The African Exodus: A View from the Ground

by | May 7, 2013


Sunday’s El País carried a surprising article detailing the increase in immigration from Africa to Spain in the past two years.

Although Spain is in the midst of a debilitating economic crisis, with an unemployment rate of over 27%, the number of would-be migrants crossing the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco in the first quarter of 2013 has quadrupled compared with the corresponding period in 2012. Alarmingly, the proportion using inflatable rubber dinghies – the kind your kids play on at the beach – has risen from 15% to 90% in the past year. These dinghies are designed to be used by two people, but in the Strait they are often intercepted with up to ten on board (Spain’s coastguard has yet to hear of one that has completed the fourteen kilometre journey – the lucky ones are rescued before they sink). In Morocco, the market in these vessels is thriving – a 2-3 metre boat that can be had for €300 in the Spanish beach resorts will set you back over €600 in Tangiers.

This continued flow of migrants from Africa to Europe gives the lie to the “Africa Rising” story peddled by some Western media outlets of late. Although GDP is growing in many parts of the continent, most Africans see nothing of this. The millions who have migrated from villages to cities in search of a better life too often end up with nothing to do, and in their desperation are forced to look further afield, to Europe, for a way out of poverty (as the chief prosecutor in the Spanish port town of Algeciras noted, ‘many people would love to have our crisis’).

While researching my new book, The Ringtone and the Drum: Travels in the World’s Poorest Countries, which as well as analysing the great social upheavals the developing world is going through as it modernises is an attempt to give voice to the people experiencing these changes on the ground, I observed this frustration at first hand. The population of Bissau, the capital of the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau which was the first stop on my trip, has quadrupled in the past thirty years. Whole villages in the interior have emptied out as the land has become too crowded to farm and the lure of modernity entices people to the cities. My wife Ebru and I spent a few weeks in one of Bissau’s poorest districts, where, as the excerpt below shows, urbanisation’s losers face a constant dilemma over whether they too should undertake the perilous journey to the West:

Since there is no power and the heat quickly rots anything perishable, Bissau’s residents must lay in a new supply of food each day. Every morning, therefore, we walk down the paved but potholed road that leads from our bairro to Bissau’s main market at Bandim. The market is a labyrinth, its narrow dark lanes winding between rickety wooden stalls whose tin roofs jut out threateningly at throat height. A press of brightly-dressed shoppers haggles noisily over tomatoes, onions, smoked fish and meat. The vendors know their customers – you can buy individual eggs, teabags, cigarettes, sugar lumps and chilli peppers; bread sellers will cut a baguette in half if that is all you can afford; potatoes are divided into groups of three, tomatoes into pyramids of four; matches are sold in bundles of ten, along with a piece of the striking surface torn from the box. In the days leading up to Christmas and New Year, which all Guineans celebrate regardless of their religious persuasion, the market is crowded and chaotic, but after the turn of the year, when all the money has been spent, it is empty and silent.

Only the alcohol sellers do a year-round trade. On a half-mile stretch of the paved road there are thirteen bars or liquor stores. They sell cheap Portuguese red wine, bottled lager, palm wine and cana, a strong rum made with cashew apples. Bissau has a drink problem. Its inhabitants’ love of alcohol is well-known throughout West Africa. Back in Senegal, a fellow passenger on one of our bush taxi rides had warned us that Guineans ‘like to drink and party but they don’t like to work.’ Later in our trip, on hearing we had spent time here, Sierra Leoneans would talk in awed tones of Guineans’ capacity for alcohol consumption. The liquor stores near our bairro are busy at all hours of the day and night. Christians and animists quaff openly, Muslims more discreetly. 

For there is little to do but drink. When the hordes of wide-eyed villagers arrive in the capital, there is nothing here – no neon lights, no buzzing shopping malls, very few private cars or motorbikes. All they see is poverty, filth and a jumble of crowded neighbourhoods that bear an alarming resemblance to what they have left behind. Nor is there any work. The aid jobs have been colonised by foreigners, government is in the hands of a small clique of elders, and the few public sector positions in a city with scant public services are handed out to the friends and relatives of the powerful, not to humble, uneducated peasants. The new arrivals are too late – there are too many people and not enough jobs; the threadbare urban economy, like the villages they have forsaken, has no room for them.

The only option available to them is commerce. But how can they lower themselves to hawking in the markets? These are people used to real work: hard physical labour in the fields, hunting, fishing, work for which you need strength, determination, patience, where you are judged by the size of the yams you produce, the sacks of rice you harvest. A man’s work. Commerce is for women and for Fulas, those flighty Muslims from the east who are too lazy, too eager for a fast buck, to bend their backs in the fields. Bandim market is dominated by women, Fula men and foreigners. Coffee sellers from Guinea-Conakry, medicine men from Niger and pale-skinned Mauritanian shopkeepers compete for business with Senegalese, Gambians and Malians. Even if they could put aside their hauteur, Guineans would not easily find a niche – the foreigners and Fulani are well ensconced; they have taken the prized pitches, honed the sharpest sales techniques, cornered the best customers. Here again the villagers are crowded out, here again they have arrived too late.

