Fiction

Notes from the Immigrant Underground: By Kabu Okai-Davies

Image: Bigstock.com

Image: Bigstock.com

“I’m not a maid or your typical ablawa. I am a live-in care provider. In fact, I am a uniformed home nurse,” Deidra, my second cousin, dared me to debate the distinction.

Deidra had arrived in America from Ghana a year before I did, when Reagan was President. She’d lived briefly with distant relatives in Richmond, Virginia; then moved to New Jersey, where an employment agency had found her work as a care-giver to a wealthy family in Dover. Her work file described her as a good cook, with superb housekeeping skills, reads and writes excellent English and educated in an African University. Indeed, she had a Bachelors Degree in English.

Back in Ghana, we lived in the same family house as siblings of an extended family. This made her privy to my plight in America. To avoid becoming homeless, Deidra offered to help me temporarily solve my accommodation problems.

“Kabiru, why don’t you sleep in my room while I am doing live-in? I am sometimes away for two weeks,” she said. I accepted her offer and moved into her small two bedroom apartment in the Newark Ivy Hall apartment complex. The apartment was actually leased to Deidra’s uncle on her father’s side, Tieko. He’d come to America the last year of Jimmy Carter’s time, on a visitor’s visa, married an African-American; had a son and quickly qualified for permanent residency and American citizenship. Deidra said Tieko got intoxicated with his sense of luck and that had altered his mind. Though married, Tieko began to have his way with other women, going out club hopping and coming home late. His wife couldn’t handle Tieko’s womanizing and left for Atlanta.

“His American wife and son are in Georgia,” Deidra said, whispering.

After he separated from his wife, Tieko thought of himself as free. With US citizenship in hand, he went to Ghana and quickly proposed and brought back, a woman whom he had a crush on when he was growing up. Teiko remarried and “the wedding was a show within the Newark Ghanaian community,” Deidra said.

“Tieko was deaf to what people said about the woman. She was known in Accra for having a fulsome lifestyle, described as a mistress to multiple big time sugar daddies. “She was a call girl to businessmen and military government officials,” Deidra added.

Tieko used credit cards to finance a lavish traditional engagement ceremony in Accra, plus her trip, to America and paid for the wedding. Two years later, Tieko’s new wife also became a citizen. “But you know, all this time she was not having children, not because she couldn’t; she had abortions whenever she got pregnant and secretly used contraception without Tieko’s knowledge,” Deidra said. Tieko’s wife was apparently biding her time. As soon as his new wife got her US passport, she vanished.

“She resurfaced in Oklahoma and later served Tieko with divorce papers, then invited her politician boyfriend from Ghana to join her. Tieko was outwitted. This was his punishment for mistreating his African-American wife,” Deidra added.

“Tieko was shattered beyond belief. So far as I am concerned, Tieko was bewitched and spiritually blindfolded. That woman cast her spell on him and after she left, the hex lifted. Twice he attempted suicide, by drinking and taking pills. He was found unconscious, foaming at the mouth. That is why I was asked by my father’s family back home, to stay with him, for fear he might attempt killing himself again. His mother later came to join us and Tieko seem to have calmed down,” Deidra told me, as a cautionary tale.

I moved into the apartment, stayed in Deidra’s room and slept in the living room whenever she was home on weekends. Tieko worked for the Post Office at night and Deidra was away throughout the week. Being there, I provided company to Tieko’s mother and that made her feel secure in the apartment at night.

Once in a while Tieko would tell me about his life experiences in the form of proverbs: those who want to turn a stone into bread can only do it with the devil. I pretended I was hearing his story from him for the first time. He wasn’t bitter, but more introspective, as though he wanted to share the wisdom of his experiences with a younger brother. I felt contented to be accepted into his home.

“Don’t worry that you are going through challenges,” he once said. “Maybe it is better you go through life like this before you get your Green Card.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I can’t tell you now. One day you will understand,” he said.

Sometimes we would eat together. When he was in a good mood, he’d tell me stories about his early years in America and the life of hedonism and his sexual encounters with women of different races, especially Latino women.

Deidra worried about me. She heard a lot of gossip and did her best to urge me to look for work, however menial.

“Kabiru, people are talking about you,” she said.

“Which people?” I asked.

“Ghanaians…”

“And what are they saying?”

