A sad and rather moving documentary was aired on British TV Channel 4 at 7.30 p.m on the 22 August 2008. The story was entitled: Watch me Disappear. It was a sad and pathetic story of a Nigerian student who died unsung in a foreign land. Akinyemi Akinpelu died in 2005 in a room within a council estate in Manchester City. For quite a long while, his death was not discovered. How long he lay dead, only God knows. By the time his body was discovered, it was in an advanced state of decomposition. It is my humble assumption that the bereaved family of late Akinyemi Akinpelu would have been informed of his untimely, sad and lonely death by now. If this happens not to be the case, may I apologise for the manner by which this news is now getting to them. May I also use this opportunity to commiserate with the family of this gentleman who came to Britain seeking to better himself but met with insurmountable vagaries of life. Ultimately, Akinyemi Akinpelu paid the supreme price. And he died. From records available at the school he attended (University of London), Akinyemi was born on the 18th of January, 1971. He died in 2005, an unknown and forgotten man in the United Kingdom. May the peace he so much sought but failed to find in the United Kingdom continue to abide with him.
The documentary was essentially centred on the manner of death of two black people – Akinpelu and a lady by name, Sandra Drummond. Drummond was 44yrs old when she died and had been dead for over a year before her body was discovered. Sandra lived in an estate consisting of over 700 residents and yet lay dead for over a year before she was discovered. Sandra, unlike our own Akinpelu, faired better at the end. She had relations around and could afford to be buried in a family burial ground. Akinyemi Akinpelu’s gravestone could not even be identified. Apart from the undignifying nature of Akinpelu’s death, the manner of his death was totally un-African, sad and thought-provoking. Both Akinyemi and Sandra lived in Greater Manchester and they were buried in the same cemetery.
I have copied, unedited, the sad story of our late compatriot as relayed by 27-year old Lucy Cohen.
Akinyemi Akinpelu, too, slipped between the cracks. In July 2005, he was found dead in his council flat in Wythenshawe by a group of boys playing football. His body had been there for 10 weeks. When the police came, there were no sheets on his bed and his clothes were in suitcases on the floor. He was 34 and had been living in Manchester for less than three years.
Akinyemi had come to the UK from Nigeria in 1995 to take a master’s degree in ocean engineering at University College London. Femi Adeyemi, who was on the same course, said that he had ambitions to return to his village to set up his own engineering company. ‘He told me that when he came, he had £10,000 cash in his suitcase … That was the money his father gave him from Nigeria.’
But £10,000 was not enough to meet his living costs and tuition fees. Akinyemi dropped out, later enrolling on similar courses at Aberdeen and Glasgow universities and, finally, at Manchester, where he was given an outstanding grade for his dissertation. Each time, he was unable to cover the costs required to complete his degree. There was a stack of letters from debt collectors in his flat.
His passport records showed that he was allowed to stay in the UK only until 2002. At the time of his death, Akinyemi was liable for deportation. Deliberately, perhaps, he faded from view. His last known human contact was a trip to the Co-op on 1 May 2005 to buy four cans of mushy peas and two litres of milk. He never made it back to Nigeria.
Sandra and Akinyemi were comparatively young to die
Akinyemi’s death remains a food for thought for those Nigerians angling to travel out of Nigeria at all costs. It also serves as a reminder of how easy death is in the western world, especially for an immigrant. It is an irony that with the abundant presence of modern means of communication, it could still be so easy for someone to die unsung. In the words of Lucy Cohen:
“Originally, I wondered whether it would be possible for a person to know no one in this day and age. With Facebook and social networks, we are so over-connected it sometimes seems that we can have too many friends. But Sandra and Aki did cut themselves off and that seems to be something about the way we live now. In the old days, you would know someone had died because the milk bottles would pile up on the doorstep. Now, with so much more online shopping, we seem to be cutting down the need for human contact.”
The western way of living is synthetic, unfriendly and tough, hence the development and popularity of online messaging and contact services. Life can be lonely in a western country where survival depends on how much work you put to life. It is a cold country where your comfort depends on your ability to pay for gas, electricity and settle other bills. It is a society where there are no NEPA officials to bribe. It is a society where you do not need to know officials of the water corporation before you can have access to water, as long as you pay your water rates. True, the society functions efficiently, albeit like a cold, insensitive machine. The roads are well tarred and clean. Social amenities work and you could be guaranteed a secured social environment. However, all these come at a price.
