Cycles of perpetual movement
It was a muggy day in the summer of 2019. After a short walk, we stopped at the abandoned train station where Ed lived, with other men, sharing an existence of uncertainty, homelessness and unemployment. We sat on one of the benches of what seemed to be the only platform in the abandoned railway station. There was a disused train in front of us and a few people hanging around at a distance.
Ed was a kind and shy young man. At first, he appeared a little reluctant to talk.
He was in his late twenties, he told me. He was enduring a life of extreme hardship. He was out of work, homeless and suffering from what he suspected to be malaria. He showed me a bottle containing a brownish-looking liquid he explained was a local remedy for the disease.
Ed first arrived in Tema – Ghana’s largest seaport, situated a few kilometres east of Accra – in 2009, and found occasional employment loading and unloading goods from freighters. His story was different from any other I had ever heard. He never migrated in a literal sense, not at least according to the meaning commonly attributed to the word, as a movement from a given place to another. He tried repeatedly, but never actually arrived at a final stop. He attempted to expatriate more than ten times, hiding in container cargo ships, without ever completing his migration endeavours because he always “got caught”. He was sort of stuck in a cycle of perpetual movement destined to never reach an end, his life somehow shaped by a sequence of journeys devoid of a destination.
The first migration attempt was in 2010, in a ship headed towards South Africa, “it was around Christmas time,” he said.
“What would you do once on the ship?” I asked him.
“I’d hide, it took them eight days to find me. Sometimes I went in the dining cabin, when no one was there, to get some food.” Once he was found, four days before arrival, he was locked into a cabin, but he was often let out and allowed to spend the evenings with the crew, watching TV. He would then be brought back to his cabin overnight. After the ship docked in Cape Town, he was escorted by an Immigration Officer to Johannesburg and then Pretoria, where he was accompanied to the Ghanaian High Commission for an interview to establish his identity. He was transported on a bus, in the company of some Tanzanian migrants. Afterwards, he said, he was brought to another city – whose name he did not recall – where he stayed for three days, then made to board a flight stopping in Lagos (Nigeria) first, and finally in Ghana. An escort was always with him, he added.
Ed’s second attempt was in 2011, on a Ukrainian cargo ship that travelled all over Europe before heading back to Ghana. The first stop was Malta and that is where he was hoping to disembark, but he was found before they arrived. He recalled that they arrived in Malta around the anniversary of the September attack on the Twin Towers in New York City. After Malta, the ship stopped in Italy, Morocco, United Kingdom, Germany and Russia. He spent three months on board, before being brought back to Ghana.
These first, failed, migration attempts did not discourage him: he tried the same strategy again on a ship headed to South Africa, then twice on a ship to Senegal. The first time he was returned to Ghana on the ship itself, and the second time on a flight from Dakar that stopped first in the Gambia. Then again to Nigeria, Congo, Gabon and four times to Ivory Coast. Every time he was found, he was provided with a living space and treated nicely: “the people on the ship are nice to me, they like me because I am calm and I don’t create problems. They always gave me food and put me in a cabin, they lock it, but they also let me out sometimes. They even gave me money sometimes before I leave.”
I was curious to know where this migration strategy came from.
“I decided to do this by myself. Some other friends do it as well, but I go on my own.”
I wondered if smugglers or middlemen were involved, but he said, “I don’t pay money to anyone to go.”
I asked Ed what led him to take such risky journeys.
“Here in Ghana, I live in the street. If you have to suffer and live in the street in your own country, it is better to leave,” he said. “How can you live without a job and without money? My family doesn’t help, they threw me out of the house, they think I should provide for myself. No one is going to help me, so I have decided to help myself.”
Had his circumstances been different, his life would have not been the same, he reckoned: “If I had a job and the salary was good, I would stay. […] I would get a visa, but because I don’t have money, that’s why I hide in the ships.”
The journey at sea seemed to have become for Ed a livelihood strategy in itself, whether he made it to a new country or not.
Hiding in freighters had become an unconventional way of joining the ship crew – at least, it was unconventional in the eyes of those who have the privilege to readily obtain a visa and thus to travel abiding by the law.
In a way, these cycles of recurrent movements shaped his life. Perpetual movement became his life.
With limited choices, Ed was making his own destiny, attempting a risky, yet viable way to survive. Although making it to a new country was proving increasingly unfeasible, the journey itself at least gave him the opportunity to see more of the world, to meet people, enjoy a hot meal and sleep sheltered.
“Hiding in the ship gives me the chance to travel,” he said. “They give me food, a bed and money when I get back. It’s my way to survive, that’s why I do it. It doesn’t matter if they catch me.”
Although his several migration attempts had failed to bring about a substantial shift in his life, Ed was still determined to try his luck.
When I asked him if he had any regrets he replied, “I regret staying in Ghana. Anywhere that is a better place I would go to. I am nearly 30 years old, I am alone, I’m not married, I live in the streets, it’s very painful.”
“What is your plan for the future?” I asked.
“Leave the country,” he said. “Whenever I will get the opportunity, I will go.”
My interlocutor’s name has been anonymised in respect of his identity and privacy
Galatea Scotti is a social anthropologist, currently working as a book translator. Her research has documented the journeys of migrants, deportees and refugees and their experiences through detention, deportation and post-deportation. She is a keen traveller, with a passion for West African music, ethnography and writing.