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The Nigerian shrugged. Silence fell, and soon everybody got lost in their own thoughts.

Although it was uppermost in their minds, nobody talked about the dangers

of the illegal journey to Europe. Seydou pushed it away anytime the idea sprang into his mind.



Points to Paradise

(Or African Immigrants Journey to Spain)

By Akoli Penoukou


Seydou Kabore shut his eyes as old scary memories flooded back to him when the boat plunged madly through furious tumbling waves. He clutched the gunwale and rolled with the tossing and the pitching of the craft. He dropped his head, crossed an arm over his chest and implored Allah to take him safely to the Canary Islands.

Now they cruised through calm waters.

“We’re approachng the Canary islands,” the captain announced in the afternoon of the fifteenth evening.

The passengers cheered and gave each other high fives. In a short while they overtook a fishing canoe loaded chock-full with immigrants. Seydou saw their careworn faces and wondered how long they have been at sea.

Soon they glimpsed a dot of an island in the distance. As they approached the land swelled until the coast of Fuerteventura showed clearly in the Atlantic archipelago of the Canary Islands. The smiles widened on the gaunt faces and the immigrants burst into song and dance.

“Don’t rock the boat,” the captain growled and reduced power.

Fuerteventura floated towards them as if to hug them. Seydou felt thankful to have persisted in his determination to cross over to Europe. The exhilaration brought back memories of that day in Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso.

He had leaned his long back against the scrawny nim tree in their compound staring into the ice blue evening sky. His thick lips moved noiselessly, taking stock of his 22 years existence.  A mason, he worked in Ouagadougou with an uncle who had trained him. His boss sometimes paid him a small wage. Often, he received nothing. Sometimes he did a part-time job delivering goods by rickshaw for a local grocer, yet hunger still haunted him.

Seydou often thought of his friends and acquaintances who had gone to Europe. Pictures and news they sent of their improved condition there made him restless. Here, even if one worked to death nothing was accomplished. It was time he tried his chance too. 

Seydou knew the Europeans have toughened their policies on immigration but brushed that aside. He was sure to find a way to enter the eldorado. He has everything to lose by not trying to enter the land of honey. What’s the sense in remaining in this place rendered more unattractive by the encroaching Sahara desert and then floods when the torrential rains came, both because of climatic changes?

He sighed and his lean chest heaved and his flat stomach subsided again into a trough. Here, he was in a sort of limbo so it was imperative to break with this senseless existence.

That evening as he watched a documentary film on Spain on the television at a video club, Seydou’s legs shook with impatience. Anytime he saw images of Europe, he found it difficult to resist reaching for the opportunities available there. Why shouldn’t he drive a car, wear nice clothes, eat good food, and furnish his room with all the modern gadgets like the well-to-do in Ouagadougou?

The next day Seydou sent email messages to his friends abroad and contacted some well-off family members in Ouagadougou and a businessman uncle in Lome, Togo to lend him money to pay for the passage to Spain. After eating a sparse supper of the usual rice and chicken soup he informed his mother of his intention to go to Europe.

His mother spoke after a long silence: “I’ve mixed feelings about your project. Besides, how are you going to finance it?”

Seydou told her about the contacts he had made.

“I think you should try to make it here,” she advised.

Seydou bit his lower lip. “How?” he almost shouted.

The old lady shrugged. “Find something to do.”

“Am I idle? Success here is simply impossible.”

“Others have made it here.”

“You can count them on a hand,” he countered, indicating his fingers and tutted. “The majority just survives.”

“I agree with you but Europe is so far away,” she affirmed in a distant, tired voice.

“I’ll go whatever happens,” Seydou asserted, got up and paced back and forth, his hands jammed in the pockets of his faded jeans shorts.

His mother stared at him, her chin in her palm and then she straightened and sighed. “Well, I’ve nothing to keep you here. So if you want to go . . .” She shrugged.

“Ma, I must go,” Seydou said flatly, stamping his foot on the ground.

Seeing his determination his mother gave up trying to convince Seydou to stay. She knew that if Seydou believed in something there was no way one could persuade him to abandon it.

“Keep the journey secret from your father,” she advised. Seydou’s austere father opposed ideas which did not come from him. “I’ll sound him out in a roundabout way.”

In the next few days Seydou’s mother sold some of her most precious resources a married woman possessed—cattle and goats—and raised 500,000 francs CFA (about 900 dollars).

The day before his departure, Seydou informed his father.

“No!” he declared, glaring at his wife. “We’ve been hearing of tragedies in the Maghreb.” Then he returned to munching his cola.

“A friend in Europe has arranged for him to go,” Seydou’s mother explained, as they had planned. “From North Africa a regular boat will carry him to Europe.”

Seydou’s father shook his head.

His wife sought for a week to cajole him but the harder she tried the more emphatic the old man’s refusal became. Then prodded, he wouldn’t say anything more; his wife knew this meant he wouldn’t mind if Seydou left.

Seydou set out on a Friday morning, his mind full of images of him in Europe which he hoped to reach in a few weeks. He clutched his backpack containing a handful of clothes, some biscuits and powdered milk on his knees and from time to time fumbled the wallet in his pocket holding 1,500 dollars. Seydou felt a lightness as the minibus pulled out of the bedlam of the lorry park. He had always itched for the horizons beyond Ouagadougou.

Finally he could help his father whose paltry pension as an ex-serviceman hardly met the family’s needs. Watching his mother struggling to eke out a precarious living to cater for her six children, he had always pined for a place where one could improve one’s lot to reduce all this suffering. The more he thought about that possibility the more irresistible the desire to go to Europe became. And now he was on the way to realizing that dream. May Allah the Almighty be praised.

A few hours later another overloaded bus weighted down with goods, bleating goats, cackling fowls, and chattering passengers was rumbling him from Niamey to Agadez, the gateway to the Sahara and the hub of trafficking of immigrants to North Africa.

Seydou had learnt that the best way to cross the desert was in Toyota Pick-up vehicles driven by former Chadian soldiers of the Islamic Legion now turned Libyans. They were not only masters of the desert like the others; they got favorable treatment from the Libyan soldiers who often rounded up immigrants. Seydou strode across town to their dusty office.

“Five hundred dollars,” an unsmiling man declared and stretched his hand.

Seydou scratched his head.

“If you pay now you can leave within a week.”

Seydou knew the traffickers often took money first and then arranged for the transport. Not only was he not in a position to pay that fare but also he had to rush to Europe beckoning to him.

“I’ll be back,” Seydou lied and rushed to one of the brokerage agencies run by the Yantchaga—traffickers—and paid a fare of $250 on a ten-wheel truck which, he learnt to his delight, was leaving the next day. Then he loped back to the Auto Gare on the outskirts of town to wait for the call like the others. He sat beside a worried boy and nodded a greeting at him.

“Hi, I’m Moctar Abu, from Ghana,” the boy said, beaming a smile.

“No speaking English. French,” Seydou said from what was left of his eighth grade English.

Counting his fingers Moctar indicated that he was seventeen. He explained in English and some French that he had run away from home when his parents refused that he make the journey because of his age. They talked for a while and soon they were pumping each other’s hand. Moctar, who had been in Agadez for weeks, offered to show Seydou the town.

“This place is full of Sub-Saharan Africans,” Seydou observed as they strolled through the crowded streets.