“They call you a dreamer. They say you are having mental problems and you’re emotionally unstable, because you keep telling people you want to be a theatre producer and a playwright on Broadway. How many Ghanaians have you seen doing something like that? You need a real job. Do something with your life Kabiru, go to the gas station, cleaning job, car washing; do anything you can to have your own money. You’ve been in America almost three years, still not working permanently and don’t have your Green Card. What are you going to do?”

“I want to work Deidra, but I want a professional job.”

“Kabiru, come on. Even those who have green cards work at the airport luggage section or in the mailroom at the post office, parking lots, drive buses or do maintenance work at the university or as security guards. Kabiru, Africans are cleaning the hotels, hospitals, schools, just find a job, it is money…this is why we came here.”

“Don’t worry, one day these same people will be talking about my achievements. My name will be up in lights on Broadway like the Sarafina guys.”

“You are still dreaming.”

“Isn’t America the land of dreamers?”

“There is the dream and there is reality. It is embarrassing when people talk about you in my presence at Ghanaian funeral parties and gatherings. They don’t know that you are my brother. The Ghanaian community is very small and word goes around. The single women say you are handsome, but you don’t have a green card, your own place and don’t work. How will they be interested in marrying you?”

That winter, the rich woman Deidra was nursing in Dover passed away. Deidra said the woman was heiress to a Mid-West Department store chain and Real Estate fortune. She instructed that Deidra be given some money and monthly stipend for the next ten years. She considered Deidra one of the best care-givers she’d ever had. Besides, Deidra reminded her of the African- American nanny she had as a child. I guess she was doing for Deidra what she might have also done for her nanny.

I listened to Deidra, and thought to myself that these are the little evidences of miracles that define our perception of life as immigrants. Deidra went to the funeral and was also invited to the reading of the woman’s will. She got a check that day and came home and secretly deposited it into her account and gave me a hundred dollars.

“Here, I know you will need it,” she gave it to me. That was when she told me about her patient and their lives of affluence and wealth in the back roads of their Dover estate and a mansion in the woods.

“How did you get to work, if they lived that far?” I asked her.

“I take the train to Dover, and then after I call the driver picks me up at the station. I had my own self-contained suite in the house next to my patient. I took care of her round the clock. I only slept when she was asleep,” she said.

A few months later, Deidra’s home nursing agency got her another job caring for an aging Polish woman in Harrison. With her regular stipend guaranteed from her Dover family and a new boyfriend in her life, Deidra decided it was time to move into her own apartment. Deidra’s new job did not require her to stay overnight. So she decided to lease a one-bedroom apartment in Ivy Hill. Tieko had sobered completely and agreed to marry again, through an arranged marriage in Ghana. The new third wife shortly arrived and everything changed: I had to find another way to continue with my life.

Through the Ghanaian underground network in Newark, I was introduced to a Ghanaian man who had been searching for months to find someone to share his apartment. He was living in a two-bedroom apartment at the Irvington Apartment complex.

Clement Frimpong wasn’t the handsome type. He was well-built in stature and had a face that protruded with a lot of teeth, with tribal marks on his left cheek. He considered himself a prominent man, bold and talkative without any sense of social inhibitions. He freely mixed up his bad English with Twi, and Ga, and a poor attempt at speaking with an urban African-American accent. He would say things like: “I didn’t went to work yesterday, Yeah men. I spoken to my boss and he was in agreement with my absence,” and expect you to keep a straight face.

But I needed him and decided to get used to his muddled-up sentences and his overwhelming personality. Whenever he spoke to me, he would appear formal in tone in order to sound professional in his dealings with me. I had gathered from the whispers of gossipers that Clement had worked at Kotoka Airport. He came to America using a false identity. All he spoke about was getting his real name back. He had hired a Nigerian tax and immigration lawyer for African and Caribbean clients, to help him with his efforts in restoring his name.

Despite all these challenges, Clement had managed to secure a job at Newark airport as a baggage handler. He went to the Immigration department to file for an extension of his visa and asked for the right to stay in America on humanitarian grounds: “because my life was a sadness and the coup people will catch me if I go back to Ghana,” he said that was his explanation to the immigration officer.

All the while I kept wondering, how does he manage to do this? On second thought, Clement wasn’t the kind you’d like to see in your office twice. He was intense, unreasonably gritty and an unrelenting go-getter. His face exuded a determined fierceness to get what he wanted, never taking ‘no’ for an answer. My arrangement with him was simple. Without looking him in the face, we discussed the nature of my residency.

