By Austin Kaluba
Saturday, December 18, 2010.
I came to England as John Mensah, then I became Kofi Gyan and later I was known as Kwame Ampiah. I was busted by my real name which appeared in the Papers. My dark face popped out of the picture sheepishly as if butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth. The headline read Illegal Immigrant Arrested For Drug Trafficking.
When I checked my mail in the cooler, the computer nearly crashed with mail from friends and colleagues. Some were sympathetic, others (especially my old buddies from home) were somehow happy that I got nabbed. I can’t blame those who rejoiced when they put me in. I used to boast a lot like I was some celebrity. I changed names because I was using other people’s documents to work. At first I thought changing names was fun but I realised that there is something about a name that sticks to you like a shadow or a soul. The first time I started using someone’s name, I found it bloody hard to get used to my new name. I felt like an amateur actor who can’t get used to a new stage name.
At a warehouse where I worked my boss called me one day by my assumed name. I was in a company of several other Africans. Kofi! Kofi! He called but I kept quiet since I wasn’t used to my new name which is my cousin’s whose Papers I was using at the time. The boss, some red faced Irish bloke called Murphy had to come out from his small office and shouted at me for ignoring him. I think he knew he had not mispronounced the African name which rhymes with ‘coffee’ the drink which both the Irish and the English drink like water. He thought I was being cheeky. This name business is no small thing. I remember growing up back home in a village and elders told us not to shout somebody’s name at night for fear witches take the name away and do harm to that person. This superstition thing can be real sometimes.
The people back home didn’t know how I survived the 10 years I have been here till I was nabbed. This computer thing has made the world a small place. Before long the story of my nabbing was on Facebook where I had been posting my picture dressed like some gangster. I am partially to blame for telling people back home nice stories about how cool this place is.
I also came here after friends who had been abroad started giving us the hip talk about the good life they had enjoyed while in the States, London or Paris. These fools did not tell us the other side of the story about how they were breaking their backs to survive. Neither did they tell us how hard it is to pay rent and several other bills. They didn’t tell us that they had left after having enough of this crap to go back home where it is summer the all year and life is easy. The chaps who went through more hell here were the worst culprits when it came to telling lies about Europe. They talked of Europe as if it was heaven. I remember most of these had beens complaining almost about everything back home in Accra; the noisy minibuses, lack of proper garbage collection, corruption, the state of roads and even the air which some said stank. One chap who claimed to have studied in the States (I later learnt he worked as a janitor there) said he could not stand the site of goats in town. No that they were somehow not right but they said it in a showy manner that would annoy even the most unpatriotic Ghanaian.
I remember another chap called Kwame, a big chap with big biceps who preferred to call himself Don and always dressed sharp like an American rap star ;T-shirt bearing pictures of musicians like Tupac Shakur or B.I.G ,pair of jeans hanging below his bum showing his pants, caps worn the opposite side with gold chains flashing on his fingers. He walked with a spring walk and greeted everybody with a shout of Hi, What is cutting? It was these show offs who made me decide to leave home for Europe. I started bothering my rich relatives to help me with cash for a ticket to study abroad. Kofi, my cousin who had already been in England for many years wrote to me to remain in Ghana explaining that things were bad abroad. I wrote back that if that was the case why hadn’t he gone home. I wasn’t cut for studies since I had left school rather early.
The stories these guys were telling got into my head and I started hating my town and even my country. I chose England because I had several friends from this end who sent pictures standing in places like Trafalgar Square or near the Big Ben smiling foolishly in snow with pigeons flying all over like moths around a street lamp. Little did I know these dudes did jobs like caring for old people, cleaning or guarding. These are jobs even people with little education like me detest back home. A friend told me about cheap bogus colleges in London which accepted students and gave them papers to take to the British Embassy to support their visa applications.
