“The problem was there before all of us. We were just born into it, like the generation before us and the one before it.”
This is how Baba described the conflict that plagued his tribe in his homeland of Ghana.
Though the tribe had a history of conflict, Baba explained, “You didn’t see it. It was something you heard about, and you knew whose side you were on, but you didn’t see anything happen.” Until 2002. The violence erupted while Baba’s uncle was leading the tribe. The problem was the same as always: kinship, chieftaincy. They were all family, but they were torn. And now the problem was no longer dormant—his uncle was killed, along with other family members—and Baba was no longer safe. Security forces in Ghana were aware of the conflict and controlled the violence within the boundaries of the tribe. “But if you went to the town, stepped out to get something from the market, they could get you,” Baba said. He pointed to his face, racked with scars.
He escaped for months at a time, first to Côte d’Ivoire, later to Niger; for four years he lived in Libya to study the Quran. At times there was peace—life went on as usual and Baba returned to his country—until the violence erupted again. But in all this time, the resounding beckon came from Europe. Everyone was saying the word. Finally, in 2010 and following the murder of his father, Baba decided to go to Spain.
Baba traveled with a group of West Africans and passed freely through Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali, all the way to the border of Algeria. To enter Algeria or Morocco, all Africans were legally required to have a visa, unless they were traveling on Malian passports. Baba’s group acquired these in whatever way they could and passed unhassled into Algeria—only to enter the beginning of the real challenge.
North Africans were well familiar with such groups. Populated areas exercised high surveillance and patrol officers regularly deported illegal migrants to the empty no-man’s-land between borders. Baba and his companions stayed far away from the towns as they traveled through Algeria, through the border town of Maghnia, and into Morocco. At night they set up camps in the brush outside towns to minimize the chance of being captured by the police. But sometimes the police came out to the outskirts, the desertic wilderness where they slept outside, and captured them. Baba was taken back across Maghnia so many times that he memorized the path well enough to later help others across. After many attempts, they were in Morocco and up against the next challenge: Europe.
Along this journey, men from each country segregated themselves into groups, every country a small sect. However, Baba described a code of brotherhood that bonded all West Africans on the journey. They trusted each other, supported each other, and if one did wrong, they ensured that he was peacefully made to understand justice. Economically, emotionally, logistically, they were interdependent. The problem was, this code did not extend to the North Africans.
From Morocco, their mission was to find an Arab who would, for close to 1000 euros apiece, provide them with a patera, a small wooden boat, which they would use to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Spain. Their “brothers”, other West Africans who had crossed ahead of them, helped them find an Arab. But this man was not part of their brotherhood. There was no accountability.
When Baba’s group of 50 people was ready to board the patera, rain and rough seas hammered the shore for days. There was no way to cross. There was also no way to wait without being caught. They returned to the town and waited for the weather to improve. Then, by the time the rain had cleared out, so had their Moroccan. So had their money. Back to square one.
The group did make it, in the end. They crossed the Sea from Morocco to Almería, where the Red Cross collected them and took them to a camp in Barcelona. It was traditionally a deportation camp and that understanding was haunting. For days Baba lived with the fear that his entire journey might have been for nothing. Then the Red Cross interrogated him and informed him that his case was one of political asylum. After several relocations, from Bilbao to Torrelavega to Santander, he settled in the Cocina Económica, the immigrant center in Santander. Currently he takes Spanish classes and works a few hours a week with the nuns that run the center.
Baba does not have papers or a real job. He arrived in 2010 when Spain was well into its economic crisis. When it was time to renew his residency, he was denied political asylum, as Ghana was seen as stable in terms of economy and politics. “Ghana did not have a problem,” Baba agreed. “Not as a country. But my tribe is still fighting.”
Beyond the fear of violence, Baba has a fear of returning home empty-handed. “I’ve wasted time,” he said. The people he left behind in Ghana got jobs, moved forward with their lives, and he fears having wasted time, energy, and money getting to Spain, only to find little in exchange.
Every day he talks to his mother. Every day she tells him to come home. “I will, Mom,” he says simply. He knows she doesn’t expect anything of him, but he feels that he must continue to provide for his mother no matter the distance, and that she must have a part of anything has, no matter how small. He will return, but before that, he is in Spain and determined to make something of it.