Ashia is three hours into his time at an Internet Cafe, south of Accra. It is 11:58 pm – in time for Curtis, the attendant, to change shift.
Ashia dozes off his remaining energy; the snooze doesn’t produce enough reprieve but he attempts to stay balanced, hoping the sleep would clear from his rather tired eyes.
There is grace in the way he perseveres to stay sane but his efforts at maintaining immovability are anything but significant. Soon, he would make himself a bed on the hard surface composed of two of the twelve chairs meant for customers of the 24-hour facility.
He goes off completely, snoring his pitiful self into the first few hours of a chilly Saturday morning.
It is business as usual for the 22 year-old Ashia, who has been frequenting the facility, two miles from where he lives in a community – compact and busy – in pursuit of an advanced-fee fraud venture.
While he catnaps, there is continued heavy, web-surfing activity inspired by the loud blurting of ‘Freedom’ by Ghanaian musician Shatta Wale, which is kept on repeat as though no other song mattered. Many here are in search of their cyber liberties, too.
The happenings make up for the eeriness of a night haunted by the humping noises of a nearby tree. A young man checks Instagram updates of Accra’s ‘big boys and girls’ to crowd-source his self esteem while another gobbles down his trepidation over a frozen Google Translator webpage, with a pack of spiced noodles that seesaw their way through his wide and ready mouth. Two seats north, a dreadlocked, pant-sagging participant is frustrated and red-eyed, constantly thumping his feet. A seat away, another negotiates a sneeze that proves hard to crack until an unprovoked Hausa counterblast of mutum banza cues in, inches from his left. He’s all good now.
Altogether, the scenes make for a mini festival of young minds holding on to dreams that wilt on and off their keyboard solaces. United by one resolve, all that matters to them is to make mince meat of paying culprits, mugus (West African slang for victims of internet scams) as they are code-named.
The occupants of the café are bonded by a common deed, one that they are not ashamed of. All of them are committed to their absolute code: they are entitled to whatever funds they are trying to get from their victims and would-be victims. It is a stance that is jealously guarded and inspired by schools of thought nursed and made up in many communities here in the national capital, Accra.
Ashia would finally come off his ‘bed’ at around 1am. He exits the cafe briefly to wash his face and rinse his mouth with a litre of bottled water. While the rinsing goes on, a second-hand Hyundai Accent shows up with enough loud music to drown a wayside preacher’s call for ultimate salvation and loving one’s neighbour as ‘thy self’. Kumi, Ashia’s friend of few months, owns the Accent; he got it after successfully making away with a decent sum from a victim. The money has also financed his rent and takes care of his high-flying lifestyle that knows little rest, and speaks many languages including chasing patriotic and benevolent butts in skimpy skirts.
Like most advance-fee fraud operators, Kumi likes his foolishness and courtesies where he can feel them both. At this very moment, he has chosen the former, and opens the front door of the car to increase the sound of the continuously screaming music. As he climbs up to join Ashia, his two other guests in the car – females with hour glass figures and extra minutes – step out to stretch their limbs, which have been cramped, a result of trekking heavily all night across the national capital, Accra. They return to the car, passing out in minutes on the reclined seats, leaving Kumi and Ashia to take care of the remainder of the early morning’s business.
The advance-fee fraud scene in Accra is bristling, operated by multifarious actors who stay relevant and irrelevant at many times. Ashia is currently aiming for another break, after splurging his virgin scam involving a US-based ‘lover’.
The tease. For eight months, Ashia sold himself as a Ghanaian ‘female’ beauty in search of love. Over many schemes, he weaved his way using various aliases – fake images, voices, and videos – to land what eventually became a good rip-off. Marcus, his victim, still believes he is loved and adored even after being sold lies in exchange for a romance that dies when a webpage is shut from the dark, empty internet underworld in Accra.
Ashia says the advance-fee fraud venture is a patient game, only pursued and sustained by persons who are willing to go the extra mile in search of their breakthroughs. Patience, he adds, is a talent that must be exercised if one is to make any headway.
“Some of the ‘clients’ are very difficult to convince so you have to try and try many times before getting them. Because of that, some give up. You have to work hard for it and that means you must be willing to wait; that is why I waited for eight months before I got my first breakthrough.”
Determination, persuasion, advanced scheming, and intense mind-games are added advantages to the trade, says Ashia, who went from being a six-pack hunk to his current status as a black female with breasts the size of a district.
“Before the US man, I was ‘chatting’ with this woman from Australia. That one, I went in as a man. She was a retired nurse who was also divorced. We got along well but she lost interest. Maybe she was distracted and saw through my ways.”
Ashia shows no remorse for the act he is engaged in, insisting the monies he gets from his victims are rightly his. Linking the stories to colonial rule and ‘what they took from us’, many here in this trade insist the Kingdom suffered violence and will take it back. By force.
Kumi believes same, too. A lanky young man who left school in the early 2000s due to lack of financial support, he goes about his trade with two hearts – the Kumi hard to submit, and the other who is dewy-eyed. All, he says, are part of a long game card.
His ‘Sakawa’ (as the advance-fee fraud is known locally) story has been shaped and prolonged by his resolve to stay afloat in a ship that has been rocked so many times by news of arrests.
“We hear of them [arrests] all the time; I don’t know why they keep arresting us. This is my job, too,” says Kumi, whose current lifestyle competes with the one of old; he is remembered in his community as that boy who could not afford the fine things of life.
“If I had not done this, I don’t know how I would have survived till now. This is enough to get me going. We all can’t be in suits and work in offices. Before this, I decided to look for a job but it didn’t work out. So I got introduced by some friends, who were living very well and could take care of their families.”
