A friend told me a story about a Ghanaian man he knew who, apparently through 'no fault of his own', had ended up in a British prison. He paused. I waited. He had just returned from visiting his friend in prison and the accumulated fatigue from the journey, plus the disturbing experience of seeing the man in confinement, was beginning to tell on him. He sat down. He began to tell the story again, this time more wistfully. OK, so perhaps his friend was culpable to some degree. He was a young Ghanaian man who had ostensibly come to England to study but he had managed to overstay his visa. He had also managed not to study--or rather, he had 'studied' but earned neither a diploma nor a degree. In all likelihood he would be deported back to Ghana with a stamp in his passport that would effectively make it impossible for him to return to Britain. I listened to my friend's new version of the story, which was identical to the first version except this time I learned the man's name. Mohammed Mansour Nassirudeen, prisoner number HA1000, would soon be returning to Ghana without his formal education, and with a mark of shame. He would be a convicted criminal.
????????'You know, he wants to be a writer.' I looked across at my friend. 'He's been writing, and he's just got a prize for an essay.' My friend reached down into his smart new briefcase and retrieved a file of papers. He flicked through them and then handed me a five-page essay entitled 'A Day in My Life as a Detainee'. I looked at the creased, dog-eared pieces of paper, then put them to one side, I would read them later. I asked, 'Is he likely to get any kind of last-minute reprieve and be allowed to stay?' My friend rubbed the back of his hand into a tired and lined face. 'No chance', he said. 'He'll be going back to Ghana on a one-way ticket. After all his effort to get here, after everything that he's been through in Britain, they'll just put him on a plane to Ghana and kick him out. As simple as that.'
????????In the evening, after my friend had left, I picked up the crumpled essay and began to read. The structure was conventional enough. It simply traced the contours of Mohammed Mansour Nassirudeen's 'prison day', which began at 4.30 a.m. with Muslim prayers, and ended at 9 p.m. with more prayers. The 'day' that sprawled from pre-dawn to post-dusk was characterized by Mansour's apparently insatiable hunger to attend educational classes in order that he might improve himself, and his dedication to prayer. Mansour's narrative successfully resisted the impulse to explain just why he was serving time in Haslar Detention Centre but, this glaring omission aside, there was an admirably stoic determination to his tale--as told by himself--which was betrayed by only one piece of special pleading.
The morning session of education ceases at 11.30. During the interval I keep myself mentally active as much as possible. My mind is constantly occupied with new ideas which I have organized in my Database. That leaves me little room to think about my problems of being locked up in detention when I have committed no crime during the eight years that I have lived in Great Britain and paid my taxes. Nevertheless, I see my situation not as a problem but as an 'opportunity'. I certainly don't know why I am here. But it has to be for a reason which only God knows. Even prophets like Joseph, Ysusf, have been in jail, and other dignified people like Nelson Mandela. Life is full of paradoxes, I feel physically that I am in detention, though spiritually I am not.
????????Six weeks later Mohammed Mansour Nassirudeen was escorted on to a British Airways flight to Accra, Ghana, his passport having been suitably stamped so that it would be clear to any immigration officer at any immigration point in the world that this man had been deported from Britain for being an illegal immigrant,
Through the open window of the car the warm night wind strokes my face. We are racing further into the heart of a city. As we do so, the houses begin to multiply on either side of the road, thickening into neighbourhoods that reach back to the low-lying hills. A forest of flickering lights suggests the density and extent of the hidden population. Despite the late hour, traffic streams relentlessly, and noisily, along the black ribbon of the highway. Through the cracked and spidered windshield, I can see that we are following a large truck whose red tail-lights blink with ominous unpredictability. As the truck brakes, we too brake, often with a sudden violence which throws me forward so that my outstretched arm is all that prevents me from careening into the back of the driver's seat. African driving. First, a somnambulant dog and then a disorientated cow wander aimlessly across this main road. They provide us with further obstacles to be screeched around. Mercifully, the driver slows down as we enter the heart of Accra. As we do so, the streets broaden with a majestic moonlit flourish and announce themselves as the streets of a capital city. At all the major intersections there are clusters of vigilant, gun-toting policemen. Young policemen. Boys really. Mansour twists around in the driver's seat. 'Nearly there,' he says with a broad smile. 'You will soon be at your hotel.' He is proud of his country, and he is clearly enjoying the role of trusted driver. I settle back in my seat and let the warm night wind continue to stroke my face.
