A text by the 2017 creative non-fiction Sozopol Seminars fellow and CapitaLiterature participant Akwaeke Emezi
In many ways, you could say that Justine never really left Ghana, even with all the ships, even with all his time in Bahia. Calling himself Sankofa was just another thread stitching him back to home. In his kitchen in Salvador, when I visited, there was a plastic container sitting on a shelf next to jars of raw cane sugar and cacao nibs. He tilted it to show me what was inside. "I’m making banku," he explained, as water washed over the fermenting cornmeal dough. "It will be ready in a few days." He still speaks fluent Fante even though most of his days are spent in Portuguese.
After Nigeria, on his way back to Ghana, Justine stopped in Togo. The last time he had been there was right before he went to Gabon, which was the trip that changed the direction of his life, leading to his five years in Nigeria, taking him away from the ships. He had been completely cut off from his old life since then, he knew nothing about his friends back at the ports. He didn’t know where they were or what had happened to them. It was only on this stopover that he heard the news, five years too late.
"They died," Sankofa told me. "They took a ship that I was supposed to go on, and they died."
He could still remember the exact date that the ship left in '94, because it was Christmas Day. They had all been drinking on Christmas Eve and Justine got so drunk that he passed out, only waking up when he heard the blast of the ship’s horn as it left the port. "I was supposed to be on that ship," he said, "but I was alone, they were all gone." The only other person left behind was a friend who had just returned from Spain, ill with a cough. They couldn’t let him come with them because if he coughed and the crew heard him, they would all be caught. Justine saw the sick friend that Christmas morning, walking on the stones that made up the wharf, silhouetted against the sky.
"What happened to the ship you were supposed to take that you didn’t take?" I asked.
His reply was simple. "It went. These are the people that died. Only one survived." He described the raft that the ship dumped them on, made out of plywood and buoyed by two hundred litre drums. "They saw each other dying slowly on that raft. These were three guys I came from Ghana to Togo with."
He was told the details of how they died, slowly, how the dying men had to go inside the water by themselves. How their skin cracked and deep sores formed. "Because of the sun," he explained to me, "no protection and the salt water and the breeze and the cold and the"—he broke off and exhaled a jet of air. "That shit kills you. And there was no food. The guy who survived, he was the smallest and he was a seaman already, he was a fisherman, he could stay longer."
We sat in silence for a few moments, the deaths of his friends heavy in the air, then he told me how he finally got to Ghana only to turn around and leave again. "Nothing had changed. It was the same poverty, and I didn’t think I could stand it, so I kicked off."
He gave all his tools to his sisters and returned to Togo.
There was nothing else to do in Togo other than what he always did in Togo—take ships. And although Justine hadn’t done it in five or six years, the rules hadn’t changed. All the best stowaways travel alone. "I thought I was going to India," he told me, "Or somewhere in Asia. You have to be ready, you know, both mentally and physically."
"What did you eat while you were on the ship?" I asked. His reply was unexpected, structured. There were, you see, procedures around all of this.
"There is this French bread," he said, "the long bread, and we tie it to our legs with sellotape, you can put like five of them. We wear overalls. We take garri and like a gallon of water, you take the water in a bag and you stick it to your back. Then you take chewing sticks."
I paused, confused. "Chewing sticks?"
He looked at me and explained patiently, "To clean your teeth. Your mouth will die if you don’t."
"Oh," I said, embarrassed. "Of course."
"That is the most important thing they always say—you can forget everything, but don’t forget your chewing stick. That chewing exercises your face, gives you more energy, and it keeps your mouth clean so that you don’t have any infections. When we take these things on board with us, they are like first aid; you must take them with you."
"You need things that will give you constipation," he continued, "so you don’t feel like going to the toilet. This kind of food also sustains you a lot. With your water, you must be at the limit before you can drink. If you drink more, you will urinate more, and then it starts stinking after two days, and then the crew can trace the smell.
He told me how he hid under the platform of the engine room at the bottom of the ship, where each side of the hull pulled into the keel in a V, how he could feel every stop the ship made when the engine turned off; because the sound of the ship’s generator, which was always on, was different from the sound of the engine. It was cold there, but being close to the engine made it a little warmer. Justine hid for thirty-two days. "You are safe," he told me, "when nobody can see you."
When his food ran out, he snuck out of the hiding place to get more. "Stowaways have knowledge of a ship," he explained. "When a ship is on the ocean, all the doors must remain open for security reasons. When it is midnight, the sailors rotate, with one standing guard each hour. In that hour of changing, that is where we come in, when it is only one person watching the deck and the lines of the ship. Every night after dinner, they don’t throw the trash away. They bring it out of the kitchen and in the morning they separate it, keeping the plastics and the metals, throwing the organics into the ocean. So the food in the trash is fresh leftovers, fresh rice, fresh spaghetti."
Justine lived on that for two weeks, drinking from the taps spread out through the ship, never entering the kitchens or the rest of the ship so as not to jeopardise his position. No one caught him. "Actually," he said, "it was one of the most successful trips I ever made. I only experienced some dizziness from the movement of the ship and the smell of the ocean, but I was used to that."
By the time the ship came to port, he had lost a significant amount of weight. "I was very light," he said. It had been thirty-two days of barely eating or drinking, of being absolutely silent. I could not imagine what that had done to his body or his mind, but he had arrived, still invisible, still alive. Even then, he could not afford to drop his guard. There were officials swarming the ship, police, customs, immigration, giving visas to the crew, the ship being searched. Justine had to remain in his hiding place until it was safe to come out. "Usually it takes twenty-four hours," he said, "and if I’m not lucky, the ship could move again with me still inside."
When it was around midnight, everyone had left the ship and so Justine snuck out into the port. Everyone was wearing overalls, so he put his on as well and climbed into a trailer that was leaving the port, hiding under the tarpaulin. When it stopped at a trailer park, he climbed off. It was very early in the morning.
"Four hours," he said. "It took me four hours to know I was in Brazil."
Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo and Tamil writer and artist based in liminal spaces. Born and raised in Nigeria, she received her MPA from New York University. She was awarded a 2015 Miles Morland Writing Scholarship and won the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa. Her debut novel Freshwater (Grove Atlantic, February 2018) has been recognized as a most anticipated book of the year by Esquire, ELLE, Cosmopolitan, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post and many more.
THE ELIZABETH KOSTOVA FOUNDATION and VAGABOND, Bulgaria's English Monthly, cooperate in order to enrich the English language with translations of contemporary Bulgarian writers and original works of English-language writers emerging from the EKF’s international programs. Every year we give you the chance to read the work of a dozen young and sometimes not-so-young Bulgarian and English-language writers that the EKF considers original, refreshing and valuable. Some of the Bulgarian authors have been translated into English for the first time. Enjoy our fiction and creative non-fiction pages.