“I am going to tell everyone that you are a FAG!”, he shouts. Even though he’s pointing his finger right in my face, there is no denying it. I’m gay. I’ve known it since I was 12. But now, I’m terrified. It was just a kiss on his cheek… and yes, I did try touching his pants. I saw that we were both excited. He was and I was. Now he is screaming that I raped him?
I’d been wanting to be with Kwame for years. We would jokingly compare our manhoods in the school’s gym shower. Now, I regret it all.
“I am sorry”, I say, “Please don’t tell anyone”. But I can see he is still angry.
Hoping I can find a way to stop him from exposing my most precious and hidden secret, I blurt out…
“I can pay you!”.
“How much?!”, he snaps.
I leave him there and run past my parent’s and sister’s bedrooms into my room. I rush to my closet and open the envelope with almost 400,000 Naira inside. I take 50,000 of my Nigerian dollars and run back to him at the front door.
I hand it to him.
“Ok?… Is it okay now?”, I plead.
He takes the money and opens the door.
“No. It is not okay. I am still going to tell… You faggot!”, he says and walks out, as I lean my back against the wall and sink to the floor.
My mind wracks with fear and distress. I suddenly feel powerless, as if some other person now has more control over my future than I do – and he does. One careless little step. A stupid mistake. Every day, I have calculated everything so perfectly in my life. But today, I miscalculated.
It was another blistering day in Lagos. 35°C yesterday and it should hit that or more this afternoon. My mother and sister went to the market and my father is working. So I had the house to myself when I asked Kwame to come over. How could I have been so dumb?
I think of my parents. They will be so ashamed if this gets back to them. Kwame lives in the neighborhood and knows a lot of people I know – and people my parents know. He was letting me rub his pants for more than a minute. He just laid back and allowed me to kiss his cheek… his neck… his ear. But then he suddenly stood up and started screaming about me raping him. If he lies about it and tells his friends, they could come to my house and beat me. What if my family is home when they come? His was no idle threat. He’s the type of guy who loves gossip. He will surely play the victim to whomever he tells. And what if my sister hears about it? What will she think?
People like me in my country risk so many things… just being gay. To me, 14 years in jail is the most frightening one of them all. My family will not come visit me for this. They will want nothing to do with me. They’ll think it is my punishment and my father might even be the one to call the police. Ever since I can remember, he has never hidden his hostility towards homosexuals and how we will all burn in Hell.
I have seen many people’s faces on the front page of The Lagos Chronicle. The words “CONVICTED HOMOSEXUALS” written as a big, blazing headline. What’s even worse is that everyone’s first and last names are always printed underneath each photograph. It’s horrifying… and I could be next.
My body starts to shake and I start crying as I think of people who have had their houses burned down. Boys who’ve been stripped naked and whipped publicly in the street. People who’ve gotten laughed at, ridiculed, insulted, pushed, and spat upon. Men who’ve been hanged. Honor killings. And so many people who have been charged with Debauchery. It’s a system famished for victims.
My throat goes dry and I can barely swallow as I get up and run to my room. I see next to my bed my travel magazines of London, New York, Amsterdam, and Paris. My favorite one has so many photographs and descriptions of The French Tropical Islands; La Réunion, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Tahiti.
Next to my magazines are my sci-fi and fantasy novels. They’ve helped me dream of leaving Nigeria. Alone in this house, I feel more and more that I am left with two choices – either stay and hope Kwame doesn’t tell anyone about what happened this morning or use the little money I have saved to escape.
I decide to escape. If I stayed, I would never again know a moment’s peace… or, at best, deal with blackmail and extortion for the rest of my life.
I have heard of men who smuggle Nigerians to Europe. But, there’s a heavy black market price to pay. So, I say goodbye to this empty house – to my room and my collection of books and magazines. I leave a note for my family. It says, “Goodbye, Mother. Goodbye, Father. Goodbye, Chinara. I love you, Obi”.
I quickly pack a bag full of clothes, my identity papers, and a few things to comb my hair and wash. I get my money and hide it deep in my socks. The small cleaning jobs I’ve been doing for our neighbors as well as my job cooking in a popular snack bar will have to be left behind too. Kwame often came to the little snack bar I worked at on the weekends. He’d always find extra chicken on his sandwich. And on hot days, I’d give him a free can of ice-cold Coca-Cola. When I handed him his bag, he knew it was there, what had been done, and that it was me who did it. When I handed him his lunch, he would smile and wink at me. Flirting, I thought. I would smile and wink back. It was our little secret… but it’s all so disgusting now.
