By Vincent Ogo
The wind occasionally brings the stench from the toilet to the shade that serves as the main transit lounge in Sokoninko Park in Bamako, Mali, in West Africa. The park belongs to Africa Tours, a Malian registered transport company that connects many capital cities in West Africa. A stop in Bamako is a permanent fixture in Africa Tours’ international routing schedule, and so whichever country you are travelling to, so long as you boarded one of the many luxurious buses operated by the company, you must transit in the Malian Capital. It is from here, in Sokoninko Park, that you enter another bus that takes you to your final destination.
It is not surprising that the park daily plays host to a motley crowd – men and women, young and old, traders, etc. from different countries of West Africa. Many of the passengers on transit here show visible signs of weariness, no thanks to the long journey they had endured -rough and dusty roads, occasional harassment and extortions in the hands of corrupt immigration, customs and gendarmes in the countries they passed through on the way to Bamako.
They also have to endure the frustration of having to wait for some days before they are able to board another bus to their final destination. These passengers always try to sleep off their frustration on the hard metal benches fixed on the transit lounge, which is not easy. It is not only the smelly toilet that makes one’s stay in Sokoninko Park hellish.
You are harassed by swarms of flies by day and assaulted by legions of mosquitoes by night. However there is a category of passengers that never seem to be bothered by the unpleasant conditions at the park. Unlike most of the other passengers, each has just a small bag as luggage, and for them conditions at Sokoninko Park is like Paradise itself compared to what lies ahead on their journey. These are the ‘back way’ boys waiting for the bus that will convey them to Niamey, Niger Republic.
From there they will travel up to to Agades, where the really tough part of their journey begins, that is crossing the Sahara Desert to get to North Africa, and then brave the raging waters of the Mediterranean to hit the shores of Europe. The boys are a mixed lot, stark illiterates, the half-educated, and a few educated ones. Most of them are below 30, some as young as 17.
They are mostly from Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea Conakry, Guinea Bissau and Sierra Leone. The Malians that will eventually travel with them usually appear at the park the morning the Niamey bus is departing. Back way boys from countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Togo and Benin Republic are hardly ever seen at Sokoninko Park. This is simply because their countries are nearer to Niger than Bamako. They don’t need an Africa Tours bus to get to Niamey. A lengthy conversation with Sokoninko Park boys will reveal that many don’t have any idea about the situation in Europe.
For them it is simply the Promised Land where everyone is rich and comfortable, where one can earn a lot of hard currency whatever the job he/she is doing, where one can buy a very good car with very little money. It is no use telling them the grim reality and the fact that it is no longer easy to get a job, as Western Europe is inundated with migrants from other parts of the world. When you tell them this they will simply dismiss you as a pessimist, an enemy of progress.
Among the back way boys of Sokoninko Park are those who have tried to migrate before, but got stuck in Libya, from where they were deported. Some were waiting for the opportunity to cross to Italy when the rebellion which eventually toppled Muamer Ghadafi broke out, and had to be evacuated from Libya through the efforts of the governments of The Gambia and Senegal.
For this group of people the ultimate prize –getting to Europe, must be achieved. Malang Jobe from The Gambia, who was among those evacuated during the Libyan war, emphatically stated that this time it is a journey of ‘no success no return’. His words: “Either I enter Europe this time or nothing. I prefer to die than to return to my country without making it.”
Some others with him echoed similar sentiments. All the boys also share a common opinion about the dire economic conditions in their countries, which they strongly believe is beyond salvation. They never cease to chatter about the hopelessness of the situation in their home countries, heaping all the blame on government ineptitude. They wholly believe that it is the responsibility of their governments to provide them with jobs.
They also seem to be completely bereft of ideas on how tap the agricultural and other opportunities in their home countries. Their impatience is clearly evident. For them, the only legitimate short-cut to wealth and financial success is migrating to Europe. Such is their mindset. Some of them have also tried unsuccessfully to obtain visas in Western embassies in their countries.
Interestingly, in the course of my interaction with the boys, I discovered that some of them were not really constrained to migrate because of economic difficulties at home. Ansu from the Gambia has siblings in Europe, and what they remit home is enough to take care of the family.
But Ansu wants to become a semester too, like his brothers and friends. Some others like him at the park also have relatives based in Europe. The method they employ is to find their way to Libya, and from there contact their siblings in Europe, informing them that they are stuck and need money to cross to Italy.
“My brother will surely send me money to cross to Italy if I call to inform him that I am stranded in Libya,” Ansu enthused. It has become a pattern now. The boys make it up to Libya, most times without informing relatives resident in the West that they are embarking on the journey.
Such relatives are usually forced to send the money needed for the crossing. They have no choice. No one wants his/her loved one stranded in a foreign land, especially a hostile country like Libya. His companion, 19-year-old Modou, who has a brother in the United States of America, was supposed to be in the university. But he got infected by the migration bug, and decided to go with his friend.
The odd man out is Haruna. He will not be able to continue to Niger. His money has run out. The many extortions him and others were subjected to by security operatives of different countries on the way to Bamako has depleted his finances. Unfortunately for him, he has no relative in Europe. He is now waiting for his people back in Gambia to gather some little money to enable him return home. That notwithstanding, he has not given up on the dream. There are many others like him. And Sokoninko Park awaits them.