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Easy money in Libya?

Marine Olivesi, Nkoranza, Ghana / ag
October 18, 2012

About a million foreign workers fled the violence in Libya last year. Thousands had come from Nkoranza, a small town in Ghana. Now, jobless at home, many are ignoring risks and heading back north.

Two Ghanaians in Nkoranza's main square (Photo: Marine Olivesi)
Image: DW/Marine Olivesi

The Tripoli Inn is a hub. This is where many of the people meet who dream of emigrating to Libya. Located in a back alley of Nkoranza's main boulevard, gospel beats spill through open windows onto the street. The Tripoli Inn has had its place here for more than two decades.

Back then, a local opened the saloon with money he earned working in Libya's capital. But the bar's name soon took on a meaning of its own: Here, prospective migrants could get advice from experienced travellers, connect with smugglers and plot their next move.

Many now jokingly refer to it as the station or the airport - among them Kassim Zakari, who spent three years in Tripoli working as a mason. The 28-year old managed to save part of his Libyan wages to set up a mobile phone shop in Nkoranza.

'They have money'

But it's not quite finished: Kassim says he needs more money to build a roof for the shop ... and to buy the mobile phones he intends to sell. That's why he's decided to head north to Libya again, even though he's not looking forward to going back: "The country is not good, but they have money. That's why you are going there. When we get money, we'll come back to Ghana."

Over the past three decades, tens of thousands of migrant workers from Ghana have taken a journey similar to Kassim's, says Nkoranza's mayor, Onabo Adjokum.

"Every single family in Nkoranza has got a relative who has been to Libya," Adjokjum says. "Personally, I have more than five brothers who have travelled there. I have cousins, nephews who have travelled to Libya ... And this is the close family!"

The mayor and other locals recall the trend to emigrate starting in the early 1980s, when a few English teachers from Nkoranza made their way to Libya.

"These are the people who sent back the message that this is a country where you can make money, you can find a job. It's not just about teaching. People can work on building sites, in factories, in poultry farms."

A lottery stand (Photo: Marine Olivesi)
A lottery stand in Ghana still features posters of Libya's late strongman GadhafiImage: DW/Marine Olivesi

Ambitious youth viewed Libya as a promised land and a possible springboard to Europe. Most travelled without passports, and some died making the journey, but people in Nkoranza say the majority became wealthier along the way.

View of a rural road (Photo: Marine Olivesi)
To reach Libya, Ghanaians have to cross five countries and travel for weeksImage: DW/Marine Olivesi

Lured by work

When the Libyan uprising began off last year, over 8,000 migrants came back to Nkoranza and nearby villages. One year on, most returnees are unemployed. And some have already ventured back to Libya.

Isaac Frimpong, a car electrician, who lost his business after a family feud with his brother, headed to Libya in January, hoping to make enough money to get back on his feet. In the beginning, Isaac says, things went well: He quickly found work as a mason in the coastal town of Zawiya. Libya's construction industry, he says, is in dire need of manual labor, especially in towns that were battered by the fierce fighting between rebels and loyalists during the uprising.

"If someone sees that you're working on a person's house, he will come and take your number. He will call you, and say: 'Please, finish it early and come and do my work for me.'"

Isaac Frimpong (Photo: Marine Olivesi)
Frimpong says he was arrested and deportedImage: DW/Marine Olivesi

But not everyone in Libya is as welcoming. Militiamen arrested Frimpong in early March as he was switching work places. He says he was stripped of his belongings, then transferred to a detention center in the town of Gerhyan in Libya's western mountains. Days later he was deported.

Back in Nkoranza, he shares this cautionary tale with locals yearning to depart - but the message is lost on many. Undeterred by warnings, about a dozen migrants still take off every week.

It's a journey across five countries, including at least seven bus connections. It takes at least two weeks to reach Tripoli. Yet, for many in Ghana, it is a trip worth taking.

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