Globe, Migrants, Multiculture, United Kingdom

Yoon II: politics, prejudices and forgotten links

The Mediterranean has two shores and while the EU polices it like a moat to keep out ‘undesirables’, the film-makers point to the long-lasting connections between Europe and North Africa. People risk their lives to cross for universally understandable reasons, yet their courage is not valued. Mbaye Sou’s life questions many false assumptions about migration.


Graham Douglas


Europe -or rather it’s organized corporation the EU- has been engaged in what Keenan Malik calls ‘instrumentalizing human beings’ for several decades, keeping refugees and migrants out of sight away from the Mediterranean coasts. As in the war on drugs, the criminalisation does more damage than the quest for, in this case, the freedom to start a new life.Frustrated, the need becomes more desperate, attracting more violent people to prey on migrants, while the demand for labour continues in Europe, and the illegality provides opportunities for abuse of migrants who arrive.

Neto and Falk touch on this exploitation through the trans-Saharan route, which was described in detail in The Prisma by Cecile Allegra in two articles, but the story of Mbaye is different.

He is a man who knows himself and is committed to a way of life which requires courage, and is free from the typical western assumption that migration implies crisis and loss. Senegalese culture sees nothing odd in living in more than one country and moving between different locations to trade.

In their time working in African countries the film-makers have come to recognize that customs like eating together are universal means to create community. As Portuguese, they feel at home in North Africa and point to the similarities between Portuguese poetry and the Arabic rhythms that it acquired during the centuries of the Caliphate in Andalusia and Portugal.

In Europe people or the media, do not appreciate the courage and the skill that migrants need, just seeing them as a problem.

Pedro: There are elections coming in Portugal, and the far-right party Chega, is likely to increase its vote. It is crazy because people have no memory. The Portuguese are the underdogs of Europe, much like other southern and eastern European countries, and yet the leader of Chega was photographed with the leader of the Spanish party Vox, against a map showing the Iberian peninsula as one single country! He is so proud of his nationalist discourse, and yet he is willing to appear in a photo where Portugal had been erased. Moreover, if you look carefully, his face could be Syrian or Tunisian.

Ricardo: You are trafficked from Mali to Libya, and then you are made to work as a slave for weeks or months to repay your debt. They do not take money from you, that happens between one trafficker and the next, until your destination when you will have to begin paying. It is a progressive dehumanization as you become simply something with monetary value.

But Mbaye is the contrary, he is very empowered, he will speak to you in Arabic, French, English, and he also knows how to sell in the flea-market.

Pedro: He is also knowledgeable about many things and wants to discuss them.

Has he experienced racism in Portugal?

Ricardo: Of course, but he does not talk about it, not for pride but because he is focused on other things, not the anti-racist consciousness that exists here in Europe – which is a good thing – but he does not experience it like that. If he is hassled by a policeman he will joke around, until the guy sees that he is just a nice guy, and leaves him alone.

Pedro: And it is not a lot different from what he has to face in Morocco, Mauritania, and even sometimes in Senegal. Some people see him as living the good life in Europe. But his own country does not provide the conditions to strive.

Ricardo: But the reasons for that include the Structural Adjustment Programme imposed by the IMF on Senegal in the 1990s. Corruption too, but it was the IMF that made it impossible for many states in Africa to meet their primary responsibilities to provide for their people.

Where he lives in Dakar, there are no police, so people pay some young vigilantes to watch out for thieves.

You feel at home in Senegal.

Ricardo: There are similarities between Portuguese and Arabic poetry, at least as strong as the mediaeval Romance tradition that came from France. In Senegal the poetry of the Peul people has rhythmic patterns that come from external things like the movement of the cows, the Arab poets were also influenced by this.

Pedro: We did not expel the Moors, they are still here, we are the Moors, we are the shrapnel of that period. When I was doing my PhD in Paris, I used to travel a lot, and very often the departure gate to Lisbon was next to one for Tunis, and I really could not tell the difference of those queuing up, we share the same faces.

Pedro: In the Middle Ages, the Caliphate was centred in Andalusia and was the centre of power in the Mediterranean region. So, this movement of people exchanging ideas has been happening for centuries, people from Portugal would travel and live part-time as far south as Agadir in those days.

The word Marabout for the traditional healers in Morocco comes from Al-Moravid, which was the dynasty in the 11th Century that ruled a territory from here all the way to Senegal. When I go to Senegal as a Portuguese I feel at home, there is the same importance of family, of eating together.

Although as a white person you always carry the historical past under your skin.

The journey talked about in Walo Walo seemed much less desperate than for those who leave a marginal quartier in say Niamey, to face a dangerous journey with traffickers.

Ricardo: I know a Senegalese guy who tried 4 times to enter Europe in a boat, and then he was caught in the Canary Islands, and decided to give up and do the best he could at home, but if there is an opportunity, he said he will try again. Walo Walo was shot in 2008, but there is a moment in that film where some young people are talking about this, and out of that group now, one is in Portugal, she is my sister-in-law, one is in Spain, one in Morocco, one in Dakar.

Young people want something different to study or to become something else, they all know migrants from Mbaye’s generation, but they mostly came in the normal way by plane with tourist visas. The real problem started in the 2000’s. The people who come by boat and across the desert are a tiny minority, and 97% of African migrants move within Africa, and they want to stay there, so it is not true to say that the EU will be overwhelmed by hordes of migrants.

Pedro: Another false assumption is that only the poorest and most desperate are coming across the Sahara and then by boat, because you need to be skilled to navigate the bureaucracies, the languages, and because it is so expensive.

So, either they come from families that are already fairly wealthy, or in some cases a group, usually women, will pool their savings to send one person, who they hope will later pay them back and also provide accommodation for someone else from their village. Xenophobia is real but westerners also have this charity complex, it is good that people care, but it often comes from a position of superiority. Many NGOs encourage this narrative, and also depend on it to make their own living, and for individuals to feel self-fulfilled.

They are not all like that, but I often saw this working with volunteers -they are not skilled enough to be there pretending to teach kids- they know less about life than people 10 years younger than them, and yet here they are telling them how to sit, how to eat, what to eat. And countless westerners are involved in this: it is a business.

GD: It is also a career ladder, that is only open to young westerners from families that can afford to support them.

Pedro: You have to be able to afford to be a Good Samaritan.

GD: Are you planning another film?

Pedro and Ricardo: Yes, a documentary in Senegal.

(Photos by C.R.I.M. Productions, supplied by the interviewee and authorised for publication).

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