Even as a boy, Seidu Mohammed was aware that life in Accra, Ghana was a series of contradictions, and in order to survive, you had to keep moving to avoid every obstacle, every incongruity. The nation seemed to be a collision of postcolonial failed state and twentieth century democracy, an explosive clash of modern politics and age-old traditions, of Western ideals and enduring tribalism, a country of dangerous, oftentimes irreconcilable paradoxes. At a young age, Seidu began playing soccer, first as part of his interschool team, and, later, on one of the country’s Division One teams when he was sixteen.
In 2014, at the age of twenty-two, he was asked to try out for the Criciúma Football Club in the city of Criciúma, Brazil. It was the first time he had been invited to go overseas for soccer. Criciúma was a highly regarded South American team that competed in the national league of Brazil; the club was famous for winning the Brazil Cup in 1991.
Tryouts would begin in June and last several weeks. Seidu would be accompanied to Brazil by the Lenient FC team manager Aminu Pele; both the manager and the team owner would benefit financially if Seidu’s contract were sold to the Brazilian club. After playing for so many years, Seidu felt an incredible pressure to succeed on behalf of his family, his team owner and manager, and his community.
While he was packing for the trip, he decided to leave the good luck charm he had been given as a boy under his pillow. He had been told it would lose its protection if he tried to take it over a body of water.
As he landed in Brazil, he was certain his life was only beginning.
But he also carried a secret with him that threatened everything.
Seidu had always known he was attracted to other boys. At six, he developed strong feelings for Jamal, a boy from his neighborhood who he sometimes played football with. Often the two boys would take a ball up to the pitch and practice or simply sit and talk. The feelings they had were unclear, yet powerful. Both eventually realized they were interested in more than a typical friendship.
Seidu was also aware of the danger and social stigma of being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender in a devoutly Christian and Muslim country. Homosexuality of any form is illegal in Ghana, with mere accusations of being gay often leading to public beatings and harassment by other citizens and the police, sometimes ending in torture and even death. Once indicted, LGBT people in Ghana are subjected to a minimum of three years in prison, though sentences are often much more harsh. Seidu had heard stories of other men accused of being gay being dragged from their houses, beaten by their neighbors, and later brutalized by the police.
In 2011, when Seidu was nine, anti-gay sentiment in Ghana seemed to intensify. Paul Evans Aidoo, the Western Region Minister of Ghana, ordered all LGBT people in the west of the country to be arrested, accusing the opposition party of signing up queer people for the upcoming election. Aidoo publicly called on family members, landlords, and neighbors to inform on citizens they suspected of being LGBT. News of Aidoo’s statements reached the city of Accra and the neighborhood of Nima: “All efforts are being made to get rid of these people in the society.”
That same year, John Atta Mills, the president of Ghana, pledged to never initiate or support any attempt to legalize homosexuality in Ghana. A few months later, in March 2012, a gang of men assaulted nine individuals they believed to be gay in Jamestown, a neighborhood of Accra. Innocent people were pulled from their homes and beaten with canes and sticks in the street. Although several of the victims filed complaints with the local police and a number of human rights organizations, no arrests were ever made.
After the two months of the tryouts for Criciúma was complete, Seidu went out to see the lights of the city. Wandering beneath the setting sun, he decided to follow the music coming from a gay bar, a place that did not exist back home in Ghana. It was unlike anything he had experienced before. There were men dressed in women’s clothing sitting at the bar, laughing and drinking, women dancing with each other, people throwing their arms in the air and expressing themselves with their bodies to lepo-lepo music.
He sat down at an empty table and ordered a bottle of Coca-Cola. He saw a tall man sitting by himself a few tables away and Seidu, always willing to start a conversation, said, “Hola.”
“Hola,” the man replied. “Tu ta bene?”
“Good.” Seidu repeated, “Tu ta bene?”
The man smiled. Seidu picked up his phone and used an app to translate from English into Portuguese.
