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By Unoma N. Azuah

Friday, May23, 2014.


Editor's note: You can also read Part 4 of this story at this link - http://thenewblackmagazine.com/view.aspx?index=3299

A few hours into the night ride, a grinding sound woke me up from sleep. Our bus had developed a problem. It clattered to a stop and we were all asked to alight from the bus. It was pitch-black and I shivered lightly. Perhaps, it was a shudder of fear or from the cool temperature. It was surprising that the atmosphere was cool when it was blistering hot a few hours ago. Mothers rushed to the edge of the sand dunes, spread their wraps and laid their babies. Some sat on the sand, while others stood and lingered around the road, but moved away when they saw the bright lights of approaching solitary cars or trucks.  After making a few frantic calls, the two drivers and their assistants stayed inside the bus and slept. It was not quite long after I sat on the sand, I felt a midge sting; it felt like a sting of a red ant. Afraid to be beaten again, I stood up. When I got tired of standing, I laid my bag on the sand and sat on it. We were informed that we wouldn’t be able to go any further until we could get help at dawn. So many thoughts ran through my mind. What if a desert hyena came after us? What if bandits attacked us? I waved the thoughts away but for some reason, the darkness was threatening. For no reason, I found myself sobbing.  It didn’t last for more than thirty minutes before I started nodding off in sleep. I just had to force myself to sit on the sand, with my legs pulled up to support my head. It took day light too long to arrive. It was the sound of the drivers banging away at the bus that woke me. They fixed it themselves. The problem was the throttle.

The roads were constantly going uphill; it became quite obvious that we were climbing a high terrain. When we eventually seemed to have leveled out on flat scenery, it was littered with corpses of dead bloated animals. There were a million plastic bags floating all over. It was a surreal scene. It was either that environmental sanitation was not taken seriously or the floating debris came flowing from afar to concentrate at a particular plain. The dead animals might have strayed or wandered off to their deaths.  A few hundred miles into our drive, we got to a customs post. Two cruel looking Arab men with rifles waved at our bus to stop. One came into the bus and looked at our faces and then at the corners of our seats as if we might have something hidden at the corners. Another came in and asked us where we were coming from. The driver responded for us.  They didn’t take much of our time and we were on our way again. Between reading, watching sand dunes and sand hills, I dozed most of the time. I did grab my water intermittently. Before I knew it nightfall came. It was a relief to finally pull into Nouakchott.  It had a city feel to it, but it was nothing like Lagos. It looked more like a small part of Lagos, say Yaba. Passengers were eager to step out. The Ghanaian female baker gave us her number and told us to call when we were settled. She was willing to show us around town. I was not sure that we were going to take that offer. It would have been nice to be shown around town, but our eyes were towards the Western Sahara. We hugged and said our goodbyes.

We waved down a taxi and headed to the Catholic mission in the heart of town. The parish priest there was the friend of our priest friend in Nouadhibou. He was expecting us. When our taxi pulled up to the gate, the walls of the parish was towering. An elderly dark skinned man opened the gate and told us that the priest had been expecting us. He was not around; he was conducting mass. We were showed to our room among the long lined house of guest rooms. It was a neat and cozy room. We hurriedly took a shower and were directed to the kitchen where a meal was already waiting for us.  When the priest showed up in the morning, he was quite pleasant and inquired about our long trip. He said he came in late because of errands and parish visits, so he didn’t want to disturb us. I would have mistaken him for a Nigerian but he said he was from some country in West Africa, Gambia, I think he said. He couldn’t have breakfast with us because he had to hurry to another mission.  At the dining table for breakfast, a young handsome looking dark skinned young man served us. He spoke little English but had fluent French.

