution or other forms of enslavement.
As I drift away from typing this piece, I remember a 1979 movie, Ashanti and how it captured the gloom of trans-Sahara human trafficking. The very suggestion of going to Europe through Niger is never a good prospect, if you ask me. The trail across the desert up to the Mediterranean Sea are always lined with corpses.