I am sitting at a filthy plastic-topped table that is littered with abandoned packets of white and brown sugar, discarded plastic stirrers, a shallow puddle of coffee, and the sticky remains of some sweet orange drink. The plane is delayed and I have suddenly been presented with an extra six hours in Gatwick Airport. They say travel broadens the mind. I had asked the airline's representative a polite question. She looked disdainfully at me. 'Mechanical problems, love.' I was hoping for something a little more specific than this. No, I cannot have my luggage back and take a flight on the following day. Apparently my checked bag has already been 'processed' and is lurking somewhere in the inner bowels of the airport. Like the other one hundred and fifty abandoned souls, I have been presented with a ?15 voucher, haven't I? There are, she tells me, a whole network of shops and restaurants in the terminal 'which rival any inner-city High Street'. So what is my problem? Shamefaced, I hurry away and sit at the filthy plastic-topped table.
????????'United revel in goal spree.' I am reading the story for a second time when I am interrupted by a tall, slightly stooped man who, on the evidence of his heavy tray, has clearly spent his ?15 with enthusiasm. 'Do you mind if I join you?' Of course not, I say, both signalling him to please take a seat and gesturing helplessly towards the table top. 'I am used to Heathrow,' he says. He takes a bite out of his egg and cress sandwich. I know what he means. I too am used to Heathrow. Suddenly choice opens up for me. I can go and spend my ?15, I can have a conversation, or I can return to my newspaper. I choose the latter. 'United revel in goal spree.'
????????I had awoken at dawn to the unusual sound of birds singing. In my London neighbourhood the sound of an articulated lorry rumbling by is the usual signal that the day is breaking. The alarm rang out, but having turned it off I lay in bed for ten minutes watching the light creep around the corner of the curtains. Eventually I went downstairs, made a cup of black coffee, and stared intently at a cat who was sitting on top of a wall staring intently back at me. As usual, I would lose this face-off. My bags were packed. I was leaving for West Africa, a significantly shorter journey than the more familiar ones to the United States or to the Caribbean, but a journey which none the less always suggests both distance and otherworldliness. My minicab driver raced through the empty streets of south London, then burst into the open Surrey countryside. He hurtled past mist-shrouded green fields, negotiated knotty junctions where one motorway threaded into another, and then he delivered me to Gatwick's South Terminal. 'Thirty quid, mate,' 'Mechanical problems, love.' 'United revel in goal spree.' 'Do you mind if I join you?'
????????I sip at a beaker of warm white wine whose contents both look and taste like a urine sample. Then I screw the top of the small bottle firmly into place, unsure as to whether I will ever open it again. I have spent my ?15 on white wine, coffee, and a 'baguette', the contents of which defy description. At least somebody has deigned to wipe the top of the table clean with a wet cloth. I look around and can see that the airport is becoming increasingly populated with travellers who, having spent their vouchers, are now both frustrated and angered by this delay. At the airline counter I see an African businessman who is attempting to check in a pair of spectacularly oversized boxes, with addresses scrawled hastily across them in felt-tip pen. In addition to the 'boom-box' stereo and the computer equipment that he apparently wishes to take on board as hand-luggage, there is also a fridge. It is a small, white, mini-bar size fridge, but nevertheless it is a fridge. The bewildered look on the face of the woman behind the counter is eloquent. I unscrew the top from the bottle of wine.
When the captain announces that we will not be landing in Nigeria I breathe a sigh of relief. I want to get to Ghana as quickly as possible. I stop the flight attendant as she saunters down the aisle, but her explanation for overflying Kano alarms me. She perches on the armrest of the seat across the aisle, and then begins to explain in a muted whisper. It transpires that the British authorities have recently banned Nigerian aircraft from landing at any British airports, claiming that the planes are not being properly serviced. The Nigerians have understandably decided to respond in kind by not allowing any British aircraft to land on their soil. The flight attendant smiles weakly and says that she imagines that the situation will soon be resolved. She seems, however, painfully unconvinced.
