In Guinea young boys dream of the biggest adventure. An adventure that will give them a heroic feeling, make them a man, and make their family proud. This adventure, or “tounkan” in the local Malinké language, is an illegal migration route to Europe.
Young boys leave their parents’ house to find themselves alone, overcoming many hardships and even risking death in search of a better life in Europe. It’s the ultimate way for a boy to become a man. If they survive the journey, they become a hero or “tounkan namo” for their family.
It’s a high stakes adventure that has to succeed no matter what. But what happens if they can’t complete the dangerous route and are forced to return home empty-handed?
This episode of Cry Like a Boy tells the story of Mamadou who was forced to return home from his ‘tounkan’ and faced anger from family and friends.
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TOUNKAN NAMO IN GUINEA: THE HERO – TRANSCRIPT
Kadiatou: I want my child to go to Europe because there’s too much misery here, there’s no work.
Rama: If my child leaves, he will send us money and all that we would want.
Oumou: Every mother wishes for her son to travel. The boy is a man, he’s the pillar of the family. It’s him who supports his dad, his mother, his sisters and brothers. When the boy travels, that’s what can assure happiness.
Danielle Olavario: We’re in Conakry, Guinea and these folks are talking about “the adventure” or “tounkan” in the local Malinké language.
In Guinea, a country with a rich nomadic history and culture, “tounkan” is not just a word.
It’s a way for a young man to learn about life.
During the adventure you leave your parents’ house to find yourself alone, overcoming many hardships and even death to reach a better life in Europe.
Succeed and become a hero or “tounkan namo” for your family.
In other words, it’s the ultimate way for a boy to become a man.
In Guinea, boys as young as 12-years-old leave their homes to go on illegal migration routes to Europe through the Mediterranean. Often, they are supported by their parents and whole villages.
But what happens when the hero fails his adventure and has to return home and face the fierce reaction of his friends and family?
Welcome to Cry Like a Boy, a podcast that explores how the pressure to be ‘a man’ can hurt families and societies. This is the fourth stop in our journey across the African continent, where we meet men who defy patriarchal norms.
Today our story is about the pressure on young men to be successful, no matter the cost.
Danielle Olavario: Guinea is a picturesque West African country with a population of 12 million people. The tropical climate of the country’s forest region allows it to grow high quality bananas, mangos and rice. Guinea is the world’s second export country for bauxite, after Russia.
The country gained its independence from France in 1958. It hasn’t been involved in major international conflicts and for over 10 years there hasn’t been an active civil conflict on its territory.
However, with a base salary of around 40 euros per month, the country remains among the world’s poorest.
It’s also a place where young men are urged to go on “adventures” as a coming of age rite. Tens of thousands of Guineans try illegal migration routes each year. They make these long journeys on foot, often crossing deserts, finding routes by land and sea to make their way to Europe.
Thousands of people die each year on the crossing.
Despite the risk of thirst, hunger and violence in migration camps in Libya or in Moroccan prisons, many young people in Guinea dream of making this trip, of going on their own “adventure” to seek a better life, to become successful, and to make their families proud.
But not everyone succeeds:
Mamadou: The things I saw there, the things I went through, I wouldn’t wish them upon my enemy. I wouldn’t want him to go there.
I went through many things there such as hunger, segregation, betrayal. I underwent forced labor there.
Danielle Olavario: This is Mamadou Alpha. He prefers for people to call him Alpha. He is 21 years old. When we sit down to chat he offers a small plastic bag filled with mineral water. Coffee isn’t very popular here and most people just have mineral water of ginger juice. He seems like an easy-going and open guy, eager to tell his story, even if it’s a difficult one.
Mamadou left home when he was 19 years old. He left with 1,100 euros from his family’s savings and went to Morocco in hopes to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.
Since he was a boy growing up in Conakry, “ the adventure” was all he talked about with his friends. And those who successfully completed the trip inspire him to this day:
Mamadou: Some of our friends live there. They never went to school even for a day, but they’re okay. I have a lot of friends there. Not long ago my friend who lives in France, in Lyon, paid for the wedding of his sister.
Danielle Olavario: Friendly rivalry is a strong motivator for these boys. In their young imaginative minds, the ‘adventure’ is all about becoming a “Tounkan namo ” no matter the cost. We asked Ester Botta Somparé, an Italian anthropologist living in Guinea, to explain this phenomenon.
Ester Botta Somparé: It is a kind of language that is presented in a very positive light, something that threatens human life. It’s impressive to hear the same words come up every time, trying to give value to the idea of leaving as an act of bravery, as an act of heroism.
There was a mother I was talking to whose son left illegally. So this mother said she didn’t know her son wanted to leave, he never told her. He left secretly, but he was showing her pictures of his friends on social networks. He would say to her, ‘Look Mum, the real heroes at the moment are in Italy, Spain, they are in Europe. They are the ones who had the courage to make the crossing”. So there is this glorification that evokes fairy tales, that can indeed evoke initiation tales.
