Bruno Diabang is one of many Senegalese immigrants that arrive in Spain by the thousands every year. However, Bruno’s story does not begin like that of many, on a patera, a rickety wooden boat built for the 1,200-mile journey from Senegal to the Canary Islands. Bruno’s story begins with a woman whose name is Rebeca.
Bruno is from Kafountine, a town of 2,000 inhabitants in the South of Senegal. He lived in a close-knit community with his parents and three siblings. “But really,” he explained, “there’s family, and then there’s second family”—and everyone is one of the two. You could go to a neighbor’s house for anything, he said, knock on the door, and say, “It’s me,” and they would know you by your voice. Everybody was open and friendly. “You had somewhere to be by nine, you didn’t get there till ten because so many people would stop you in the street with something to say.”
When Bruno finished school, he spent several years running a hotel for Kafountine’s many tourists but, worn down by the daily chaos, he left for the calmer atmosphere of work in the fields.
One spring, six Spanish girls came to stay at his farm in Kafountine. One of them had been there the year before on a project and had been so drawn to the place that this time she returned as a tourist with some friends. Bruno recalled the class consciousness that existed between the Senegalese and the Europeans. “We all maintained our distance. We were the workers and they were the tourists.” Nevertheless, their paths were intertwined. Bruno was always the first one awake, eager to start work and experience the morning. The tourists, with their days full of plans, were also always up with the sun. Every day while he swept floors or wiped down tables, there was one girl who passed him on her way from the lodgings to the showers. She noticed him, and he noticed her notice him, but they never said a word. After all, he was a worker, and she was a tourist.
One day he had been to the town, and on his way back to the farm he saw the same Spanish girl walking on the other side of the street. They were going the same way and maintained the same pace, but they crossed neither paths nor greetings. Only eyes.
Then one morning they spoke for the first time. Bruno was up and working when the girl came in and said something in Spanish. She mimed that she was having problems with the shower. “Let’s have a look,” he said to her in French, and let her lead the way. Indeed, there was no water coming out of the shower, so he tweaked the nozzle and got it running. The girl smiled.
Her name was Rebeca. From that point on, Bruno and Rebeca’s paths continued to cross. They didn’t share a language, but they made use of their few words of English and found other things to share. He sang and played guitar for her. Another night Bruno’s boss threw a big party and invited everyone, people from the farm, the tourists, friends.
The night of the party, Bruno set out walking but a car stopped beside him and Rebeca waved him in. So close to the Spanish girls for the first time, in another sense distance between them and him had never been so vast. They were the typical Europeans he knew well from his days in the hotel; meanwhile he had long dreadlocks and wore traditional red, yellow, and green Senegalese clothes. But as he walked into the party beside Rebeca, the Spaniard slung her arm around his waist. “I think she likes you,” his friend said to him. Bruno grinned, reached down, and clasped her hand in his.
It was that night, while they were dancing, that Rebeca gave him a kiss.
Soon after, the Spaniards went back to Spain. “It was too soon to tell her I loved her,” Bruno observed. He knew from stories he’d heard when he worked in the hotel that Europeans were more conservative with these words. He had to let her go. He just gave her a phone number where she could reach the farm. One week later, she called to say she hadn’t been able to sleep since she left him. From then on, for the next four years, Rebeca went to see Bruno three times every year. She started studying French so the next time she visited they could share a language. At the end of the fourth year, seven months ago, they got married in Senegal and Rebeca brought Bruno to live with her in Santander, Spain. He’s begun the slow process of integration and learning the language, but the culture is different from all he’s known.
“I like it better there,” Bruno confessed. He misses the hum of the village, his work, and the relationships he had. “But she wants nothing more than for me to stay.” He doesn’t know where he will end up. “Where I’ll be in a year from now? Five years? Ask me then.”