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By Selase Kove-Seyram

In the mountainous wilderness that spans the Colombia-Panama border, in an area where only wildlife, paramilitary groups, and migrants often tread, Abdul Majeed lay awake unable to sleep. By his count, there were about seventy others with him spending the night, the most varied group of nationalities he has seen together in his lifetime. “Somalis, Indians, Senegalese, Nepalese, Ghanaians, Bangladeshis, Cubans, Haitians and Nigerians,” he recalls.

All were migrants heading north to the United States of America to seek a better life, although each had gotten to this point differently. To pass the night here, the group formed a circle of bodies. They lit a log fire, which lay in their midst. The fire kept Majeed’s attention, but every chirp and turn in the jungle beyond rattled his nerves. It was a cold January night in 2016.

To get this far, Majeed – a tall, 27-year-old Ghanaian with a ready smile on a calm face – had sought the services of a smuggler in Turbo, the port town that sits near the border on Colombia’s northern coast. He paid $700. In exchange, the man facilitated his transportation to Panama without detection by immigration or state security officers. The smuggler, Santiago, is known for helping migrants like Majeed navigate the difficult terrain from Turbo to Capurganá, the last town on the Colombian Caribbean coast before the border with Panama. He provided a guide to lead Majeed and other migrants into the Darien Gap – the wilderness that separates South and Central America. The guide pointed them in the direction of Panama. “Keep going this way. It’s not very far,” Majeed recalls him telling them as they set off, although it would take one week of walking in the jungle before they reached Panama.

Keep going this way. It’s not very far,
Majeed

In West African countries like Ghana and Nigeria, migrants seeking to enter the United States without the required documents often fly to Brazil, Peru or Ecuador, where visa requirements are not as stringent or are issued on arrival. From there, they hire smugglers and bribe immigration officers who facilitate their journey north. Some take boat rides, trek through jungles, ride on horseback or are hidden in trucks to be smuggled across borders. As they journey towards the United States, they become part of a greater pack of migrants from Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of Latin America, all seeking the promises and possibilities of life in the United States.

In West African countries like Ghana and Nigeria, migrants seeking to enter the United States without the required documents often fly to Brazil, Peru or Ecuador, where visa requirements are not as stringent or are issued on arrival. From there, they hire smugglers and bribe immigration officers who facilitate their journey north. Some take boat rides, trek through jungles, ride on horseback or are hidden in trucks to be smuggled across borders. As they journey towards the United States, they become part of a greater pack of migrants from Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of Latin America, all seeking the promises and possibilities of life in the United States.

The Promise of America

The journey that took Abdul Majeed to the Darien Gap started nineteen months before in Nima, the neighborhood where he grew up in Accra, Ghana’s capital city. Ranking as one of Accra’s most underdeveloped neighbourhoods, Nima is known for its spice market, the internet cafés teeming with cyber fraudsters, churches, mosques and the lack of opportunities it offers for its youth. Records from Ghana’s immigration service shows Nima is also a hot-spot for migrants like Majeed who choose to travel out of the country in search of better economic conditions.

“Our elders and politicians do not care for us,” is how Majeed sums up Nima’s underdevelopment.

When you grow up here, you have to somehow find a way to escape.

Among his contemporaries and those who came before them, he has observed how making it out of the neighborhood often marks the pathway to a successful life. “If you don’t leave, you become a sakawa boy (cyber fraudster) or just die broke,” he says. Through his teenage years, he always kept his eyes open for opportunities that existed beyond Nima. This influenced his choice of high school – one far from his community – and his first job as a sales agent for an insurance company in one of Accra’s top-end neighborhoods.

The savings from his first job would become his lifeline when an opportunity to travel came along. It was June 2014 and Ghana had qualified for the World Cup in Brazil. Majeed, a long-time member of a loose group of soccer fans called the Ghana Supporters Union, had found a reason to apply for a visa. He was one of an estimated ten thousand Ghanaians who received visas to Brazil that year. “From what we know, only one thousand of those who received visas went to see the games,” says Ibrahim Lan-Ghani, an officer at Ghana’s immigration fraud office. There is no official record of what the other nine thousand did with their visas. For Majeed and a number of young men he knew in Nima who had dreamed of leaving Ghana, Brazil became an open door. With savings, loans from relatives and support from friends, they purchased one-way tickets, knowing they would not be coming back anytime soon.

At the same time Majeed was heading to Brazil on Turkish Airlines, 24-year old Marwan Yahaya, who also grew up in Nima, was also traveling West. Yahaya has relatives in Spain and Germany and knew neighbors who were now living in the United States. He had always wanted to travel. After the World Cup, he met Majeed in Sao Paulo, where they discovered their mutual origins and talked about the path that led them to Brazil. Such encounters were rife at the time. Those who stayed behind after the World Cup had to find a means to move on. There were Ghanaians, Angolans, Burundians, Cameroonians and Nigerians. They met at mosques or street corners, shared food, job offers or sleeping places. Yahaya got a job at a chicken factory in another city. Majeed hopped between menial jobs in restaurants and factories in three other cities. While at it, he applied for Protocol, a Brazilian official document that allowed migrants to stay in the country for a year.

Bribes, detentions and the survival manual

Among the informal associations and connections migrants in Brazil made along street corners and mosques, opportunities emerged through conversations, phone calls and messages passed on social media. “People send voice notes, videos and pictures to show others what they are up to,” Majeed explains. In these voice notes and visual media, he’d learn about lands beyond Brazil and check them out on maps online. He’d get updates from friends and acquaintances who had moved on to the United States. He’d see images of others crossing the Mediterranean on boats to Europe or others who had chosen to go north through the Darien Gap, months before he decided to embark on his own trip.

“I was prepared for most of the things that would come,” Majeed says of his state of mind the day he decided to leave Brazil for the United States. In nineteen months of working odd jobs in Brazil he had saved up about $3,700, an amount he projected would keep him till he reached the United States. Unknown to both at the time, Yahaya had also embarked on the journey to the United States seven months beforehand.

In a recent interview, they both recounted their journeys, noting both the similarities and the subtle differences in their experiences. From Brazil, Yahaya flew to Ecuador, where he heard Ghanaians did not need a visa. He stayed in Quito for three weeks, “just chilling and staying in cheap hotels.” After three weeks, he travelled to Colombia, but was caught and deported back to Ecuador.

I spent one day in Ecuador, then went back to Colombia once again

“I spent one day in Ecuador, then went back to Colombia once again,” he said. This time, he paid a man in Ecuador to make sure he was not deported again, and the $700 to Santiago, who helped him and other migrants in Turbo travel into the Darien Gap. Majeed headed first to Peru before reaching Colombia. But although their routes differed, each recounted a similar trek through the jungle – one marked by exhaustion, hunger, insect bites and which left their vision blurred and their bodies sick.

As migrants travel north, they send messages and audio recordings to friends yet to make the journey. Like those that had gone before them, these tips become a deconstructed manual of sorts for the next traveler. The recordings, often made in the recorder’s native language, sum up the journey, providing vital tips on what to look out for and contact details of smugglers to seek for help. Inside a hotel room in Mexico, Yahaya also recorded his version to send back to friends he left behind.

He recalls some of the messages