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.
Station One: The journey begins in Accra, Ghana
They stand facing each other, unable to speak, John on one side of the fence and his wife, Vida, on the other. A matron in a yellow dress, she wears her hair in a bun, a towel stuck to her cleavage to wipe away the sweat -- and she smiles.
Alice, their 14-year-old daughter, is at her side. She wears a short blouse with narrow straps on one side. And she wears headphones, which she doesn't remove.
Glenn is also there to greet his father. The 18-year-old soccer player is nicknamed "Pelé," after Abédi "Pelé" Ayew, a Ghanaian sports legend. Glenn wears knee-length jeans and a T-shirt, smiles guardedly and is silent and unmoving.
And then there is Eva, a 20-year-old college student, her slim body squeezed into tight jeans. She raises her arms as if to stretch her spine, adopting the pose of an adolescent showing her father how beautiful she is.
John approaches his family, opens his mouth as if to speak and then closes it again, and his wife closes her eyes. The two raise their arms to embrace but then drop them to their sides again.
They stand facing one another. Vida and the three adolescents smile shyly, the youngest extends her arm but drops it again, and John pushes his baggage cart and approaches his family. They stand there, silent, as he embraces his wife. They stand there as strangers, the children not recognizing their own father. Who is this man?
"Dad?" Alice asks.
After five awkward minutes, they begin making smalltalk -- chatting about the luggage, who will take which car and where to find the taxis.
The Ampans live in the port city of Tema, 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Accra, in a neighborhood called Community 5. Tema, population 100,000, is a city of crumbling buildings and sandy streets. The family owns a small stone house with a small roadside bar Vida runs in the front -- a simple place with yellow walls, a white ceiling and a bare concrete floor. The sparse furnishings include a portable gas stove with two burners, two laundry lines running diagonally across the room and two plastic bowls where Vida and her daughters wash glasses. The boom box at the entrance, which helps attract customers, was the first present John sent from Europe.
"I missed my father all those years"
They live relatively well. The children go to school and Eva, the eldest, attends college -- all paid for with the money John has been sending home. And Vida does what women do in any crisis region: She controls the crisis by controlling daily life. The Ampan's circumstances are not that uncommon here in Ghana. The husband sets off to reach Europe, and the wife stays at home, where she'll get up every morning at 5:30 to make Coco, Ghanaian porridge, wake the children and send them off to school, open the bar at 8:00 a.m. and close it at 11:00 p.m.
John spends five days with his family. Glenn, his son, is taciturn and constantly walks away. When his father sits downstairs, Glenn finds an excuse to go upstairs, and seems to stay away for as long as he can. He says: "I don't want his money and I don't need his clothes. I missed my father for all those years. "
It doesn't take long before the quarreling starts over who owns the house. "Come to my house tomorrow at one," says John. "Our house," says Eva. "Your house," says John.
Then he looks at his daughter the way fathers look at their daughters, tenderly and proudly. "I used to hold her on my arm for so long. Until she was four years old," he says.
"Six. I was six, Dad, when you went away." "So you were six," he responds. "From then on, other people loved me more," says Eva.
John Ekow Ampan is a cousin of football player Samuel Osei Kuffour, nicknamed Sammy, who played for German football team Bayern München for many years before switching to Rome. John paid his cousin a visit in the spring of 2000, when Bayern München was playing a match in Madrid. He has a photo that shows him posing with German football legend Franz Beckenbauer. In the photo Beckenbauer stares fiercely into the distance.
Opportunities for everyone in Europe
The two cousins' mothers came from Kumasi, a town 200 kilometers (124 miles) north of Accra. There was a man in Kumasi who they called "Hamburger" because he worked in Germany.
"It's so cold in Germany that you don't need a refrigerator. You set your beer on the windowsill when you go to the toilet. When you come back from the toilet it's frozen." These were the kinds of stories Hamburger told. He drove a Mercedes 230 with a horn that sounded like a cow mooing. Hamburger told the villagers that he had started out as a dishwasher and that he was working three jobs now. He also told the villagers that there were opportunities for everyone in Germany. Then he brought the first color TV set to the village and a leather ball for the boys.
Hamburger infected everyone with his stories about Europe. John says that every African village has its own Hamburger, and that these men make a stronger imprint on people's minds than the rumors of inflatable boats sinking in the Mediterranean, tragedies for which there are no images.
John attended elementary school and then learned the trades of carpentry and upholstery. He met Vida in northern Ghana where, at 17, she was helping her mother in the family store, selling paper, sweets and beer. "She was so pretty and funny and nice," he recalls. He asked a friend for advice. The friend spoke with Vida's older sister, who spoke with her mother, and a meeting was arranged to discuss marriage between John and Vida. It wasn't especially romantic, it was very African.
Barely married, Ampan left to find work in Nigeria. In the summer of 1993, when the couple had been together for several years, Vida Ampan received a message from John, who had been doing jobs as a guest worker in Lagos, Nigeria, for the past year and a half. John wrote that he needed to see her -- not at home, but at a location 125 kilometers (78 miles) outside the city.
