A 4000 Km journey between Lisbon and Senegal several times a year in an old Peugeot 504 demands many practical and social skills as well as courage and determination. A journey across cultures through multiple racisms by a 62-year old Senegalese man which challenges Western stereotypes about migrants.
Migration has different experiences and different meanings, it usually means a search for work a better life, but migration can sometimes become a way of life and earning a living.
And this can happen especially in cultures where movement is not considered an anomaly, and home is not one geographical location.
Pedro Figueiredo Neto and Ricardo Falcao are Portuguese anthropologists who through their interest in Africa met Mbaye Sow, a Senegalese migrant and travelling merchant -salesman is the wrong word- who makes regular journeys taking goods between Lisbon and Dakar in Senegal, in which he faces many problems and sometimes dangers.
Neto and Falcao developed a friendship with Mbaye and made the film “Yoon” (meaning ‘journey’ in the Wolof language) accompanying him on two of these trips, where they saw close-up the personal qualities and skills that he needs.
They spoke to The Prisma in Lisbon, following the showing of their film at the DocLisboa, film festival, where it won the award in the ‘safety and health at work’ category. The film was also shown in the IDFF in Ji.hlava in the Czech Republic where it also got an award, and at the IDFA in Amsterdam in November.
How did you meet Mbaye Sow, did he appear in Walo Walo?
Ricardo: I met him in 2009 after I returned from Senegal, when I was living near the Feira da Ladra (the Lisbon flea-market), where he was selling Senegalese masks.
I would sit next to him, and we talked about life in Senegal and Lisbon, about politics and he was helping me to speak in Wolof, but I had no plan to return. He used to disappear for weeks at a time, and eventually he began to explain these trips, and I began to think seriously, but without saying anything.
In 2017, I met Pedro after he gave a lecture at the university about the way politics was discussed during bus journeys in Angola, and we began to think about a documentary film. I lived in Senegal for 3 years before making the film Walo Walo, which is a research film about the drought in Northern Senegal.
How often does he go each year?
At the most, once a month.
How long has he lived in Europe?
Ricardo: He has several brothers and a sister, here and in Italy, plus family in Senegal, I know them all. Their journey started as an internal migration, from the rural areas due to the drought that was especially bad between 1973 – 1983, to the periphery of Dakar, where his father had an Islamic school, and then they began to settle nearby. In 1989, when he was 30, he decided to come to Portugal.
Why Portugal, not Italy or Spain?
Ricardo: A younger brother had arrived here some years before because that was the time of a construction boom, when it was easy to find work here in the late 80s and 90s. They were allowed to enter undocumented to provide this labour force, and then there were two occasions when they were allowed to get documents, in 1993 and 1996.
Pedro: Many people came and some died at work -for example in the construction of Expo’ 98 in Lisbon. These people are invisible. What is most disgusting is that we live in a country with a tradition of emigration- to the Americas and to France, but we treat these people, who we actually need, in this inhuman way.
Ricardo: There is film of Portuguese people arriving in Switzerland in the ’60s, being made to shower and then being sprayed with disinfectant. A kind of population control.
He lives in a very extended family
Pedro: The Senegalese have a different idea of movement to the European one: it makes little sense for them to think of being either sedentary or mobile. The mainstream narrative here is that being a migrant is something abnormal, suspicious, but it has always been a feature of human life. The sense of community does not need to be tied to a particular place. Mbaye is an individual who lives in two countries.
Ricardo: The Senegalese family is not static, people are always coming and going, there are children who have been adopted, there is no localized border around it.
You got to know him quite well
Ricardo: There is a whole etiquette about how you eat, the concept of Teraanga which is hospitality although that is a poor translation. People will know how you are as a person, by the way you behave during a meal. They will not ask direct questions, they will just observe the way you are hasty or respectful, how much food you take; they read you and they know how to deal with you. Mbaye does this on his trips, to know if he can trust someone. When he has to deal with officials, he uses humour, to show his humanity so he can get the best from any situation.
Not everyone is like Mbaye of course, there are guys who are more reserved or more stressed, and they are not as successful. People trust him because they know that they can rely on him to transport things. He keeps focused on the objective. Mbaye always says, “if you are not prepared, you will get as far as Western Sahara, and you will start to cry and want to go back”. It is very tough work, you need stamina, and you need to be centred in yourself.
At the start of the journey there is a guy asking him to bring a cellphone and a pair of shoes, and he calls him to say he has delivered the shoes to a friend, but the phone was not possible. He knew he could not get the phone, but the guy will be happy with the shoes until the next trip.
He anticipates these problems and manages them, if you get a fine from the police in Mauretania for being overloaded, you cannot be fined more than once, so he makes sure that the policeman will give him a ticket at the first checkpoint, he will pay, and then he will show it each time, he is managing every detail.
Pedro: It is also a matter of social recognition -if you know how to navigate all these different situations and how to move forward it also adds to his status- besides being known as a kind and generous person, he is also very skilled. It is also an aspect of masculinity, without being macho, but he gains respect among his peers, from women, and from the people he meets along the way.
There are risks, but only if you are not aware of them. To travel 2000 Km with faulty brakes is a risk until you know how to manage it, and to take advantage from the risks.
But his kids in Senegal know the risks and some of them tell him: “Papa, we do not want you to keep doing this”.
I did a lot of fieldwork in Angola, (an ex-colony of Portugal which fought a bitter war of independence and a civil war that lasted 40 years), and one day I was the only white person on a bus and people were shouting insults at me. When we stopped, I sat down to eat with everyone else, and one of the more vocal guys came over to apologize. “You are one of us”, he said. There are these moments like eating together, when people recognize that we are all human, we forget our differences.