Africa under Saint Wenceslas

Tomas Lindner | Pictures: Jérémie Jung

Two groups of African migrants are living in Prague; however, they are almost never in touch. The first mostly arrived before the Velvet Revolution as university exchange students, stayed and integrated into the Czech society. The others are arriving currently, on a thorny path, as asylum seekers or illegal migrants to find a better life. Usually they find their first jobs in the centre of Prague where they attract tourists to night clubs. They have no real alternative to this “shameful” job for various reasons; firstly, with their status, they cannot work legally, and finally, because of racism of Czech employers. They are marginalised and associated with drug business. And then, there is Michel, in whose sad destiny converge aspects of both of these groups of Africans. None of them can go back; the traditional African society only accepts the return of winners.

They have come from West Africa mostly as asylum seekers or illegal migrants and work night shifts in the Prague city centre. They talk about their lives that are full of constant uncertainty; uncertainty that has followed them even here to the Czech Republic, where they make a living by enticing –hunting– tourists to night clubs. In this report we try to describe this small, yet growing, community of migrants who spend their nights in Wenceslas Square and of whom few Czechs will have heard about so far.

Danny is a genuine Czech patriot. Back home in the Congo, he likes to wear a cap with the Czech flag sewn onto it, he has numerous bottles of slivovice, Becher and Fernet, as well as records by Czech pop icon Karel Gott. Danny came to Czechoslovakia in the eighties to study at university. He joined his fellow students from the Czech Technical University in November 1989 at Wenceslas Square jingling keys in support of the fall of communism. In the summer of 2010, he got married and the newly wedded couple first danced a Congolese rumba and second a Czech polka. Danny has been working for Czech companies doing business in the Congo and neighbouring countries, and therefore, he has been coming back to Prague regularly.
Danny recalls a change that occurred in 2004. “I noticed that there were a lot of African people in Prague all of a sudden. One night my friends and I fancied a drink and decided to go to a bar on Wenceslas Square and there were Africans all over the place. This was a complete surprise.” Wenceslas Square and the neighbouring side streets of the historical centre have been attracting an ever increasing number of Africans at night-time. Their task is to bring tourists and passers-bys to disco clubs, strip-bars, brothels, and sometimes, they offer drugs as well.

But who are these people? Where did they come from and why? How did they get to Prague? Who do they work for? How do they live here and what is their experience with Czech people and Czech authorities? Even Danny cannot provide an answer. “I don’t know anything about them; I have never spoken to them.” And almost no one in Prague has been in contact with these new African people, either.

Old Africans vs. new Africans

What Danny says suggests there is a divide in the African community in Prague. On the one hand, there are people from Africa who settled down some time ago and have integrated into Czech society. Often, they went to a Czech university, they know the language, and they have more contacts among Czech friends than among other Africans. There are currently about two thousand of them (excluding Egyptians, Tunisians, Moroccans and Algerians), fairly invisible, scattered all over the country. Most of them were offered scholarships which Czechoslovakia as a communist-ruled country provided to students from countries it had a close relationship with – generally, many African countries but especially the Republic of the Congo, Angola, and Ethiopia.

On the other side of this divide, there are “new” Africans in the Czech Republic; mostly young men who came to Prague via a dangerous route, such as being illegal immigrants or asylum seekers, and without any money. They now work night shifts in the city centre, hanging around Wenceslas Square and the neighboring streets. Almost all of them come from West Africa, particularly from Nigeria, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Togo, and Senegal. There are no exact statistics as to how many have settled in Prague over the past few years. Some members of the community estimate the number may be several hundred to two thousand.

That is not a huge number, but for many Czech people they have become the epitome of the entire African community. They are used as a negative example by opponents of immigration, illustrating how immigration has damaged the old atmosphere of Prague. This is one of the reasons why fully-integrated Africans prefer not to be associated with these new Africans from Wenceslas Square. “The way they stand in the Square each night and no one knows what they do, may hamper the reputation of all black people living in the Czech Republic,” says Danny. That is why the two groups are rarely in contact. 