I know where one of the well-known smugglers lives in Lagos. So, I go across the city to his gated villa. He has three security guards outside and I have to pay each of them to let me in to speak to him. They assume if I’m there that I must have money.
Inside, I explain to Mr. Achebe I need to go to Europe urgently. I lie and say I have a sick sister in Paris. He tells me he can take me in one week. I tell him no – I have to leave today. We negotiate a much higher price for me to leave tomorrow. He wanted more, even after getting almost all my savings.
I tried sleeping in the woods near his home. But I couldn’t. I kept thinking that Kwame had told the police and that they were looking for me. If I was sleeping when they found me, then I would have paid all that money for nothing… and I’d still be in jail.
So, by 7 o’clock the next morning, I started my long journey – and my first time ever out of Nigeria – exhausted. But there is no going back now. Not for me.
I meet the driver and the other two passengers I will be travelling with. The driver is unsmiling. The passengers are a reserved middle-aged man and a young woman who has colorfully printed scarves tied up on her head. She is very talkative, but I think it’s to hide her nerves. None of us know where we’re going. All we know is that it is out of Nigeria, directly through Niger, and then through the Libyan desert to The Mediterranean Sea.
It rained all through Niger. We drove all day and all night. We only stopped to drink, quickly eat, and get gas. The driver knew the way. He was hurrying us to get back in the car if we needed to use the bathroom. It seems that the Niger police are on high alert for smugglers.
When we get to the Libyan border, it’s blistering hot. There is a jeep waiting for us at the edge of a desert. We all have to load ourselves and our bags onto it. I’m scared. We’re going on a 3-day trek through an ocean of sand. The young woman has trouble straddling herself to the metal bar welded onto the back of the jeep. We’re then told to cover our faces with headscarves. When we do, the jeep takes off into the scorching dunes.
When the truck drives up or down a sandhill, we get thrown from side to side. Dunes are never flat. The middle-aged man has thrown up twice and the young woman looks ill. It is a wild ride and I feel dizzy. I hold onto the metal bar between my legs for dear life. I can’t even drink the water I brought. If I did, I’d get thrown off… and I don’t think the driver would stop to let me back on. He just keeps going.
The Libyan desert is not only filled with sand, but also with cactus, litter, and dead bodies. It seems many, many others before me have tried to cross it – but have failed. They died right here. Someone’s brother. Someone’s son. Someone’s wife. So, I just hold onto my metal bar… and pray.
The first night, we slept on the desert floor. The driver had blankets for us. They were not thick…but better than nothing. Desert nights are freezing. I heard the young woman sobbing and we were all covered with dust and sand.
As I tried to sleep, I first thought of my family and what they must be thinking. Worried probably. I cried as I realized how much I missed them. Then I tried to dream of France… Paris… London… anywhere but here and how I got here. When I read about The Tropical Islands of France, I knew I had to see them. These amazing French jewels are all over the world. If I can get my papers to stay in France, then I will visit each one. I want to study engineering or open a Nigerian snack bar in Paris. It would all be a dream.
The second day of our journey was terrible. We ran over glass and had to repair a flat tire. And then the engine overheated and we had to stop until it cooled. These both depleted our water supply, as we drank while we waited.
But the final straw was the sudden sandstorm. It was unbelievable. It was biblical in size as we saw it crashing through the desert. Clouds of sand and dust were raging directly towards us like a speeding train. When the storm finally hit, it flipped the jeep upside down and hurled it to the side like a plastic toy car.
After the winds blew past, I woke and saw that the driver, the woman, and the middle-aged man were all dead. Everything was eerily quiet.
My throat was dust dry and I found myself shoulder deep in sand. I was parched and felt that the Sun would be quickly coming back to its full blistering blaze. So I wearily dug myself out. I wriggled my body out of the sand and, with great effort, used my weakened arms to help lift myself up onto the surface. I felt half-dead, as my strength was nearly gone. Then as I was finally pulling myself out of the deep, hot, dry Earth, the desert swallowed one of my shoes.
The jeep’s cabin got filled with sand. I don’t see any of the last bottles of water and my bags are missing. They must have been tossed out when the jeep was flipping over. The driver is motionless and blood is streaming from his head. I only see the young woman’s feet. The rest of her is buried. The middle-aged man has his eyes open, but I can tell he is unconscious. I never asked why any of them came on this trip. And they never asked me either.