What’s your name? he asked, holding up the phone.
The man typed something and held up his own phone. Nome es Ronnie.
After some time both men returned to Seidu’s hotel room. Seidu had never brought a man home before. Unsure what to do, Seidu put on the television, switched on the news. Together they sat before the screen and texted back and forth to each other. Soon they fell asleep. Sometime later they woke up and had sex. Afterward, they both went to sleep again, Seidu half-nude, his arm around Ronnie.
By eight in the morning, Seidu had forgotten about room service, which brought him breakfast every day—vegetables, rice, juice, and tea. One of the maids knocked on the door. Ronnie put on Seidu’s shirt and let the maid inside while Seidu stayed in bed in his underwear. The maid brought the food in and promptly left. Together Seidu and Ronnie ate breakfast and talked to each other through their phones. The day felt new, the beginning of a number of unknown possibilities.
Forty-five minutes later, Aminu Pele, Seidu’s team manager, entered without knocking. The door had been left unlocked when the maid brought breakfast. Pele had come to deliver the news that Seidu had not made the Criciúma team. Before he could speak, Pele saw the two men in their underclothes. Immediately he began yelling. Already angered by the fact Seidu’s contract would not be sold to Criciúma—that they had wasted two months and would not make any money—Pele was overwhelmed with fury as he saw the two men in their underclothes.
“You are a wicked person!” he began to shout. “You are a dirty person! You are a disgrace to your country and your community! I will make sure your career in football is over! I will tell the Ghana Football Association and everyone you know that this is who you are. This is who you are and what you have been hiding!”
Panicked, Ronnie grabbed his clothes and hurried away, still wearing one of Seidu’s shirts. Seidu got up to speak but Pele shoved the door closed and stormed away.
Everything came crashing down in that moment. Seidu was deeply frightened, shivering, shaking, more scared than he had ever felt in his life. He was certain the team manager would make good on his threats to expose him, and if he did, the life he knew, the life he had worked so hard for, would be over. There would be inquiries by the police, the newspapers, his neighbors. Jail. Torture. Even the possibility of being put to death. A black cloud settled over him, occluding the past, present, and future. Unable to come up with a plan but unwilling to wait and experience the horrible consequences of what might happen, Seidu did what he had always done to survive. He grabbed his passport, his cell phone, his remaining money, his documents, as many of his clothes as he could, and put it all in his backpack. He ran down the stairs—because he did not want to be delayed by the elevator—and out through the lobby, passing the hotel manager he saw almost every day. Overcome with embarrassment and fear, he was unable to look her in the face. He ran to a nearby park, lowered himself onto a bench, and felt himself shiver as the sun continued to rise. Everything was laid out before him, the entire world—broken and trembling—at his feet.
Hours after running from his hotel, Seidu sat on a park bench, staring down at his hands. He felt as if somehow, somewhere in the contour and creases of his upturned palms, there must be an answer. Some time later, he looked up and saw a group of three men—Haitians, he thought from their accents. The men were sitting nearby, speaking a patois of Portuguese and French. Seidu could not understand everything they said, but there was one word he recognized, which they repeated over and over again.
Seidu walked over, holding his cell phone. He began to type rapidly: Hello. Where are you from?
One of the men typed into his own phone. We live two blocks away.
Seidu typed. I need help. Please. I need somewhere to go. I need somewhere to stay.
The men looked at each other. One of the men translated on his phone and said, Who are you? What happened?
Seidu took a moment, then typed, I’m from Ghana. I’m lost.
The man typed back, Give me your number. We will call you. We might be able to help.
Seidu obliged. They exchanged numbers and soon the men left. All afternoon Seidu waited in the park. When it became dark, he found a shabby hotel for a few reals a night and slept there. In the morning he waited again, knowing he could not pay to stay in a hotel much longer and that he had to come up with a plan. Eventually he received a text from one of the Haitians asking him to meet.
The men brought Seidu back to the apartment they were renting. It was meager, with three bedrooms and very little furniture.