How high intellect hampers opportunities

Ibrahima, a Senegalese nuclear physicist living here for three decades, shares the sentiment. Interviewed over a glass of mineral water, Ibrahima, a skillful narrator, surprises me with rich Czech vocabulary and an admirable knowledge of European history and stories of renowned Czech and Austrian mathematicians. But Ibrahima is at his most interesting when talking about the lifestyle of the upper class in Dakar where he was born. All the members of the elite live in one country and one city, but they live entirely different lives: part of the elite fly to Mecca several times a year and watch Arabic television, which keeps them up-to-date with the local news, while the others prefer to speak French at home and their French television channels keep them better informed about Paris than Senegal.

As for the Africans in the centre of Prague, Ibrahima knows very little. He explains why he is unfamiliar with the newcomers despite the fact that most of them come from West Africa, the same region as he does. “I try to avoid the Square at night; I always walk quickly and never talk to anyone,” he says. “I want to avoid being seen with these people by other Czech people. This could make them think we are friends or do business together. Czechs would not grasp that an informal chat is possible even between complete strangers. This is a common thing in Africa, but not here, Czechs would fail to understand this.”

But once Ibrahima did start a conversation with two Africans he met near Charles Bridge who were dressed as sailors and offered boat trips to tourists. “They had no education, spoke no Czech, and still they earned more than me. The thing is, they spoke foreign languages, were friendly to tourists, gave them tips where to go, and were given generous tips for that,” he says. Both those Senegalese “sailors” came to Prague hidden in a train from the south of Europe which they had reached by boat. First they would sleep in railway stations, then went to disco clubs and spoke to other Africans who lent them money to start a new life. “I didn’t understand how they could succeed when they knew neither the language nor anyone here. They suggested I was prejudiced by my good education, which prevented me from seeing all the opportunities to make good money,” says Ibrahima.

Wenceslas Square: recommended by a friend

The Africans from Wenceslas Square seem to be unmentionable even in Hushi, the most popular restaurant among the African community. The bartenders deny that any of the Africans from Wenceslas Square or from Nigeria ever visit the place. Another group of people who prefer to avoid meeting the new Africans is a community of Czechs who have long been doing African dancing and West-African drumming, suggesting the new Africans are rather rough and unpleasant.

Their lack of interest is based on the suspicion that the Africans from the city centre might be involved in the drug trade and in the Nigerian mafia, notorious all over Europe for trafficking drugs and people. The Prague Office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) shares this suspicion that the Africans from Wenceslas Square might be working for gangs that smuggled them into Europe. The officials told me about migrants who the police found hidden in the tube connecting the airplane with the terminal in Prague Airport. “Migrants from other countries will often talk to us about their journey. Africans prefer to stay silent and only say the basic things,” says Vlastimil Vintr of the IOM. 

In any case, the officials have growing doubts about the Africans, especially as they compare them to other immigrant nationalities. Mr Vintr questions several points: “Other migrants know exactly what to expect, for instance that they will be working in manufacturing. Africans have no such expectations – so, what is it that they plan to do here? Do they come with no plans whatsoever? That is hard to believe since their journey must have cost them several hundred or thousand dollars. Do they have no contacts here at all? But how could they possibly have gone the entire journey from, say, Nigeria, by themselves? Might there be someone who helps them and, this way, hires potential collaborators?”

“The cabarets are something none of us knew about in advance. There is nothing like that in my country,” says Will, who comes from the British part of Cameroon and has been hired to attract tourists to Darling, an erotic cabaret in Ve Smečkách Street. All the other Africans we approached in Wenceslas Square gave the same answer. “Suddenly, you turn up in Prague, you have no work, and your friends recommend the Square and they tell you how it works. You don’t need to arrange anything with anyone in the cabaret; all you do is approach the first passer-by and invite him to the strip bar. When they follow you inside, you are immediately paid your reward. And you start returning to earn more,” says Will, talking to us in Lucerna, the legendary café round the corner from the Square. “You see, our lifestyles back home are completely different. Traveling in Cameroon is quite an adventure in and of itself. You cross regions with different tribes whose language you don’t understand, but still you need to be able to handle any situation. So we are ready to travel and live anywhere in the world.”