After a sumptuous breakfast of French bread, tea, eggs and fruits, we were told that buses to Nourdhibou didn’t leave on that day. So, we decided to explore the biggest market in the city. I could have mistaken the market for Tejuosho market except that there were more Arabs there than in Lagos. The people were either dark skinned or fair skinned with curly hair. As we got out of the taxi, we were attracted by a pile of beautiful bright fabric. We walked up to the man selling them and started to ask for price, all in the French we knew.  We didn’t quite conclude and another pile of clothing called our attention. Before we could get to it an average height Arab man walked towards us. He spoke English. It was as if he imposed it upon us to be our escort. He took us around different stores, advised us on what to get and what not to get and took us to the stores he considered the best. I kept wondering why he was so generous with his time. I couldn’t guess because his assistance didn’t end there. When we ran out of money and needed an ATM, he took us to almost all the banks close to the market. He must have spent close to four hours with us; trying to make sure we found an ATM that could accept a visa card. It was an ordeal but he stuck with us throughout: a priceless side to the Mauritania hospitality. It was later that I discovered that he was a boss with his own stores. He liked helping tourists, while his boys tended to his stores.

When we got back to the market, we were acting like kids in a toy store. There was so much to choose from. In the middle of haggling over the price of a tunic outfit, the man who was showing us the different colors to choose from, abandoned us and his store and took off. I thought a fire had broken out somewhere and he was running to someone’s rescue until I heard the prayer cry from a nearby Muezzin. The market was like an abandoned homestead. Nobody tended to the stores. Apparently, they had no cases of theft.  We waited till we were done, then concluded our transactions. We lingered and walked through a number of jewelry and leather slip-on stalls before heading back to the Catholic parish. The kitchen help had prepared and served our lunch. It started to feel like a real vacation. A little bit before evening approached we decided to look around and try out the restaurants. There was nothing close to a Nigerian restaurant, so we settled for a French-Morocco restaurant. The owner was a French lady and the items in the menu were quite pricey. It might have been worth it when I considered the well-dressed black young men hovering over us for every need we had, from scooping to taking away our used glasses. They might as well have fed us.

On our way back to the parish, we stumbled upon what we’d call a juju object. It was bigger than any juju object I had ever seen. It looked like a humongous animal trap, cluttered with cowries, palm oil, feathers but I couldn’t keep looking to see all the objects attached or poured on it.  I hurried away from it but my travel mate had the nerve to take a picture of it. Just before we opened the gate of the parish to enter, I saw an average height dark-skinned young lady hawking T-shirts. She looked so much like, Kike, a friend of mine in Lagos. I was almost sure she was a Nigerian.  We exchanged cursory glances and moved on.


Trapped in the fringes of their dreams: Nourdhibou.

Early the next day, we were on our way to Nourdhibou. The mini bus was full to the brim but not as packed as the long buses we had taken previously. It was to be a seven hour drive to our destination. We moved across the same terrain, the same landscape we had seen for hours and days.  A few hours into the drive, the driver pulls away from the road and swings into the sandy desert land. I looked around the faces of the other passengers, everything seemed calm until after about a half a mile away from the main road, he stopped and hopped out of the bus. The passenger’s side of the door was flung open and everyone seemed to be hurrying out and running deeper into the desert.  My first thought was, bandits! It had to be arm-robbers.  I ran even faster. They were mostly just men running, though there was only one other woman and my travel partner, in the bus. I was the only woman running with the men. One of the men slowed his pace and tried to stop me by waving angrily at me. I ignored him and continued scampering along.

Suddenly, they all started kneeling down.  I stood transfixed. It was their prayer time. Embarrassed, I sauntered back to the bus. It was not long; they were done and returned to the bus. We pulled off. The pulling in and out of desert sands for prayers became a routine I got used to. They must have prayed more than a dozen times in that singular journey.  As if that was not enough, a loquacious Arab man sitting next to us in the bus wouldn’t stop talking. He shared that his father was from Mauritania and his mother from Morocco. As a professional musician, he played a special musical instrument with a contemporary Arab band and they traveled around Europe most of the time.  He went on to say that he dreaded dating European women because they were needy and clingy. They fall in love too hard and they wouldn’t share their men. His last affair with a European woman was abandoned in the middle of winter because the lady wanted him just for herself. She had tried to convince him to divorce his wives. All she talked about was love.  The man went on and on. His two wives lived together in a two storey building. One lived below and the other on top. He was quiet for a few minutes until we passed a herd of camels sashaying through the desert.   He looked at them, smiled and said, “You ladies should try camel milk. It’s an Aphrodisiac. Men can go days on end once they drink camel milk.” He ended with a wide grin. We thanked him for the enlightening information, but he offered to give us our first taste of camel milk. We just ignored him since we couldn’t muster up the nerve to tell him to shut up!


