This story is part of an occasional series of articles from the Prague Wanderer, a webzine created by New York University students in Prague. Learn more about the Prague Wanderer here.
“One moment.” Ola leaves me standing under the pale fluorescent lights of the storefront overhang and walks to the middle of Wenceslas Square. A young couple is passing by and he grabs their attention by sticking out his hand holding a flier.
They glance at him, shake their heads, and continue walking past. Ola leaves his outstretched hand dangling for a few seconds before it drops to his side. He now retreats back to our overhang.
“Any luck?” I ask. He shakes his head.
“We can go now.”
I follow him across the block to the entrance of the Carioca Strip Tease Club. He waits while I pay the CZK 300 (about USD 15) entrance fee, and we push our way down the stairs, through a smoky haze, toward the thumping techno music.
Two hours earlier, I stopped and took a flier from Ola.
“What is this for?” I asked. His deep brown eyes lit up at my interest.
“Strip tease club. Three hundred entrance, five free drinks, live women. There,” he motioned toward a neon sign across the street with an “XXX” and silhouetted dancers on it.
“I’ll think about it,” I said. He shrugged and walked away toward an overhanging doorway of a clothing store on the corner of the block. I followed him.
“I stand here often,” he told me, smiling when he realized I’d joined him. “It’s warmer.” He pointed at the lights over our heads.
“So… can we talk for a while?” I asked. He nodded his head yes.
“I’ll enjoy the break. I don’t like my job.”
“People from home, my mother, they call me Ola. It’s part of my last name. Ola means crown, royal family.” He beams and claps his hands against his tattered canvas jacket that hangs loosely over his thin frame. He takes his cap off and runs his fingers through a mop of tangled black hair that grows down to meet the scruff on his cheeks.
Ola tells me he was born in Nigeria and grew up there with his parents and two younger siblings. He went to primary school, studied hard, and continued to secondary school, but halfway through his time there, his father was killed in an automobile accident.
“They took me out of class,” he recalled, “They told me that my father had died in an accident. His car went into a river. I had a few tears, I was sad, but the first thought was that now I was the main supporter of my family.”
It wasn’t his plan, he said, but he dropped out of school in favor of work so that he could provide for his mother and younger siblings. As he describes his family to me, tears well in his eyes and he shuffles his boots on the concrete sidewalk.
Ola’s mother is strict, but she treats him like a king and he adores her for it. He tells me how his younger brothers are always getting into trouble and how his baby sister is going to be a beautiful woman soon.
He goes on to explain how leaving Nigeria was the hardest thing that he’s had to do, but finding work at home was impossible and his family was suffering. “I couldn’t leave them behind, but I couldn’t stay,” he says. “I am not in my city of Lagos so that my family can keep a home for themselves.”
Ola left his home in search of work a year-and-a-half ago, and ended up in Prague like many Nigerians. He had heard that Prague was a relatively inexpensive city and it would be easy for him to find a job
When he arrived, he met other African men who helped him find work with the strip club. He says that many other Nigerians take up the more profitable path of selling drugs to keep up with the cost of living.
“I will never sell drugs, though,” he snorts. “That is not what I believe in and no matter how much I could make, I will not send drug money home to my family.”
Even so, earning enough money to survive on is a problem for Ola. He only gets ten percent of the fee charged for each person that he brings into the club. On some nights, no one will go in and no money is made. For his first few weeks in Prague, Ola moved from one African man’s apartment to another, explaining to each one that he had nowhere to stay because he had not earned enough money yet.
“I live a simple life,” he shrugs. “I use money for food and living, and send the rest home to my family. They need my money more that I do.” He says that some days he eats and some days he doesn’t, but all that matters to him is that his brothers, sister, and mother are not starving.
His gaze drifts toward another black man in the square who is conversing with a Czech man and gesturing at Carioca. I ask him if he’s friends with the other people he works with.
He shakes his head and explains that they are his competition.
“Most of the Africans in Prague are here for the same reasons that I am. We need money for our homes and that is who we do these jobs. I am not friends with him because now he is taking money for his family that could be for mine.”
I nod and ask him who his friends in Prague are, if not his coworkers.
“I don’t have many friends. I don’t have much fun here at all because I have not found my soul mate. Once I meet her, then I can start my life. Then I’ll be happy. Everyone has a soul mate and I am waiting to meet mine.”
Ola dreams of going to America to be a banker. He tells me that the other Nigerians talk about returning home, but he aspires for a better career.
“The more money I make, the more comfortable my family is.”
He has tried to travel to the United States, but was forced to stay in Prague when his application for a visa was rejected.
He holds out his hand and motions at his fingers.
“The fingers are not equal,” he says, “Some are long, some are short. Some days are good, some days are bad, but if my documents come tomorrow, I will fly to America. I am 28. I am ready to start my life, but, still, I am just waiting for my soul partner.”
“So,” I ask, “Will it be a Czech woman?” He doesn’t think so.
“Czech people… they don’t like black men. They think I am a pickpocket. I get on the tram, sit down, and people move away from me. They pull their wallets from their back pockets and put them in their shirts. They think I am an animal. Czech people think we live in trees.”
It was Ola’s break time at that point and I figured I owed it to him to go into the club. He assured me that part of his commission would go to his family.
We sat at the bar together and I gave him one of my five free drinks as naked women danced around us.
“Do you like these girls?” I asked him. He shook his head no.
“They’re just doing their job and I am just doing mine.”
He looked at him watch, slid off the stool, and pulled his jacket back on.
“I must go back to work now,” he said, smiling, “If you want to keep in touch, I work every night. I will be right there on the corner, always waiting.”
Laura Dalton is a third-year student at Middlebury College studying english. She is from Simsbury, Connecticut. A version of this article was first created for the Travel Writing class at New York University in Prague.