“Yes,” Moctar agreed. “They’re from all over Sub-Saharan Africa.” He counted his fingers. “Ghana, Cameroon, Sudan, Liberia, the Senegal, Niger, Mali, Angola, Benin, Nigeria, Somalia, Burkina Faso, Uganda, the two Congos, Rwanda, Guinea-Conakry, and Guinea-Bissau. Most of them are waiting—some for many months—to cross the desert while others are deportees or stranded immigrants engaged in petty trading to make money for another crossing.”

At the few hotels and the numerous guest-houses and brothels prostitutes massed at street corners hissed to attract them; pimps cornered them and offered cocaine hidden in papers. Moctar and Seydou shook their heads.

“These are ways penniless immigrants make money for the journey,” Moctar explained.

The following day Seydou and Moctar bought dried milk, cassava flour, biscuits, sugar, jerry cans for storing water, tuareg turbans, torchlights, traveling rugs, gloves, bonnets, overcoats, and heavy boots for the journey.

Seydou and Moctar ambled to the Gare and watched laborers on the ground hurl goods to those on the truck who caught them and stuck them on board. Sweat glistened on their dark muscular bodies. When the golden-yellow sun began to sink towards the Ténéré desert horizon, Seydou ogled the convoy of two and three Pick-ups, sagging under goods, jerry cans, and fifty passengers, dangle towards the darkening Sahara under the cheers and the feverish waving of the onlookers.

Moctar explained: “Their preferred destination is Dirkou 700 km away—to be covered in a week travelling mainly by night to avoid being detected by frontier guards—from where they went north to enter Libya from the south.”

Soon the laborers finished loading the bags of grains, imported goods, and hundreds of cans, each containing 30 litres of water on the Mercedes-Benz army-like truck and covered everything with hessians. They waved and the almost one hundred and fifty passengers—men, some women, and a few children—scrambled aboard the truck, jostling each other for a better place. Perched on the right hand side of the truck Seydou wondered if it could move under their weight. But after the agency had paid the tax for each passenger and the police had pocketed their backsheesh, came a roaring of engines and the truck lurched forward towards North Africa, each passenger praying in his own way. Shortly Seydou got lost in deep thought. With only the goods the tires squatted as if they didn’t have enough pressure in them. Would they safely get to their destination?

One of the Tuareg drivers had assured them that if Allah wished they would reach the southern Algerian town of Djanet in five days. That had alleviated Seydou’s worries. After passing half a dozen police roadblocks at which each of  the passengers dished out $3, they entered the Sahara. Soon the temperature dropped. They pulled on their bonnets, gloves, and blankets against the piercing cold and tunnelled through the dark night in silence. Sleep often overtook Seydou; then he would jar awake and grip the hessian firmly for support.

Day soon broke and minutes later the sun glared over the horizon and blazed down. The passengers took off their heavy clothing and wrapped turbans around their heads and faces to shield them from the scalding sun, leaving a crack from which they squinted across the wide expanse. Some chomped biscuits and licked dried milk.

The truck stopped for resting at an oasis. All guzzled water down their parched throats. Some soaked cassava flour in water and devoured it. Another driver took the steering wheel and they bumped across the Sahara again. The wind howled occasionally, pelting them with dust and blasting heat over them. Soon the sun became unbearable and some women and the children whined.

“I’m seeing the last of the sun,” a Nigerian squatted at Seydou’s shoulder bragged. “Soon I’ll be in Spain to wipe off my years of misery in a car spraying workshop in Ibadan.”

“Yeah,” a Senegalese joined him, “we’ve left behind our big-mouth politicians full of promises and never any imaginative policies to lift us out of poverty. Europeans can erect walls in the sea, we’ll still go.”

Just then a loud explosion rent the air. Everybody jumped, screaming. Seydou sighed. The truck tilted slightly to one side. The drivers sprang out and peeked at the tires. They waved everybody down. One of the rear tires had burst. Many passengers profited to stretch their legs and to urinate. Seydou stared around him: all was sunshine-yellow sand and sand dunes. The tire was changed after much effort and they continued the journey exchanging words and wishing themselves good luck.

It was in this atmosphere punctuated with long silences that they got to Arlit, the Niger uranium mining region where they made a stopover.

When after half an hour the truck headed towards the Algerian Tamanrasset, they picked up the conversation again. Most people evoked the situation of impasse as the reason for their departure. “Nobody is happy to leave home,” a pregnant Cameroonian lady said. “Especially on such a long, risky journey, but only a fool will accept to die of hunger when food is available elsewhere.” The others murmured in agreement. Many also decried the lack of economic and social prospects. “Standstill society,” a Nigérien complained bitterly; “unemployment given full rein, mock States, corrupt politicians. Who wouldn’t run away from these?” 

“For me war, persecution, economic misery, and ethnic and religious clashes are sending me away,” said a Liberian refugee coming from Côte d’Ivoire. 

As they prepared to enter Libya someone recounted how on an earlier crossing the driver had taken a detour to avoid the frontier post of Tidjeri and got lost. “The vultures circled over our heads. The driver used his cell phone to call somewhere but before the Libyan search team found us a week later we’d buried some forty people.”

“My friend, don’t bring bad luck on us with your dark stories,” a Nigerian growled.

“I’m not your friend,”  the man retorted, “and close your ears if you don’t want to hear.”

“Do you think it’s good to have such stories on such a journey?” the Nigerian said to the passengers, but no one answered him.

“Dark stories or not, whatever will happen will happen.”

“Silence!” the first driver leaned out of the window and hollered.

The Nigerian shrugged. Silence fell, and soon everybody got lost in their own thoughts. Although it was uppermost in their minds, nobody talked about the dangers of the illegal journey to Europe. Seydou pushed it away anytime the idea sprang into his mind.

On the sixth day they reached Djanet. Seydou had felt thrilled at Agadez to learn that to evade the frontier posts, they had to walk across the Tassili N’Ajjer. Having spent five days in the desert, he now understood what three days of walking over the arid, merciless, sandy expanse represented. Boots on and braving the shifting sand, the fiery sun at day, the penetrating cold at night, howling winds, they clambered up dunes, slid down them, crowded around fires at night and arrived dog-tired and emaciated in Libya which they had entered in small groups from the southeastern Algerian town of Tarat.

At Sabha, Seydou and Moctar sought out a Malian wasif—intermediary—called  Keita.

“You need health certificates to work here,” Keita said and charged $150 each for  false ones and the trip to Tripoli hidden in stuffy vans. The suffocating journey to Tripoli and the stay there were some of the darkest days in Seydou’s life. The police often ransomed them and arrested those who couldn’t pay. The Libyans clutched their noses or spat contemptuously at their presence. “Slave,” most of them shouted at the immigrants. Was this the country of a leader espousing African unity? Seydou wondered. Can Sub-Saharan Africa unite with people who have no respect for them? The thought that he was considered worthless saddened and angered Seydou but Keita had warned them against retaliating.

“You’d be dragged to detention camps,” he had warned. “Life there is a hell.”

Seydou heard that some of the worst camps were in the south. The ill-treatment meted out to the Sub-Saharan detainees, the draconian prison conditions, the extra-judicial executions were enough to dissuade the toughest or the proudest person.

Seydou and Moctar followed Keita’s advice to stomach the humiliation and arrived safely in Tripoli. He bit his lips at the overt racism. Two days later he itched to go elsewhere but his resources had run low and he had to replenish them. This he did, working as agricultural labourer in the farms near to Tripoli. The Libyan foremen often cursed them in Arabic and booted their asses. Seydou always wondered why some immigrants chose to remain in Libya. At home in Ezzaouia where a large black African population lives in very close quarters, Seydou often conversed with a Nigerien lady who, like the other women, had had papers falsified for her as married woman in order to be tolerated in Libya.