 A few hours later, he started snoring. Another passenger in the bus asked us where we were coming from. When we told him, he shared that he had been to Lagos for a non-governmental organization (NGO) workshop. He worked with NGOS around West and North Africa. We were to call him as soon as we got to Nourdhibou because he had offered to show us around.  He could have passed for an average West African man, but he said he was from Mauritania. Nightfall came and we decided to close our eyes and sleep, since there was not much to be seen or admired in the desert. The nap was, however, interrupted when we were stopped by screams and threats.  The driver had sped past a customs post.  He reversed and acted as if he didn’t realize that he had to stop at the post. We pulled into their vicinity; they searched our belongings and then marched us into their office. Everybody else was cleared quickly except for us, the Nigerians. Inside their tiny office were a stack of photo albums. One after the other, we were queried. When it was my turn, they flashed their torch-lights into my face and pointed at the pictures of run-away women in their tattered albums, then asked if it was me. One of the women was older and had only one eye. Yet, they repeatedly asked if that was me. I didn’t want to be rude, so I kept saying “non!”  I don’t think it was French they spoke; it was not English either.  They told the NGO man who spoke fluent English to let us know that it is women like us that run away and become prostitutes. We nodded our heads. Next they checked our passports and asked where we were headed, we told them. The questions were endless: what were we going to do at Nourdhibou? Who were we going to see? Why? How long have we known the person that invited us? The questions didn’t stop.  Finally, they released us.

We got into Nourdhibou at about 9pm that night. It looked like a deserted city from the little we could see of the dimly lit stores. My friend, Father Jerome was already there waiting for us. It felt as if we were home. We drove to his parish location which included a church that was a dome on top of a hill. A few feet away from the small church was a long house with separate rooms.  We couldn’t see much of the place that night; we were too tired to take a tour. So we had a quick dinner, took a shower and went to bed.

We woke up the next day eager to inspect the area and to meet people.  From the front door of his house, I could see the convent he had mentioned to us. Three Indian Reverend Sisters who were teachers lived there. Beside their convent was an elementary school where they taught to the locals and mostly immigrant children.  Beyond the convent was a gas station, and beside it was a major road.  Father Jerome is the parish priest of the Catholic mission in Nourdhibou. Part of his ministry is to cater to stranded immigrants by seeking funding which he uses to create vocational and craft training for them. A  Chicago Public Radio called WBEZ 91. 5 described him as a “Nigerian priest who's trying to educate the immigrants on the dangers of the [sea] voyage [to Europe] and give them tools to find a better life back in their native countries.”

Gradually we started meeting the immigrants. Their stories were awe-striking as well as tragic. One of them, a lady, happily got married to a man who claimed to be a soccer player in Europe. So, after their wedding, her husband informed her family that he was taking her with him to Europe.  They were happy for them.   However, they ended up in Mauritania, Nouakchott where they were trapped. The man was not a footballer in Europe.  He was trying to find a way to Europe. When none of them could find a job for sustenance, he convinced his wife to have sex with other men in exchange for money.  Even when he took all monies from her, he still accused her of enjoying the act. Then he would beat her, yet he didn’t stop using her for money. They had gotten so desperate for money that she didn’t mind any kind of sex, even unsafe sex just to make the money they needed until a friend in Nourdhibou helped her escape from the man’s grip. She joined her in Nourdhibou. There she settled into a life of cooking and ran a small restaurant. We visited her restaurant. It was one room which served as her kitchen, her bed room and her restaurant. She had used a large curtain to demarcate the bedroom from the kitchen and the tables for eating. During our visit to her place, we encouraged her to return to Nigeria but she said she could not afford the fare.  So we promised to get the money together.  Before we could fulfill that promise Father Jerome raised the money for her and she returned to Nigeria. Two weeks after her return to Nigeria, she died of complications from AIDS.