The price is that of lonely existence, boredom and frustration, unless you get your calculations right. Despite their excesses, I sometimes have a degree of sympathy for Nigerians who try as much as possible to keep together via their owambes and other Nigerian-oriented social recreations. Life could be lonely and tough, my friends. You do not need to be an “overstayer” or “illegal immigrant” to face a sad and lonely death in the UK. It is a death with a possibility for anyone, immigrants and sometimes, citizens too. It is a product of the set up of the social system, that is, every man to himself.
We grew up as Africans learning to be our brother’s keepers. Even within the now fashionable nuclear family concept, Africans appreciate the necessity of being a part of a larger extended family. Traditionally, a wealthy African man is only a repository of such wealth for the overall benefit of his larger family. Even with the prevalent difficulties of existence nowadays and with the uncontrolled encroachment of western culture, this attribute of being African still remains and benefits the society at large. Europe is however, a different story.
The circumstances of the death of Akinpelu remain in the realms of conjectures. Something however stands clear; he had outlived his visa by the time he died in the United Kingdom. It was also obvious from records obtained from the various schools he attended, that though he was a diligent and above-average student, he found it difficult meeting with the financial implications of his study. The £10,000 he brought to Nigeria was simply not enough to cope in a country not too friendly and sympathetic to immigrants.
The questions raised by the death of this gentleman are many. First to come up is why he failed to return home when he realised his financial insolvency. I guess the answers to these are obvious to everyone. Travelling out to a western country is a challenge in our culture. Our society does not permit reports of failure for those bold enough to make such a venture. Again, Akinyemi, as of the time of his death was yet to conclusively complete the Masters programme he set out to accomplish, 10 years after he embarked on this venture. He left Nigeria in 1995 for a programme that should normally take one to two years to accomplish. By 2005, the programme was still inconclusive and he was dead (unsung).
The other question that rears up is why he failed to explore the option of returning to Nigeria. This would have been a feisty option if not for the fact that there was nothing waiting for him at home. Modern day Nigeria is a failed state that holds no promises for its citizens. It is a state under the yoke of bad leadership with a system that cares little about the welfare of its citizens. It is even doubly traumatizing for a Europe-based returnee because as in the words of Governor Fashola of Lagos State: “Do not ask us what we can do for you on returning back to Nigeria as we promised you nothing when you left”. Nigeria is a state that promised its citizens nothing, whether in or out of the country and the political statements of the current crop of leaders put hopes asunder.
The other possible reason for Akinyemi deciding to face life incognito in a bland and tough country like Britain could be the fear of the ever hostile immigration system. It would have been almost impossible to return after having overstayed his initial visa. The problems would have been more pronounced as of 2005 when he died with the increasing expansion of the European Union. Those currently living in the UK today can say a bit more about the impact of the expansion of the European Union on Africans. The relevance of the so-called Commonwealth is daily being called into question. Could be that Akinyemi decided to face it all, albeit in a non-descript manner, in the hope that there could a light at the end of the tunnel.
This piece would serve its aim if it succeeds in enlightening our brothers and sisters who are desperately trying to sneak out of the hell-hole called Nigeria. Human migration is a historical fact. However, ours is often times a migration of convenience to escape from a snuffing economic climate and seek socio-economic advancement. We are economic migrants not invited or wanted by the host nations. We move into a hostile environ, fully unprepared for the conditions prevalent but only focused on our dreams and ambitions. The need to seek adequate information before travelling out and also ensuring adequate financial cushion cannot be over-emphasised.
And why is Nigeria suddenly exporting so many of her citizens to various parts of the world? Perhaps our power-obsessed and money-hungry leaders and politicians would take the pains to address this pertinent question. This is to forestall the deaths of many more Akinyemi’s. Akinyemi’s death was not a case in isolation. It was only the tip of the iceberg. Only a couple of months ago, not too far from where I live in Southeast London, the body of a Nigerian woman was removed from a council flat. She had been dead for several months without anybody knowing. No one missed her. Stories of this type abound and I am sure many will have more to tell.
The breeze blows calmly and the leaves rustled their sweet melodies. The unmarked grave of Akinyemi Akinpelu and many other Nigerians who died in similar manner partake of the beauty and calm that nature can offer. While the world missed them not, the heavens gladly accept them. May their deaths not be in vain. May the good Lord make our dear country Nigeria a place we can truly call home.
For those of us still living, let us pay our respects to those who died unnoticed, but who lived like the rest of us. May their souls rest in peace.