One of the attractions of the former SWISSAIR is their Visual Display Units (VDUs), the television-like gadgets that informs passengers about our geographic positions as we cruise far above -in the skies.
I prefer the information provided by the VDUs to the second-rate Hollywood trash with which the other airlines entertain their clients.
I had a windows-seat on the Zurich-Lagos-Accra flight and so could see the ground when the clouds permit. It was a wide-bodied MD-111 jet. My seat was close to the wings and I fascinated myself watching the ailerons flap in response to commands from the instrument panels located in the cockpit. When the clouds clear sufficiently enough to see the ground, I could see the gorgeous landscape that was mother earth racing slowly beneath us. I scribbled some notes in my reporter's notebook.
According to the instruments we were cruising above the snow-capped Alps Mountains. It was a truly magnificent sight - the Alps. The more I watched the awe-inspiring mountains the more I marveled at the logistics prowess of Hannibal, the great African general, who had to move through them with elephants to launch his attacks on Europe.
My seat-mate, a middle-aged man with a handsome Ghanaian face, was munching bread and cheese with abandon; his mouth made primitive noises.
We had barely lifted up when the guy tugged at my shirt and asked how to summon the steward.
"How do you call them?" He asked in thick Twi.
I told him that I don't speak Twi. He didn't understand why I am on an Accra flight without speaking Twi; I didn't explain to him.
I taught him how to operate the buzzer. He pressed the button and he seemed impatient when no one materialized immediately. I explained that it would take some time. He seemed ill at ease.
Finally, a pretty stewardess in a chic uniform came and smiled. The smile seemed too natural for an airline hostess. My seat-mate beamed back, "Mepamechau, ekom dimi."
The stewardess' processed smiles disappeared for a moment - just a moment. It reappears and she asked the beaming passenger what he wanted.
My companion's smiles widened just so, "I fit get blead and butter?"
I had to restrain myself from laughing. Cupping my hand over my mouth, I pretended to be looking out the window. The lady smiled back, "Sorry, I don't understand you." She replied with that thick accent with which the Swiss speak English.
The guy smiled back, "Blead and butter." He repeated, gesturing wildly.
The lady could still not comprehend him. He was agitated. He pulled at my shirt again? Why can't he just say 'Excuse me?'
"You fit tell am?" He demanded of me.
Of course I can tell her, but I wish he would be a little polite to those he asked to be his translator. I told the lady that the guy wanted bread and butter.
Ignoring him, she told me that he should exercise patient, as lunch would soon be served.
I translated but the guy shook his head sadly. "I no fit wait. Tell am say he for find me blead, even if na one wey dey chop remain."
I translated that my seat-mate suffers from ailment which made it imperative that he must have something in his stomach as soon as possible. She won't like to have a sick passenger on her hand, would she? She shook her head and left promising to see what she can do. That's my good girl, thank you very much. She re-appeared moments later with a tray of bread with generous slices of cheese. The guy grabbed it with both hands, his mouth already salivating.
I do wish he would eat his food without making so much noise, but would it not be rude to tell him? I continue to suffer in silence. The price we pay for being social! He watched me scribble in the notebook and he seemed fascinated.
"You be journalist?" He wanted to know.
"No. I am a writer."
He seemed dis-oriented by my answer. "You dey write and you no be journalist!"
"Precisely." I answered, enigmatically. I did not want to encourage a discussion with him.
He took the hint and continued to attack his bread and cheese with gusto. One of the stewardesses hurried past, my seat-mate took a good look at her disappearing flat buttocks and he seemed to melt.
"E fine, paa aa!? He smiled at me.
I managed to avoid his beaming eyes. He tugged at my shirt again, "You no tink sey de girl e fine?" He'd finished his meal and was rubbing his hands on his corduroy trousers. I pray that he's not going to ask me to play his pimp.
"I like dem girls? They fine, so. They also like me. What I did to dem, dey no fit forget. But three months now, I no get girl." He said sadly.
Curiosity got the better of me and I asked why he didn't have a girl for three months. It was like opening a hornet's nest.
"Koti hold me." He replied with a chuckle.
"Koti?" I wondered.
He looked at me anew. "You no be Ghanaian," he concluded. "Dem police hold me."
I considered him afresh. He was a funny character. He made his declaration as though it was the most natural thing in the world. There was no hint of shame, sadness or irony.
"So you're a criminal." I didn't mean to injure his pride, but he didn't seem to me like one to take offense easily.