The nighttime microcosm of Wenceslas Square

Fresh Nigerian food can now be bought from three cooks on Wenceslas Square during the night. They come with a bag on their backs full of pots with warm spicy risotto with vegetables, fish or beef. They sell it for one hundred Crowns to other West Africans who work their night shifts in the Square. One of the cooks feels there is not enough space for three competitors and is considering changing jobs, which means joining most of his countrymen in chasing potential visitors to night clubs and strip bars.

There are small groups of Africans standing all over the Square. Some of them approach the tourists passing by in a polite way, others are more direct; a phrase like “Do you want pussy?” works particularly well with young British tourists. Different phrases reflect different places of origin and levels of education. “There are people who never went to school as well as university graduates,” says John, an architect from Nigeria. On week days, John works for a company organising various seminars. “I only make fifteen thousand, though. This is not enough to pay rent and support my girlfriend and our baby. That’s why I make some extra money here on the weekends.”

So John only comes on the weekends. Tom, who is also from Nigeria, is an IT undergraduate in Romania and has come to Wenceslas Square for a little summer job. Ila, another Nigerian man, has returned after two years because he lost his job due to the economic crisis. In other words, there are more reasons bringing people to the Square than might appear at first glance. For most of them, however, the Square is their only source of income.

As for the country of origin, the tourist hunters at Wenceslas Square make up a very diverse group. Africans are the most visible due to the colour of their skin, but you can just as well be approached by a young Spanish man, a recent graduate in computer graphics making money for his tour of Eastern Europe. Or a man from France who no longer enjoyed his work as an IT specialist and apparently has fun talking to people in the street; his advice to begin is: “The first thing you must learn is to identify and avoid Czechs. They tend to be unpleasant and will often scold you.” One of the hunters for a strip bar is a good-looking Czech girl, who gave up her job as a nurse to make more money in the Square. She says her work in the street taught her English, Spanish, and a little bit of French. And it was in Wenceslas Square that she met her husband from Cuba. Both of them work night shifts for the Darling cabaret.

Even so, most of the hunters come from West Africa. “People from East Africa are shyer and less able to spontaneously approach strangers than we are,” says one of the hunters, who was born in Benin and has a permanent job in a Prague employment agency. Most of the people from Wenceslas Square are reported to be Igbo people, a Nigerian Christian ethnic group in the delta of the Niger River. Their home is polluted with oil and they suffer from long-term discrimination from the government on separatist grounds. All the men we approached say there are almost no West African Muslims; this is because they prefer to choose other countries and would find it hard to work for night clubs anyway.

The strong leave, the weak stay

Nevin is one of the few exceptions. Having completed secondary education, he was unable to go to university as he had to support his younger sisters. “My father had been killed in a fight between Christians and Muslims and my mother died from an illness. I didn’t want to stay as in my town Christians and Muslims keep fighting,” says Nevin, a Nigerian Muslim wearing a light blue T-shirt with United States of America printed on it, waiting for asylum status. Nigerians, however, are rarely granted asylum in the Czech Republic; between 1993 and 2007, only 19 applicants out of 662 were accepted.

“I reached Italy on a boat, my friend knew a boat captain. I didn’t have to pay for the trip as I worked on board. In Italy, Prague was recommended to me, so I somehow reached it by train with no visa. I knew no one here. I spent the first several nights in round-the-clock bars. Then I met some other Africans who gave me some tips about the asylum application,” Nevin told us in the park outside the Central Railway Station. But neither he nor most of his countrymen can explain how exactly they traveled to Prague and why they decided on the Czech Republic.

It is far from easy to report the stories of the Africans from Wenceslas Square. While the men do like to start conversation, they are far less ready to switch from friendly banter to personal details. And those who don’t mind talking for fifteen or thirty minutes in the street, seem unwilling to engage in longer, more structured interviews, let alone to have their photos taken. We later found out that many of the Africans dislike the fact that our research might draw more attention to Wenceslas Square. They fear the local authorities may decide to close down the cabarets and night clubs, causing them to be jobless and forcing them deeper into the underworld of the city.