“They call me prostitute and AIDS carrier,” she lamented, sighing and swallowing hard. It was to escape gender discrimination that she had left Niger.

“These people don’t know that we just want to live,” Seydou replied. “There’s no future back home unless people in power know you.”  

“We’re young, single and childless,” Moctar added. “That frees us to make our lives the way we want. We aren’t bothering anybody why should they harass us?”

Police raids, deportations, and arbitrary imprisonment gave the immigrants the feeling of being hounded. Seydou saw security personnel tear someone’s papers into pieces in the street and then thrash him. From that day he avoided people in uniforms. His objective was to enter Europe not to be humiliated in Libya.

After working in Libya for two months Seydou decided to head for Tunisia from where entering Europe was said to be easier. However it cost more than the $500 to $800 one paid in Libya. Pestered by Italian authorities for not doing enough to stop illegal immigrants from using its territory to land on its coasts, especially on the islands of Lampedusa and Linosa situated between Tunisia, Sicily and Malta, the Libyan coast guards had increased their patrol of the coasts and many immigrants have been arrested.

“Let’s stay here,” Moctar, who had found a Ghanaian friend, implored.

Seydou shook his head.

He traveled to Zarzis and then to the island of Jerba only to learn that it was almost impossible to cross from there to either Malta or the Italian islands. The same was true for the port of Sfax. He continued to Mahdia from where daring crossings were still made to Isole Pelagie, but like the first time he saw the sea in Tripoli, all that expanse of heaving, roaring water made him swallow hard while his shoulders slumped. He could swim but he had done so only in a river. So he continued to Kelibia which was a bare 70 km to the Italian island of Pantelleria. Together with Lampedusa they were the nearest European territories to Tunisia and therefore attracted immigrants in large numbers. Seydou learned that on clear days one could see the southwestern coasts of the island opposite to Cape Bon and Cape Mustapha in Tunisia. That bolstered his courage to do the crossing from here.

For the moment Seydou must first find a place to stay and then look for an agent to book his crossing. Although Kelibia milled with Sub-Saharan Africans, many of whom were stranded immigrants working as touts of traffickers to make money for the journey, he had been warned that many were frauds, including the traffickers. So Seydou avoided the clandestine apartments called gouna and booked into Le Maghrebien, a dollar a day bed and breakfast, to study things.

That evening a police raid against North African immigrants about to board an inflatable dinghy was shown on television. The authorities promised to step up such actions and warned immigrants against attempting the dangerous crossing.

“Why now?” Seydou lamented.

“My friend, it’s always been this way,” a coal black Gambian wearing dreadlocks cut in. “But we’ve always gone across.” The Rastafarian, who was making his third attempt to Europe, assured that the southern coast of Sicily—from Portopalo, in the province of Syracuse, through Marina di Ragusa, Pozzallo, Gela, Porto Empedocle in the province of Agrigente—brimmed with immigrants who have crossed over.

“How is the crossing, elder brother?” Seydou wanted to know.

The Gambian stared at him with reddened eyes. “It’s not for the squeamish, younger brother,” he replied. “It’s usual to find two hundred people piled into a decrepit fishing boat.”

Seydou sighed.

The Rastaman pulled on a rolled cigarette and blew the smoke through his twirled tongue. “It’s not strange to run out of food and water. It’s tough but many have been rewarded for their courage with work in the greenhouses at Vittoria, near to Ragusa, where tomatoes and early fruit and vegetables are cultivated. Others work on fishing vessels in Mazara del Vallo. I’ve friends earning good salaries in the wine-growing provinces of Agrigente and Trapani. If you need work quickly, your bet is those areas in Sicily, boy.”

Seydou made a mental note of it and swore that he was ready to travel even on the tubs reputed slow and clumsy. Not even the knowledge that the immigrants worked on the side, were exploited, and had no rights discouraged him. Those things were tsunami in a well compared to dying of hunger, disease, political chicanery, or war. The suffering abroad paled compared to what Africans endured in their own countries. The voyage was risky but once in Europe one forgot the suffering. It was like sunshine after a rainy day.

Seydou was revising Italian lessons the following day when news of another tragedy came. A small boat carrying about 80 illegal Moroccan and Tunisian immigrants from Chott Mériem on the gouvernorat of Sousse capsized suddenly and sank barely an hour after departure for the Italian coasts. Seydou shivered slightly. He wondered if it scared the other immigrants too. All one talked about was Sicily, the springboard to Europe and the Detroit of Sicily which enabled one to reach there.

On the seventh day Seydou strutted to the agency of a trafficker to enquire if there was any boat crossing at that time only to find the place cordoned off by the police. He sidled backwards and rushed back to his hotel. In the evening the two smugglers were shown on the television. Passengers rounded up at the office affirmed they had paid between $1,200 and $1,500 for the crossing. The police warned prospective travelers to beware. Seydou squirmed in his seat but he had come too far to heed any warnings. Yet the passing days dampened his spirit somewhat.

He spat contemptuously remembering African politicians whose lethargic way of running State affairs stifled their economies and obliged their citizens to take unimaginable risks to survive.

Seydou spent most of the time in the hotel lobby or in his room because he dreaded being picked up by the police. He became increasingly nervous as the opportunities to cross over to Europe seemed not to come so easily. Meanwhile the traffickers were keeping watch on the police who had stepped up their surveillance of the coasts. Had it not been for the Italian TV programs with their irresistible commercials that one watched in Tunisia, Seydou wondered if he could have sustained his dream of crossing into Europe. The images of posh cars, beautiful cities, nice houses, elegant dresses in display windows, and night clubs winking with kaleidoscopic lights all whetted Seydou’s appetite for Europe. But nothing made him as itchy to go as when he saw an African in the streets of Europe. If that African has been able to land in Europe, so could he. Then he would recline in a bench in the hotel garden and stare into the ashen sky dotted with blue puffs of clouds dreaming of the transformation he would undergo in Europe.

Soon news got around that the police have relax their supervision of the coasts. The touts bustled about. Everybody said this was a truce. It was an opportune moment to go. Seydou paid $50 to one of the  trusted touts who connected him to a competent smugglers’ agency. Seydou extracted his purse from the shorts he wore as underpants and whipped out $1,800, $300 more than usual for the crossing. That left him with $200.

“Be ready to leave anytime the weather improves,” the agency told him. What they did not reveal was that they needed the waiting period to get the maximum number of passengers and to buy a boat and have it refitted quickly. Seydou sat on his haunches in his room that evening and offered special prayers to Allah to help him safely cross over to Europe.

Two weeks later a phone call came from the agency. “Be ready by four-thirty,” the caller told Seydou. “A minibus will pick you up at the hotel between then and five o’clock. By five-thirty we’ll sail for Pantelleria.”

Seydou jumped and jumped. Europe at last. Oh my God. Let Allah the merciful God be praised. The excitement wiped sleep from his eyes. Many times the dangers of crossing flitted through his mind but he told himself that he would only die in the sea if it was his destiny.

