I first met our friend Ebrima on a beach in Dakhla, Western Sahara. We got chatting and soon he was telling me his life story. He told me that he came from a small village in The Gambia. He used to make some money going out into the bush to chop firewood but the government had put a stop to it. He said in his village there was this family and their son went away to Italy. One day he started to notice that little things had changed for them, whilst his family could often only afford to eat twice a day, they always had three meals, his family ate plain rice, but they always added seasoning so the rice tasted delicious. He said that he thought to himself, ‘I want to help my family in that way.’ So he decided to go abroad, to Morocco.
It was very hard, Gambians need a visa and so he had to enter the country illegally. He travelled to Mali, to an area where there was intense fighting between the tribes and he spent days walking through the desert in Algeria. He said that if he had known beforehand what his life would like in Morocco he would never have made the journey. He went to Rabat but there was no work, his friends would sweep people doorsteps and beg for money, but he refused to live like that. Whilst some Moroccans were good to him, many looked down on him because of the colour of his skin. Whilst walking alone at night he was attacked and robbed by a gang of Moroccan men. He said that originally he had wanted to go to Europe, like his neighbour’s son, but when he found out how much it would cost he thought ‘if I had that much money I would go back to The Gambia and look after my family.’ One day, after he had been living in Morocco for over a year he heard from his sister that their mother was unwell. He said that he thought to himself ‘what am I doing here? I am wasting my time in Morocco, I should be with my family.’ So he decided to leave. He had got as far as Dakhla, but had run into difficulties with the Moroccan police. They had turned him back from the border because he was in the country illegally. Ebrima told me that he would go to the border again tomorrow but if they turned him away he would have no option but to go back the way he came through the desert. He said he had hoped he would be returning to the Gambia with a little money which he could use to start a small business, instead he was returning with nothing, just the clothes he was wearing and some documents. But he had seen things and he knows about the world, ‘I can tell just by looking at someone whether they are a good person. At school we learnt about this place called Timbuktu and now I have been there, instead of just reading about it in a book.’ We talked for a long time about migration and the reasons why so many young men in Africa leave their families in search of a better life abroad and Ebrima seemed much wiser than his 20 years, ‘the older generation in Africa never used to think about the future, if they have food today then that is good, but my generation we want something more. We think about the future; we plan. The difference is education and technology. We are educated, we have potential and we want more from life, but in Africa there are no jobs, no opportunities. Because of technology we see the rest of the world and we want what they have and so we try to travel.’
After this first meeting, Ebrima and I stayed in touch. The following day he was again turned away from the border with no explanation. I offered to go along to the police station with him in Dakhla in the hope that the police may explain to me what they were refusing to tell him. It was an eye opening experience; not least because of the dirty looks we drew from Moroccans whilst walking down the street together. The police were relatively polite to me; but obviously confused by my involvement. It was explained that even though Ebrima has a Laissez Passer (a document issued by the Gambian embassy in Rabat allowing him to travel in lieu of using a passport) the border police required the authorisation of the director of national security before they would allow him to leave. A few phone calls to the Gambian Embassy later and we were assured that a request for authorisation had been made to to the relevant department but that it would take a 5 days. We met up with Ebrima a few times over the next few days. Even though he had almost nothing he would refuse insist on buying us coffee, on the day we took him our for dinner he turned up at our hotel with a bag of oranges as a gift for Leon (who had been unwell). When we left Dakhla he was still waiting for the authorisation, we promised to keep in touch and to visit him when he (and we) made it to The Gambia. This was how, a little less than 2 months later we found ourselves going to meet Ebrima in Birkama, a small town in the South West of The Gambia.
We arrived around lunchtime, Ebrima was waiting eagerly for us. It was great to see him safely back in the Gambia at last. He told us that he had remained in Morocco for another week after we left him, in the end the authorisation never came and the only way he was able to leave was by paying a bribe to the police. We went first to his friend Maulood’s house which is where Ebrima stays when he is in Birkama. They grew up in the same village and were in the same class at school but are unlikely best friends. Ebrima is extremely earnest, whereas Maulood is a self described hustler and Rastaman, he speaks in a lazy drawl peppered frequently with patois (there is a heavy influence of Jamaican culture in The Gambia). Within a few minutes of us arriving Maulood had lit up a joint, Ebrima meanwhile doesn’t smoke or drink alcohol and dilutes his tea with extra water as he is worried about getting addicted to caffeine. We sat in Maulood’s narrow porch drinking the local tea, called ‘attar.’ It is incredibly strong and sweet and takes a long time to make (the rule seems to be that it is the job of whoever is youngest). We watched a boy of around 15 carefully boiling a small kettle of water over a charcoal brasier, add tea leaves and huge lumps of sugar, then spend more than 20 minutes mixing the tea by pouring it between two small glasses until it had a thick layer of frothy foam on the top.