“I want to send my sisters some money from here, but my earnings have so far been low,” says Nevin and gives his account of all the men in the Square: “The Nigerian Government ignores the ordinary masses. It’s different from here; you have to support yourself in Nigeria. If you’re strong and ready to fight for your freedom, you leave. If you’re weak, you stay where you were born and you die there.”

Shameful work for two thousand Crowns a night

“In Cameroon I worked in the wood trade. When I saw the huge margins that the European partners added to the price, I decided I wanted to go to Europe and organise the trade from here,” says Will who came to Prague four years ago. He reads international news servers on a daily basis and enjoys talking about world events. “What the Czech Republic has in common with Africa is that your country used to be colonised (by the Soviet Union) and it left its mark.” He goes on to talk about his journey. “A friend played for the Sparta football club and recommended Prague to me. I arrived on an ordinary visa and then sought asylum. I quickly found a girlfriend and married her, which entitled me to permanent residence.”

In the past, fake marriage through an agent was thought to be the quickest way to be granted permanent residence in the Czech Republic, but this is no longer possible. The African men we approached had not tried “buying a wife” nor knew anyone who had. They agree it is fairly easy to find a Czech wife in discos in the same way as Will did. 

The thirty-year old Cameroonese is now working for the Darling cabaret which – like two other strip-bars – has a steady group of visitor hunters. For each tourist the hunter is paid one hundred Crowns, a third of the entrance fee. Will and his fellows each get an equal share in the morning. What is good about such a permanent “contract” is that Will makes money each night. The ticket sellers keep track of how many guests each hunter has brought and pay out the money in the morning. Other strip clubs pay each hunter for each guest, though this means that sometimes hunters make no earnings at all. In general, club owners are said to be fair and there are hardly any arguments over money at the end of the shift.

But can the earnings be so good that they actually discourage you from seeking other work? “You can never be sure you will earn something. There is no holiday. You don’t make any savings and you cannot do this type of work when you get older,” says Will; others, too, admit they would rather make a living in a less “shameful” way. They point out that the job involves constant uncertainty and there is no guarantee of fixed income.

These people say they are unable to get a decent job in the Czech Republic – especially when they speak no Czech, due to racism on the part of Czech business people (and we were told a lot of authentic stories about that in the Square), due to the economic crisis which robbed some of them of their work, and, last but not least, due to their asylum-seeker status. Another thing they complain about is the system of employment agencies; manual workers from Eastern Europe are exploited, working on construction sites for so little money that it is impossible to have a decent life in Prague. Some of the Africans told us about friends who left Prague for Western Europe, to work as bus drivers in London, for instance.

On Saturday mornings, Will goes to the flea market to buy cheap, second-hand goods he then sends to Africa, profiting from the sale. In a similar way, he buys old cars which he ships to Cameroon where they are sold at a profit. “Europe is different from what our people think before they leave Africa. We all have those dreams and end up in the streets of Prague,” says Will. “I tell lies to my friends in Cameroon when I talk to them over the phone about my life in Prague. I don’t tell them anything about my night shifts on the Square. I don’t want my family to come to Prague and see what I do. I would be ashamed. When I talk to girls in clubs, I pretend I have nothing to do with the Africans from Wenceslas Square. It is a miserable job.”

On the drug trail

Will hates to hear about the men from Wenceslas Square being constantly associated with drug sale. “Drugs are sold by a couple of guys who come to the Square for two hours or so each night. You can tell by their faces. But then, drugs are sold all over the place, in discos and clubs. Wenceslas Square is nothing compared to that. And why would you do large-scale sale of drugs on the Square which is constantly monitored by police. In fact, much more serious crime occurs all over this city,” he says, upset about the criminal reputation often attributed to his community. 

At the same time, however, Will explains how easily a tourist hunter may turn into a drug dealer. “Each night I am approached and asked for drugs. Do I look like a dealer? So naturally, if you just stand here all winter and earn little, you could try phoning up your contacts who always have some drugs on them, and make some extra money by selling drugs.”