The writer (right) mingling with West African immigrants

Another immigrant had gone as far as Spain and made some money, but he was caught with drugs during a raid in his neighborhood while in Spain. He was deported to Morocco, from where he escaped to Mauritania because he didn’t want to return to Nigeria. He confessed to dealing drugs and being deported a multiple times, yet each time he changed his passport and returned to Spain.  He said that his intention was to go back to Spain and find a decent job and stay out of trouble.

Another immigrant said he had borrowed so much money from home in Nigeria that he would not be able to face his family and those he owed. You would rather die than face the shame. He sustained himself as a barber.

A good number of the women were sex workers. Unfortunately, some of them were often raided, attacked and raped by the same police that raid them. Sometimes, they were ganged raped. In some cases, some of the Arab men that patronize them don’t pay them and threaten to deport them if they made any fuss. What some do was to change the money they made into dollars, and send it back home to Nigeria to give their families the impression that they were/are in Europe, working.  Their daily schedule included watching Nollywood movies from morning till they had to ply their wares at about 7pm till dawn. After their night work, they ate, slept and then watched Nollywood movies till it was time for work. Some of them were high on drugs. Perhaps, it was their way of coping with the harsh reality they had to deal with.

The Catholic mission provides safe spaces where they could relax, use as therapy, have some form of respite and be nostalgic about home. For instance, I witnessed as they re-created church services with popular Igbo and Yoruba gospel songs. When I closed my eyes for a minute as some of them sang, I thought I was in an Igbo village attending a church service. They brought ‘home’ with them. Drops of tears fall down my cheeks. Their sonorous voices captured the pain and travails of their journeys.

A few days into our stay there, Father Jerome organized an event to create a platform where my travel partner and I could talk to them about the dangers of attempting to reach Europe through the sea and why it is important to consider establishing oneself at home and exploring other options.  As we spoke, and I looked into their faces, they seemed detached.  But, we continued the conversation beyond the platform of speech giving and advise doling. We continued to speak to them one-on-one, but they were still withdrawn. It felt as if we were judging them.

The next day, we decided to do something different, a walk, a restaurant visit or a visit to the beach for a swim. We opted for going to the beach. When we got there, I wore my black shorts and a pink tank-top because I knew I didn’t want to swim. I was eager to see and touch this ocean that is about 600-700 seas miles to Spain. It was intimidating, deep and blue; it was unlike any ocean I had ever seen. There was something fierce about this North Atlantic body of water. I was deep in my reverie when my travel mate pulled off her long gown, revealing her bikini. It was a normal routine for people who were headed to the beach, or so we thought until she waded her way into the deep ocean to swim. Out of nowhere, a group of men both young and adults gathered closer around the shoreline and started yelling and staring at her. Maybe they were not used to women in bikini splashing into the ocean to swim. It all seemed to make sense because, there were no Mauritanian women swimming.  Instead, they lingered a few feet away from the shoreline admiring swimmers while the wind flirted with their hijabs.  Most of them wore black. I was worried for my friend. For a moment, I thought the excited men would dive into the sea and make their way to attack or hurt her. Nothing happened. They just yelled and cheered at her and excitedly beckoned at his friends to join them and watch what was supposedly a spectacle. Because she was mostly under water as she swam, their curiosity died down.   When she was done swimming, I pushed my way into the restive sea to give her a large towel to cover herself. While she sun-dried herself, my eyes fell upon a group of children playing soccer. I joined them and played for a few minutes. They were more taken in by the fact that I could play than the game itself.  I showed off the little dribbling and shooting skills I knew. Each dribble and shot was punctuated with an excited shout or screech. The kids were mostly black kids, perhaps, the children of West African immigrants. A couple of Arab kids stood around and watched.  It was fun.

