Patrice was born in Cameroon, the middle child of seven and everything that connotes.
Patrice’s father worried about his son. “You’re not my father!” Patrice was known to scream. “I’m going to run away. I’m going to leave!” And so one day, when Patrice was ten, his father took him out alone. They sat down at a café and his dad ordered a beer for himself and a juice for his son. Over their drinks he said to Patrice, “I know we have our troubles right now. But when you are older we are going to be best friends. I see something in you I don’t see in any of my other kids. I can’t explain it to you now while you’re so young, but I think in five years I will be able to.” But in five years, Patrice’s father passed away from an illness. Patrice still wonders what his father saw in him.
Patrice left Cameroon ten years ago when he was 24. He had completed high school, had spent some years working in a small store in his hometown, and he was ready to get out. It wasn’t that the situation was terrible. In fact, Cameroon was receiving a fair number of immigrants from other parts of Africa; the education was better and, after all, people were not starving or extremely poor. However, throughout the country there reigned a sense of better things “out there” and many young people were dazzled by the dream to explore.
Patrice played soccer, so a friend in Buenos Aires encouraged him to try his luck playing for a team in South America. Patrice spent several months in Argentina and Ecuador, but he was disheartened by the harsh and outright racism that was inexplicable to him. No one liked to see Africans and no one tried to understand them. “It wasn’t the language,” he said. “My Spanish was bad but I could communicate. One thing is to not understand. Another thing is to not want to.” One you can overcome. The other you cannot.
So Patrice returned to Africa—but not home. This time his destination was Dakar, Senegal. Once more, he was appalled by the racism. “There we were all Africans—we were all the same color! But they only left you alone if you had money.” So Patrice moved on. From Dakar to Côte d’Ivoire, from Côte d’Ivoire to Niger, then to Algeria, Morocco, and finally Melilla. He worked where he could. He made bashful phone calls home when he needed money. He made ends meet.
After he left Senegal, Patrice’s experiences were better. The racism dissipated. By the time he reached North Africa, he began to feel at home. Arabs, he explained, were sympathetic to the needs of people. “If they saw you needed something, they wouldn’t let you be without.” In Algeria he rented a room from a woman who lived with her young children in a small house. He was supposed to pay every week, but before long the woman said, “You are just another son. This is your home.” He played with her children, helped out where he could, paid if he had the money, but it did become a home for him. “I walked in the door and she was there to say hello, to see if I was well or not well. It was hard to leave that behind.” But Patrice was not ready to settle.
In Morocco, he experienced similar hospitality. He met a Moroccan his age who had never seen a black man before. He was fascinated by Patrice—the color of his skin, the places he came from, the soccer photographs he carried in his wallet—and was eager to bring him into his group of friends. This was the man who looked out for Patrice during the time that he spent in Morocco. But he did not settle there either.
By that time his destination was Spain. Europe was a legend in Africa. Clean, just, a place where work came easily and so did money. He paid an Arab 3000 euros to hide in the trunk of his car while he drove across the border of Melilla, one of two Spanish cities on the African continent. On that day he took his first steps on European soil, and joined hundreds of immigrants from all over Africa in Melilla’s camp for illegal migrants.
There were 800 people in the camp and most were not simple explorers. Many were fleeing the horrors of war or hunger. Many were desperate; many had been waiting a long time. They slept eight to a room, and often spent their days there as well. The women in particular whiled away the time bickering in their close quarters.
It was Patrice who made the change. He announced that there was going to be a soccer tournament. “Everyone has to play!” he declared. The women protested but under his spirit and insistence they relented. Patrice went around the camp with sheets of paper, recorded names and nationalities, and organized people into teams by country. The miniature World Cup began and people left their dorms to defend their countries on the soccer field or to watch the latest match. “Who is responsible for this?” managers of the camp asked, bewildered. Patrice gained a reputation as the man who started it all.
There, he was happy. He had chores in exchange for food and shelter, he had a routine, he had friends. He got a little bit of training in gardening and after two years, he was taken to the peninsula in 2012. Because of his gardening experience, he went to the North to look for work amid the green of Cantabria. He was briefly employed but the crisis has kept him out of work for months. He learned that Spain is not as legendary as it was in Africa’s collective imagination. “Some things are good—Spain is clean, its schools are good, its women are equal. A man can’t have three women in the same house like in Cameroon. It looks nice on the surface. But inside it’s hurting too.”
Patrice has now been away from home for ten years. His short-term goal is to return to Cameroon as soon as he finds money for a ticket. “I need to see my mom,” he explained. Nothing more, nothing less. The need to explore is still in him, but it is the spirit that has leaked out. He wants to see his family, let them re-inflate him, before setting out again.