We don’t have a bedroom for you but you can sleep on the couch.
That’s not a problem. I just want a place to lay my head on.
Later the next day the men were talking, sitting at the kitchen table. There was the word again. America. A feeling. A sense of hope. The three men were planning on making their way north to the United States.
Seidu’s brother, Kamal, lived with his wife in Florida as a permanent resident. It could be a solution. All he had to do was go north.
How can we get there? Seidu asked.
We have some friends who left a month ago. They can tell us how they’ve done it.
Okay. But how can I go? I don’t have money.
We don’t have much money either, one of the men said. But we can help you with some food.
How much do I need?
One thousand at least. You need money for a flight and bus fare.
Seidu thought and called his sister Ayisha back in Accra sometime later that day. He told her everything that happened—finishing the trials, meeting Ronnie, the team manager’s discovery and his threat to ruin him.
I’m so sorry. I have kept this secret forever, he told her and then asked if she could send whatever money she could. Ayisha was able to sell two of her sewing machines and sent the money to a friend in the U.S., who forwarded it on to a Western Union in Brazil, where Seidu used his passport to cash it, as Ghanaian law prohibits money transfers through entities like Western Union. It was three hundred dollars American, one thousand five hundred real in Brazil. Seidu showed the money to the Haitians, who reluctantly agreed that it would have to be enough.
Two days later, Seidu took a flight with the three Haitian asylum seekers from Criciúma to San Quito, Ecuador. Ecuador did not require a visa, so the four men could enter the country and make their way north and west into Colombia without having to wait for any kind of paperwork. The flight cost fifty dollars and allowed the men the opportunity to travel in plain sight, without the difficulty of having to negotiate with human smugglers.
Once they landed, one of the men told Seidu to wait at the airport while they went to find another group of friends who were also heading north. Seidu sat at the airport for several hours, getting up to check the time, watching the airplanes take off and land. A security guard approached him and said he could not spend the night in the lobby. Seidu reluctantly agreed and put his backpack over his shoulders.
Outside, both the temperature and the humidity felt hostile. The long, flat airport building was surrounded by the city of Quito, with its dense, squat architecture and stubby mountain rising in the center of the city, framed by the green Andean foothills. Facing the unknown country of Ecuador alone, unable to speak the language and without any contact to help him proceed, Seidu felt utterly sorry for himself.
He took a taxi to a cheap hotel and slept there, becoming numb to his situation. He counted his money, then counted it again. In the morning he spoke to the receptionist and asked how to get to Colombia.
The young woman directed Seidu to a bus station, and even went so far as to call a taxi for him. He was moved by this small act of kindness and told her he would not forget it. He paid the cab driver twenty pesos and looked around the near-empty bus station, then bought a ticket to Colombia. The clerk at the ticket counter told him the bus would not arrive until midnight. In a stall in the dank bathroom, Seidu divvied up his remaining cash, putting two hundred of it under the soles of his shoes. The rest he put in his pocket to have at the ready. Then he took a seat in the bus station and waited, watching the colors of the Ecuador day fail, then fade into night.
At midnight, Seidu climbed aboard the bus and sat near the back. The bus pulled away from the small city and began its journey down the uneven road, deep into the dark, foreign territory. From his seat he could feel the bus fighting against the hills, the florid density of the Cayambe Coca jungle reaching out into the night. Unsure of where he was headed, he crossed into Colombia alone.
In Bogotá, Colombia, Seidu moved among the modern buildings interspersed with remnants of colonial architecture, passing the cobblestoned city center, the busy throngs of residents and travelers, all crowded out by shimmering skyscrapers and the shadows of the clouds cast off by the Andes. After nearly twenty-two hours on several buses, he walked around La Candelaria and was trying to figure out how to cross into Panama when he happened upon a group of odd-looking men—other asylum seekers—at a bus station. There was something about their expressions, their wearied, humbled appearance that suggested they, too, had come from somewhere far away.
