The Migrant’s Bag

'Ghana Musto Go' bags

By Pelu Awofeso

In Nigeria, the brightly colored mesh bags locally known as ‘Ghana-Must-Go’ are everywhere. Sold cheaply they are durable and there must be at least one in every household. Stuffed with clothes or with books; at motor parks, airport terminals and train stations, travelers use them to parcel goods and other cargo intra- and inter-state.

What most might not know is that the rather iconic bag is used across the world and it is known by different names in the countries it is found in.

This much I found out while viewing the creations of South African photographer Nobukho Nqaba at the LagosPhoto Festival (October 24 – November 27). In the Rainbow Nation alone, the bags have five name variants–Unomgcana Umaskhenkethe (Xhosa), China bags, Zimbabwe bags, Khumbulekhaya bags or Mashangaan bags. In the UK they are called Bangladeshi bags; in Germany, Turkish bags; in the US, Mexican bags; and in the Caribbean, Guyanese Samsonite bags.

In these countries, the bags are more objects of derision than anything else, not with standing that they serve multitudes. The name “Ghana-Must-Go”– as Nigerians generally call the bags — derives from a not-so-pleasant historical event: when the military administration in Nigeria instituted a decree in the 1980s that expelled Ghanaians then residents in the country, to the life of long-suffering deportees, hundreds of thousands packed their belongings to return home.

“These bags have become global symbols of migration, not only across borders but also within countries,” says the wall descriptions to the exhibits. Spread across a wall some 40 ft long and 15 ft high, the exhibition features the mesh material (which are actually produced in China) as  a backdrop and in photographs in a variety of household decor — as bed and pillow covers, cabinet covers, floor mats, wallpaper, and bedside table covers.

Nobukho goes even further: she makes herself an apron, a nightgown and a pair of slip-on sandals to match. And in a photograph showing her lying on the bed, she is reading a book wrapped in — you guessed correctly — the same mesh material.

So when next you buy or carry that bag, know that there is more to it than meets the eye.

Pelu Awofeso is a Travel Journalist and Author. He is also the winner of the CNN/Multichoice African Journalist Awards in Tourism.