The reception called his room at five-fifteen. Seydou hurried out, clad in a trench coat. He had taken seriously the warning that it got fiercely cold on the water at that time. Some of the North and Sub-Saharan Africans in the bus dozed. They rode in silence for about fifteen minutes through the sleepy streets. Then the car dropped them at Cape Bon. Someone led them down to a small makeshift boat, a patera, moored at the jetty. Seydou’s teeth chattered in the strong, cold breeze from the sea. After crossing the jetty he took one step into the boat and froze. The 15-meter-long boat wobbled on the water. Seydou imagined how unsteady it would be on the high seas. Inside hordes of people talked in undertones.

The night brightening into dawn was beginning to etch out the outlines of other boats. The old engine soon rocked the boat and the captain swung its nose towards the sea, now a scintillating mass. Two skippers piloted the boat in turns using a GPS, Global Positioning System, and a compass. People dropped their heads into their locked hands and eyes closed, whispered what Seydou thought were prayers. In any way, he prayed to Allah for safety and luck.

They hadn’t gone far when the sun burst over the horizon, spreading its silver light over the tossing sea. Seydou looked around him and counted some one hundred and eighty people, including children and women hunched shoulder to shoulder. Barrels of water were stocked in the stern. Seydou stared at the white, frothing wake trailing the boat and the coast receding away into a small lump, and then turned his attention to the sea ahead. Small waves rippled its aqueous surface like a bunch of multitudinous, writhing, bluish-green snakes.

“Three to five days on this thing,” an adolescent beside Seydou whispered in French and shook his head as the tent above their heads flapped in the strong wind.

Seydou turned and gazed at him. Sailing from Cape Bon to Pantelleria took two days but the controls obliged the traffickers to take long routes to avoid being detected. “Isn’t it scary?” he said to make conversation.

The young man said he was from Côte d’Ivoire. “The rebellion and the political chaos there is forcing us to emigrate to Europe too.”

He was right. Some years back, the citizens of the Ivory Coast, the showcase of West Africa, hardly left their country which rather attracted immigrants from all over West Africa. Seydou told him why he was going and two Cameroonians behind them joined in the conversation.

“We’re footballers going to try our chances in Europe,” one of them said.

“Do you mean you’re going to play football there?” the Ivorian asked and they said yes.

“That sounds exciting,” Seydou said. “I’ve no choice. I’ll do anything that’ll make me money unless it was illegal or immoral.”

They laughed.

“We decided on this route after attempts to attract the attention of recruiters and to obtain visas in Yaounde had failed.”

Seydou wondered how the whole of the continent had come to such a mess.

The rising sun was beginning to spew heat. People took out food and ate a little of it in silence. The captain increased power. The boat plowed her nose through the angry water and Seydou clutched his cup of milk to steady it and braced himself against the increased pitch and the roll of the boat. The keel cutting through the aquamarine water sprayed salty water onto them. The sea reeked nauseatingly like a fish factory.

They cruised in heavy sea now. The boat gored through the tumbling waves which sometimes seemed to halt its movement momentarily. The more the rolling waves battled the boat the more a few men, many women and all the children felt nausea. The boat flew high with the waves and plummeted into the troughs. The horror of the sea which had gripped Seydou when they left port now turned into an exhilaration even though the tossing and the lifting and the descent filled him with some trepidation. On the vast ocean the boat seemed like a shack at the top of a huge volcanic mountain. The dormant mass could burst into life at any moment and blow the poor thing into smithereens. Allah became greater than Seydou had ever imagined Him. Really a human being was insignificant compared to the universe and its Maker.

Soon one of the skippers pointed to something far ahead and clutched his head. The other squinted into the distance and sighed. The passengers craned their necks and peered ahead too.

“What’s the matter?” Seydou asked but everybody was busy scanning the infinite distance.

When they got nearer, Seydou understood. The dream of some immigrants had ended in the sea. During crossing, people die either of thirst, hunger, or drowned when their boat capsized as with these people. Dots of  bodies danced on the tumbling water and the inflatable dinghy seesawed farther away. Seydou sighed deeply. He whispered some sura and rubbed his finger downwards over his face. Life is nothing but a mirage. May Allah have mercy.

Stories of such catastrophes at sea were rife in North Africa. Bodies reduced to skeletons have been found on the decks of rafts fifteen nautical miles off the coast of Lampedusa and as far away as Barbados in the Caribbean. Sometimes when the captain loses direction and food and water run out, the survivors throw the bodies of the unfortunate passengers overboard. Cold is another factor of mortality. When the sun descended behind the western horizon and its rays died over the surface of the rough sea, the cold pierced them like pins. The passengers fetched heavy clothing and cocooned themselves into them.

The weather got worse the next day with high winds. The engine which had been whining erratically in the night, suddenly sputtered and died out. Seydou took a look at the sea, all that expanse of tossing water around him, and his eyes widened. He wondered how deep it was here. Bottomless, it must be. He began to shiver. Why didn’t this happen somewhere near the coast? They may be able to swim to shore or be picked up by fishermen. He recalled from television news immigrants who had run into trouble just off the coasts and were rescued. He pitied them for not making it to Europe but now he knew they were rather lucky people. How was one to survive here? He peered around for any merchant ship or sea-going fishing vessels which often picked up distressed immigrants but he found only water within a circular horizon covered with a powder blue sky.

The captain and his assistant got to work. Everybody prayed hard. Most of the men tried to appear stoic; fright was clearly written into the haunted looks of the women and children. While the captains troubleshooted the engine the boat pitched and tossed wildly. Seydou prayed the waves didn’t carry them deeper into sea. He wished they would blow them to shore as it did bloated bodies. But where was shore and how far was it?

“We’ve found the failure,” the captain announced and everybody cheered.

The passengers watched them tinkering with the machine and soon the fault was repaired and they cheered wildly when the engine coughed into life again. The elderly captain showed all his big, strong teeth. The North Africans burst into a song of joy, clapping hands. The women ululated. Seydou sighed and wished no mishap will happen again.

By the evening, some of the children became sluggish and could only whimper faintly because of the difficult crossing and the erratic feeding and the lack of enough potable water. And in the night the boat was caught in a storm, the worst cause of sinking. Even the captain shook his head. He cut off power as the mad waves tossed, heaved, lashed, spun, and squeezed the small craft. Seydou knew it was finished now. Did this happen to everybody? How could his parents know he was dead? He began to snivel, burying his face in the sleeves of his overcoat. Many people felt queasy now and vomited freely. Hours later the yowling over the sea ceased and it became calmer than a lake. The captain rubbed his palms three times down his long, sunburnt face and continued the journey. Seydou again confided his fate to Allah.

In the night Seydou could hardly close his eyes. The engine whined; the erratic movement of the boat did not reassure him. They sang to keep awake and to boost their morale. On the third day, a-year-old boy became frail and two young girls appeared drained of strength. Shortly before noon the boy kept his eyes closed and breathed spasmodically. Then he showed no signs of life. The mother yelled his name. The parents turned him this way and that way. Then they shook their heads. The mother clutched the body and squalled over it, screeching boy’s name. The father tore the body from the mother’s clutches, tossed it out to sea and crumpled in tears. The others tapped him gently on the back. Seydou had yanked his head aside in order not to witness the sea swallowing the body. Yet the image impinged on his mind and refused to go away. The parents of the girls stared with compassion at their daughters who lost energy with the passing hours until at night, they also had to be flung overboard by their parents in despair. Seydou shivered. Never had he imagined he would witness these scenes.

“We’re getting close to Pantelleria,” the younger captain announced by the middle of the fourth day.

