There are some interactions that stick with you long after they’re finished. You come back to them time after time. You continue to learn new things from it as at each new point in your life you have a fresh perspective through which to understand. Sometimes you know immediately, you feel the weight of the moment as it is happening. Other times it’s more subtle, you wake up the next day, or you think back months later, and it hits you- the importance of what occurred.
At the end of an exhausting two-month journey by public transport through West Africa I was in a car heading through Guinea’s forest region. We were heading North into the tropical savanna of Bamako. It was April – the hottest month of the year. The day had started at 6am, and now, twelve hours later we were still bumping slowly along the dirt roads. The sun slowly began to fade but we would continue on through the night.
I had not said a word to any of the other passengers. I do not speak much French and can’t even recall the names of all the local languages – and so I just sat quietly. After hundreds of hours in transport like this the past months, I was most comfortable in silent reflection. I held my prayer beads and would silently recite affirmations. I would look out the window at the passing villages and smile when someone caught my eye, shocked at seeing a foreigner this far inland. Occasionally if I was truly overtaken by the beauty outside, I would quickly snap a photo. Each time the driver would smile and point at my camera and say “nice.”
I was sharing the single front bucket seat with an elderly man with a cane who had been put into the truck by his son. After the elderly, the seat hierarchy goes to the “big men” rich enough to pay double, but not rich enough to fly. Foreigners come third and without even asking it had been mine.
We suddenly came into a clearing with a fork in the road. In these parts there are often “dry season” roads and “wet season” roads. The intense rains of June-September wash out the lower lying dry roads or at best turning them into slick streams of mud. The wet season roads are higher, but going by them is slower as they’re less well kept, and never a straight shot from point A to B. As we slowed down I looked up to see we were doubly in bad luck. On the left was a banana truck stuck on the hill to access the wet season road, on the right, a goods transport was stuck in a ditch that should have been the dry season road. Ironically, on the back of the truck to the right was written in large letters, “Good luck to us all.”
Without the driver needing to explain, everyone in the car started piling out. We stood on a bridge slightly closer to the action to get a better look. I started laughing and turned to a guy standing next to me and said, in English, “We’re going to be sleeping here.”
To my surprise, he responded in a broken but intelligible English saying, “We’ll see what happens.”
It seemed that everyone was going to walk up past the stuck trucks. Some to see the state of the wet season road and others to check if there was a village nearby where we might be able to relax. As we walked, I talked more with the English-speaker. He was a bit younger than me, 22, and said he was Liberian. We were already a thousand kilometers from Monrovia and nowhere near any large towns so I asked what his plans were. He then said calmly, “I’m going to Italy.”
After seeing my surprised and confused look, he explained: “I’ll go first to Libya. I bought one ticket for the whole way, the drivers will each pass me to the next car until we reach the ocean. I will then call my family and they will send me the money I need to pay for a boat. In Italy I will find work and send my family money.”
The questions I asked were basic and simple. Maybe I was tired from the long journey, or being in such a foreign environment having this conversation made it seem less strange and intense, and likely I couldn’t grasp the weight of what was being shared. In all truth, I never will be able to.
He had paid around $300 for the journey - booking one ticket, though he would have to change cars constantly and was told the journey would be 7 to 10 days. He had to put an incredible amount of trust in these drivers and the ticket agents to honor what he had paid and to get him onto his next transport.
I asked if he spoke any Italian – “no.” Arabic – “also no.” His pidgin English made it clear that though he was from an English-speaking country, he likely had little to no schooling and at home spoke local languages.
As if he were searching for any advice I offered, “Make sure you bring a lot of water for the desert, just in case you break down like we have now.” He just looked blankly and asked, “what do you mean?” As part statement, part shocked question I said, “The Sahara, the biggest hot desert in the world - you’ll have to cross thousands of kilometers of it.” He calmly just said, “I didn’t know that.”
Everything he said was stoic. The journey wasn’t something that he wanted to do and it wasn’t something that he really even thought about. He was just doing it - whatever “it” meant. He thought only of the destination, the idea that Europe – Italy meant money. That this money would mean food for his growing family, school for his siblings, and maybe the possibility of being able to pay the marriage fee for a wife.
We didn’t talk about the danger, but my mind raced about AQIM (Al Queda in the Islamic Maghreb) and how his route will pass through their strongholds. I thought of my friends in The Gambia whose sister had attempted the same passage and was kidnapped sometime after reaching Tripoli – they never responded to the ransom request, they had no money, and they haven’t heard from her since. I thought of the videos of beheadings on the beach by Libya’s Islamic State- it’s said that they “bought” the black African captives from a people smuggler, convincing him to take the money instead of risking the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
People do not risk their lives lightly. Journeys like this are the absolute last effort. When not only are there no jobs, but also no occasional menial work, no neighbors or uncles or cousins any better off to ask for food. You simply do not leave your community lightly, to travel away when you’ve never left your own village ever before.