So instead they idle. They drink, play chequers, or brew green tea. Many survive on one meal a day – they call it “um tiro”, one shot. The well-connected crowd into small houses with relatives or friends, six or seven sharing a room; those without contacts must sneak into the market at night to sleep under the tables. I ask a local headmaster, Carlito, if he thinks the migrants would be better off staying in the villages. He replies without hesitation: ‘If I could afford a tractor, I’d go back to the village myself.’

But the new arrivals have their pride. While they were back home toiling in the fields, those who came from the city to visit were the ones who had prospered, who had made it (the others, who did not come back, were presumed to be too busy to take time out from their soaring new careers). With them these pioneers brought not just mobile phones and sports shoes, but an aura of glory, of achievement, of success. Can those who followed them now go back as failures? Can they give up their dreams of betterment and return – forever – to a life of drudgery? Of course, they cannot. It is too late for that, as well. Their aspirations have left the fields behind. The village is the past, not the future. In their minds they have moved on, and turning back is impossible to countenance.

Next to the mission in a small, whitewashed one-room building, a young Christian convert named Tino has a shop. He built it with his own hands, having saved enough money as a hawker to buy bricks, cement and a plot of land. From behind the metal grid that fronts it he sells basic provisions – washing powder, sachets of water, tinned sardines, pencils, exercise books and other sundries. The shelves are only thinly stocked, however, and since he opened up a few months ago business has been quiet. He spends most of the day sitting on the raised platform out front, reading the Bible or playing chequers with his friend, Joka. I sometimes join them in the sultry late afternoons after buying teabags and eggs from the shop for the next day’s breakfast. Tino without fail gives me his plastic chair and pulls up a less comfortable wooden stool for himself. Small children run around squealing in the street below us as we talk.

Neither of them is happy. Joka, tall and languid, sprawls across his plastic chair like an octopus. He is often asleep when I pass, his head lolling pendulously over the back of the chair, a living image of Orwell’s ‘boredom which is inseparable from poverty; the times when you have nothing to do and, being underfed, can interest yourself in nothing.’ He came to Bissau as a child from a village in the north. Although he completed several years of schooling and speaks three languages, he cannot find a job. He complains about the lack of opportunities for young people in the city. ‘The government does nothing for us,’ he spits, his general air of sloth betraying an angry streak that I have encountered before among young men in more combustible parts of West Africa. ‘All they do is stuff their pockets. The only people who can find jobs here are the family and friends of politicians. They live in big houses and drive big cars. Nobody else has a chance.’ Tino, smaller and more compact than his friend and with a less cynical demeanour, nevertheless concurs. ‘People in the countryside think conditions are good here in Bissau,’ he says, ‘but they are wrong. There is nothing here.’

Their resentment is trained on the older generation. The heroes of the war of independence have reneged on their promises. Instead of development they brought impoverishment; since the colonists departed, incomes have plummeted. Although a handful of the country’s leaders have prospered, the wealth has not been shared. The elders allowed – encouraged! – the spread of corruption, and excluded the next generation from prosperity and power.

Until recently the young have kept quiet, mindful that Africa expects deference towards its elders. But look around Bissau and you see signs of change. In the shade of an abandoned Portuguese building in the old town is a stall selling cheap replica football shirts. They are in blue and white stripes or green and white hoops – the colours of Porto FC, or Sporting Lisbon. Some are in the deep red of the Portuguese national team. Teenage boys wear T-shirts emblazoned with photos of Deco or Ronaldo, the modern heroes of Portuguese football. Most young Guineans do not want Ghana or the Ivory Coast to win the upcoming World Cup; they are supporting their old colonial masters. To the dismay of the elders, their children and grandchildren do not despise but look up to Portugal. Tino and Joka are among numerous young people who talk of “taking the boat to Europe,” where you can get ahead through merit and hard work rather than deceit and nepotism. The journey, they know, is dangerous and often fatal, claiming thousands of West African lives each year, but their patience is running out.

The Ringtone and the Drum, which is available as a paperback and e-book, was reviewed by Claire Melamed here on Global Dashboard in January. I will post a second instalment on responses to modernisation later this month.


  • Mark Weston

    Mark Weston is a writer, researcher and consultant working on public health, justice, youth employability and other global issues. He lives in Sudan, and is the author of two books on Africa – The Ringtone and the Drum and African Beauty.

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