Everything went as planned and before long I was in London and attended classes in Computer Programming for a few weeks before going underground. I joined other dudes and mommas who live by their wits in an England most people don’t even know exists. It is funny how England cuts you to size. I agree with what one of my Jamaican Rasta friend Delroy told me one day that ‘Englan is an open prison ’ or some other song I heard Kofi playing entitled ‘Englan is a Bitch. I also remembered Kofi’s words warning me about England.
I changed jobs like shirts; warehouse operatives, cleaning, caring, door bouncer, escort, car washing and even worked as a grave digger. These are the shit jobs reserved for us second class citizens. I was always on the run from authorities. Each time my employers started asking for stationery (that is what we call a visa or the document for leave to remain), I changed jobs or moved towns.
When the chips were really down a friend even suggested I register to do medical tests. I withdrew my interest when I read in the Papers how one bloke got ballooned up like an elephant man after one of the guinea pig stuff experiment went wrong.
I rented single rooms in rundown places some which threatened to collapse and I think could have been condemned as not fit for human habitation. Many of these houses were built when Queen Victoria was reigning.
The last time I rented one such room was in East London. It was the cheapest place I could find. The landlord was a Nigerian and I think he got the pads by being crooked. He talked of living almost in every big city in the world and there were pictures to show it. He dressed like a pimp, ear rings, shiny suits, gold teeth and tattoos. There are two types of Nigerians; the intelligent type that earns a living in a straight way and the crooked type that live by their wits.
This one was the second type. They called him the Duke or Obi and like me I suspect he had other names or aliases. I moved out from one of his dangerous pads when one day when I went home rather earlier than usual from my cleaning job I found him on my bed with one of his numerous mistresses. When I raised hell he shouted at me that it was his place and he had a right to use his rooms in any way he wanted. I gave him a piece of my mind mustering as many swear words as I could lay my tongue on. The following day he got my stuff out of the room and changed locks to bar me from entering the room. I had to move on.
I made one more futile attempt to legalise my stay. A lady friend of mine who was old enough to be my auntie advised me to go to her church The Heavenward Bound Ministries in central London. The folks there were really fanatics and promised that if one believed in God anything could come true. They gave a cocktail of what they could pray for: barrenness, impotence, bad luck, immigration problems, unemployment, promotion and even stopping aeroplanes from crashing. I couldn’t tell the difference between these guys and the witch doctors back home who claimed to cure all diseases!
Well my mami panyin-old woman invited me to one of their services and asked me to carry my passport which had a long-expired visa. She said a special man of God would bless it with special anointing oil to make Immigration officials blind and give me stationery.
I jumped at the idea and on Sunday I put on my best grey charcoal suit and went with my sugar mummy. I had reached a point where I could do anything to be legal and reclaim my real name John Mensah. I remember one of the words on a minibus back home which read Everything is possible under the sun. Maybe the one who wrote the message shouldn’t have added ‘under the sun’ because in England you rarely see the bloody sun.
I had my passport blessed and the man of God prayed for me shouting to God to intervene for a poor soul like me who had just come to England crossing oceans just to earn a living. He really gave an emotional prayer breaking in tongues blabbering shakatuk shakarakata, shakarakata, shakatuk.
I wrote a letter and gave it to my better educated cousin Kofi who said the English was cool. I sent the anointed passport with a letter pleading with the Home Office that I should be given indefinite leave to stay because I had been here for bloody long.
To my surprise, the Home Office replied rather fast informing me that the grounds I had given for being given permanent stay were very weak. They also wanted to know if the address I had used was where I really I lived since they had lost track of me. I moved houses the same day I received the letter.
After exhausting almost all avenues, I decided to go back to my immigration lawyer whom I had already paid a lot of my hard earned bucks to see if he could fix me something to make me live freely without looking over my shoulder.
He promised me heaven and made me part with more bucks. I drew another blank from the Home Office. My friends suggested I marry one of the Eastern European women. I went through an agency run secretly by a Nigerian, in conjunction with an eccentric vicar. Some of my friends said the two men whom I later learnt were men of tested criminality had helped many people by marrying them in the Church of England whose head was the Queen herself.