The passengers cheered wildly and gave each other high fives. Some thumbed the skippers who grinned widely, the triangular marks around their eyes deepening.

“But there’re four dangers,” the captain announced and the smile snapped out of the passengers’ faces.

“The first is the rocky and jagged nature of the coasts of Pantelleria,” he said. “Shipwrecks on the reefs are common.” He steered the craft now while staring widely about for the Italian coast guards,--the second danger. When he was assured they didn’t run that danger, he now approached the coast cautiously, skirting the ridges of clumps of coral near to the surface of the sea. Seydou stared at those sharp teeth which could rip a ship’s keel like a new blade slashing through a sheet of paper. Others sighed but he still held his breath when they slid through a gap in the reefs: it wasn’t uncommon for the waves to ram boats against the rocks which splinter them into pieces like dried wood whacked against a boulder.

The passengers had contributed $20 each for the captain so that he did not force them to swim ashore. Seydou murmured.

An Algerian beside him shook his head. “Many people, especially those who couldn’t swim, simply sank to the bottom with their dreams. Some crew members even stabbed passengers or threw them overboard when they refused to disembark way from the coast because they couldn’t swim. This is a kind pilot.”

Seydou felt grateful; he hated why they should be made to brave such dangers simply for a little decent living.

When Seydou waded out of the shallow water and set foot on dry land on the island of Pantelleria, only one thing was uppermost in his mind:  disappear as quickly as possible from the shore. For the fourth danger was to be picked up by the police. Deportation was automatic. He must also quickly look for the train station and go north to Sicily. Meanwhile it was everyone for themselves as individually or by affinity people scuttled all over. Seydou felt sorry for the weak women and especially for parents whose children had gotten sick at sea. But was there time for empathy?

Their clothes still wet from wading to shore and clinging to their emaciated bodies, Seydou and six other Sub-Saharan Africans roamed along the sides of the street which curved round the island. Using French, English, and some Italian, they asked for the train station. People raised their eyebrows at them. Unknown to them, no trains ran in the small Italian islands like Pantelleria. Meanwhile they continued to ask their way to a hypothetical station.

What Seydou and his fellow travellers also ignored was that the more they went round looking for a train to safety, the more locals spotted them and informed the police. Seydou and his friends were heading towards the center of the island when they heard sirens wailing in their direction and feverishly looked for a place to hide. The North Africans, less numerous, were nowhere to be found. The dozen police vans had hardly screeched to a halt beside them when burly policemen stepped out and bounded after them.

Seydou whimpered as the police car whisked them to a reception center. There their identities were taken. The police next threw them into detention for two weeks awaiting expulsion back to the last country of departure. Seydou heard some people managed to escape during custody but wondered how they did it and if he should, where he could go to.

So far as he was not going to be sent home, Seydou stopped worrying and recovered his health through the medical care offered at the center. He was also putting on more weight than he had lost before and during the crossing to Pantelleria.

In the next few days, the Italian authorities subjected them to questioning and finally decided to expulse them. Seydou’s eyes widened but he did not give up hope. So far as they were not sending him back to Ouagadougou, he would come back to Europe. The short time Seydou had spent on Italian soil, even though behind bars, further convinced him that Europe was where life was. If he could live so well in captivity then what wouldn’t freedom offer him?

The Italians flew him and other immigrants back to Tunis. He had only $180 in his pocket. He booked into another cheap hotel. Then he clomped over to the agency and recounted his experience. The traffickers, who were not known to be compassionate, sympathized with him and offered him job as tout on commission basis. Seydou worked for three months and thought it was high time he tried his luck from Morocco. How else could he pay back and thank his mother for her sacrifice and the others who lent him money for the trip? Trying one’s luck once again was not a question of choice; it was like being ransomed at gun point. After all he was young and energetic and he needed to work and live. Where else to realize them than in Europe?

Seydou left Tunis one fine Sunday morning over the long Algerian coast and disembarked at the Algerian border town of Maghnia from where local guides led him and other immigrants through detours across the border to the Moroccan border town of Oujda for $100 per head. 

He had learnt that thousands of Sub-Saharan immigrants camped at Bel Younès, Gourougou and the university campus at Oujda. He would go to join those in the wooded hills of Gourougou facing the Spanish enclave of Melilla. There, one needed only to vault from the Moroccan to the Spanish side without crossing any sea. But the Moroccan soldiers, the barbed wires erected by the Spanish in 1990 and the Spanish guards constituted formidable obstacles. These obliged the immigrants to hide in the forest waiting for a hypothetical opportunity to rush across.

In the damp forest Seydou asked for citizens of his country and he was led to a pair called Hilaire Tapsoba and Issa Nebie. Hilaire had left Burkina Faso two years before through Niger, Libya, Algeria before landing in Morocco. Issa had travelled a year later through Ouagadougou, Niamey, Algiers, and Nador.

“How’s home?” they wanted to know.

“The same old story,” Seydou said. “Poverty, unemployment, misery, political scandals,... ”

Issa shook his head sadly. “It’s impossible to succeed in this impoverished continent, ” he lamented. “All’s rotten.”

“We’re well organized here,” Issa said. “Each nationality has its own chieftain and a council of chiefs. These two elect the supreme chief of the forest. You can’t live here without receiving the assent of the Burkinabe Chief.”

They passed by makeshift mosques. People nailing rough ladders, weaving coarse ropes and sculpting bludgeons in front of their tents answered their greetings gaily. Then they arrived at the chief’s tent.

“You’re welcome to the stepping-stone to Europe,” the Chief said. “All I ask of you is to respect our regulations.”

The Chief nodded to his linguist who read the bye laws and collected a tax of $50 from Seydou.

“Now you belong to the Burkinabe community of the Gourougou forest,” the Chief said. “Live here in peace.”

“The Chief didn’t mean make this forest your final destination,” Issa joked on their way back.

“Of course,” Seydou said.

“Fine,” Hilaire said. “Our objective is to go over there.” He pointed towards the Spanish territory. “A Malian friend of ours who had spent almost two years in this forest living like a rat is now somebody in Barcelona.”

Seydou felt something flutter in his chest. Europe pulled him like a strong magnet and his determination to overcome all obstacles and go there got heightened.

Life in the forest was hard. The immigrants huddled in tents in improvised camps without water nor electricity and lived by their wits. Some begged in town for something to eat and the most desperate rummaged for leftovers from dustbins. The nights were bitingly cold—although they went to sleep bundled up in warm clothes—and the days damp. Some occupants had developed skin diseases. Others had swollen feet and most looked emaciated. Nobody sought medical care.

With the passing days, the immigrants talked insistently about crossing over. Seydou told himself that Allah had brought him at the right time. One evening they decided to force their way. They waited till the Moroccan patrol guards had gone a little way ahead from the Rostrogordo check point in Moroccan territory. Then a thousand desperate people began throwing stones at them. Surprised and fearing for their lives, the soldiers scampered away. The immigrants surged towards the wall of the enclave which is completely surrounded with two metallic barriers, separated by a distance of five meters; the barriers standing three to five meters high with barbed wires running across the top. The immigrants ignored these hurdles as well as the observation posts, security cameras, and fibre optic probes with which the Spanish Civil Guard equipped the barriers.

Issa and Hilaire clambered over the first barrier and Seydou followed suit and they leapt over. Other people, ropes and ladders plopped in between the two barriers. Seydou picked up a ladder and propped it against the second barrier. The owner jostled him away. The immigrants worked feverishly to spring over the barriers before the alarm rang to alert the Spanish guards.

