Guinean boys travel thousands kilometres to Europe for what they call ‘the adventure’, a journey essential to becoming “real men”.
They travel through the French Alps in sub-zero temperatures, without warm clothes and often without enough food to get to their final destination. A group of French people is helping the migrants who are lost to find their way.
The ones who survive ‘the adventure’ and make it to Europe are treated as heroes by their families back home. But what happens to the West African migrants in Europe?
In this latest episode of Cry Like A Boy we discover the cost of success of traveling to Europe. We talk to Fana who made it to France and talk about what happens when you succeed ‘the adventure’.
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TOUNKAN NAMO IN GUINEA: THE ADVENTURE – TRANSCRIPT
Danielle Olavario: Welcome to Cry Like a Boy, a podcast in which we travel to five African countries to tell extraordinary stories of ordinary men defying centuries-old stereotypes. I’m Danielle Olavario.
In the previous episode, we told you the story of Mamadou Alpha, a young Guinean man who went on a dangerous migration journey called “tounkan”, or “the adventure” to find success in Europe.
In Guinea, this “adventure” is a rite of passage for some young men, who see the hardships and experiences they have on this journey as essential to becoming “real men”. Those who survive and make it, are treated as heroes, and those who fail, are shamed by their communities.
In Europe, the term “adventure” is often associated with great explorers, pioneers, and travelers hiking up mountains and sailing the great wide ocean to seek fortune.
Our story this week starts in the French Alps, where young men like Mamadou are crossing mountains. It is a different kind of adventure.
It’s a quiet winter night and the snow is bright and crisp.
We are at the Italian border near the city of Briançon. This region has recently become a crossroad for illegal migrants from the Balkans, Middle East or Africa, seeking a better life in Western Europe.
The temperature has dropped below zero. The tall mountains seem dark and threatening, but Juliette, a 22-year-old photography student, knows these trails very well. Together with other locals, she’s looking for people who might have gotten lost or injured.
Juliette: Some nights we get down with about 20 people, some nights no one.
Danielle Olavario: Juliette is part of the association “Tous Migrants”. An initiative that helps find the people who have been on the road for many days, sometimes months. Many of them have frostbite, some are seriously injured, most are exhausted.
In her backpack, there is always a first aid kit, hot beverages and candy bars.
Juliette: These people are not necessarily equipped for the cold, they don’t always have hot drinks or food. We find people who are really cold. They haven’t eaten much and have nothing to drink.
Danielle Olavario: “Tous Migrants” was founded in 2014 after the beginning of what politicians call the “European migrant crisis” when hundreds of thousands of people started arriving in Europe, gathering in huge migration camps in Greece or other parts of the continent.
Many try to escape these conditions, hoping to cross into Western Europe on foot. And Briançon, France, a city nestled in the Alps, has become one of the hubs for those who were injured or lost their way during their “adventure”, and can’t quite continue the trip.
Juliette: It’s not acceptable for us to let people die in the mountains, we don’t want our mountains to become cemeteries. It’s just not possible.
Danielle Olavario: Since 2017 more than 12 000 people have gone through Refuge Solidaire, another NGO inBriançon, helping migrants with medical care, shelter and papers.
But settling down isn’t that simple. We met with one of these migrant travelers in Gap, France, the largest city in the Hautes Alpes, a French region that borders Italy and famous for its sports culture and beautiful nature.
Fana: My name is Syla Fana. I come from Guinea Conakry and I am 18-years-old.
Danielle Olavario: Fana left at a young age because he thought he’d find better opportunities in Europe.
Fana: Apart from the family situation, when you see the political, socio-economic situation of your country, even if you’re a kid, you can still have some thoughts. You think to yourself: why this? Why us?
You see that there are all these resources, but you are struggling, you don’t live well, you live in misery.
Danielle Olavario: He decided to go on “the adventure”, by travelling from Guinea to France.
Fana: I left on my own at the age of 12. Can you imagine? It’s crazy. I went to Mali from Guinea.
I met smugglers who actually take people from Mali to Algeria. In fact, I negotiated with them. I did all the necessary things with them. I left like that, country by country, country by country until I got to France.
Danielle Olavario: Fana is from Conakry, Guinea. And like Mamadou, he went on the migration route to Europe. With one crucial difference: he made it to the other side and now lives in France.
Fana: My family considers me a hero. The others? Maybe, who knows but I don’t know.
There are many who are proud of you. There are also some who hate you because you have succeeded in your life.
It’s calm here.
I’ve been living here for a few months and I think, yeah.
Danielle Olavario: Fana is wearing sunglasses, comfortable gray pants and a bright yellow hoodie. He seems confident and relaxed as we walk towards his apartment block. He’s been living in Gap for two years, but he has only recently moved to this residential area.
Fana is in an “internat”, a kind of public boarding school where he is learning to be a caretaker for the elderly. Most of the time he sleeps at school, but during breaks, he lives with a friend.
Their small studio is in slight disarray. A double bed takes most of the room and there are travel pictures of several people on the walls, but none are of Fana. You can tell that he doesn’t spend much time in the apartment.
But he doesn’t mind. He hasn’t had a steady home for a really long time. The “adventure” wasn’t so easy for him. He says his family considers him a hero, except that he prefers to hide from them, for now.
Fana: They haven’t heard from me for a long time and that’s normal. I would prefer it that way.
