When dreams die, they do not rot: three men, one dream and the theater

I remember the Iranian-Dutch writer, Kader Abdolah, once saying that when he first mentioned to a fellow Iranian immigrant that he wanted to be a writer in the Netherlands, his countryman told him, “Your dream is large but this country is small.” A Nigerian would have told him to “cut your coat according to your cloth.”

One of the most common narratives of immigrants – particularly from the global south to the global north – is that of abandoned dreams and abandoned lives. People who must give up former lives as architects and bankers and doctors and engineers and teachers to begin again in a new country as cleaners, laborers and health care assistants. People who sometimes must erase old identities to get a chance to live in these new homes; people for whom everything in life is transactional; people who are “given stories for immigration officers,” who exchange marrying for love for marriages of convenience. People who know what it is to modify dreams, to contain dreams and sometimes to abandon them. And if they are lucky, and if they persist, they are able, some day, to resurrect those dreams. But the thing with resurrection is that whatever rises is likely to change form.

For the Star Boys, a West-African performance collective based in Antwerp, Belgium, the dream of playing professional football in Europe found its revival in an unlikely form: theatre. The Star Boys collective grew organically out of a project initiated by the Sri Lankan-Australian theatre-maker, Ahilan Ratnamohan, who in 2013 approached African footballers living in Belgium to create a dance-theatre piece looking into the phenomenon of human smuggling in football. For the promise of food and €30 per session (three hours of rehearsal/practice), Ahil recruited his first actors. Eleven came to the auditions, eight made the cut, and in the years since then, a total of twelve have graced the stage for their performances in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and the UK. The cast rotates, much like a football squad, a simulacrum of their transient situation, where trials, deportation and contracts mean Ahil can’t count on any performer being on stage until he actually sees them standing there on the night.

Of the fifteen footballers who Ahil has worked with, three have been deported and one has gone on to “make it” with a big money contract at one of the top clubs in Angola via a stint at a third division club in Portugal. The rest live a life somewhere in between their dreams, their hopes and reality. I met Etuwe Bright Junior, Lateef Babatunde and Aloys Kwaakum, three of the Star Boys who have remained in Belgium. Their reality is more spectacular than even they might have dared to expect, given the circumstances.

Junior, born in 1988 and raised in FESTAC – a middleclass area of Lagos, Nigeria – had wanted to play professional football since he was in SS1 (10th grade). Not only was he a talented player, he had three brothers who were successful professional footballers with clubs in Europe. His parents – a farmer father and a shop owner mother – would have preferred that he followed a different career path, but nothing could come between Junior and his ambitious dream.

At 18, he was scouted and picked up by an agent who brought him to Belgium. This agent – eager for a player who could get a professional contract immediately – was disappointed that the team he had hoped to sell Junior to would not sign him directly to the first team. “They wanted to keep me [as] a second player for six months. My agent didn’t agree.” One month and three weeks later, Junior was back in Lagos.

Junior’s voice is flat and he is as meticulous about dates as he appears to be about his carefully  trimmed beard. There are no approximations with him. Yet, he is not quite as detailed about events. I wonder if he has learned to do this –  to be precise about dates and time but to skip over stories – out of necessity. Belgians demand preciseness, even in casual conversations. Junior has gone through the rigmarole of becoming “legal” and would have had to face officials wanting dates and demanding a high level of exactness. At the same time, he would also have learned when talking to “journalists,” and other Africans to be wary of giving out too much information.

Junior spent one year and nine months in Lagos, before returning to Europe via Italy with another agent. The new agent had the reputation of getting all his talents signed. However, as Junior found out much later, because this agent was bringing in players only with the blessing of the president of the team and not in collaboration with the other officials, he was being undercut by another agent who brought in players from Africa for 10 times less; Junior would not be signed. He had the option of signing with a Division 3 team, and to be registered as a student to facilitate his paperwork, but Junior had no interest in school. Also, if he was not going to be as big as promised, there was no incentive to stay.

“Besides, after two months away, I missed my girlfriend. I wanted to go back,” he adds with a toothy smile.

In 2009, a Nigerian agent brought Junior to Finland to play with a team that guaranteed him a 70% chance of being signed. However, after two weeks, the same agent called and asked him to lie to the club that he had to leave unexpectedly “for Africa” but to in fact make his way to Belgium where his European counterpart would have him sign with a better team. “You are too big for Finland,” he told Junior. Junior followed his advice? And was put up in a nice hotel in Chaleroi, but in the two weeks he was there, he was only taken out to train once with an under 13 team. He does not understand what went wrong but he never heard from either his Nigerian agent or his Belgian colleague again. Junior left the hotel and   moved in “with a friend in Antwerp” and tried to find a team by himself.