Looking into the cocaine trade, the 2009 Annual Report by the National Anti-Drug Central Agency makes an explicit reference to the Nigerian mafia only. “In the Czech Republic, Nigerians usually hire couriers from among other Africans or even Czechs. These people import cocaine from Western Europe in particular (the Netherlands, UK, Spain, France). Couriers import cocaine in cars, coaches and trains, less often on airplanes. This way, couriers normally import about one to three kilograms of cocaine… People involved in the street distribution of cocaine mostly come from Nigeria and other West African countries, most of them can be found in the Prague city centre and night clubs. Citizens of the Czech Republic are also involved in the street sale.”

More detailed information is impossible to come by. The Organised Crime Detection Unit of the Czech Police refused an interview, sending an e-mail with general answers, pointing out that disclosing such information would go against the Unit´s mission.

Doing research on drug mafias in the Czech Republic, Miroslav Nožina of the Institute of International Relations Prague has been regularly travelling to Africa and Asia. He had direct experience with the local mafia when staying at the University of Kano, Northern Nigeria. “Students who come from the same clan area make up small, internally coherent units of four to five people. They take the same degree programme, share a money pool, exert a collective influence on teachers, making them award good grades. Once they graduate, they often leave the country. One of them will settle down in, say, Bangkok, the others in Prague or New York, and they organize heroin shipment,” said Mr Nožina in an interview available on the blog of photographer Günther Bartoš.

In our summer interview, Mr Nožina reflected on the topic again. “I have no idea how many of the people on Wenceslas Square are really involved in the drug sale. Distributors are to be found in the malls and cafés where they pass the drugs on to street sellers. The sellers phone up a distributor any time they are approached by a potential buyer. So this makes it hard to identify who exactly sells drugs.”

The Nigerian mafias have been active in the Czech Republic since 1990, having moved here when the frontiers to Western Europe was opened. They found it easy to expand their network and effective practice into a region where the police had had no experience with these gangs. “A lot of young Czech people would work for them as couriers, importing drugs from Thailand, while the Nigerian mafia remained in the background and organised things,” says Mr Nožina, also suggesting the mafia used the Czech Republic to try new strategies, which they would then transfer to Western Europe. Mafia bosses and drug distributors have been doing the business for years while street sellers – recent immigrants in desperate financial need – only do it temporarily until they find a better job. So in a year or two, they hand it over to new immigrants.

A Rastafarian in the Eastern Bloc

“Some of the stories they tell you are true, others are not, there is no way of knowing. Some had problems back home and are right to seek asylum, others not. Some have arrived on a visa, others illegaly, there are many ways and you don´t need any smuggling gangs. But they all came here to improve their lives,” says Tony, a forty-year old Nigerian musician who came to Europe twenty years ago and whose music club has recently been closed down for causing too much noise at night.

Unlike other Africans of his age, Tony knows a lot of the people from the Square and their stories. “Some of them enjoy the work, others don´t. But they have no alternative as they wouldn´t get another job easily. It´s not fun spending winter nights in the Square. And I don´t like it as it damages the reputation of African people,” said Tony as he took a puff from a joint, one of many he had that afternoon. A committed Rastafarian, he considers marijuana to be a sacred flower.

His story is hard to believe, too: Twenty years ago he took a flight from Nigeria to Moscow, and as a travelling musician, he crossed several countries of the former Soviet Union. “Only one person in a hundred spoke English back then, so I was completely lost and I simply had to learn Russian in six months. I was twenty and I once walked all night through a dense forest, crossing the frontier between Belarus and the Ukraine. The only light I had was my cigarette lighter. It was only me and my cigarettes.”

Lack of success means no chance to return

Michel Pale was the only one of the Africans willing to have his photo taken. His journey for a better life in Europe has been one of immense adventure. “The rainforest is a mirror in which you can look at yourself and think,” Michel, a former student of pharmaceutics at the University of Hradec Králové, told a Czech weekly three years ago . “There are so many different trees, bushes, plants and flowers. Each unique; no two leaves are identical. If you look closer, you always find a difference, if small, in the shape, size or colour. And everything is in bud, spreads to all sides, intertwines and contributes to incredible chaos, while at the same time many of those things disappear and give way to new life.”