At 9:00 p.m. on the day of the arranged meeting, John was waiting in his hotel in a town called Sogakope. It was a flat, white building with a terrace and a stairway leading down to the rooms. At about €10 per night, or four for those who knew how to haggle, the rooms were cheap at the Volta View Hotel. Located as it was on the main road, it was noisy here at the Volta View -- flooded by the constant sounds of engines, horns, drums and music that would continue well into the night. John waited, and soon Vida arrived with the baby he hadn't even seen yet -- Alice, age one.
The couple had only one night together, but neither of them slept.
Vida was against the idea. She knew if he went it would be a long time before she saw him again -- and this might even be the last time. He said that they were married, which meant he had to take care of her and the children, something he felt he couldn't do in Africa. "No," she said, that wasn't true. The reason they married was so that they could be together. She wept and she shouted. She knew nothing about Europe, but she did know that she was terrified of what might happen. John remained uncharacteristically tough and resolute. He had $1,000 in debts in Accra, money he said he would never be able to repay. He said he wanted to fight for his family's future, and that there was no future here in Africa.
They lay there together, embracing and talking, and at dawn he left the hotel and, after catching a bus to Lomé in Togo, was soon far away.
Asked today if she understood the odyssey John was about to embark on, Vida answers: "No, not then."
Asked if she can understand 10 years later why he left, Vida doesn't respond.
She plays with her bracelet, and John says: "She's doing well. She's happy." Vida says that the school costs 100,000 Cedi a month for each child, or about €9. The school fees are due every three months, and when parents don't have the money their children are quickly expelled. The €200 John sends home each month are worth about 2.2 million Cedi, enough to meet the family's needs. Vida says: "Families who have no one in Europe don't make it. I understand him today."
Draining the continent
We drive along the coast. We pass the Konkomba market, where they sell fruit and old German clothes that become second-hand, third-hand or even fourth-hand goods here in Africa. We pass the Wind Star Night Club, a shack consisting of a couple of counters and two sofas on the side of the road. "I don't recognize anything," says John. "My home is a foreign place to me." We drive to Cape Coast to visit one of the 37 former slave forts on the Ghana coast.
It's a green and hilly coast. Back in the days of slavery, the British developed a triangle of commerce between Europe, the New World and Africa. They imported rum for the chiefs and glass beads for the people in Africa, and as masters they exported gold and what they believed to be an inferior species from Africa to the New World. The Europeans and North Americans made off with about 29 million Africans, and another 29 million are said to have perished under four centuries of European rule. The Europeans tossed the unwanted into the sea -- the sick, the pregnant, the rape victims, the rebellious ones. Anything they saw as nothing but useless human flesh they tossed overboard into the Atlantic.
The history of slavery is a core element of African history, and it has a lot to do with the history of migration. The continent we see today is one that was robbed in the days when Europe and America were still developing, coming up with inventions and educating themselves. It isn't exactly surprising that Africa is having such a difficult time keeping up in the age of globalization and high technology. After all, it was already torn apart when this age began.
John says that things today are no different from the way they used to be. Europe decides and Africa obeys, Europe takes care of itself but Africa hardly stands a chance. "We have to go to Europe if we want to live," says John. Today, as in the past, it's the young and the strong who leave, forming an exodus that is draining the continent once again.
Ghana, a former British colony, gained its independence in 1957. Its 21.1 million inhabitants speak English, Akan, Ewa or Gã. There is no national healthcare system. Fifteen thousand children died of malaria in 2005. Health insurance is nonexistent and wages are lousy because there are no jobs. Here in Accra and its suburbs, like everywhere in Africa, unemployed young men sit idly in the dust, not knowing what to do with their energy. Teachers earn €200 a month, and the many who stand on the side of the road trying to sell beverages earn €2 a day -- if they're lucky.
And when someone manages to build something -- a small computer business or a telephone shop, for example -- a family member envious of his success will almost invariably find a way to pull the successful one back down to the common denominator of poverty. This has helped fuel a brain drain from the country, as doctors and lawyers, electricians and engineers and those lucky enough to land a spot at a foreign university leave Ghana. Their motives are always based on the same conviction: Life at home is hard, and life abroad will be better.
Glenn Ampan has a football game, and his father, who has never seen his son play, has promised to attend. John doesn't make it, and Glenn's team loses 0:1. "I played badly," he says. John was stuck in a traffic jam.
Vida pulls out her album of family photos, pictures of a younger John, thinner and sporting a moustache, and the obituary of Jacob Ebenezer Ampan, born Dec. 26, 1925. Mr. Ampan, the obituary reads, "offended no one" and "was a true gentleman." Fifteen children mourned the family patriarch when he died in 2002. His mother died in 2004. John wasn't there, but he paid 4,000 for the funeral and to feed the mourning relatives for days.
When we leave Ghana at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning, the children stay at home. Only Vida stands in the parking lot, constantly repeating the same sentence: "Have a safe trip."
John Ampan's African truths:
In our society, you are worthless without a wife and without money. No one listens to you. You simply don't count without a family. But the most shameful thing of all is when someone is unable to take care of his parents.