One man was from Ghana, just outside Accra, two were from India, and one was from Nepal. All of them looked worse for wear, their faces capturing the difficulties of their long journeys. Seidu was overjoyed that he would have someone to travel with, someone he could speak to, ask questions of. The men explained that the only way into Panama without a visa was by crossing the series of rivers that bisected the enormous Los Katíos National Park. It would be extremely dangerous, they warned him.
Los Katíos is part of the Darién Gap, a jungle consisting of ten thousand square miles of fearsome animal and plant life. A map of the region looks like the palm of someone’s hand—blue lines demarcating narrow rivers and inlets, crossing back and forth, suggesting the perils of both fate and luck.
The jungle itself is dense and unnerving; a stretch of rain forests, swampland, and marshes widely known as one of the most treacherous places in the world. Human smugglers often use the Gap to transport asylum seekers and other undocumented migrants across the Colombia–Panama border. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, FARC, an armed group of Colombian Marxists who committed thousands of murders, kidnappings, and political assassinations, used the nearly impenetrable rainforest of the Gap as their hideout. Backpackers and other travelers since then have been kidnapped and sometimes murdered, as FARC considers most of these outside travelers to be foreign operatives. In June 2015, the body of Swedish backpacker Jan Philip Braunisch was found in the Gap; FARC later claimed responsibility for his death, having incorrectly assumed he was a spy.
Beyond paramilitary operations, drug smugglers are also known to use the route. Their illicit operations pose an additional and ever-present human threat. Then there are the dozens of human smugglers—often called polleros or coyotes because of their ruthlessness and guile. In addition to moving thousands of humans through the jungle each year, these criminals have also been known to rob, kidnap, or kill the same migrants they have been contracted to escort, leaving the bodies to decompose wherever they may fall.
The rain forest presents a number of other unpredictable physical dangers. Jaguars, larger than a man, patrol their territories at night in search of prey. Venomous creatures like coral snakes and giant black scorpions move undetected in trees overhead and underfoot among rotted logs. Mosquitoes, human-sized clouds of them, attack relentlessly—many of them carry tropical diseases and, according to local myth, favor dark clothes and dark hair. Then there is the thick humidity, the drenching precipitation, the constant heat, the remoteness, the lack of food and fresh water. There is nowhere to run to and, once you have started, no way to turn back.
Together all five asylum seekers traveled north to Salaqúi, where they located a guide who said he would lead them through the Gap. The smuggler first told the men he wanted three hundred dollars from each of them, but the asylum seekers argued, saying they didn’t have that much. Seidu told the guide the truth—that he had less than two hundred dollars left. The smuggler agreed to take one hundred dollars from Seidu but told him not to tell the others.
The boat arrived in the dark—a large wooden canoe, outfitted with an outboard motor. By then there were twenty undocumented migrants waiting to board, and all of them were forced to climb into the single boat. The men were told to lie in the bottom of the canoe and were then covered with a large black plastic tarp. One of the smugglers explained that there were patrol boats that crossed up and down the rivers in search of ferrymen carrying migrants and drugs north into Panama.
In the absolute blackness, lying beneath the tarp, Seidu could hear the sound of the river, of night birds and other mysterious wildlife. He could also hear some of the men praying. The pilot of the boat shouted as some large creature—a crocodile or caiman, Seidu couldn’t be sure—crashed into the front of the canoe.
Seidu began to pray as well. God, please help us make this journey successfully. Please guide us.
About an hour into the trip, Seidu could hear the motor slowly give out. From beneath the tarp, the men began to panic, again calling out for reassurance.
The pilot had more bad news. The motor was dead. They would have to wait for someone to come with a replacement.
Even in the darkness, Seidu could feel the current pulling at the small boat. He began to pray even harder, unsure if he would be heard. He listened to the smuggler speaking on a cell phone and felt lost again, wondering if he might die on the river. Time stopped beneath the black tarp, dissolving to the odors, the heat, the noises produced by the other men beside him. Back and forth, the boat quietly rocked, the men too afraid to speak. Unable to stretch his legs, Seidu imagined this was what it must feel like to be buried alive.