Daily, Kumi shadowboxes his Sakawa ways against society’s acceptance of what he calls a trade. Enough punches (criticisms) have landed on his face but all, he says, have done little to keep him away from the webpages of deceit and thievery spread across many, old system units and monitors in Accra’s fraud-friendly internet cafes.
Despite reminders that this could go terribly bad someday, Kumi insists too much wealth goes around the Sakawa world for him to quit, adding that as difficult as it is to resign, mainly for the good-bad context society judges it by, there is also a quick reminder of how unattractive poverty can be and why it shouldn’t be tolerated. The latter wins. All the time.
Nonetheless, Kumi agrees that the criticism do get to him, especially on one occasion when his father asked him “is this all you want to do?” Those questions – from close family relations who don’t approve of his fraudulent ways – are what usually cause turmoil in him, sticking up dark night moments, only subdued by alcohol and substance abuse that offer a messy outlet of self-hate.
“Sometimes, I just try to stay strong but it is not easy. When I think of the good life, I also reflect on what my family thinks of me. I have tried to explain to my father that I am doing this for the family; I don’t want my kid brother to struggle like I did. There has to be a way and I feel I am the one who should get things done. I hate poverty so I don’t want to go back to that.”
Kumi proudly backs his stance with how he comes through for the family, ensuring his brother and sister are able to, at least, live a decent life.
“I may not be doing the right thing but it pays the bill. My dad is getting used to that fact and I think I have not showed signs of stopping. It is true this is not how he wanted me to turn out but sometimes things happen. Maybe, one day when I am done getting enough, I will go out of this.” He laughs.
Conversations around Sakawa have generally portrayed it as a phenomenon which is gradually corrupting most of Ghana’s youth. It is propagated by constant stories of fetish-seeking young men and, sometimes, women going great lengths to cast spells on their victims.
But Kumi says, while those stories exist, there are a good number who have stayed ‘decent’, preferring to use their ‘naked eyes’ to get the goodies in.
“I have also heard about what some of the boys do to get these white people. I know some of these people. Some come here and, most times, try to talk me into it. But some of us, we started this thing long ago. I have not even visited one shrine before.”
He continues that the internet itself offers a sizeable vault of wisdom that should enable one to manoeuvre what may seem a daunting fraudulent task.
“There are ways you can go about this. There is so much on the internet. I don’t need to go see a fetish priest before scamming someone. It is all in the mind,” he says, getting a nod of approval from Ashia who also points to his head and yells ‘adwen keseɛ (Twi word for big brain).
The fetish (sorcery) industry has a strong hold on the activities of Sakawa traders. It ties into a bigger societal obsession for wealth – irrespective of how it is acquired. On most local radio and television stations, daytime and nighttime programming have been hijacked by self-professed money makers whose services range from lotto doctors with answers to the week’s puzzles, to pastors selling ordained oils of prosperity. It has so far proven a successful business enterprise as it continues to attract a lot of interest.
There are major players. Accra-based ‘lotto doctor’ Agyengo has airtime on some of the city’s radio stations. All week, he hops from one medium to the other, selling what he says are ‘two sure, two direct’ numbers that are yet to fail.
“Why do you want to be poor when I can easily change your destiny with these numbers? It is time for you to stand out in your family; why do you want to continue begging for food? Come and patronize my service and you will know that there are different levels to this. This is no fraud; I am just trying to help. Others are benefiting; this is your time to also drive that car, and own that house. Give me a call now, it is time for you to move out of that house and become your own boss,” he pitches on one of his radio shows.
Often aggressively pushing his craft, he ultimately asks his targets to send mobile money commitments after which they will be given the lotto numbers. Agyengo’s craft is aided by phone call-ins that seek to authenticate his claims of him being a saviour with enough lotto numbers to spare.
“I called to thank you for everything you have done for me. When you asked that we send the mobile money transfer, I did and you sent me the numbers. I went to stake them and won. I am grateful, Agyengo,” said a caller whose voiced appeared worked on in a studio, and only played back.
Despite often claiming innocence, the activities of these fortune sellers do not sit well with the larger Ghanaian public.
“People want to be rich overnight, hence the clamouring. It is normal to aim and dream big but how you get it also matters to the whole process. Unfortunately, these days, people don’t seem to care about how the wealth is got,” says Accra-based Pastor Gideon Opata-Bentum.
At the Madina-Atomic Roundabout in the capital, Accra, posters promising everlasting wealth and instant fortune have defaced a good portion of the pillars and walls, getting enough attention from passersby. One reads: “Say bye bye to poverty.” With numbers clearly written and directions indicated, the supposed witch doctors have their targets in sight. While most of these advertisements are convincing, they are only part of a ploy to dupe unsuspecting people including the Sakawa traders, says Kumi.
“A friend saw an advert the other day and he went to see the ‘witch doctor’. They went back and forth. The man asked him to do many things, like bringing some animal skin types, and a sample of his urine. He did all of that; gave the man a lot of money. But in the end, it turned out to be fake. Till date, he is yet to see the riches he was promised. The man does not pick his calls again. So, that is why I don’t believe these things work.
“Some of these witch doctors are themselves chasing the same money we want. So, it is surprising people believe in these things.”
For most players in the advance-fee fraud industry in Ghana, it is always a case of what pursuit threw at them. Kumi and Ashia say, theirs is passion to portfolio and a daily resolve to tackle the difficult sport of poverty.
“Ohia yɛ ya (poverty is painful),” says Ashia.