But, our trip to the beach was ruined. When we returned to our trucks to go back to the mission, we realized that we had been robbed. All the items we left at the back of the truck like shoes, slippers and water containers were gone. We looked around distraught, hoping to get some kind of concern or sympathy from the crowd milling around. We were ignored, so we headed back to the mission distraught.  However, it was not too long; a family from the Gambia invited us to their child-naming ceremony. We used the opportunity to see more of the city. Half of the time, the neighborhoods looked like an unfinished construction site.  Except for a few beautiful buildings with fences, most of the houses were run-down. At the venue of the naming ceremony, the place was abuzz with life. Arabs kids were thrilled by the music and dance that was going. They swayed to the music in clumsy movements. It was obvious that the Gambians brought life and thrill into their neighborhood and into their lives. Inside the house where the gathering was taking place, there was food everywhere even when there were not enough seats. A lot of the West African immigrant men and women were at the party. They had a bond and they had made a life for themselves. A number of the men worked at the docks and were paid for cleaning out fish. Some of the women were cooks, while some others sold food items.  It may not have been the kind of life they would have wanted, but it was a life nonetheless. We ate, drank, danced and conversed. After the party, laughed and joked about how the immigrants made their neighborhood livable. Besides their music, everything and everywhere else around them seemed like a dull trance-like existence. Gradually, the party came to an end.

Displaying The rugged sealine.jpg

For many immigrant there is a very dangerous sea journey to Spain

As soon as we got back to the mission with Father Jerome, we got a call from our NGO friend from Nouakchott. He was to come with a taxi to pick us up and take us round town. In no time, he appeared and we were glad to drive with him. Our first port of call was a luxurious hotel perched right near the north-Atlantic ocean. It was a breathtaking sight. We sat at the ground porch of the hotel and could almost scoop some of the water of the ocean.  Moist sea winds caressed our faces. We drank in the glory as the deep blue sea lapped and crashed into the barricaded wall of the hotel. We could have lived there at that spot near the ocean for the rest of our lives. But, we had other places to see. We toured the ground floor of the hotel. It was strangely quiet. They didn't seem to have any guests at that time. At a corner was a glass wardrobe that contained West African art work, beads and jewelry. I thought it strange that a Mauritanian hotel would display in its hotel West African items. Though Mauritania pulled out of ECOWAS, they are still considered a part of West Africa. This is in spite of the fact that their border in the north stretched as far as the Western Sahara. Also, that they shared borders with Mali and Senegal justified their display of West African art works and fabric. Hence, both countries likely share cultural similarities. Nevertheless, I did expect to see more of a North African influence. When we left the hotel, it was a thrill to stumble upon camels strutting across a rail track. We paused, watched and took pictures.

We arrived at the entrance of Mauritania's military base. There were about six soldiers with guns guarding the base. The men who were strolling around the gate were black, but the one military man inside the post who was barking his orders at the black soldiers was light skinned. It had almost become a trend I observed but maybe I was misreading innocent situations. The light skinned Arabs tended to be in charge while the dark skinned ones took orders and obeyed as instructed. The light skinned man must have told them not to let us come any closer because as soon as he was done giving his orders, the two black men yelled at us to stop. Their guns were raised. Our NGO friend tried to let them know that we were tourist from Nigeria and that we were exploring the country for our reportage. They were not interested. With deep frowns, they waved their guns at us to step back. Our NGO friend was embarrassed. He profusely apologized to us. We told him that it was not his fault at all.

