The cost of success: What happens to West African migrants in Europe
In the city of Briançon in eastern France, a group of people is searching for the heroes lost on their adventures. The migrants attempt to cross the Alps in below zero temperatures, without warm clothes and often without enough food.
Fana is only 18 but he feels he became a man at the age of 12 when he decided to go on an adventure and leave his home in Guinea, seeking a better life in Europe. Unlike our previous hero Mamadou, he made it to France. In this episode, we explore what happens to the “tounkan namo”, or “the adventurers”, who succeed. And the price of their success.
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TOUNKAN NAMO IN GUINEA: THE ADVENTURE – TRANSCRIPT
Danielle Olavario: Welcome to Cry Like a Boy, a podcast in which we travel to five African countries to tell extraordinary stories of ordinary men defying centuries-old stereotypes. I’m Danielle Olavario.
In the previous episode, we told you the story of Mamadou Alpha, a young Guinean man who went on a dangerous migration journey called “tounkan”, or “the adventure” to find success in Europe.
In Guinea, this “adventure” is a rite of passage for some young men, who see the hardships and experiences they have on this journey as essential to becoming “real men”. Those who survive and make it, are treated as heroes, and those who fail, are shamed by their communities.
In Europe, the term “adventure” is often associated with great explorers, pioneers, and travelers hiking up mountains and sailing the great wide ocean to seek fortune.
Our story this week starts in the French Alps, where young men like Mamadou are crossing mountains. It is a different kind of adventure.
It’s a quiet winter night and the snow is bright and crisp.
We are at the Italian border near the city of Briançon. This region has recently become a crossroad for illegal migrants from the Balkans, Middle East or Africa, seeking a better life in Western Europe.
The temperature has dropped below zero. The tall mountains seem dark and threatening, but Juliette, a 22-year-old photography student, knows these trails very well. Together with other locals, she’s looking for people who might have gotten lost or injured.
Danielle Olavario: Juliette is part of the association “Tous Migrants”. An initiative that helps find the people who have been on the road for many days, sometimes months. Many of them have frostbite, some are seriously injured, most are exhausted.
In her backpack, there is always a first aid kit, hot beverages and candy bars.
Danielle Olavario: “Tous Migrants” was founded in 2014 after the beginning of what politicians call the “European migrant crisis” when hundreds of thousands of people started arriving in Europe, gathering in huge migration camps in Greece or other parts of the continent.
Many try to escape these conditions, hoping to cross into Western Europe on foot. And Briançon, France, a city nestled in the Alps, has become one of the hubs for those who were injured or lost their way during their “adventure”, and can’t quite continue the trip.
Danielle Olavario: Since 2017 more than 12 000 people have gone through Refuge Solidaire, another NGO inBriançon, helping migrants with medical care, shelter and papers.
But settling down isn’t that simple. We met with one of these migrant travelers in Gap, France, the largest city in the Hautes Alpes, a French region that borders Italy and famous for its sports culture and beautiful nature.
Danielle Olavario: Fana left at a young age because he thought he’d find better opportunities in Europe.
Danielle Olavario: He decided to go on “the adventure”, by travelling from Guinea to France.
Danielle Olavario: Fana is from Conakry, Guinea. And like Mamadou, he went on the migration route to Europe. With one crucial difference: he made it to the other side and now lives in France.
Danielle Olavario: Fana is wearing sunglasses, comfortable gray pants and a bright yellow hoodie. He seems confident and relaxed as we walk towards his apartment block. He’s been living in Gap for two years, but he has only recently moved to this residential area.
Fana is in an “internat”, a kind of public boarding school where he is learning to be a caretaker for the elderly. Most of the time he sleeps at school, but during breaks, he lives with a friend.
Their small studio is in slight disarray. A double bed takes most of the room and there are travel pictures of several people on the walls, but none are of Fana. You can tell that he doesn’t spend much time in the apartment.
But he doesn’t mind. He hasn’t had a steady home for a really long time. The “adventure” wasn’t so easy for him. He says his family considers him a hero, except that he prefers to hide from them, for now.
Danielle Olavario: According to UNHCR, despite the coronavirus pandemic, over 41, 000 people arrived in Europe irregularly through Spain in 2020, undertaking the Mediterranean route. And Guineans were the second most numerous group of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa after Malians.
Anthropologist Julie Kleinman, author of the book Adventure Capital about illegal migrants in Paris says, the desire to leave home in some West African cultures is a coming of age rite, and succeeding means you are a man.
Danielle Olavario: Fana says that already at the age of 12, boys in Guinea feel like grown-ups.
Danielle Olavario: According to studies, poverty is generally one of the main drivers of migration from Guinea. The second is moving up the social ladder.
Here’s Guinean sociologist Dr Abdoulaye Wotèm Somparé.
Dr Abdoulaye Wotèm Somparé:
Danielle Olavario: Many migrants say that getting the papers is the most difficult part. But for most, the hardships on the road to success have to do with finding a place in their host country’s society.
Here’s Julie Kleinman again.
Danielle Olavario: Fana finds that the adventure taught him a lot of things. And now that he’s settled, he can pursue his passion: taking care of others.
Danielle Olavario: Julie Kleinman says that back home, working-class jobs like the one Fana is pursuing, are often not considered “manly” enough, but migrants don’t mind. Because they’re living the adventure. And someday, they will reach success.
Danielle Olavario: There is no African market in Gap. To get the food he’s used to, Fana has to go all the way to Marseille, a big port city in the Mediterranean. Often, he and his friends would take a car and load it with Guinean spices, vegetables, and peanut butter.
When we ask Fana about Guinea, he lights up.
Danielle Olavario: Despite homesickness, Fana doesn’t want to go back. As we’re walking towards the city centre after the interview, he says that the adventure was the best school of life he had.
Danielle Olavario: In the next episode of Cry Like a Boy, as always, my co-host Khopotso Bodibe, will meet two guests and explore the world of “the adventure” globally.
Cry Like a Boy is published every second Thursday. If you’re new to our podcast, check out our previous episodes on the illegal miners of Lesotho. These men risk their lives every day and experience trauma from living months underground. In our documentary on the Banna Mamanaera, you can hear how these men are coping with the trauma of life in the mines. Have a listen, it’s a gripping story.
I, Danielle Olavario, will see you next time.
In this episode, we used music by Ba Cissoko.
With original reporting and editing by Makeme Bamba in Conakry, Guinea, and Naira Davlashyan in Gap, France. Marta Rodriguez Martinez, Lillo Montalto Monella & Arwa Barkallah in Lyon, Mame Peya Diaw in Nairobi, Lory Martinez in Paris, France and Clitzia Sala in London, UK.
Production Design by Studio Ochenta. Theme by Gabriel Dalmasso.
A special thanks to our producer Natalia Oelsner for collecting the music for this episode. Our editor-in-chief is Yasir Khan.
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