When he was 5-years old, his parents gave him away to relatives. Years later his mum died, leaving his elderly father to fend for himself in a poor village that doesn’t even have a telephone system.
Amara Tochi, now in his early 20s, sat in his orange prison garb and related his childhood to M Ravi, his recently appointed counsel. “I think my brother dropped out of school to support my father,” he said.
Tochi had grown up in another village with his adopted family and had attended the St Anthony’s Missionary School in a village called Ohafia. He quickly developed a love for football and being the athletic sort, started playing competitively. He was recruited by a club in Senegal and later played for his country, Nigeria, in the West African Coca-Cola Cup Championship, reaching the quarter-final stage.
In love with the sport and driven by ambition, Tochi sought greener pastures in Dubai. But since there was no Dubai embassy in Nigeria, he had to first go to Pakistan, get a visa there, and then catch a train from Islamabad to the emirate. Or so said his travel agent.
Taking whatever money he had with him, which came up to about a couple of hundred dollars, Tochi set off only to find out when he arrived in Pakistan that there was no train to Dubai. Not only that, there was no Dubai embassy there.
In desperation and with no accommodation, no food and little money, the young man went to the St Andrew’s Church in Islamabad and, to his relief, found out that the church gave accommodation to the poor.
“I met Pastor Andy,” Tochi said with a rare smile. “He was very kind to allow me to stay.” Many Africans working in Pakistan attended the Sunday service there.
On Sunday, he met a man by the name of Smith, an Engineer who said that he belonged to the same tribe as Tochi. “It was a strange meeting,” Tochi recalled. “He recognized me during the services and asked me whether I was the one who missed the penalty in one of the matches I played in Nigeria.”
Tochi embarrassedly admitted. Smith laughed and then told the lad that cricket, not football, was the national sport.
Seeing that he knew so much, Tochi opened up to Smith and told Smith about his plight. Thereafter, Smith gave Tochi pocket money and also bought the young man food from time to time.
“Once we went to eat in an African restaurant,” Tochi continued. Smith told him that he could help Tochi secure a visa to Dubai – in Afghanistan. It was that fateful day that Tochi’s life embarked upon a journey that would take him to meet the grim reaper instead of his dream of playing football in the Middle East.
The Dubai embassy refused to grant Tochi a visa because the lad didn’t have a bank account and had no insurance.
“Then we went back to the hotel. Mr Smith told that I should not worry. I believed him because he had been taking care of me.”
Smith said that he had a friend in Dubai who could help. The pair then flew to Dubai and waited in the transit lounge. Smith left to make some phone calls. When he returned he told Tochi that instead of playing football in Dubai, the footballer could go to Singapore as there were professional clubs there too.
But before that Smith said he had an errand to run. He needed to “give some herbal medicine to a sick friend.”
“He went to make another call and came back and said no need to apply for visa for Nigerian to go Singapore,” Tochi said with a forlorn expression. “Mr Smith said he has some herbs to give his friend and will ask his friend to meet me at Singapore airport. I will have to pass the herbs to him and in return his friend will give me some money at the Changi Airport transit. Then I can go and approach football clubs in Singapore.
Smith opened his bag. In it was another small bag with an Herbal Instruction Manual attached. Smith gave Tochi US$200 and bought a ticket for him. A Mr Marshall, also an African who was big-built, will wait at the Coffee Bean cafe at the transit lounge in Singapore.
When he arrived Tochi went to the Coffee Bean as instructed and waited for 4 hours. No one looking like Mr Marshall showed up. So he called Smith and said he could not wait any more. But Smith told Tochi that he needed to have at least US$500 to enter Singapore, otherwise he would be deported. Tochi had only $100 plus.
“You think my friend is not coming?” Smith told Tochi. He then gave the Nigerian Mr Marshall’s number. When Tochi called, Mr Marshall (his real name is Nelson Malachy, Tochi’s co-convict) answered and said that he would come in the evening.
Tochi related: ” I had already waited 6 hours. Mr. Smith said since I am tired, I could go and find a place to sleep at the transit hotel.”
And so he did. The staff at the reception told him to wait. He asked them if any room was available. The receptionist said she needed to call the police to check him to see if there was any problem before giving him a room.
“I then went to buy Pepsi and banana as I was hungry,” the Nigerian went on. It was then that the police came and escorted him to the lobby.
“They asked how long I was here. ‘Come let me check your bag.’ During this time, they also asked me why I came to Singapore. I told them I came for soccer trial. I need to go to the FA. They said ‘ok’,” Tochi continued.
“Why have you been waiting for so long?” the police enquired.
“I don’t have money. Only US$120.00. I don’t want to be deported,” was the reply.
“Then why are you waiting for so long?”
“I’m waiting for someone who would pass me money.”
“How much he is going to give you?”
“US$1000 or $2000,” Tochi told them. “My friend Mr Smith said that his friend would give me enough money.”
With that statement, Tochi later found himself in Changi Prison where he met another young man, Nguyen Van Tuong, who was executed in December 2005 for possessing heroin while on transit at Changi Airport.
As Ravi wrapped up the interview, the young Nigerian said, “Mr Ravi, do you know my name in Ibu language means ‘Praise God’? Amara Tochi means ‘Grace of God’.”
He managed a weak smile as tears streamed down his cheeks. His eyes remained fixed on Ravi as the lawyer walked to the door, as if asking him not to leave.
As the door closed, Tochi pleaded: “Please don’t allow these people to kill me…”