“Look, you come and stay with me. When you get a job then pay me slowly,” he said.

“Not having working papers makes life difficult. It is not easy to find someone who’d allow me to use their name and social security card to work,” I said.

“Is cleaning for you?

“You mean a cleaning job if I get the chance?’

“Yes, a cleaning job,” he said.

“I don’t mind cleaning,” I said.

“Okay, I will ask the airport people to see if cleaning job is there. For now, sleep here and whenever I can help you, I will see.”

I did not entirely move into his apartment. I kept only my bare necessities there and stored most of my belongings in the basement of an African-American lady friend’s father’s Newark house.

We lived like cat and mouse doing our best to co-exist. I did what I could to live and communicate with Clement, in-between long stretches of haunted silence. I became good at reading his eccentric mood swings to determine whether I should be around him while he was in the apartment. He oscillated between fits of frantic excitement, erratic tantrums, to moments of feeling depressed about not being with his wife. He’d phone and talk to her for hours, making absurd exaggerated promises and claims about America, speaking Ga and Twi, in bad grammar and tainted American slang.

“America dear, it is fantastically beautiful paaaa, like ghetto life. I swear, one day you can see America. You know me, when I promise, I promise. Here, come and see I live in the same place with the blacks. There are many blacks but and as for obroni white people dear, plenty, like sand on the beach. In the cinema, everything is real. There is nice road and nice houses and food is everywhere. I am living in a tall house on the fifteenth floor. Last week I went to New York. Ahaa…New York, Christina, proper high life, come see; plenty shops, long, long houses, – skies-scrippars – night flashing lights and music live. It is not far from my place. It is like from Accra to Tema with train. As for this place there is no light-off ohoo, no curfew, like Ghana. My job is good, they will promote me manager, watch me.” He would carry on for hours especially on Sunday and Saturday mornings. I would recline in the sofa, trying not to be distracted from my reading, by his loud voice.

Once in a while he would come in with a strange friend and a big box of take-away food from the airport food court. Clement would insist that I join him and his friend. He’d carry on random conversations, incessantly talking about life in Ghana and Christina my love.

“If only Christina was here, I no go eat useless American food,” Clement would say. “In Ghana I was the connection man, cash man, I can sell even cars, machines, watches, building materials, anything; you give it to me and I sell it to someone, right now. In Ghana, Rawlings soldier government or coup time, I do business, even during the curfew days; that was the best time I make money.”

Then one day, he brought a friend, Paddington, from Trinidad to the apartment, convincing him to rent the second room. Knowing that I was not in a position to pay him, he kept the second room empty and allowed me to sleep on the sofa bed in the living room. For a month or two, aware that he was busily looking to rent the other room, I stayed away and did my best to avoid him, remaining silent whenever he spoke to me. My life in the apartment was surreal and wraithlike. I would steal my way in at night, an invisible apparitional image of myself, eat some Chinese food, read or write silently, while I waited to hear him snore; before curling up under the covers of my sofa bed to sleep. Most of the time, he was tired or remained in his room, talking loudly on the phone. His work schedule alternated between day and night shifts.

Sometimes he worked overtime and overnight. I was there barely six months, when suddenly everything changed. I came home one night and as soon as he sensed the door opening, he came out of his room, in uniform, appearing visibly displeased.

“Leave my house tonight. Get out of here?” He said.

“What do you mean leave, tonight…?”

“Yes, leave me alone.”

“Why, what have I done?” I asked.

“I saw you in the newspapers. Your picture was there.”

“Yes, the Star Ledger wrote an article on me because I was doing a play reading at the theatre.”

“Oh, yeah you are doing a concert, while I work and pay the rent, so that you can go and play the way you like. You think I am stupid?”

“Clement, the fact that I was in the paper does not mean I got money. You don’t get paid for being in the paper.”

“Even concert jokers in Ghana get money. You are the only Ghana-man in the paper. Only rich white people and bad blacks, comes into the newspaper. You are making money.”

“Clement, you calm down. It’s just a play reading in the small black box theatre at Newark Symphony Hall.”

“Symphony Hall is for rich superstars. Go talk to your white newspaper people to give you somewhere to stay. Because of you, nobody can rent here with me. People are laughing that I am stupid to give you free rent.” He said.

“Clement, I thought you said you would help me find my feet.”

“Six months? I am still helping you. Go away tonight. You are bad luck on me. Even if my wife was here, she will do cleaning and helping me to pay the rent.”