Danielle Olavario: Mamadou lives in a modest two-story house with three other people: his mother Fatoumata, an older brother, and a younger adopted sister. Mamadou’s father, the breadwinner of the family, died several years ago, leaving Fatoumata and the whole family in a precarious position. This motivated the young Mamadou to consider making the journey himself.
Mamadou: We have to go. We can’t see our families suffer here. We’ve been suffering since we’re kids. We’re supposed to have our own children in the future, so they shouldn’t see us in the same situation.
Danielle Olavario: When a man of the family dies, women have several options here: marry their late husband’s relative so that the children keep the family name and stay together, or marry someone else. But that someone else may not want the children or may ban the children from seeing the late husband’s family.
Fatoumata married Mamadou’s uncle. Mamadou thinks his uncle doesn’t take good care of his mother, so helping her is what pushed him to go on the Adventure.
Mamadou: I know I’d do a lot for my mum because my mum did a lot for me.
You know, in Africa, when you come into the world as a man, you have all the burdens hanging over your head.
Danielle Olavario: Young men like Mamadou, feel the pressure to be successful breadwinners for the families once they come of age, and the adventure is part of that, but Guinea is not the only place putting such pressure on youths. Men around the world are “supposed” to be successful and take care of their families.
Here’s Ester Botta Somparé again:
Ester Botta Somparé: A man’s success is judged by his success in his professional field. It’s defined in terms of having power and maybe acquiring some wealth.
The fact of taking care of one’s wife and children counts as well. This is something quite universal, even if in European and North American societies women are increasingly involved in the workforce, just like their husbands.
The cultural specifics lie more in how important the obligations towards one’s family are, on the debt to one’s parents. So success would mean improving the living conditions of one’s family, repaying this debt to one’s parents for raising them, educating, feeding.
Danielle Olavario: Success is important when it comes to the adventure. But what happens when you fail? After mentally preparing himself, Mamadou also made his attempt. But failing and returning home was even harder than the journey itself.
Mamadou: When I came back people threw looks at me, some were talking behind my back, saying I was only having fun. Most people told me they knew I couldn’t do it. They said I was incapable of it, that I was weak. I don’t repent of anyone. I let it go. I know I am strong.
Danielle Olavario: During his long journey, Mamadou was captured by the Moroccan authorities who sent him back home. To Mamadou this was a shock.
Mamadou: I didn’t think I’d return to Guinea…with empty pockets.
It was really, really, really painful. Really painful. Despite all the difficulties that I had in Morocco, I’d much rather stay there.
Danielle Olavario: This is one of Mamadou’s relatives. He wishes to remain anonymous.
Anonymous: If you’re a man, when you have a goal, either you achieve it or you die. But he was afraid to die, he returned. He spent so much money on this trip. If I were him, I would never return. I’d rather die there than return.
Danielle Olavario: The shame of failure is something that none of these young men want to face. Especially when whole villages often chip in to collect enough for them to leave. So if they return, relatives and villagers often feel like these returnees have squandered their money…and they believe their failure means they did not become men…
Anonymous: To me he’s a woman because it’s women who go back and forth. A man has a goal and he either achieves it or he doesn’t.
The whole family relies on you. Going there and coming back means you haven’t reached your goal while the family counts on you, it’s you who is the man of the family.
Danielle Olavario: Many people in Conakry share this opinion of Mamadou. This kind of stigma is the reason many migrants don’t dare come back.
And if they do, many of them hide. Some of them even keep on sending money home, as if they were working abroad.
Except, they live just around the corner.
The “stigma of the returnee” follows both men and women when they have to return home from the Adventure. Men who return home are treated as weak and women are seen as cursed.
With women, the stigma is connected to what they have to experience on their journey abroad. They often experience sexual abuse and rape, and sometimes they have no other choice but to sell their bodies in exchange of money or food.
Bintou: It’s not easy at all. When a girl takes the route and she has no money, nothing… You need someone. And today, there is no free help. Someone can tell you he loves you but not because he does, only for his own benefit.
I met someone on the road who told me he loved me and that he would take care of me. And yet, it was the other way round.
Danielle Olavario: This is Bintou. She took the Moroccan route, like Mamadou. She came all the way to the coastal city of Nador, just 10km away from the Spanish border. But after struggling with love and work, she decided to come back. Even though for her, like for many women who return, it meant to be treated as “dirty”.
Bintou: I didn’t care about what people thought when I came back. There was too much slander about me.
They told me that maybe I was cursed by my parents, that is why I returned.
Danielle Olavario: Bintou suffered from the very same stigma that hurt Mamadou.
As a returnee, he was considered less of a man. He felt humiliated and wronged.
But after two years, he found a way to cope with it.