This thoughtful man has been an asylum seeker in the Czech Republic since 1999. Homeless at the time we wrote this, Michel is one of the best known faces in the Prague African community. He has better places to spend nights than only round-the-clock bars and he definitely does not feel the need to hide in secret places, frequenting well-known cafés and clubs. But he does not make a living on Wenceslas Square. Instead, he likes to avoid the Square for fear of being involved in one of the frequent police checks. Last January he ended up being escorted in a police car to a detention centre. 

The fifty-year old man, who likes to smile and has a lot of interesting things to say, came to study in Czechoslovakia in 1985. He was 28 years old and had been given a scholarship, which was one of the ways the communist government helped those African countries with which it had a close relationship, including the Congo. When he was nearing graduation, the fall of communism in 1989 meant the scholarship programme ended. 

At the time, Michel had eighteen more months to finish university. Unlike most other African scholarship receivers, he came from a poor family of a village teacher and did not have the five thousand dollars to pay for the remaining time in school. And so he went back to the Congo, with no university diploma, and made a living doing different kinds of manual work. His country had just overthrown its dictatorship and become democratic, although the civil war that followed led to the reinstatement of the dictator. 

Life was increasingly difficult in the civil war, so Michel – whose uncle worked for the national airlines – bought a cheap air ticket back to Prague where he sought asylum for the first time. That was eleven years ago, and since then, the gifted African with an almost complete university education has been slipping more and more towards the edge of society. All his asylum applications have been rejected, so he has no right to work and has no identity documents and money, moving between the refugee camp, homes of his Prague friends and the street, and facing the bleak prospect of his looming old age.

“The other refugees like me and other people do as well. I like helping the security guards with their crossword puzzles and making the cooks laugh as I sing Czech songs to them,” says Michel when talking about his time in the refugee camp.
Yet Michel avoids the African community, fearing the richer ones might talk him into going back home, which is something he wants to avoid at all costs. “If I had to return, I would kill myself. They would think I was a loser. When I'm in Europe, they think I must be rich. If they knew I am not rich, they would laugh at me and exclude me from their community and treat me like I was worthless. That´s why it’s better to be homeless in Prague.”
Just want to live like you

To sum up, the motivations and goals of the Africans on Wenceslas Square seem to be somewhat contrary to what Czech people and the well-established African community like to think.

There are several things the tourist hunters appear to have in common: they came to Prague on their own, with no assistance from smugglers whom they would have to pay thereby accumulating huge debts. They work on the Square simply because they cannot find any other work or to make some extra money in addition to the poorly paid and insecure work they do elsewhere. Drugs are sold in the Square, although this only concerns a small group of people. 

All of these people would appreciate help from the state authorities and NGOs that could run free Czech language courses thereby forcing them to learn. Language courses are common elsewhere in Europe, but not in the Czech Republic. These people do not ask for money, they just want to learn the language to be able to succeed in the local labour market, earn money and integrate into society. They do not want to live in African ghettos, they want to live the same way as Czechs.

“Czech people need to take more interest in these immigrants in the first place. They must understand their needs. This is the only way to prevent huge social problems later on,” says Will, reflecting on immigration in general and about the opportunity that the Czech Republic, unlike its richer counterparts in Western Europe, still has: “The Africans are not going to leave. That´s the way it is. You expel one, and two new ones will arrive. They will always find their way here. They only want a better life and will do anything to achieve that. We would be grateful for the work as without it most of the people would have to make a living illegaly,” says the young Cameroonese, suggesting the Czech Republic can benefit too: “The African community here is quite small, they live alongside the Czechs, not in ghettos. There is still time to support their integration, and that will set an example to other generations of immigrants. If ghettos are allowed to develop, new immigrants will come directly into them, and it will be extremely difficult to get them out. And new generations are sure to come, that cannot be prevented.”

*The migrant names and the country of their origin (with the exception of Michel and Ibrahima) were changed