An African Odyssey John Ampan's Four-Year Journey from Ghana to Europe

John Ekow Ampan's trek from Africa to Europe is a tale of desperation. During his four-year journey from Ghana to Spain, he was deported and imprisoned several times, and yet he remained determined to reach the European Promised Land.

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Making their Way to Europe: Migrants wander across the Sahara in Assamaka, a border outpost between Niger and Algeria.
Markus Matzel

Making their Way to Europe: Migrants wander across the Sahara in Assamaka, a border outpost between Niger and Algeria.

Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a multi-part series.

There are journeys that change a traveler, that transform him into a different person. And there are travelers who, by the end of their journey, want nothing so much as for life to return to the way it used to be. But they discover that there is no turning back, that their world has changed irrevocably.

For John Ekow Ampan, Africa was his home throughout his journey. Then he lost his security -- his friends, his customers, his language and his laugh. He wanted to become a European. Today he dresses like a European, works like a European and buys European TVs and washing machines.

"But I'll never be one," he says.

Ampan, 46, wears his hair cropped close to his head and sports the crescent-shaped scar of the Fante tribe on his left cheek, a mark of belonging the Fante slice into their children. Wearing a green T-shirt, grey Levis, a blue cap and headphones, John is returning home with gifts for his children -- they fill many, many plastic bags.

Three days ago, John called his wife Vida in Ghana to tell her he was coming home. "No," she said, "don't play games with us, and don't make that kind of promise. I'm not telling the children anything. I don't want them to waste their time hoping for a father who disappeared 14 years ago." For more than a decade now, the African family's connection to their father has a been, at most, a once-weekly phone call lasting perhaps all of one minute, e-mails and the €200 a month he sends from his home in Europe to the Ghanaian capital of Accra each month.

Those 14 years will come to an end on a Monday evening at 6:12 p.m., when John's flight touches down in Accra. Alice, his youngest daughter, has never met her father, never played with him. Letters and phone calls have been their only link. But she knows that the €200 he has been sending, month after month, are the reason she is able to go to school.

John goes to the baggage claim, takes his bag and walks, without smiling, to the exit. A poster proclaims: "Germany 2006, we're on our way" -- a reference to Ghana's national football team, which will be greeted with enthusiasm in Europe.

Europe is decidedly less welcoming to those who are now leaving West Africa. They embark on their journeys filled with a mix of despair and hope, but few ever reach their destination. Most end up in jails or camps, fall ill or die, or fail because they run out of money or are turned in to authorities. Some have almost made it but, after traveling about 5,000 kilometers (3,107 miles) cross-country, their inflatable boats sink during the final, 14-kilometer (9 mile) Mediterranean crossing, and no one ever learns that they made the trip in the first place.

Africa, with its population of 910 million, is home to 14 percent of the world's population. Seventy-one percent of Africans are younger than 25. In sub-Saharan Africa, 45.7 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Of the 38 countries the International Monetary Fund (IMF) classifies as "highly indebted poor countries," 32 are African. For every 1,000 children born in the countries south of the Sahara, 102 die before their first birthdays. The average life expectancy in these countries is 46 years, and the most common cause of death is AIDS. There are 30 million guns in circulation south of the Sahara.

More than 17 million Africans are migrants or refugees.

No one could be better qualified to serve as a guide for anyone hoping to understand this mass migration than John Ampan, who experienced everything there is to experience on his four-year journey. Living in the Spanish region of Andalusia for the last ten years, he now helps those who arrive here from Morocco. He is also willing to retrace his steps and embark on his journey a second time, from Ghana, through the Sahara Desert and to the Mediterranean coast.

He walks to the exit and the doors open to a blast of hot, heavy and humid air from outside. "Finally," says John, quietly.

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