“A tragedy of epic proportions” — that’s how the International Organization for Migration describes what’s been happening to the migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean this year. On the African continent, while instability and economic stagnation have driven thousands of young people to leave home, chaos in Libya has made it easier for migrants to get access to the Mediterranean coast.
The number of people making this risky sea crossing reached an all-time high last year: by UNHCR estimates, 219000 arrived on the shores of southern Europe in 2014, ten times more than in 2012. So far this year, thousands of others have died in the attempt (3500, or one every two hours, according to figures cited in Le Monde).
What lands do they leave behind to reach these perilous shores? Their most common countries of origin are as far east as Afghanistan, and as far west as Senegal. Many are zones of current conflict, and most are located in the Muslim world. Among the origin countries of migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean in the first quarter of this year (see chart below), Mali is ranked #8. A dozen survivors from the latest shipwreck, and at least 50 dead, were Malians.
Reading about the recent drama on the Mediterranean, as Italian and Maltese sailors still searched for victims of the latest boat sinking with unknown hundreds feared drowned, I remembered a friend of mine whom I’ll call Lamine.
I met Lamine nearly four years ago in Bamako, where he was working as a security guard. Lamine had never gone to school, but had learned to speak French and even acquired a good command of English. He projected dignity despite the threadbare uniform that hung over his spare frame. He was easy to talk to and loved to joke with me in Bamanan. He flashed a warm smile whenever I saw him at work. Occasionally we would visit each other at home. After I left Mali in 2012, we kept in touch via occasional e-mails and phone calls.
In 2013 Lamine quit his job. Even after working six days a week for five years, he earned only the equivalent of $100 a month from the multinational company he worked for — not starvation wages by Malian standards, but nowhere near enough to permit him to marry and start a family. Pushing 40, he saw no prospects for advancement as a security guard and was anxious to seek his fortune elsewhere. He sold the old laptop I’d given him and invested the proceeds in a restaurant, pictured below. (I didn’t ask Lamine for the naming rights; the name was all his idea.)
For a while his prospects seemed to improve: he got engaged to the sister of a friend, and was happy with his new business. But he also suffered setbacks. Shortly after Lamine opened his restaurant, a thief stole his motorcycle. He couldn’t use an expensive coffee machine he’d purchased because of electricity problems. His engagement was called off at the request of his fiancee’s family, and he could not get back the bride wealth he had already paid worth more than $300.
“When I first opened my restaurant, people would come; now I can’t make 5000 francs” [~$10], he told me on the phone. Life in Bamako had become too expensive, and he was frustrated with the government’s inability to address the needs of ordinary people like himself. Kɛyɔrɔ te mɔgɔ la, bɔyɔrɔ te mɔgɔ la, he complained in Bamanan — “Nothing to do, no way out.” He got engaged to another woman, and needed another $300 for the bride wealth, plus more for the anticipated wedding expenses.
Last year he started talking about emigrating. “I want to leave because there is nothing here. I want to find another country where I can have some money. I’m tired of asking others for help,” he said. He thought about applying for a US visa. He thought about Equatorial Guinea, where he knew someone who had apparently made good money. In the end he decided on Libya, where a friend was working as a carpenter. I warned him not to go. I told him what I’d heard about political instability, armed violence and exploitation of African migrants there. None of it mattered: Lamine bought a bus ticket to Niger, and from there made his way north across the Sahara.
It was a few weeks before I heard from him again. He had joined his carpenter friend on the outskirts of Tripoli. Life wasn’t bad, he said, but there wasn’t much to do after working hours. “When we leave the workplace, we can only stay at home. There is nowhere else to spend our time. When you look at a woman, she will ask you why you’re looking at her. Women talk too much here,” he grumbled. Plus, Libyan men were always armed. One might hire you for a job, then when it’s done take out his gun and refuse to pay. Often when Lamine prayed, he told me, he asked God to grant him good luck to make it back to Bamako. But first he had to earn some money. He couldn’t return home empty-handed. “Stay safe,” I told him, realizing just how empty those words must have sounded to him.
Several weeks went by. I started reading about more and more shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea, more and more African lives snuffed out in the failed attempt to reach a European promised land. “Hello Lamine,” I texted him last weekend as footage of the search for survivors from a sunken fishing boat played on my computer monitor. “I read news about Africans who left Libya and died in the ocean. I hope U are OK. Please never get on a boat to Italy.” I got no answer.
Days passed, and I began to worry. Could Lamine’s despair over his blocked aspirations back home have led him to try the dangerous crossing into Europe? Could he have become one of the victims, another undocumented body bobbing in the waves? If he had, would anyone ever know what had happened to him?
Finally I received a text message: Lamine was still in Libya. “Hello my best friend i saw your message,” he wrote. “i’m well here and i will never try to do it.when I leve here it will be on mali thanks indeed.”
Lamine’s story illuminates a key dynamic weaving together marriage, migration, and the postcolonial Malian state. There are few good options for Malian men like him who have reaped no benefits from the state, who had no opportunity for education, who despite their industry and natural talents inhabit the margins (see Alcinda Honwana on African youth and “waithood”). To become full-fledged adults and worthy members of society, they must marry and establish their own households, but they need money to do so. Many see no hope of realizing their dreams without undertaking a dangerous journey abroad, where they imagine money will be easier to come by. Others join Islamic fundamentalist movements at home, determined to use piety to gain the respect denied them by poverty. Whoever figures out how to remove obstacles to jural adulthood for impoverished men across the Muslim world will strike a bigger blow against religious extremism than all the Predator drones the Pentagon can buy.
In some respects, Lamine has been lucky thus far. He has his health, and a modest short- term job. Inshallah, as he puts it, soon he will head south with a wallet full of dinars. Inshallah, he will not be robbed of his earnings before arriving home. Inshallah, he will be able to find a place for himself in his native land.
God willing, Lamine. Stay safe.
Postscript, 28 April: See Adam Nossiter’s story “African Leaders Are Mute, Even as their People Die at Sea” in today’s New York Times.
Postscript, 3 May: This post has been translated into French and posted on the website of the Association Malienne des Expulsés. Thanks to J-J Méric for the translation.
Also, see the opinion piece by Bamako-based journalist Alex Duval Smith entitled “Guilt-tripping Europeans won’t help drowning migrants” (The Guardian, 23 April).
Postscript, 1 July: Lamine returned home to Bamako yesterday. He’s very happy to be back. Over the phone he told me that he was afraid in the Sahara — many people died along the way — but once he got to Niger his convoy was able to travel with a French army escort, and they were safe from that point. From Niger he passed through Burkina Faso before crossing into Mali near Sikasso. He describes life in Libya as “very, very dangerous.” When I next see him in Bamako, he says, he has many stories to tell me about the place.
Postscript, 18 May 2016: An official with the Ministere des Maliens de l’Exterieure estimates that 376 Malians drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015.