Four hours later, another boat arrived and the smugglers replaced the motor. From there Seidu and the other migrants were brought to a tiny village near the border of Panama, where a second boat would help them cross yet another limb of the river. By then it was almost six in the morning and the sun had begun to rise, although the sky and surrounding forest was still blue-black. Some of the villagers helped the migrants from the boat and into the jungle.
The migrants waited for the second boat and watched a villager use his flashlight to kill two large scorpions. Seidu had never seen a venomous creature before and kept staring at the ground, at his feet, checking to be sure nothing dangerous was nearby. Finally, a half hour later, the second boat appeared and took Seidu, Razeem, and the other migrants over the river and to the far side of the jungle.
Once they disembarked, two Colombian boys from a nearby village helped the asylum seekers cross the muddy banks into a seemingly impenetrable jungle. The boys, no more than twelve or thirteen years old, showed the migrants how to walk through the mud, where to place their feet, all of them moving deeper and deeper to a shadowy, quiet place, far from any sign of life, where the men were told to wait again.
As they were hiding in the thickets of intertwined vines and trees, one of the men noticed a large boa constrictor crossing among the limbs overhead. The men watched, transfixed, as it made its way to the forest floor. Seidu grabbed a stick to protect himself before the snake calmly disappeared into the water.
Hours later, another boat arrived and took the men across the Atrato River, which flowed north into the low hills of western Colombia, with several branches and tributaries bisecting the lush jungle of the Western Cordillera mountain range.
Opalescent shadows began to appear above the mountains to the north and west. Soon it would be dark. Seidu watched as the small boat crossed among fallen logs and shifting currents.
All through the night the men walked. Some time past midnight, several flashlights appeared before them. Seidu and the other asylum seekers immediately stopped moving, the jungle echoing with their breath. Armed men suddenly emerged from the jungle holding sticks and knives, some wearing bandanas around their noses and mouths to help obscure their faces. Seidu backed away in fright but found that they were surrounded. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. The armed men motioned with their weapons toward the migrants’ backpacks. Seidu felt his stomach drop as he instinctively understood what the thieves were after. But he knew he could not give up his bag; inside were his passport and all his travel documents, everything he needed to prove his identity once he got to the U.S. Without the passport, he’d have no way to prove who he was. Could he run? Could he fight? One by one, the asylum seekers handed over their backpacks with a grave sense of embarrassment. The thieves drew closer. As the dread rose in Seidu’s chest, he eventually recognized there was no arguing with the edge of a knife. Seidu felt one of the armed men take the bag from his hands before the robbers hurried back into the dark.
Benumbed by shock, physically exhausted, the men fell where they stood and decided to make camp there for the night.
Hours later, somewhere near the Panamanian border, the boy guides refused to go any farther. They explained that there had been a terrible war between the Colombians and Panamanians. If they accompanied the men any farther, they could be arrested. There was a path, the boys said, that the men should follow. Go straight through the jungle, they said, handing one of the men a flashlight. Then the boys walked off into the foliage as if they had only been apparitions.
Seidu and the other migrants moved through the forest on their own. Along the way, the group of twenty men began to split off—some growing tired, others waiting for their companions and friends to catch up.
By the time darkness fell, there were only four of them left in the group—Seidu and three of the other Ghanaians, including Razeem. They decided to stop and try to sleep and start again in the morning. One of the men had a cigarette lighter and together they were able to build a small fire. In the dark, Seidu lay awake, listening to the screams of animals in the forest, fearing the worst. It was one of the longest nights of his journey so far.
In the morning, the four men continued on, following the heavily trodden path.