Now… I don’t know what to do.
I look out at a distant thunderstorm. Lightning is striking over the faraway land there. I see one of the woman’s scarves and wrap my shoeless foot with it. Then I aimlessly start walking towards the storm.
Grey thunderclouds come my way and it rains for a few minutes. As it does, I cup my hands to collect as much water as I can to drink. But, too soon, the thunder stops and the sky clears. My feet ache with pain walking the scorched Earth.
Again I slept under the stars. I had not seen another jeep all day. I felt so alone and helpless. It was freezing cold and I had no blanket this time. I had no food or water either.
The next day started out hot and stayed that way. Red blisters covered my cracked soles. Walking hurts. Like a million needles poking into my feet. The sand’s heat seeps through my shoe and the scarf wrapping. I’m limping away from a big accident. But which one… Kwame or The Hurricane?
I just know I have to keep going.
I see a huge, lop-sided cactus in the distance and tell myself if I can make it there then I will stop for a rest. With every painful step, I am drenched in my own sweat. My heart is pounding and my breathing is heavy. Yet, I inch closer to the cactus. It’s arduous, but I finally make it and then fall face down.
Sand sticks to my sweaty face and I wonder if Europe is far from here. Maybe if I just keep going I will make it. I’ll find water there and I’ll be okay.
I think of how I will finally see Paris. Maybe Amsterdam is just over the next dune? After I rest a while, I will just make it over the next sand dune and I will be there.
I slowly lift my head and see palm trees. There is a green patch of grass not far in front of me. How could I have missed seeing that a few minutes ago? There must be water there. So, I get up and run to it. It’s beautiful!! There are lush coconut trees and papaya plants. I drink the juice of oranges and pineapples. I taste the nectar of hibiscus flowers. The fragrant smell of jasmine fills the air.
I run around this little paradise. God must have sent it to me, I think. It has rivers, a lake, and a waterfall. They are all crystal blue – like in the magazines. It looks like Tahiti or Martinique. I hear a cascade and run to it.
It is loud and thunderous. The waters are rushing over a cliff and down into a turquoise pool. I go there to refresh. To feel coolness flow over my dehydrated body. It’s sensual. Reinvigorating. I close my eyes and revive, as the water tumbles over my head and across my shoulders.
When I open my eyes I look down into the pool. Several naked black and brown men are swimming there. They are happily playing in the aqua blue water like 20 beautiful Mermen. They smile at me and invite me to come and join them.
I come out from under the waterfall and stand on the ledge of a boulder. The brown and black Mermen look up at me. I look down for a moment and then dive. I feel waves envelope my body. The pool is refreshing.
The Mermen all follow me deep into the water. They play around me, swimming expertly. I am the center of attention and I feel happy with them. There is no fear. No pain. No anxiety. Just pure joy. Pure intense joy as they welcome me into their group.
Under the water, I see them swim closer. They smile at me for a moment… but then their smiles strangely turn dark and sinister. There is distain on their faces. Expressions I’ve sometimes seen in Lagos. The Mermen grab hold of my arms and start pulling me down. More of them come and push my shoulders down, making us all plunge deeper and deeper into the pool.
It’s getting harder to breathe, as some of The Mermen swarm around my legs. Holding them, so that I cannot swim to the surface. I start coughing. I start choking. I try my best to fight back, but there are too many of them and I am drowning as they pull me all the way to the bottom.
Water starts filling my lungs and I cough hard. I reach for the surface as I desperately gasp for air. But, I’m quickly running out of oxygen. I think I’m going to die. I cough hysterically and gag so hard that it wakes me up.
I look around… and the green, Tropical patch of coconut and palm trees is gone. Where’s the waterfall? Where are The Mermen? Where did the hibiscus flowers go? I am confused and weak. Exhausted under the blazing sun. Blood and vomit sink into the hot sand beside my mouth. The only reminder of this dream I just had.
I look over and see the huge, lop-sided cactus next to me. I have barely moved an inch since laying down here a few minutes ago.
The desert is wide and vast… and my blurred vision sees shifting sand dunes on the horizon. Perhaps London is just on the other side of them? Maybe Amsterdam… or Paris? I just need to get there and everything will be okay.
Then, as the hot Libyan winds blow sand over my burnt body, I close my eyes one final time… and think to myself that maybe I will never see Tahiti.