We are at a meeting of the Guinean Organisation Against Irregular Migration, an NGO created by returnees to help other returnees reintegrate into society. Their ultimate goal is to convince people to stay or make them migrate legally.
We’re in a big room. In the center of this room, there is a big table with a dozen people. Some of them are women, but it’s mostly men. The ones who returned willingly or forcefully and those who are considering their options to leave.
The host greets everyone and offers to choose the topic for a debate. Any topic. There are no rules. People come here to openly talk about what really bothers them.
Elhadj Mohamed Diallo: Every month we have at least three or four educational debates with migrants and potential migrants. And sometimes we show them videos of young people who have never set foot anywhere, who don’t even know where Senegal is, but who have earned success in Guinea. We show this to the returnees so that they know that even if they left and came back, their lives aren’t over.
Danielle Olavario: This was Elhadj Mohamed Diallo, president of this organization. The organization was created in 2018 and now operates in all Guinean regions. Every month they help dozens of families.
According to him, some 19 000 people were forcefully returned to the country in the past four years, but the real number of returnees is impossible to calculate: some return voluntarily and don’t go through the system, some return secretly and never even tell their families they’re back.
Man: I live in rejection. Why am I saying this? When you leave and return, your friends start to ignore you.
Woman: Why do you think others ignore you?
Danielle Olavario: Diallo says stigma of the returnees, is one of the biggest challenges for reintegration. Rejected by society, these people want to leave again, especially the men.
It’s one of the reasons why the NGO suggests creating a televised competition with those who returned to highlight and empower these men and help them reassert their manhood through the series, showing the rest of the community how strong and useful they can be.
Elhadj Mohamed Diallo: It makes them feel good. They get to see the young returnees as people with potential, also to defend their project because they have experienced a lot. Secondly, they have experience in many areas. So they have learned how to do many things. They have learned about many trades that don’t exist in Guinea, and they want to set up these trades.
Danielle Olavario: NGOs like this one, supported by the International Organisation for Migration and the government, exist all over West Africa, where irregular migration is a major issue.
But NGOs like these are not enough.
But it isn’t the only solution. Here’s Mamadou again.
Mamadou: Football is a hobby. Sometimes I feel like football helps me to forget a little bit what happened. When I’m on the pitch, I’m not alone, I’m with my friends. Sometimes we play with our elders. When it’s a good game, it’s good.
In fact, it has already happened that my playmates laughed at me, but it makes me laugh, too. It’s good for me. If it’s during football, I don’t mind.
Danielle Olavario: It is a really hot and sunny day. Mamadou is playing with four other men today. He’s wearing a yellow-green number 7 jersey. Around 30 people from the neighborhood came to watch the match. At the goal, they cheer.
Here in Mamdou’s hometown, many boys dream of becoming the next Paul Pogba, star of the French National team, and Manchester United, a British Premier League club. Mamadou did too. Before he left, he was one of the strongest players in their team “Haut Niveau”.
He says that after coming back when people see him, they tend to think he’s gotten weaker. “Weak” is the word that follows him after he’s failed to get to Europe. But on the football field, he proves he is strong.
He marks the second goal for his team and everyone cheers.
Mamadou: I don’t always score, but when I score, I always show them that it’s me, it’s still me, Alpha. Alpha from before, the one who played the ball day and night before he came back, thinking it’s all over for him. I’m still the same Alpha.
I feel very strong.
Danielle Olavario: Mamadou Alpha had a difficult journey that has changed him. Football has helped him to reintegrate in society. Still, his biggest dream is still that of being the breadwinner for his household and making his mother proud.
Mamadou: I dream of seeing my mum drive her own car. I did not want my mum to need anything. That was my dream. I wish my journey didn’t end. But I know that I will eventually reach my dream.
It’s to get mum out of this poverty. That’s my idea, my biggest dream is that. To be my mum’s hero.
Danielle Olavario: You were listening to Cry Like a Boy, a podcast in which we explore what it means to be a man in Africa. In the next episode, we will travel to France and see what happens to those who, unlike Mamadou, made the perilous journey through the Mediterranean and into Europe.
In this episode, we used music by Ba Cissoko.
With original reporting and editing by Makeme Bamba in Conakry, Guinea and Naira Davlashyan, Marta Rodriguez Martinez, Lillo Montalto Monella & Arwa Barkallah in Lyon, Mame Peya Diaw in Nairobi, Lory Martinez in Paris, France, and Clitzia Sala in London, UK. I’m your host, Danielle Olavario.
Production Design by Studio Ochenta. Theme by Gabriel Dalmasso.
Special thanks to our producer Natalia Oelsner for collecting the music for this episode. Our editor-in-chief is Yasir Khan.
For more information on Cry Like a Boy, a Euronews original series and podcast, go to our website to find opinion pieces, videos, and articles on the topic. Follow us @euronews on Twitter and @euronews.tv on Instagram.
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