Swans Commentary » swans.com July 27, 2009  



Justice At Sea


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Kenyon, Paul: I Am Justice, A Journey Out Of Africa, Preface Publishing, London, 2009, Hardback ISBN 978 1 84809 145 0, Paperback ISBN 978 1 84809 146 7, 250 pages, £12.99.


"That's why I am leaving, that's why I am taking off in this canoe
Swearing not to stay here a second longer
I would prefer to die than to live in this hell"
—Senegal migrant song


(Swans - July 27, 2009)   In May 2007, an Italian navy plane spotted men clinging to a tuna net in the Mediterranean. A Maltese trawler pulled the net containing tuna worth a fortune destined for Japan. The twenty-seven men in the water, after seven days wandering in an overloaded wooden dinghy, spent three days clinging to the net. They were a few hours from death by dehydration and exhaustion. When they first approached the trawler, they were told to get away or they would be fired on. Later, the ship's owner, who had given orders from Malta, explained. He feared the men would overpower his crew and prevent the delivery of the valuable catch.

Paul Kenyon is a BBC journalist who worked on a documentary of the events for Panorama. He's a sober and vivid writer. In I Am Justice, A Journey Out Of Africa, he was led by his friendship with Justice Amin, the youngest of the twenty-seven migrants, to look again at the crossing, this time from their point of view. This stunning exercise in empathy begins two thousand miles from Italy in West Africa.

Justice Amin came from Effiakuma, a five-hour drive along the coast from Accra in Ghana. He lived with a younger brother and baby sister in the one room hut of his uncle Ibrahim. The three children had been sent from Niger on the edge of the Sahara by their parents. Their father was a devout Muslim and occasional preacher. There ended what Justice knew of his family history. In his teenage years he fought continually with his uncle. Ibrahim earned his living as a witch doctor and the hut was his place of business. He provided no regular meals. His idea of parenting was to put the children to work and hope that Justice would one day take over and support him in old age.

Just as semi-slavery had something in it for parentless children, witch doctoring, based on blood sacrifice, idol worship, and fear mongering, had a positive side as homeopathic medicine. Justice learnt the business, gathered ingredients, and prepared remedies. When his uncle didn't prevent him, he attended a fee-paying Methodist school. Ibrahim saw education as irrelevant to Justice's work for him and monotheism as an impotent but hostile force. He felt that only his living, active god could actually do anything for you. But the boy was a staunch Muslim, whether from his father's influence or to annoy his uncle or in genuine admiration for Islam. The madrassa and the mosque gave him a steady and large view of the world to pit against Ibrahim's clay-skull fetish that dripped chicken blood. "My world is getting smaller," he told his teacher at the madrassa, "the only place I can breathe is here and at the mosque."

Effiakuma's rock-bottom poverty was set in a crazy quilt of colonial fragments. The walls at school bore verses from the bible and the injunction "Speak English Always." Arabic was taught at the madrassa. Around town signs promoted Coca-Cola and Guinness, which to drink was to "Reach For Greatness." Boys admired James Bond, coveted training shoes, and fought over the supremacy of rap or reggae. The young men all dreamt of leaving. They considered Libya a place to make money and a stepping-stone to Europe. Migration was never merely a personal adventure but a means of financing those that stayed behind. Secrecy shrouded departures as if the light of day made them vulnerable to black magic and treachery.

Justice left his uncle's gray brick hut at seventeen. They'd tussled again over the skull-idol and Ibrahim had cut the boy with a knife. In Accra he worked in the market until he got a job operating an embroidery machine. All the time he kept his own counsel and from the talk around him gathered shreds of information about moving on. His caution probably explained his survival. One day he took a bus through the rain forest to Kumasi in the center of Ghana, then another for Bawku on the border with Bukina Faso. The immigration officials made trouble but he lied and paid his way through. The police stopped his bus later and extorted money from passengers like Justice without passports.

He then boarded a bus for Niger. The travelers couldn't answer the immigration police there who addressed them in French. Justice showed his quick wits by speaking Hausa, a language that both Muslims of the coast and the officials understood. They used Justice as an interpreter and took no payment for his entry to Niger. But Justice's fast thinking underlined a sad truth. Despite his brilliance he will barely get through the migration process with his life. What chances did the less knowing have? Those who naively told the officials they were going all the way to Libya revealed they had money, which the officials promptly relieved them of.

Fourteen hours later at the Niger desert city of Agadez, people smugglers met his bus. Seventy thousand sub-Saharan migrants passed through the city every year, two hundred a day. But Justice planned to keep out of the traffickers' clutches as long as possible. He stayed aboard the bus as far as it went into the high Sahara. At Arlit he had no choice but to rely on smugglers and paid three hundred dollars for space on a pick-up truck with twenty other Africans from various countries. After two days in the desert the driver stopped and informed his passengers they had crossed into Libya. They shouted with joy. The driver went off with the empty truck and never returned. They walked to a desolate village and learnt that they were still in Niger.

Justice survived by gathering wood for a nomadic baker. Four weeks passed before a vehicle turned up. He embarked for fifty dollars on a two-day drive to an oasis in the southeast corner of Algeria. There the baker made a surprise appearance as guide. He waived Justice's fee and led thirty migrants on foot over the mountains toward Libya. They walked for seven days and passed many corpses of migrants who had faltered. Reduced to drinking their own urine, they were finally succored by local tribesmen. The baker-guide then set them on the way to the Libyan town of Ghat, two days away on foot. He remained in Algeria.