The sun was high in the sky when they all stopped to pray. There was no water to make their ablutions, so Seidu knelt down and put his hands on the ground, taking some dirt into his palms, and did the sacred gestures, using the dirt to spiritually clean himself before he began his prayers. Once he finished, he thought, Please God, make this journey easy for us. Let us pass through this jungle without any harm. You are the one guiding us. Please help us so I can get to my destination, so I can be safe, so I can be who I am meant to be.
They walked until they were no longer able, deciding to rest in the afternoon. In the jungle, Seidu found he could not sleep. He felt unsafe, unprotected, and kept waking up, hearing the desperate noise of animals nearby and thinking of his loved ones back home. All of their food and water was now gone. After drifting off for a few moments, Seidu awoke and saw that Hamid, an older man from Ghana lying nearby, was also having trouble sleeping.
I haven’t drunk anything for days, Hamid murmured, groaning with pain.
The other two men also woke.
What is it? Razeem asked.
Hamid muttered, I need something to drink soon or I’m not going to be able to go on.
You can drink your urine if you have to, Razeem replied. There’s a bottle over there if you want to use it.
After some time, Hamid used the bottle to collect his urine but was not willing to drink from it. Seidu watched, afraid he, too, would soon be faced with the same terrible decision.
They would wait until the sun finally went down—when it was much cooler—to begin walking again.
Hours later, as they crossed through the unrelenting path of dirt, vines, and intersecting trees, Hamid collapsed. The men decided they needed to stop for the night and tried to get Hamid into a comfortable position. Seidu stayed up, keeping watch over the camp, holding the flashlight out before him. The noises from the surrounding forest seemed to grow in intensity the darker it got.
Seidu was too frightened to sleep. As the moon passed overhead, he kept the flashlight moving back and forth across the camp. At 4:00 a.m., he woke his friends so that they could get moving again. Seidu shook Hamid’s tennis shoe but the older man didn’t move. Seidu knelt down and studied Hamid’s weathered face.
Hamid, he said. Get up. It’s time to go.
The other man did not move.
Razeem came over and looked hard into Hamid’s face. He’s not breathing.
Seidu pulled off his T-shirt and began fanning his friend in the near dark. Razeem put out a tentative hand and felt Hamid’s skin. I think he’s dead.
Seidu knelt there, gazing in complete disbelief.
He’s dead, Razeem repeated. We can’t wait any longer. We have to leave him.
Seidu began to cry, feeling the sobs come up from some unknown place, mourning as if a family member or longtime friend had been lost. He never considered that someone might die along the way. He placed his shirt over the other man’s face before the three men stood there and started to pray.
Seidu closed his eyes, hoping to offer some measure of peace. But there were no words to put to the grief, to the fear he now felt. The rain forest seemed to bear out this uncertainty. It appeared that at the center of the forest and of his journey there was an inviolable blackness, a chaos that was inescapable, the same disarray, the same death, the same senseless suffering he had tried to escape back home. It was the natural order of things, of humankind, which was no order at all—the strong over the weak, the healthy over the sick. Even here, thousands of miles away in the jungle, he had not been able to outrun it. When he finally opened his eyes, everything was spinning, the cacophony of the jungle humming in his ears.
He took one final glance at Hamid’s body, then followed the other men into the forest.
After four more hours through the jungle they found an enormous concrete pillar painted with a Panamanian flag. Seidu saw it and smiled, and together he and Razeem crossed into Panama. It had taken everything to get there, and it took everything to keep on going.
By then his thirst had become a painful jab with every one of his breaths. His head swam, his legs became weaker and weaker with each step. He felt that if he could not find water soon he would die.
Finally, a small village appeared before them as the jungle flattened and receded. Beside the village was a pond, fed by a narrow river. Seidu dove into the pond, drinking as much of the water as he could, ignoring whatever fears he had about its cleanliness. He sat down on the shore after some time, still feeling light-headed. Razeem yelled at him but he heard nothing. He looked up at the sky, wondering how he had traveled there, so far from what he had known, feeling as if he were floating. Blood pounded in his temples, and then everything went black.