Seydou was clambering up a ladder when the alarm shrilled through the air. Defiant cries went up. In minutes the guards bounded towards them. They punched on the immigrants and tried to pin them to the ground. The immigrants bite them and clubbed them with bludgeons. The guards retreated.

Minutes later the Spanish guards returned and hurled tear gas at the enraged immigrants. The immigrants replied with stones. Warning shots burst from the Moroccans behind them and then from the Spanish before them. The immigrants forced on. Real bullets hurtled past now. The wounded and the dying bellowed. The immigrants who had gone over the wires hoisted their hands over their heads; Seydou slammed his fist into the top of the fence and like others between the wires plunged from the fence and scaled back to Moroccan territory to join the others and all bolted back into the dank forest.

“Should we give up so easily?” a former Rwandan soldier harangued them.

Seydou found himself rushing back to the barriers with hundreds of bellowing people. He had bandaged his palms which oozed with blood from the cut from the sharp wires. Issa and Hilaire were nowhere to be found. Have they died? Been wounded? Or managed to jump over? he wondered. During the dire attempt to enter the Spanish enclave, all his energy had been concentrated on going over the fence. This time the immigrants found the Moroccans and the Spanish ready for any eventuality. Bullets flew towards the immigrants as they rushed to the enclave. Somebody bellowed and fell at Seydou’s side. Seydou made an about-turn and bounded back into the forest.

Minutes later Seydou’s instincts told him that the Moroccan police will storm the Gourougou forest and flush out the immigrants and the events in the next few days proved him right.

Seydou had learnt in Tunis how some repatriated immigrants abandoned in the middle of the desert where goats scuffled for paper to chomp had died of thirst, hunger and cold. No, he wouldn’t perish in the desert and he couldn’t go back home empty handed which would be a humiliation not only for himself but for his family too. He must be gone, now.

From the Tétouan forests of northwestern Morocco where he had fled, Seydou learnt that the police arrested everybody in the Gourougou forest and expelled them by main force and dropped them in the Algerian desert. The lucky ones were picked up by Algerian police and transported in buses up to Tamanrasset prison, and then repatriated to the Nigérien border town of Assamaka.

In the next few weeks hundreds of illegal immigrants in and around Nador were rounded up by the Gendarmerie royale and the Forces Auxiliaires and expelled. Immigrants in the Tétouan forest feared their turn will be next.

The desire to force their way too to the other Spanish enclave of Ceuta got stronger the more that anxiety seized them. Any more time lost could be fatal. Two days later, under the cover of night, about five hundred illegal immigrants burst out of the forests and rattled and escaladed the Spanish double walls.

Transfixed by the unexpected sight the eyes of the Spanish Guardia Civil widened and their mouths fell open. Before they came out of their stupor, more than a hundred immigrants had swarmed the fence. Seydou’s not-yet-healed wounds opened and slowed his progress up a coarse rope lassoed over the wire fence. Cursing, he pitched down the fence and skitted back into the forest. Although disappointed for failing twice to cross into Spain, he thanked Allah for not being one of the half a dozen dead or the many arrested. He pushed deeper into the forest and waited anxiously for day to break.

The trunks of the trees could hardly be distinguished from the pervading darkness when Seydou left the forest and boarded a bus for Tangiers where he stayed indoors until the hunt for illegal immigrants died down. He asked from one restaurant to the other and got work for three months as a dishwasher in a small one belonging to a Moroccan who had spent years without papers in the southern French town of Marseilles. The restaurant owner accommodated Seydou in an outhouse to the restaurant already occupied by a Malian employee, Ousman.

They talked about crossing over.

“Be wary of some of the traffickers,” Ousman warned.

Seydou nodded.

“Had it not been for them I’d have been in Europe long ago,” he added bitterly and pinched his lips.

“What happened?”

Ousman sighed. “Twice they collected money from me to buy supplies only to disappear.”

Seydou whistled. He should really be careful.

“But I’m somewhat lucky not to be the hostage of traffickers who promise to cross people over to Europe and keep them for months in an apartment hired out to several immigrants for 200 euros a month per head.”

Now that Seydou had only a month to go on his contract, he and Ousman followed more closely events concerning immigrants, especially crossings. All that reached them was bad news.

The first one announced by the coast guards said they had intercepted a small wooden craft equipped with a 40 HP outboard motor carrying nine illegal Algerian immigrants between 19 and 35 years. They claimed to have paid 60,000 dinars (about 850 dollars) each for the trip.

The next two weeks the television showed the skeletal remains of sixteen illegal immigrants who had died while crossing from the beach of Zouara in Libya to Italy. The twenty survivors, rescued by Italian fishing boats off Lampedusa, had been flown by helicopters to hospital in Palermo in Sicily. The few survivors, many of whom were suffering from hypothermia, said their small boat was adrift for twenty days and for fifteen of them they had neither food nor water. Some were obliged to drink the salty sea water to quench their thirst.

A week later forty sub-Saharan illegal immigrants, including a dozen women and children, were saved off Boujdour in Western Sahara by Moroccan security forces who had sighted their drifting canoe. Barely three days later the wilaya or super governorat of Laâyoune, the county town of Western Sahara, announced the arrest of forty-five other Sub-Saharan immigrants attempting to cross to Europe. Although determined, Seydou began to wonder if he would ever have the opportunity to go across the 15-kilometer Straits of Gibraltar.

“Seydou! Seydou! Seydou!” Ousman called excitedly one evening on his return from town.

“What?” Seydou drawled, a little vexed.

“Some men are organising a boat trip across the Straits of Gibraltar,” he announced with a wide grin.

“Wow,” Seydou cried and they rushed to a  Moroccan organizer and paid $850 each for a place on an inflatable dinghy.

The twelve-meter boat left the Moroccan shore two days later without any navigational instrument. Despite the short distance Seydou was worried because the weather wasn’t so good. Besides, the captain said they had to take a detour to avoid Moroccan coast guards. Ousman, who couldn’t swim, kept staring at the water with wide eyes and whispering something. Seydou kept peeking at the hawser coiled on the deck.

The outboard engine had been laboring to push the dinghy for about fifteen miles. Then when the skipper altered course towards Spain the din rose in the engine and then ebbed. Fifteen minutes later the rough sea silenced it. Again? Seydou howled in his head. Why are the skippers so careless about their engines? The captain and his assistant fiddled with the engine for a long time. Then the captain straightened, sighed, and shook his head.     

“We can’t repair it,” he announced.

“It’s the end! It’s the end!” Seydou and the other passengers threw their hands over their heads and wailed.

Saltspray rendered the sea misty and one couldn’t see farther than a few meters. The boat began to drift and Seydou wondered if he was going to be one of the numerous anonymous dead. For the first time he regretted for his desire to illegally enter Europe. He was furious against the sea, enraged against the organizers, incensed against the captain, mad against African leaders, seething against poverty, angry against the world but doused the idea to be vexed against his parents for bringing him into such a cruel world. Seydou saw Ousman glare at the heaving water around them, dropped his head into his palm and rocked with tears like a lost child. Some passengers appeared wide-eyed and only a few kept their calm. But Seydou knew that like him everybody dreaded drowning in the sea and hoped for a miraculous rescue. Instead they drifted till night came. The waves began to tower higher and pitched the craft. They clutched to the dinghy for dear life. Ousman had been shaking like a leaf in a storm. Suddenly he cried and they heard a splash.

