Thursday, October 30, 2008

1 on 1 with an 'alaye'

His story is the stuff of fiction: the son of a commercial sex worker and raised in an orphanage, Samuel Mensah fled the orphanage and Accra when he was about 11 and roamed the streets of the harbour city of Tema in Ghana for 2 years, then woke up one day, got on a bus with six of his friends and headed to Lagos, Nigeria. “I choose Lagos because opportunities plenty here more than Ghana”, he says is the reason for his somewhat impromptu decision to leave Ghana in 2001 for Lagos. Samuel and his crew had one thing in common: vague plans for survival but each determined to brave the odds.

Samuel is in his early 20s – he doesn’t know his age, “My mama born me around 1987, drop me for motherless (orphanage) go continue im job for ashawo hotel” – he radiates a feeling of being wild and free. On arrival in Lagos, Samuel slept in buses parked in garages at night and roamed the streets by day in search of jobs. He worked in an MrBiggs outlet as a cleaner for six days before his boss found out that he was an illegal immigrant and sacked him. Samuel was deeply disillusioned by this and according to him, drove him to, “copy as area boys take dey survive”. Thus a new member joined the swelling population of street boys in Lagos. These boys constantly engage in a variety of jobs; however they mainly congregate in selected areas; lay claim to such and shake down any unwary pedestrian or motorist who fall into their trap. Samuel describes his daily routine as washing face and feet with sachet water, (bathes fully only on Sundays), hit the roads with his gang, and at the day’s end - usually about 2am – sleep anywhere possible, usually in same area that they operate. George is also a Ghanaian and part of Samuel’s gang; he admires Samuel’s resilience and admits that, “Samuel na rugged guy, na correct survivor.”

Samuel currently lives and operates along the western pavilion of Tafawa Balewa Square. He appears relaxed, in contrast to the hustle and bustle of evening rush hour as we sit on the concrete ledges that fence the pavilion. There is a suffocating stench of urine and pedestrians, predominantly workers, hurry past. Samuel doesn’t care, he is relaxed and happy that he is soon going back home. Ghana has experienced enormous economic growth with recent discoveries of oil and last year’s re denomination of the Ghanaian Cedi. . Samuel is excited about the wind of change and says, “Now na people from here de go Ghana. Me and two of my paddy don arrange, we dey go next week”.

Samuel wants more of his compatriots on Lagos streets to join him in going home; he is currently convincing 7 others to join their party. He is aware of the challenges, “my mama don die, I no get family or anybody in Ghana”, he says. He is however apparently not bothered, and believes in meeting hurdles head on. In trying to convince his compatriots on joining him on the trip back home, he has this to say to them, “We no know anybody here before we come, and we survive, how we no go survive for our own country?” Life, as he adds, is all about, “being on the move”.

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