We didn’t talk about all of this. We didn’t need to, and what could I say? We talked about the trucks being stuck. We talked about football. I took photos of some trees and he asked why I thought that they were beautiful. He asked what America was like and was excited to speak to a white person, he said it was his first time ever, but that we were similar because we were the only non-Guineans in the vehicle.
He asked me if I would help him with some money. I actually responded, “will you help me with some?” I said the same thing back. It sounds rude and inappropriate, and now a year later, I can’t know why exactly I said it. I do know that being in the middle of nowhere, not speaking the language, and the color of your skin signifying wealth and power to others, makes you feel vulnerable and like a target. I would never take out or show money, and if it was known that I had given to one person, that might make others ask, or if less friendly, take. So in the middle of the forest of Guinea - blocked behind two stuck trucks, thinking I would have to sleep out there in the open, that is what I said. I think he just smiled back.
Our driver had worked together with all the other blocked vehicles and dug a small route around the banana truck on the wet season road. It still looked impossible, but he revved the engine, flew up the hill, tilting literally onto only two wheels, turned at just the right moment, missed the truck by under a foot and got around it. Everyone cheered. My mouth was agape and people laughed at how shocked I was. I got in the seat and said to him, “that was awesome!” he had no idea what I said but absolutely understood what I meant and gave me a big smile and a huge thumbs up.
We continued on late into the night. We arrived in the fantastically named KanKan around 2am and the driver advised that even if it was the final destination, we would have to stay here until morning- the gates to the terminal were closed for safety. The driver gave his seat to the old man, so I finally had the single seat to myself, I leaned against the door, held my camera bag tight, and got a couple hours of sleep.
Around 6am the Liberian guy woke me and said he had found the next car and that I should go with him. He had explained to them that I was his concern and thus he was able to split the treasured front seat with me. As we drove we talked some more about our journey: when we would reach Bamako, if the car would break down, and how he would have to contact his next driver to see when they would leave. I explained that Bamako was the last stop on my two month trip. He said he was sad I wouldn’t continue further North with him.
At the border between the two countries he explained that he had no paperwork, and so he told the driver to stop a bit before the immigration checks and he would jump out and “walk around”. We waited for him on the other side and off we went again. I asked if he thinks he’ll be able to do this at all the borders he’s crossing. His unfazed response, “they said so, yes.” Part of me hoped he would be stopped before he reached the most dangerous territories further North, most of me wanted him to make it all of the way to Rome.
As we drove, refreshed from the bit of sleep, happy to have crossed the final border on this 2 month long journey, and enjoying the views of the circular mud huts typical of people in Mali and the Sahel, I began to realize how meeting this guy would change me.
Here I was, sitting next to someone for the past two days. For those 48 hours, we were doing exactly the same thing, riding in these cars, sleeping at the terminal, getting stuck behind banana trucks. And yet, what we were doing could not have been more separate. I was a tourist, traveling the world for fun, taking photos with my camera, enjoying being “off the beaten path.” He was risking his life in order to save his own and those of his family. I was spending these months “focusing on me;” he was embarking on a journey for his family’s survival. I knew what lay ahead of me; I had maps and knowledge of the risks and dangers at every step, he knew nothing but a dream of his destination.
When we reached Bamako I switched from “in transit mode” to “find my AirBnb mode.” I picked up my two big bags and shoved my camera / valuables case into one of them. He picked up the smallest sack, which barely looked full. We said the shortest of goodbyes. I don’t think I even said good luck. If I asked his name, I forgot it by the end of the day.
I will never know if he made it. In 2016, there were almost 360,000 people who safely crossed the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy. Over 5,000 others died. Many more went missing in the desert and along the way before ever reaching the coast.
I often think of this guy I shared the seat with. Who I laughed with and who grabbed me a ripe banana off the back of the truck. I think of his nonplussed face when I told him to bring water and I think of how I responded to his request by asking for money myself. I think of how similar we felt- the two foreigners in some dodgy transport- heading North, talking about Ronaldo and when we’d get married.
I think of how connected we were at that moment and how in probably every single one since then we have been so separate.
I think of how similar we are and how incredibly different. It makes me stop in wonder at all the ways that lives are lived on this earth. I am grateful to have even the briefest exposure to his.
Until next time, Sal Lavallo