For the first time as though I had a talisman of courage, I looked at him right in the face, his tribal mark on the left side of his cheek etched deep inside his face. His lips prominent and bold, seething with fury, his hair receding, his protruding teeth gabbling up his words, spurts of saliva dripping and foaming around the edges of his mouth, and the greasy shine of his mahogany skin enveloped within the wrath of the moment. I knew my time was over. Seeing me in the newspapers as a playwright had clearly made him jealous. I couldn’t figure it out. All I could do was gently start packing my belongings.

“I am going night shift. When I come, tomorrow morning you are going away from here. You hear me?

“Yeah right, sure…” I said.

“Otherwise, you will not like me anymore. You Accra people, who went to university, think you are better than us. Is it because we come from the village and went to some kwekuasi secondary school?”

“Clement, stop it…that’s bullshit.” I yelled back. For the first time I had the courage to talk back to him. I knew I had nothing to lose.

“You too bowl-shit, you think I don’t know that you think you are better than me? We are all in America now, we are equal and whether you went to university or not, my life is better than you. Look…you can’t even get a job with all your Legon degree.”

“Clement, this is all in your head. This has nothing to do with Ghana, where I went to University or whether you came from the rural area and I came from the city. This is your own inferiority complex talking…”

“You’re not better than me. You’re nothing…I’m the one who do you good. I hate people to think I’m stupid. You think you can come in America and do like Ghana? There is white people’s job and jobs for blacks and Ghana peoples like me and you. No kalabule here, Kwasia, stupid,” he kept yelling at me.

After exchanging these words, I knew I was on my way out. Deep down, fear seized me and I knew I had to get a job by whatever means necessary. Winter was receding to the north and glimmers of spring showed up in the buds of the trees. Desperate, I confided my situation to a Liberian friend, Blyden, at the Library who offered to house me in one of the spare adjoining rooms in their apartment on Main Street, Orange. He was living with two other Liberians, his “cousins.” While the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia unfolded, members of both communities would gather in the apartment on weekends, spend nights discussing and arguing as though they were having a vigil. They were nights of wailing, swapping war stories, making calls back home, remembering names of dead loved ones, binge drinking, smoking, eating and talking about their country’s raging and ravaging wars. I would hear them talking in their Sierra-Liberian accents: Charles Taylor is a devil reincarnate, an omen, spreading death like a black plague. I listened to their diatribe against Africa and Liberia, musing on the fact that, war like an epidemic, could spread the specter of death across the region, if not curtailed.

“Come, Kabiru, come and join us.” Blyden called.

“I am fine, I don’t smoke or drink.”

“Come on – you Moslem or Jehovah Witness?”

“Not really. I’m okay. You guys go ahead. I am fine.”

“Come. Let’s have a drink on Africa. Our country is on fire, what else can we do?”

They came to America fleeing and to escape the chaos following the fall of the Tubman-Tolbert dynasty. Their voices in the living room roared, filled with accusations against Sergeant Doe of being the cause of Liberia’s woes, simultaneously blaming Charles Taylor for being the criminal gangster, instigator and provocateur. Life in that apartment was an open house. I came in and out, up and down the dark, rickety-creaky stairway as I pleased. Most of the time they were out working, one as a driver of refrigerated trucks; distributing frozen goods for a supermarket chain, along the East Coast. The other worked as a stock clerk in a big department shop. The stock clerk came home every night and the driver would come in at odd times, sleep for a whole day, wash up and be gone for another two to four days; while Blyden worked at the Library at Rutgers.

I developed a respectable friendship with the stock clerk, a chain-smoking guy called Freeman. He admired me for writing plays. He said he’d also read about me in the newspapers. He would come and look through my collection of books, mostly borrowed from various libraries, and start up a conversation. But I maintained my detached posture, sitting on my mattress on the wood floor, my back against the wall. He liked to look at me and smile, say a few kind words before going into his room for the night. I did not want to reveal much of myself as it appeared to get me into trouble.

So I chose to maintain our cordial relationship as roommates. I hardly went beyond the usual discussions about the weather, a shooting incident in Newark, a crime in the neighborhood or County politics. I stayed in the Orange apartment through winter, spring and another summer. I got hired to teach theatre through the Orange and Newark school systems after first volunteering, the money from teaching as a contracted instructor helped pay for my rent. Then one day, my Liberian friend came and spoke to me in a subdued delicate murmur.