We rushed out of the place and went to a restaurant in town. I had forgotten all about flies until we sat at a vacant table. The whole table was full of agitated flies. I shoved and slapped and pushed my chair away. The flies barely noticed that I was doing anything. We looked around for the third time anticipating that somebody was coming to take our orders. At last a tall bearded Arab man asked what we wanted. When we told him, he informed us that it might take a while to be ready. Simultaneously, we stood up. I grabbed a bottle of Fanta and we hastened away. The place was known for their shawarma. Our NGO friend had a meeting to attend. So, we agreed to meet on another date.

At the mission, we met Father Jerome cleaning the parish’s library and re-stocking books. He shared that he wanted to build the library so that immigrants can make better use of it. He then took us to a computer laboratory where there were a number of computers. It was a computer training center. His intention was to expand it and involve more people in computer training skills. The last place we toured was the graveyard of immigrants. He said that often the corpses of immigrants were brought to him after they've been washed ashore. He did his best to give them a decent burial for the repose of their souls. He recounted the story of some immigrants aboard a ship, on the deck. They had been smuggled into the ship for a fee, and were headed to Spain. Dolphins started following the ship. The captains of the ship got scared and told the ladies that they were about to bring them bad luck because the dolphins followed them dedicatedly. The ladies insisted on their innocence but the captains threw them into the sea. It was later that somebody explained to Father Jerome that when dolphins sense that humans are distress, they tend to trail them to help.

Eventually, it was time for us to take off and return to Nigeria. We were to drive past Mauritania into the Senegal-Gambia region and push towards Dakar. We encountered butchers on road sides but this time it was camel meat they sold. Just as we patronize butchers for cow and goat meat in Nigeria, Mauritanians line up for camel meat. It didn't look or sound tasteful.

As we pushed south, it was interesting to notice how the landscape changed from dry land to a near tropical stretch. As we drove through the southern plain of Mauritania, zipping through their game reserve, the variety of birds and animals we saw were a feast to behold. They ranged from wild ducks, bright birds, to grunting hogs. It was when the tires of our truck got stuck in the mud, right in the middle of a water-logged terrain that we came upon a frantic hog. It was then we realized that it was the kind of hog that hunted humans. Some say that when such hogs were determined to eat a human, even when such a human climbs up a tree, the hog uproots the tree just to get at him or her. We panicked as we thought about the idea of being mauled by a wild hog.  Father Jerome stomped on the speed pedal of the truck but the tires revved up and dug even deeper into the marshland. One of us must have whispered a prayer because as the hog raced towards our truck, instantly the truck moved forward and we sped off.

 We continued through the water-logged plains of southern Mauritania into Senegal, Dakar. It was quite a feast to gaze at the endless expanse of their body of water. There were gazelles prancing around for frogs and water insects. There were long streams and what looked like rice plantations. Another hog almost gave us a hot chase when our jeep almost lost its grip for the second time on a marshy land. That was indeed a wild hog infested swamp.

 By late night we were at Dakar. Too tired to lug some of our luggage upstairs where we were to sleep, we left some of our items in the truck. The next morning, we discovered that the truck had been broken into. All the laptops gone, some purses and bags were gone. We were in shock. When we recovered somewhat from the devastation, we went to the police station to give a report. I couldn't be more depressed when at the police station, there were about a dozen young Nigerian men arrested and detained. Their crime? They came all the way from Nigeria to Senegal, trying to find a way to Europe without passports. All they had were identity cards. I couldn't stand the way they were being humiliated as the Senegalese police eagerly prepared the paper work for their deportation to Nigeria. I was so ready to take the next flight to back to Lagos. The near ten days road trip in an attempt to see, feel, taste and touch what West African immigrants encounter in their attempt to reach Europe through North Africa was quite a challenge. It was, however, a revealing and an enriching experience.

Unoma Nguemo Azuah is an award-winning Nigerian writer and an important new voice in African literature. She holds an MFA in Poetry and Fiction from the Virginia Commonwealth University and has edited literary publications in Nigeria and abroad. She currently teaches at an American university.


Trailing the West African Immigrants’ Path to Europe Through North Africa: Part 5

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