“Ousman!” Seydou cried. He turned madly, rocking the boat. The others hollered at him. “Capitaine, fais quelque chose!” Seydou hollered.

“Quoi, par exemple? ” the captain asked quietly, anger perceptible in his voice.

Seydou slammed down his fist and stared where Ousman had tumbled into the water. Although the night was a bit clear, one couldn’t see far. Seydou sighed loudly, his chest heaving with pain.

The next evening, the waves became higher and more tumultuous. Nobody talked to the other. Each grappled with their own thoughts.

Night soon came, and clearer than the day before; the waves pounded the dinghy, threatening to overturn it. Seydou and the others clutched the side of the small boat, their hearts beating wildly. High waves pounded the deck now. Soon the passengers found themselves knee-deep in chilly water. The cold, which had been entering them through the wind, now essentially crept up their bodies from the legs. A huge roaring wave dashed towards the hysterical passengers perched precariously on the bobbing boat and crashed into the larboard. Seydou reached for the hawser. The wave heaved the boat high onto its crest, threatening to hurl the screeching passengers overboard, and then plunged it into a trough. The craft was still tilted towards the bow when a second wave smashed into it, overturning it and flinging the passengers into the boiling sea.

When he surfaced gasping for breath, Seydou found himself still grasping the hawser. He glimpsed people thrashing in the frothing water, hollering; some surfaced and others went down never to appear again. Two people swam away from the boat. Why had he been so stubborn to cross over to Europe to suffer this fate? the thought flitted through his mind. He cursed his situation back home which, had it not been so bleak, wouldn’t have landed him in this raging water threatening to suck him into its bottomless depths. He didn’t notice the few others gripping the boat. The night wind whipped them, numbing them, freezing them. Several times Seydou thought he had let go of the rope and seized with panic came back to himself only to find his fingers closed tightly around the rope. They bobbed in the sea, the waves throwing them about until day broke.

Slowly the sun came out and the water began to warm up. Three other passengers clung to the dinghy. Seydou found himself sobbing and pining for rescue. He believed he couldn’t survive another night.

Hunger and thirst began to weaken Seydou; he thought he couldn’t keep on longer than a few hours. He kept his eyes tightly closed and tried to pray. He found his mind blank instead. Now Seydou knew it was his fate to die in the sea. Many times fatigue made him seem like letting go of the rope but strangely he clamped at it. He shut his eyes and snapped the danger from his mind. Hours later he heard his fellow passengers crying as if for help. Seydou opened his eyes to see a lifeboat approaching them. He began to wave feverishly too, bellowing with the others: “Save us! Save us! Save us!”

Anyone who had felt his kidney bursting with urine but had contained it knows how difficult it is to do so once one approaches the WC. Seydou felt his fingers uncurling around the rope and he began to sink. He felt somebody grab him by the collar of his overcoat. “Merci! Merci!” he whispered and closed his eyes as the trawler men fished him out of the water. Then all went blank.

Alerted, the Spanish authorities airlifted the survivors to the port city of Algecira. When he woke up in the hospital, Seydou felt thankful. Learning that he was on European soil his mind was taken over by a single obsession:  apply for political asylum. But for the moment he shook uncontrollably and could hardly lift himself up.

“Are the other survivors okay?” he asked a nurse in the evening.

She nodded and forced a smile. Later, Seydou learnt that two of the survivors were in coma and one had died immediately on admission. Two days later one of the two in coma also succumbed. Seydou counted himself lucky. Not only lucky to be alive but above all lucky to be on Spanish soil.

A week later, when Seydou had been walking around for some days, a police car whisked him and the other survivor to a reception center. There their identities were taken and they were allowed to walk about. North and South Saharan illegal immigrants filled the center. While most had hopes of being allowed to stay, a few schemed to escape into town and disappear eleswhere into Spain or other parts of Europe.

They got a warm bed and the food was the tastiest Seydou has ever eaten. Only they felt cramped in the rooms yet Seydou wondered why some were so feverish to abscond from the camp. Now that he was in Europe he threw away his cares and joined the others to play football most of the time. Life was beginning to be fun and Seydou often got lost in reverie of Europe.

A few days later the police took some of them to their headquarters.

“If you cooperate with us you’d remain in Spain,” a plain-clothes man promised.

Seydou knew it was dangerous to tell the police the whole truth; he fantasized answers in preparation for political asylum.

“Which routes did you take?”

“The Sahara and Morocco,” he said.

“Who funded you?”

“I worked my way.”

“Who are the smugglers in North Africa and Europe?”

“We’ve contacts only with their intermediaries.”

“And the Africans?”

“Don’t know any.”

The policeman sighed.

The police whisked them back to the camp. The others trooped around them and wanted to know what had transpired. Seydou and his colleagues told them. They suspected deportation. There’s nothing an immigrant dreads more than that. Restlessness seized the detainees.

A week later Seydou was woken up in the morning and asked to pack his personal effects.

“Are we going to be allowed to stay in Spain and work?” someone asked the policemen as they strode down the corridor to the exit.

Smiling, the policeman nodded. The immigrants cheered and climbed happily onto the bus. But when taken to the airport, they gaped at each other.

“You’re going to be transferred to Malaga where there’s a lot of work,” the police chief explained.

They cheered and gave each other high fives. But as the hours passed by they stared at each other with furrowed brows. The flight was taking too long, and they guessed the Spanish might have tricked them. Their eyes widened and they threw their hands over their heads when they came out of the plane and saw policemen with arabic features. They had been repatriated to North Africa. Seydou found himself in Rabat, the Moroccan capital. He wept uncontrollably but the Moroccan security personnel shoved them into busses which rumbled them away.

Now, he had nothing in his pocket. Even if he was released by the Moroccan police—which he doubted—he would find it difficult to survive. But should he have his chance he would renter Europe, this time through a West African country.

“Where did you enter Morocco from?” the police asked him the next day.

Seydou presumed he would be deported where he came from. The longer and riskier maritime route to the Canary Islands from West Africa had become increasingly popular after the points from North Africa had been cut off by increased patrols.

“Mauritania, ” Seydou said.

The next day, the police hauled Seydou and other illegal immigrants in buses to the Western Saharan border town of Galtat Zemmour from where they crossed over with a lot of difficulty to the Mauritaian border post of Bîr Moghreïn with the help of a black Mauritanian called Mohammed, himself one of the deportees. Mohammed suggested they work in the fishing industry to make money for the trip from Nouadhibou—a port city  470 kilometers north of Nouakchott on the extreme northwestern edge of Mauritania—to the Canary Islands.

For three days they bumped over 500 kilometers of desert land in a large stuffy van which went round the eastern and the southern borders of Western Sahara to arrive in Nouadhibou. The city teemed with thousands of illegal immigrants waiting for a chance to go to the Canary Islands.

Mohammed and Seydou found work as deckhands on a fishing trawler. Anytime they went out to sea, Mohammed and Seydou joked that they were on a training period for the crossing to the Canary Islands.

The work on the trawler was hard, the food poor and the pay scanty. At times Seydou resented the Mauritanians for giving him the dirtiest and the hardest chores.

“Plus vite! Plus vite!” they shouted at him to work quicker, calling him slave; but he had no choice; this was the price to pay for the final journey to Europe. Mohammed did not receive any better treatment. Seydou wondered why light-skinned people loathed dark-skinned ones and why the dark color had become such a bane for his kind.