????????As the flight attendant moves off down the aisle, the man next to me reaches below the seat in front of him and withdraws his attach? case. He is a small bullet-headed man, with a curiously large white shirt collar that seems intent upon climbing over the lapels of his purple jacket and declaring itself independent of the rest of his shirt. He snaps open the attach? case and produces a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label Whisky, which, nodding in the direction of my plastic cup of water, he offers to me. 'Whisky, my brother?' No thanks, I say. Having caught a whiff of his breath, I am sure that my 'brother' is already several drinks past drunk. He seems puzzled. 'Muslim?' Not really, I say. At this point he decides to ignore me and pour himself a drink. Perhaps he is celebrating the fact that we will not be landing in Nigeria. I close my eyes in an attempt to drift off to sleep.
????????'Where are you from?'
????????The abruptness of his whisky-scorched question shakes me out of my reverie. The bullet-headed man appears now to be fully libated and eager for conversation. 'Yes please, my friend. Where are you from?'
????????The question. The problem question for those of us who have grown up in societies which define themselves by excluding others. Usually us. A coded question. Are you one of us? Are you one of ours? Where are you from? Where are you really from? And now, here on a plane flying to Africa, the same clumsy question. Does he mean, who am I? Does he mean, do I belong? Why does this man not understand the complexity of his question? I make the familiar flustered attempt to answer the question. He listens, and then spoils it all. 'So, my friend, you are going home to Africa. To Ghana.' I say nothing. No, I am not going home.
????????'My name is Ben.' He extends his hand in a gesture of fraternal welcome. (No, I am not going home.) His knuckles are callused, and his firm grip makes me wonder if he has ever been a boxer. He smiles at the question, careful not to deny his former 'occupation'. He then offers me another opportunity to share his whisky. 'Water's fine,' I say, 'or maybe a beer when they next come by with the drinks.' Ben seems relieved that I have at least acknowledged the possibility that I might drink something alcoholic.
????????'I go to England to do business, maybe three times a year. That is all England is good for these days. Make some money and leave. They don't want to know us any more.'
????????'Since independence. We have to survive by ourselves.'
????????'But isn't that the purpose of independence?' Ben seems momentarily offended, so I press on. 'Britain's primary relationship is now with Europe. That's just how it goes.'
????????'But what about us?' Ben twists around in his seat to face me. 'You think it's fine to just forget us?' He throws out a helpless arm. 'You think it's fine to forget the Commonwealth?'
????????I shrug my shoulders. Ben is drunk, but his indignation is focused. I recognize the anger as having its roots in parental abandonment. The jettisoning of a truculent child who demands respect, yet craves love.
????????Ben trades in foodstuffs and hair products. The foodstuffs he exports to
Britain, where they are sold in specialist groceries, while the afro, hair products are manufactured in Britain, but sold in Ghana and throughout West Africa. For five years Ben has been flying this route, but his dream is to make enough money so that he can settle in Ghana and not have to bother with Britain any more. In the meantime, he tells me that he enjoys having access to the material goods, the television sets, the CD players, and the video recorders that he can buy in London. He always brings a few of each back with him to 'distribute', and in this way he easily covers the cost of his flight. 'What about customs duty?' I ask. 'Isn't there an import tax levied on all of these goods?' 'Yes, but even after the tax I make money.' Ben laughs. 'And I pay the damn tax.' He points in what he imagines to be the general direction of Nigeria, through the window and down beneath the clouds. 'Not like those Nigerian people down there. How can a country develop when everybody is helping themselves and nobody is helping the country? You tell me that?'
????????Long before the plane begins its descent into Accra's Kotoka International Airport, Ben is asleep, his mouth open, his head thrown back, his attach? case tucked safety underneath the seat in front of him. The flight attendant stalks the aisles, encouraging passengers to fasten their seat belts and put the back of their seats upright for what remains of the flight. Ben fails to respond to her urgings, so I lean over and strap him in. I wonder about the quality of hurt that remains damned up in Ben's soul? In our short time together I have listened to him sing a discordant anthem of indignation. Like me, he is the product of British imperial adventures. Unlike me, he is an African. A Ghanaian. A whole man. A man of one place. A man who will never flinch at the question, 'Where are you from?' A man going home. Stupefied with drink and despair, Ben is returning home. And, in spite of his present predicament, I envy his rootedness.
Excerpted from The Atlantic Sound by Caryl Phillips. Copyright © 2001 by Caryl Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.