"No, I no be criminal. Mankine no steal. Dem say I be illegal, that's why dem Koti hold me. My eyes see pepper."
"They say or you were illegal?"
He looked pained. "Na de Surinam girl wey mankin go find na im go report me. Dem crazy, eh. Those Surinam girls are crazy." My companion railed like a rejected prophet.
His eyes misty with sadness, he bellowed, "I paid plenty money to get my paper, but the girl, im eye open for money too much. Na so so pay pay mankin dey pay. As you e be reporter, you for write am tell our people make they no make the mistake wey I make. Make dey no marry Surinam girls, oh! They for fin better Dutch girl. Dutch girl dem be good. When they collect their money, dey go wait make you get your paper finish before they go divorce you. But Surinam, dey want too much money. They don't like work, ehn. Na so so dem go siddon house they watch television - 'Bold and Beautiful,' Oprah Winprey or what they call dat American woma wey always dey talk talk - while mankind go dey slave-slave for them."
Consuming food like a famine victim and drinking beer like it was going out of fashion, my seat-mate spent the next three or so hours telling me the story of his life.
He was born about thirty years ago to a poor family in a village in Brong-Ahafo region that I'm not about to name. Kwame (he didn’t tell me his surname) described his family to me and painted a grim picture of poverty and deprivation. His family could hardly afford dinner, their only meal of the day.
Kwame grew up thinking that having only one meal a day was the natural order of thing, until he started seeing other children eating regularly. His cobbler father's business had collapsed when the old man contracted arthritis. Kwame was barely three when he started hustling for his own upkeep. He managed to get to Accra before his eleventh birthday and got all his education on the streets of the Ghanaian capital. Carrying load at markets; picking pockets; renting himself out as a trotro mate; and later as a bouncer at nightclubs. He did them all until he garnered enough money to go to Lagos, which was then a Mecca.
Kwame 'Jammed luck in Lagos,' to use his own word, by taking a crash-course in shoe-shining and shoe-repairing. The manager of one of the big hotels smiled on him and allowed him the use of a shed in the hotel. He soon combined money changing and pimping to his booming cobbling business. Saving every kobo, aside from what he sent home to his mother - his father was now deceased, Kwame got enough money to dream big time. He acquired a Nigerian passport and had it visaed to three European countries.
"Nigeria never spoil den. You fit get visa easily." Kwame said ruefully.
He spent time in Spain and Italy doing mostly agricultural works. Neither country jelled with him.
"Dem poor pass Africa sef. Italy, Spain, tchwee, dem poor proper. We dey Africa, we think every whiteman e get money. Some Italians poor pass church rat sef. Some of them dirty pass gutter. Dey bath only once in a week. For two years, I laboured in vain. I no fit save kobo."
So was it until a friend suggested they try their luck in Holland where people were boasting of plenty riches.
"E be easy, then." Kwame said describing movement within Europe in those days.
Holland was, for Kwame, a paradise compared with Italy and Spain. He managed to acquire the passport of a EU country he didn't tell me, he was able to hustle and saved money. In a short while, he decided to regularise his papers. The only way to acquire a residence permit was to marry a Dutch citizen.
Kwame has no qualms about those things. "If the whiteman is crazy enough to want you to marry his sister before he will allow you to stay in his country, that's his problems, not mine."
Kwame implored me to tell 'my fellow Ghanaian' that 'Europe no be paradise as people are thinking.'
He had slaved in Holland for four solid years and he was returning with only the shirt on his back to the country he left almost seventeen years ago. The Dutch police arrested him at the flower farm where he was slaving following a tip off from the Surinam lady he had married to get his papers.
"The bitch," Kwame wailed to me. "We marry for almost three years. It remains only four months for man to catch three years. Then man for be free." From the farm, the police bundled him to their station; they wasted no time in sending him to the detention center pending deportation. They had all the incriminating evidence they needed.
Here he was - a betrayed and embittered man enroute to a country he loves with passion but, which sadly, still cannot take care of her less-privileged citizens.
I asked him what he did to antagonised the woman for her to betray him.
"Me! I no do am anything. Na so dem be. She wan marry another man so she go get more money. I paid ten thousand euros for the fake marriage. The contract was for one year. After one year, she already started pestering me for more money. She had eight children from eight different husbands. I continue to pay until I lost my job with KLM. She threatened me. I have to borrow money to pay her. The new job I get, I for pay back the money I borrowed for her. But she will not listen. One day, I dey for work when the koti came and took me away. You for write everything down. Make our people no make the same mistake."