They would go to sea and after weeks bring back the catch. Seydou began to like the life on a boat and wondered why he had hated the sea. At shore Seydou learnt that the immigration mafia, whose business dwindled because of the increased police surveillance of North African shores, were now using West African countries such as Sierra Leone, Guinea-Conakry, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, and to a lesser extent Mauritanian for crossings to Europe.

But as usual tragic stories of crossings also kept reaching Nouadhibou. Despite these, the gain, Seydou told himself, was worth the risk. In Tenerife, where banana fields stretch far to the horizon, he learnt there was plenty of work. Even if he didn’t find work in the fields, he could do so on one of the many construction sites or on a fishing trawler. In Spain, he was told, there was work to be had. If he could get a job, he thought, he could help his family with money. Maybe study too.

One evening the television announced that thirteen bodies of Moroccans had been found on the coast of Boujdour. The others were reported missing.

Thirty-one Sub-Saharan immigrants were found dead a week later, north of El-Ayoun, county town of Western Sahara, when their boat capsized.

Bad climatic conditions were blamed for these accidents. All the same, in the following weeks, canoe loads continued to head for the Canary Islands.

“A friend informed me that some boatmen are going on a fishing boat to the Canary Islands in the week,” Mohammed informed Seydou when they had worked for a few months.

They gaped at each other. Neither Seydou nor Mohammed had the $600 to pay the bargain fare. In the next few days Mohammed’s family in Nouakchott got together and sent him the money. Spurred, Seydou contacted acquaintances in Europe for 100 euros each which five of them sent through Western Union. He added these to his savings of $150.

They paid the fare one sweltering evening.

“We need spiritual preparations before setting off,” Mohammed suggested.

They consulted a black Mauritanian marabout. The clairvoyant heaped cowries on a mat and asked them in turns to scoop handfuls. These he counted in twos and arranged the remaining piece or two in rows. Then he read the combinations.

“The conditions for the trip are favorable,” he said. “I’ll pray for you while you’re at sea.”

Seydou and Mohammed left the marabout in high spirits. As directed by him they drank black potions and took ritual baths at three successive midnights. The following days they went to the central mosque to give alms of clothes, food, and money.

Before dawn one cold Sunday morning Seydou and Mohammed climbed aboard the traffickers’ fishing boat and they soon hit the high seas. Seydou implored Allah to make this his last attempt to enter Europe. When day broke, Seydou looked around him and estimated the number of passengers to be almost two hundred. Some people went with their wives and children.

They sat shoulder to shoulder in the bow covered with tents fluttering in the wind. Behind them provisions of fuel, water, rice, dried fish, onions, and biscuits were stored in an ice box for the 1,000 km journey across the Atlantic Ocean to the Canary Islands which they hoped to reach in five to twelve days or even more, depending on weather conditions. Before them was a space for cooking. The fisherman skipper squinted straight ahead.

The sea was a placid green sheet. The boat slid effortlessly along. Seydou interpreted this as a good sign. But soon the sea became choppy. In the night they prayed for safety and sang to keep their spirits up. A few times they had to remain still and try to sleep. Seydou found this difficult because of the tossing waves and the salt spray which burnt their eyes, stung their faces, and lacerated their lips.

After four days of calm and turbulent sailing they came alongside Dahkla in Western Sahara. Now gale winds and rough seas met them and the boat rocked and pitched. Giant waves three meters high lashed against the boat. Seydou shivered. This delayed their progression for about two days and their food and water, calculated to last two weeks, had already gone half-way. They thrust through the high sea and it was not long after that they saw three bodies dangling on the water. Everybody prayed for safety. Seydou shrugged as the captain swung the boat towards the coast to avoid the sight of any more bodies but not too close to the land to be sighted by the Moroccan coastal patrol.

On the ninth day, when they were not far from Boujdour, they ran into bad weather again. Giant waves rose and tumbled all around. Some banged the top of the boat with a boom. That obliged the captain to reduce power and later to veer towards the Moroccan coast.

“If this should continue,” the captain said, “we’d be forced to dock in Morocco to save our lives.”

God forbid, Seydou said to himself. Everybody prayed for the contrary.

The wind freshened after some time and the skipper altered course into the sea again, cruising away from La’youn.

Soon they spotted a cargo ship in the distance and the captain swerved away from it. Since canoes, dinghies, and boats of illegal immigrants began to capsize on the way to the Canary Islands, big ships often approached such small boats which appeared to have problems to offer them help or to inform the Moroccan or Spanish authorities to rescue them. That also meant the end of the journey. On such occasions they would appreciate help but now they had to shun it.

Two weeks had passed and they were now barely off the coast of Tarfaya in the south of Morocco. They had been rationing food and water since three days and now ate and drank once a day and everybody was beginning to feel hunger and especially thirst.

“Anyone who dies will immediately go overboard,” warned the captain, waving into the sea.

The passengers grumbled and squeezed their faces. The captain shrugged.

But soon they were smiling as they approached the island of Fuerteventura. Not long after their grins snapped out when a speed boat tore through the water towards them. The Spanish authorities intercepted the boat and directed it to port.

Seydou and the passengers went ashore under guard, dehydrated and exhausted. Bathers on the beach gawked at them. Everything reeled as Seydou went on his knees and kissed the soil. Their hope, on landing here was to be transferred to continental Spain. The healthy immigrants clambered into police cars and six passengers who showed serious signs of hypothermia were rushed to hospital.

The police drove Seydou and his friends to the La Esperanza center where they were taken charge of like thousands others already there. Each day hundreds of new immigrants arrived.

“We ordinary Spanish wish you Africans could stay here and help us catch up economically, the way Italy did using illegal migrants,” a social worker told Seydou and some friends one morning.

“We’ve no identity documents, we’d be allowed to stay, wouldn’t we?” a Senegalese asked.

The Spanish shrugged. “I don’t decide,” he said. “That’s for the police.” Then he advised them that should they be released, they must work honestly and not get involved in any shady deals.

Seydou and his friends thanked him and the hope of staying in Europe burned stronger in their hearts.

As the days passed the immigrants stuck more to the radio. The news that the Spanish authorities were negotiating with West African governments for the repatriation of the immigrants in the Canary Islands made them gnash their teeth.

“These callous governments can’t provide for us and when we manage to come where life is they scheme to have us repatriated to suffer,” a Senegalese complained bitterly. “They’ll learn the lesson when crime increases.”

“Would they care?” another Senegalese said. “As for me I’ll go into farming if they send me back. I wouldn’t want to end up in jail.”

“What kind of governments are these?” Mauritanians and Senegalese wondered when in the following week their governments agreed with Europe for joint patrols of their maritime borders. Spanish authorities were also keeping watch over the ports of West Africa where the immigrants departed from. Now that the points to paradise were being sealed, how could they come back should they be repatriated, Seydou wondered.

Two weeks later helicopters transferred the immigrants to Gran Canaria. From there chartered planes flew them back to their departure points.

When the Mauritanian police released him Seydou decided to go to his businessman uncle in Lome. Distant relatives helping in his electronic merchandise shop lived in his house like princes. Often they accompanied him to Dubai where he buys the items. From Dubai, couldn’t one easily enter Europe?

Seydou boarded a coach headed for Dakar. In three days he hoped to be in Lome.

posted 7 September 2007

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

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What This Cruel War Was Over

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By Chandra Manning

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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