The team he found eventually was not the sort he had dreamed of but one that, despite disappointments, “show you love.” A team made up of African footballers, lured by the promise of success in Europe, motivated by the success of their countrymen who play first division in various European countries, and unable to achieve the same success for various reasons. The team would train together every morning, and then if they got lucky, some were picked to play for a Café football team (the term used for non-league football in Belgium). Cafe Football teams are made up of middle-aged Belgian men who play mostly for the camaraderie. The teams are usually supported by small businesses and despite the low level of competition, it is not uncommon for teams to pay two or three higher quality players to help their cause. These players are invariably Africans who could have turned professional (if not abroad, then in their own countries). “From the dream of being a professional, you end up in division 12,” says Junior.

Junior is now a legal Belgian resident but getting his status confirmed was not easy. He had been in a relationship with a Nigerian/Ghanaian woman with Belgian nationality whom he could have married to ease the path to citizenship but the balance of power was monstrously skewed. Unable to cope with his reliance on her, knowing it was not “right”, Junior broke up with her. In order to remain, however, he had to prove that he was a productive member of the society by presenting himself every month to the municipal authorities with proof that he had worked the prerequisite  hours.

Taking into account that finding work as a dark-skinned foreigner with rudimentary language skills is difficult, this was some task, Junior says.  In 2015 he became the proud owner of a Belgian identity card. The same year, he toured with the Star Boy collective to perform in London, a privilege he had previously been denied. Determined to succeed in Belgium, he is taking Dutch language lessons (“Not easy to stay here and not be able to work just because of “registration.” You can’t even go to school!”). He is trying to find a balance between his persistent dream of playing professional football, working in a DHL factory and being a successful actor (“I’d like theatre to be my regular paying job, but the society isn’t giving us the opportunity”).

The first time Junior met Ahil, he distrusted him because he looked like a journalist. “You learn here not to trust anyone.”  But the promise of paid work as an actor was too much to pass up (“it was the only “black” job I could do”) and so he gave Ahil a chance and discovered to his own surprise, how much he enjoyed it. When Junior talks of Ahil and of acting (and his love of it), the flatness in his voice disappears. His eyes take on an almost fevered shine.

When he talks of how he had misjudged Ahil (“I thought he wanted our stories to make us look stupid in front of white people”) his smile is apologetic.  “I realized Ahil just wanted our stories to be heard.” And that is what the theatre has given him: an opportunity to tell his story first-hand, to dismantle myths and false stereotypes, a chance to be understood.

“Because people don’t understand, they judge you easily. They think you’re lazy, don’t want to work but you don’t have papers. If you eat three plates at a party, they think you’re greedy but you don’t have the money for food.” He gives me another trademark smile and says, “Theatre is our national team. It has made me find peace within myself and in Europe.”

Recently, Junior has landed a role on TV, acting in “Spitsbroers,” a Belgian TV drama revolving around a big football club. When he is recognized on the street it iis flattering, but to survive he still has to frequent job centers hoping for work while he waits for his new dream to become real enough to pay his way.

Lateef shares Junior’s hope of turning professional some day. “If God says I’m still going to play, I will play,” says Lateef, but in the meantime, his primary goal is to fend for his family, so he is also doing other jobs to make sure his children do not lack. He works in a factory. He has played “Café football”; he acts because he enjoys it. He doesn’t have any concept of the theatre and that is his strength.

“Because he doesn’t try to act, his performance comes off as natural. You get Lateef on stage,” says Ahil. More importantly, he acts because it pays. Even though Lateef enjoys performing, it is the money he earns from it rather than the love of theatre that keeps him committed. Even before his papers came through, he travelled with the troupe to Germany, Holland and Switzerland on a number of occasions, despite the risk of immigration checks.

Lateef is accompanied to our interview by his daughter, a beautiful girl with wild, curly hair.   They clearly dote on each other. He has another daughter, a seven-year old who is being raised by his mother in Nigeria and with whom he speaks regularly on the phone. His daughter in Nigeria is getting a more privileged upbringing, Ahil notes. Lateef sends enough money back home to make sure that, in a country where the public school system is deficient, she attends an elite private school. Lateef left Nigeria for a better life, but it is his daughter in Nigeria who is enjoying the “better life,” and who, hopefully, would not need to become an economic refugee. The irony intrigues Ahil: the fact that Lateef’s daughter growing up (middle class) in a developing country with all the advantages a top-notch education provides will probably wield more power in the future than her sister growing up in a developed country where power still lies firmly in the hands of the white middle class.