“My brothers have decided to give up the lease,” he said. “But if you want, we can transfer it to you. I’ll tell the landlord you are my brother.”

“You mean the lease to this apartment?” I asked.

“Yes, the lease is about to expire and my brothers don’t want to renew it.”

“Does that mean we have to leave?”

“You don’t have to leave if you want the lease. Our oldest brother, you see…it was four of us. He is the one who comes to check on us. He got married and moved to Plainfield and my brother who drives the ice truck got his own place in Baltimore. He moved last week. I got a place with my girl, in the projects on 2nd Street and Freeman wants to move to California to marry his girl.”

“How much is the whole lease?”

“Thousand two hundred, you pay the two hundred and we pay the thousand. But you can take it on and have the whole place. You can sublease it to some of your other Ghanaian brothers.”

“So when do we have to leave?”

“End of the month,” he said.

“Wow, Hmm…?”

Once again the ground was beginning to shift under my feet.

“Sorry things have changed. We must move,” he said.

I called Deidra to rescue me again. I moved in with her and that is when she told me what had happened to her marriage. Deidra had secretly married her new boyfriend, who turned out to be a master at the art of keeping secrets. He was a slow, calm and very unassuming man, who drove the Newark to Elizabeth townships bus. He was an even-tempered man – a necessary requirement for being a good bus driver in Newark. Deidra was excited about marrying her new boyfriend, who spoke with a seductive mischievous smile like a dark angel.

Even though he married Diedra, he kept a Nigerian mistress – that Ibo woman, as Deidra referred to her. She had five children with three different men, living on welfare. She would go on to bear two more children with Deidra’s husband to prove it wasn’t his fault Deidra couldn’t conceive. Years later, they divorced and the pain of Deidra’s failed marriage hurt me as if it was my own.

I slept in the living room through the rest of the summer. I did not stay with Deidra for long this second time around. While I’d been living in the apartment in Orange with my Liberian friends, I’d come down one morning to see that an African shop was opening on the first floor, the new owner called the shop: House of Africa. The words were written in bold green, yellow, red and black lettering, hoisted across the building on a billboard size sign, confidently proclaiming Africa, as a store selling African packaged goods, gift cards, Afro-centric books, jewelry, fabrics and all things African/African-American. I immediately went into the shop and there stood the owner, Adewale, smiling. Next to him was his beautiful wife, Temitayo standing behind the cash register, beaming with joy. I introduced myself and it was brotherly love at first sight. They were Yoruba, he said.

“I’m Ga-Adangbe.”

“Ghana?” Adewale said.

“Nigeria,” I said, as we shook hands.

“Then we are brothers,” he replied. That was the beginning of our friendship. It was at the House of Africa, that I met Desdemona, a few weeks after I had moved out of the apartment upstairs. Adewale had told her I needed somewhere to stay. Desdemona was a Nigerian professor who had moved to America from Nsukka to teach African literature at Montclair State University. She’d just bought a house in Montclair and wanted a house-sitter.

“These druggies have broken into my house twice. You look just like my younger brother in Enugu, if you don’t mind; I’ll offer you accommodation in exchange, you watch over my house while I’m away teaching, travelling and attending conferences,” she said.

I accepted her offer and moved into the self-contained basement, which I converted into a flat. For the first time in a long time, I seemed to have found a place of my own to live and continue the tasks of writing my secret notes about the lives of African immigrants, as material for future stories and plays.

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4 Comments

  • A professor friend who teaches at Binghamton keeps telling me life is strange in America. After reading this, I think it is true…
    I know characters like Clement. I used to live in this kind of house – a shack, really – and CLEMENT always insisted that he knock the door once and I had to open immediately.
    And you know what time he’d return from the intentional liquor-drinking nights deep inside the slums of Nairobi? NEVER earlier than 1:00a.m.
    After giving him a piece of my mind I left within one week…

    • This story spoke to me truly, particularly because I am in New Jersey and some of those experiences and places are familiar to me. It also feels like a compression of a much larger experience…

      • Thank you Sola, it is indeed a compression of a much larger story. The novel “In Another Man’s Name,” is being edited at the moment, and hopefully someday it will see the light of day.

        Thanks for your encouragement.

        Kabu

    • Thanks for your comment. I wrote it to let more Africans understand the challenges African face when they think they are going to the promised land in America. Life in the West is not easy. Think hard before you decide to go there.