In Libya the police picked them up immediately and put twenty-five in a small cell for three weeks with only bread porridge to eat. Then they took Justice and some others in a crowded truck -- there were women on the floor -- and drove to Quatrun prison. It was five hundred miles across the desert from Tripoli and the Libyan coast. The guards tortured the prisoners out of boredom. They would also sell them their freedom, refuse to let them go, and then sell them their freedom again.

After several months at Quatrun a traumatized boy arrived. To the wonder of the guards, Justice, mixing talk of the Koran with his uncle's homeopathic lore, cured him. They gave Justice a job in the kitchen and his diligence soon earned him the run of the prison. He used it to escape with twenty others when the guards were out drinking.

Another bus ride brought him to the other side of the Sahara. At Sabha he found migrants organized in national groups with every country in sub-Saharan Africa represented. Someone whose papers were in order would set up a house where his illegal countrymen would find refuge. Justice went to work building fences and cleaning homes. In a month he'd saved enough for the bus fare to Tripoli. The driver kept off the main road to avoid the police. He also placed the passengers with passports in the front seats. The police would check their passports and not bother with the back of the bus.

In Tripoli Justice headed for the Medina. Again he was taken in hand by the Ghanaians and directed to a shanty with a mattress on the earthen floor. The neighborhood came to life in the evening when the migrants returned from work and cooked out of doors. Save for occasional sweeps, the illegal migrants were left alone. The authorities felt they were on the way elsewhere and in any case were too numerous to control. Many intended to cross to Europe. It cost a thousand dollars and was arranged by "connection men" from the traveler's own country. The Libyans took charge only at the boarding stage.

Job prospects in Tripoli amounted to pick and shovel work. Justice lined up along the highway and waited for a car to stop and hire him. Specialists like plumbers or electricians would stand there all day with a piece of pipe or coil of wire on the pavement in front of them. Sometimes employers got playful. One of them made ten migrants run after his car, the job going to the winner of the race. But getting paid was another struggle. Justice settled to working beside other Ghanaians in a dark and putrid goat slaughterhouse. He used a machete and a blowtorch. Every speck of meat had to be dug out of the carcass, the entrails bagged in plastic for boiling, the head trimmed with the flame, and the skull opened to retrieve the brains. Justice learned quickly and earned the trust of his Arab boss.

All of Justice's circumspection fell away when he met a young Ghanaian "connection man" in dark glasses and a "London-wear" shirt. A place could be had at a good price on a coming departure. The all-metal boat, a genuine ship, presented absolutely no danger. Justice said yes. The truth was that he could collect stories of sharp dealing and betrayal forever in Tripoli. His shrewd reasoning simply couldn't cope with the unknowns and lawlessness of the migrant predicament.

Justice said not a word to anyone and waited for a phone call. The role of cell phones in people trafficking was so central it seemed impossible that operations had ever proceeded without them. After a face-to-face with a "connection man" everything moved forward by phone calls. Families in Togo or Benin would know their son perished at sea when he no longer answered his phone.

Justice waited eight weeks for his call. When it came he left immediately without a goodbye, only stopping in the Medina to buy his European clothes: a pair of red track-suit bottoms and a tangerine T-shirt with a star on the front. He also bought a black baseball cap and a bag of cola nuts. He took a bus down the coast to Zuwarah. It was May 22, 2007, almost two years since he had left his uncle's hut in Effiakuma.

The travelers were cautiously herded together and transferred in the dark from one vehicle to another till they ended up in a half-built house by the sea. A small wooden dinghy stood outside behind a tractor. The twenty-seven black Africans were in no position to demand explanations. They were in the hands of three morose Arabs, one who was drunk.

The Arabs collected all their metal objects, including bank notes, which they were told contained metal. The tractor, with the drunk at the wheel, pulled the boat, with their bags in the bottom among fuel cans and baguettes of bread, to the sea. When the twenty-seven got in the boat was overloaded, but the Arab who started the motor said that didn't matter since they would soon board the metal ship. He explained how the motor worked and pointed in the direction of Italy, which he said was an hour away. He'd placed a compass on top a bucket of sand. Then he jumped in the sea and swam toward the shore.

The nightmare that they had all heard about time and time again was upon them. Somebody grabbed the tiller. Several wanted to return to the beach. But that meant the police would beat them, jail them, and deport them. Deportation meant, more often than not, to be dumped in the middle of the desert. The migrant steering kept going in the direction the Arab had pointed.

It was only one hundred and twenty miles to the Italian island of Lampedusa, off Sicily. But the twenty-seven, none of whom could swim or use a compass, were quite right to spend their first night at sea crying their eyes out. Ten thousand souls had perished on such crossings in the previous five years. Paul Kenyon's account of the ten-day ordeal follows the classic men-adrift-in-a-life-boat story. There's no food, no water, no sailor's know-how, no protection from the elements. But Kenyon, remember, writes not from our point of view but from that of the outsiders trying to get in. The twenty-seven only avoid total despair by the love of life that had set them on the grueling path of migration in the first place. Back on page 120, Justice told Razak, a fellow goat butcher, of his plan to get aboard a cruise liner. Razak's reply should make any Caucasoid blush:

I don't want to upset you my friend but you are thinking white people are the same as blacks. [...] If you ask a black man to take you in his cabin, he would consider how much room he had, and if there was space enough for two, he would agree. You could pay him very little money and he would be content. [...] White men are different. Even if they had a spare bed in their cabin, they would prefer it to be empty than have Justice Amin lying there. Even if it were one of their own, another white man, they would not give that space to anyone. If you offer them money, they already have money. Your money will be too little, no matter how much you have. Believe me, I have thought of this plan. Some people, they have even tried. But no one has ever made it work.


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Published July 27, 2009