Lateef is as disciplined as he is committed. He has been in Europe since 2010, going first to Portugal with a touring team from Nigeria, playing exhibition matches. One of those was against Sporting Lisbon, but he was left out when his Nigerian agent asked for a higher paying fee than was offered to him, Lateef says. Rather than be returned to Nigeria, Lateef called his “brother” in Belgium. This “brother” was a fellow Nigerian who was – by his own accounts – a successful player in Belgium and could get Lateef into a team. He lived in Kortrijk and offered Lateef boarding and lodging. Lateef travelled to Belgium only to discover that this “successful football player” was an asylum seeker, housed in a government building from which Lateef had to disappear whenever there was an official check.

“I’d spend hours roaming the streets of Kortrijk until I was sure the government official had left.” But those were not wasted hours. Lateef met fellow Africans, one of whom was a Ghanaian man who took him to an indoor stadium where he could practice football. While practicing one day, “ a white man who was watching” was so impressed by Lateef’s skill that he gave Lateef and his friend a ticket to watch the local first division side KV Kortrijk play. He promised to introduce Lateef to the coach but after waiting for two hours for the man to appear, Lateef left. He still regrets it.

“I should have waited.”

Meanwhile, Lateef’s “brother” lost his asylum appeal and Lateef had to find somewhere else to stay. Another Nigerian footballer friend, who lived in Antwerp, put him up, and took him to trainings. One day, while he was out with this friend, he met the woman who is now his partner and the mother of his daughter. But the path to love (and invariably to legal residency in Belgium) was not easy. They dated for a while, broke up, during which time he moved in with another white girlfriend for six months. After he reunited with the first girlfriend and planned to live with her, he was suspected by “vremdelingen zaken” (foreign affairs) of “strategic dating” (or planning on marrying a Belgian only for residency status). He was interviewed by the police for six hours and given 30 days to leave the country. Lateef and his partner appealed the removal notice; their case became more complex for the authorities when his partner became pregnant.

***

Bald and clean shaven, at 29, Aloys has the looks of one for whom life is meant to be enjoyed. It is easy to imagine him on stage, perhaps easier to imagine him on a stage than on a football pitch. I am not surprised when he admits to finding football stressful. Aloys speaks Dutch, French and English and is training to be some sort of technician. Ahil describes him as an expert at surviving in Europe.

Aloys came to Europe eight years ago through the Cameroonian football academy, L’École de Football des Brasseries du Cameroun. He was one of 22 players chosen for a tournament in France. The players were supposed to return to Cameroun after the tournament but Aloys was poached by an agent and persuaded to relocate to Belgium and play there.

“I knew nothing about Belgian football,” says Aloys, but he knew enough about Europe and of successful African players in Europe to know he wanted to stay. “And I trusted the agent because he was white.” The agent promised to get him to play for Anderlecht and put him up in a hotel, but disappeared after five days.

Realizing the agent wasn’t returning, Aloys had to rely on the kindness of strangers. For young African footballers trying to survive in Europe, this comes in the form of solidarity from the black community. One of the men who helped him was a Togolese. This man coached Aloys how to go about applying for asylum, from directing him to the Immigration office to the Commissioner-General for Refugees and Stateless persons. The process bought Aloys time to remain in Belgium pending the outcome of his asylum application.

Aloys spent the first six months awaiting a decision in an asylum camp in a small Belgian town. There, he trained on his own, before tiring of the stress that comes with life in refugee camps. He opted to live outside with a small allowance. Doing this gave him a chance to experience the country more intimately, meet people, strike up new friendships, begin a relationship with a local girl. When is application for asylum was rejected Aloys was not as devastated as he might have otherwise been. His relationship grant with his girlfriend, the mother of his child, guarantees him the right to stay. He was scouted by a Belgian agent who promised to help him to get a trial with the Belgian club Lierse SK. He eventually got a semi-professional contract with the club, but his precarious status in the country led to complications and restricted his advancement in the club.

Since leaving Lierse SK, Aloys has had a number of trials at Belgian provincial clubs, as well as in Romania and England but it appears his football dream is in the past and he is investing more in his acting career. His family is displaced and most of them have relocated to the United States, so moving back to Cameroun is not an attractive option for him.

There is something heartbreaking about young Africans believing that they must migrate north  to survive and live a better life. Their hopes hinge on the promises of men for whom their lives are negotiable, walls and fences and the real risk of death crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Yet, there is some consolation in their willingness to own up to their regrets and in their desire to speak the truth of the realities of surviving in Europe.

The Igbo proverb rings true here: “Ekwue ma anughi mere nwata, mana afu ma ekwughi mere okenye.” A child is ruined by not listening (to what they are told) but an adult is ruined by not speaking (of what they have seen).

* With contributions from Ahilan Ratnamohan and Jesse Shipley

 

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