After this Ebrima and I went to do some shopping (we bought a crate of chicken for his family) and then we took the bus from Birkama to his village, Bulok, Leon was driving and met us there. On the way Ebrima pointed out all the local sites; the mine where his sister sells baobab juice, the football pitch where he used played in tournaments, the bush where his dad would take him to chop firewood when he was a child. Unsurprisingly Leon made it there before us and was waiting on the main road. We walked the last 100 meters to the village together. Many children came out to meet us, politely holding out their hands to shake before taking ours and leading us towards Ebrima’s home. We were introduced to Ebrima’s mother and father; they invited us to sit under the shade of a big mango tree where the air was cooler. The children followed and were joined by many more, everyone lay on matts on the ground whilst insisting we sat on the plastic chairs they bought us. We ate Domoda, a thick peanut stew with fish, similar to Mafe in Senegal, which Ebrima’s mother had prepared.
After lunch Ebrima took us for a walk around the village. He was a wonderful host, introducing us to everyone we passed. We met his father’s second wife, she was originally married to Ebrima’s uncle but was inherited by his father after his uncle’s death as per the customs of their tribe. We went down to the river and Ebrima showed us the place in the bush were he had to live for 3 months after he was circumcised, custom dictates that immediately after being circumcised boys must not be around any females. He was around 6 years old when this happened and told us he would have to leave his home very early in the morning around 5am and was not allowed to return until after it was dark so that his mother and sister would not see him. He said that during the time when he was in the bush the older boys would keep them entertained by singing them songs and telling them stories, but he still doesn’t like going to that place as it brings back bad memories. We also walked out into mangrove area to the spot where the local kids go swimming. On the way we saw huge mounds of oyster shells, Ebrima explained that the shells are crushed and the powder is mixed with salt and used to make white paint.
On our way back he pointed out all the different crops growing such as cassava, baobab, mango and cashews and the enormous piles of wood which are waiting to be turned into charcoal. Nearly all the wood comes from Cassamance a densely wooded region just over the border in Southern Senegal. I asked Ebrima’s mother, who despite being elderly and not in good health still makes the journey to Cassamance if she went by bus. When she eventually stopped laughing she told me that she would walk there and take a donkey cart back. She would usually bring back enough wood to make 50-100 bags of charcoal which she sells for 200 Dalasi (£3) each, but to fund the trip in the first place she would have to borrow money from her neighbours which she would then have to pay back.
In the afternoon we watched the village football team in training. Leon was invited to join in but when it became apparent how seriously they took training he suddenly came over a bit tired. Instead we sat on the sidelines and chatted to Ebrima’s brother Jibrill (who is more of an aspiring musician than sportsman). At one point I asked Jibrill how old he was, to which he replied ‘I didn’t capture that information I will have to check my birth certificate.’ I asked him roughly was he around 15, 17, 21? He looked thoughtful, ‘yes maybe 15.’ To me he looked around 17. Later on I asked Ebrima, ‘mmmmmm….that one…maybe 13 or 14…or maybe 15.’ I found it very interesting as I have worked with many child refugees who are unsure of their exact age. The UK government’s position is always that it is implausible a child would not know at least roughly how old they are and that they must be lying, but here was proof that that it just not the case.
We were the first Westerners to stay in the village and we attracted a lot of attention,especially from children. Everywhere we went we were greeted by shouts of ‘Toubab’ (meaning white person) and soon we had a tail of around 15 to 20 children following us. Unlike many kids we had met in more touristy areas none of the children in the village had learnt to associate westerners with money or gifts, they were just intensely curios about us. Their questions were hilarious, they wanted to know if I watched Bollywood movies, if I could read and write, if I could ride a bike, if I could play rounders and what was the most rounders I had ever got. Many of the questions (especially the ones about rounders) were conveyed enthusiastically through mime. Their English was limited and it was obvious that in school they learned the language by rote, they recited for me a long story about a family who lived in a compound with their mum and dad and grandparents but it was clear from the way the words all ran together than none of them had the slightest clue what they were saying. They loved Leon’s name (because it sounds like Lion) but Ruth presented more of a challenge and in the end was shorted to ‘Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.” They all loved being photographed; I found it funny that even from such a young age girls and boys will act so differently. The boys all jumped in front of the camera, shouting and pulling silly faces, the girls pouted and struck their best modelling pose.
In the evening we ate a delicious meal of Benachin, prepared by Ebrima’s sister. Similar to Jollof rice (Nigeria) or Thieboudienne (Senegal), Benachin is made with either fish or chicken, rice and assorted vegetables, including cassava, carrots and aubergines. Ebrima explained that in the village whenever anyone cooks they will always make some extra for any neighbours who are in need. He said that fortunes change; some days, like today, his family will be the ones cooking, other days they will be the ones turning to their neighbours.
We set off the following morning, after eating 2 enormous breakfasts (Ebrima’s mother and sister both insisted on cooking for us). As we drove away, I was actually moved to tears thinking about the incredible kindness and hospitality we had be shown. From Ebrima who refused my clumsy attempt to give him some money with ‘we are a family’, to his sister who spent hours plaiting my hair and insisted on giving me her favourite necklace, to his father, who told us solemnly what an honour it was to have us stay in his house and his mother who called us her children and worried about our bike getting cold in the night (it was 40 degrees!) It was undoubtedly one of the most special moments of our trip so far.