Workers' paradise?

Observations on Prague

Omojefe - or "Jefe", as he prefers to be called - is one of Prague's expanding community of African expat labourers. In his very own words, he is one of the Czech capital's new "men in black". Jefe says it to make me giggle, and I can't help myself when I do. Part of a steadily growing population of West African émigrés, including Nigerians, Ghanaians, Ivorians and Cameroonians, Jefe calls Prague home.

While the Africans' precise numbers are largely unaccounted for, lately it seems that fewer and fewer Czech public institutions have the inclination, or the will, to monitor their whereabouts. Almost every second Czech I asked seemed to know how the Africans earned their daily bread. Still no one seemed to care.

Over preso s mlikém (espresso with milk) at a café in Wenceslaus Square, Jefe tells me about his community's tentacular reach. Africans have their own self-contained community - running their own shops, administering their own places of Christian or Muslim worship. When he gets to the part about the Africans having access to "the very best in Nigerian doctors", he is positively beaming. I suddenly realise something huge is afoot in the Golden City: this is an undercurrent on the edge of becoming a full-on subculture.

There is, Jefe informs me, a vast network of employment agencies run by the Africans in cahoots with the Czech "mob". When I probe him about police interest in such a phenomenon, he waves me off, adding that the authorities for the most part leave them be. I probe further, but Jefe won't tell me why the police are unconcerned. Later I discover from a racist local traffic cop that "this black 'trash' supplies an essential service to Praha".

The "essential service" he's referring to is ensuring that the tourist hordes frequent the city-centre strip joints, massage parlours, brothels and other dens of iniquity. The new immigrants are paid to ensure that the tourists get there, earning the job description "cattle prodders".

"Man, this city is a workers' paradise," Jefe chuckles, perhaps oblivious to the post-communist irony of his words.

I'm curious to find out how the West Africans get to Prague in the first instance, and Jefe is more forthcoming. He tells me the Nigerians have pioneered a sort of "pipeline" that breaches Fortress EU's increasingly porous borders. The Czech Republic has become a haven for those previously unable to gain access to western Europe's more affluent destinations. Prague is the new way in for young Africans such as Jefe, with dreams of European papers.

Depending how quickly they succeed in setting up home and work - anywhere from two to six years, he says - the immigrants will then send for their families back in Africa. Meanwhile, they send pay packets back home for their families' upkeep. As we sit there, Jefe admits that he's already gone without solid food for two days. "Just water and coffee," he says. Apparently, his pay has been late to arrive. It's time to get back to work, Jefe tells me, checking his watch.

"This is our destiny, you know, Mr Adam," he says thumping me playfully on the shoulder. "I don't expect you to understand."

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