The woman I was to marry was some Polish gal with an unpronounceable name full of consonants. On the D-day we went to the registry office with my bride who was unusually shy and only spoke monosyllabically like a child learning to speak. My best man was a bloke from Lithuania who had been hastily tutored on his role on the big day. He was wearing sneakers and the colours of his clothes clashed making the all thing a circus. He was also holding withered flowers. The Vicar, a Mr Brown went through his thing about marriage being divine only to be ended by death and when he was through we were declared husband and wife. I kissed my bride rather noisily and clumsily.
I breathed a sigh of relief that now my sorrows were over but I was mistaken. The Home Office, that cursed office whose name illegal immigrants dread like cancer said no and said they would investigate the circumstances under which I had married my wife. Since I was not living with my wife whose name I couldn’t even pronounce properly, I decided to run just in time to read a story in the papers about the jailing of the vicar and his Nigerian accomplice.
This time I never made any attempts to legalise my stay. I was prepared for consequences of being an illegal immigrant. I also became tired of doing odd jobs that never paid well. What was the use of doing shit jobs when I could make more money illegally. I had nothing to lose since I was already risking living here as an illegal.
I have had enough headache to end up in a mental home. Pierre, my friend from Mauritius went kuku just like that. He started hearing voices bothering him all the time. He said one voice was telling him to kill his dog, while another told him to drink his piss and the third wanted him to strip. I say no,no,no like Amy Winehouse. I don’t want to end up in some bloody rehab.
It started with a small transaction of selling marijuana. The money was good and before long I was selling hard drugs like cocaine and hashish and making big money. I was on cloud 9 and changed women like I was some porno star doing a blue movie.
The first time I made it big, I quit my cleaning job. My boss phoned me in the middle of the night and told me about an extra shift. I said I was no longer interested in hoovering, dusting or cleaning toilets. He started shouting but I cut him short with a version of my own sarcastic language full of f words.
Well to cut a long and hazardous story short, I got nabbed finally ready handed and quickly found myself in HMS. These English courts don’t waste time with adjournments like back home. During the sentencing, it was made clear that my type was not wanted here and I belonged somewhere else. Though, the man of the law did not mention the place where my kind can be tolerated, I knew he meant Africa. I made a scene in court by shouting obscenities directed at the courts, the bastard who had arrested me and the fools who came to hear the case.
My cousin Kofi was in court when that bespectacled pink-faced judge passed the sentence. He was sympathetic but I was beyond sympathising with. Kofi who has been a perpetual student in England always lectured to me about how tough this place is. He said something about immigrants from Africa being willing slaves crossing the ocean in planes to be willingly enslaved unlike our brothers who were brought here in chains. That is Kofi, always studying and saying wise things. He is unlike my other cousin Caroline who thinks she is British and dresses and speaks like an English woman. She pronounces the names of English cities and towns like they are heavenly places Lendon, Luton ( swallowing the t) and Gatwick. She is full of stupidity as if back home in Ghana she was just a waitress.
While in here, some white guy who writes books came to teach inmates who wanted to write how to write stories under the creative writing course organised from time to time. Out of boredom I joined the class. The man insisted we should write about what we knew. I wrote this piece after attending a few lessons. I showed it to the man and he said I had broken one important rule of writing by telling and not showing. He however said he liked the story because it was original and from the heart. I am not educated like Kofi but that can’t stop me from telling my own story that I have gone through. Surprisingly, I feel more at home in prison apart from the lingering thought that I would be deported after doing my time.
Maybe it was God’s will that I should be busted because I could have ended up dead. I don’t care what those wankers will say when I arrive home with nothing but my balls. I might tell some bastards who would bother to hear that they should forget about all the crap we hear and the pictures we see back home of rich people enjoying themselves on beaches. I know a number of fools would ask me why I stayed so long if things weren’t working. As I am writing this in the cooler, I know people are queuing at the British Embassy for papers to come over to this open prison called England.