I prefer to hide well. When I have a better life I’ll see my brothers, I’ll do what I can for the others. For now, I have to concentrate on what I am doing.
Danielle Olavario: According to UNHCR, despite the coronavirus pandemic, over 41, 000 people arrived in Europe irregularly through Spain in 2020, undertaking the Mediterranean route. And Guineans were the second most numerous group of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa after Malians.
Anthropologist Julie Kleinman, author of the book Adventure Capital about illegal migrants in Paris says, the desire to leave home in some West African cultures is a coming of age rite, and succeeding means you are a man.
Julie Kleinman: In the 19th century there are many documented cases of leaving one’s village to become a man. In most of West Africa, leaving and migrating is a kind of initiation rite through which one becomes a man.
Danielle Olavario: Fana says that already at the age of 12, boys in Guinea feel like grown-ups.
Fana: He feels helpless if he sees his mother struggle. Trying to get something to eat when he knows that he is a boy, he is the one who has to help his parents.
I know families in Africa, even in Guinea, where a 13-14-year-old child feeds the whole family. It’s from the age of 12 that he starts to work.
Danielle Olavario: According to studies, poverty is generally one of the main drivers of migration from Guinea. The second is moving up the social ladder.
Here’s Guinean sociologist Dr Abdoulaye Wotèm Somparé.
Dr Abdoulaye Wotèm Somparé:The economic factor is there. But as it is not the poorest country, the most unstable country, the country where there is war, we must look for the answer elsewhere too.
Do people not want to migrate because they want to get a promotion? A social promotion?
After getting a job there, they send money, build houses. We have even noticed that in villages where there is a lot of immigration, such as the sub-prefecture of Kolaboui in Boké, the most beautiful houses belong to migrants living abroad, who are now positively called “Diaspo”.
Danielle Olavario: Many migrants say that getting the papers is the most difficult part. But for most, the hardships on the road to success have to do with finding a place in their host country’s society.
Here’s Julie Kleinman again.
Julie Kleinman: The first and most serious way that the host country creates difficulties is through this economic marginalisation. That, of course, comes along with politics in terms of having or not having papers on immigration rights. So they both take away the rights of people by not allowing them to work legally. And even when they can work legally, they are very much sort of kept in a particular role of the unskilled, the quote-unquote unskilled migrant. And I do not agree with the word unskilled because most of these migrants will, in fact, gain a lot of skills while they’re abroad.
Danielle Olavario: Fana finds that the adventure taught him a lot of things. And now that he’s settled, he can pursue his passion: taking care of others.
Fana: I’m a bit versatile, I can do a lot of jobs, several jobs. But I like this school.
Danielle Olavario: Julie Kleinman says that back home, working-class jobs like the one Fana is pursuing, are often not considered “manly” enough, but migrants don’t mind. Because they’re living the adventure. And someday, they will reach success.
Julie Kleinman: There’s this famous saying in the Malian language “Tunga te danbe don”, meaning that exile has no dignity. So when you go abroad somewhere, you can do any kind of job. It’s not going to be an assault on your family’s lineage or on your own dignity, as it might be if you stayed in West Africa because you can do any sort of job.
They use these resources to remind themselves that they can do these jobs, which may be considered less dignified where they’re from, but they can do them because they’re on this migratory adventure. And they use it as a resource to overcome some of the attacks on their dignity that they experience to remind themselves that this is not necessarily the context that counts the most.
The context that counts the most is still where they’re from and their communities, where their lineage and their dignity as a man and as a person matter.
Danielle Olavario: There is no African market in Gap. To get the food he’s used to, Fana has to go all the way to Marseille, a big port city in the Mediterranean. Often, he and his friends would take a car and load it with Guinean spices, vegetables, and peanut butter.
When we ask Fana about Guinea, he lights up.
Fana: I miss everything about Guinea. My family, the life there, even if it’s hard, but I like the life there, actually. It’s hard, but I was born there.
The temperatures, the climate there. Even the air.
Danielle Olavario: Despite homesickness, Fana doesn’t want to go back. As we’re walking towards the city centre after the interview, he says that the adventure was the best school of life he had.
Fana:The adventure has really matured me and grown me, in fact. You have to know that great men are often not born great, they grow up. This is my case.
Danielle Olavario: In the next episode of Cry Like a Boy, as always, my co-host Khopotso Bodibe, will meet two guests and explore the world of “the adventure” globally.
Cry Like a Boy is published every second Thursday. If you’re new to our podcast, check out our previous episodes on the illegal miners of Lesotho. These men risk their lives every day and experience trauma from living months underground. In our documentary on the Banna Mamanaera, you can hear how these men are coping with the trauma of life in the mines. Have a listen, it’s a gripping story.
I, Danielle Olavario, will see you next time.
In this episode, we used music by Ba Cissoko.
With original reporting and editing by Makeme Bamba in Conakry, Guinea, and Naira Davlashyan in Gap, France. 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.
Production Design by Studio Ochenta. Theme by Gabriel Dalmasso.
A special thanks to our producer Natalia Oelsner for collecting the music for this episode. Our editor-in-chief is Yasir Khan.
Our podcast is available on Castbox, Spotify, Apple, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you liked this episode, please give us five stars and leave a comment. We love reading those.
Share with us your own stories of how you changed and challenged your view on what it means to be a man. Use #crylikeaboy. If you’re a French speaker, this podcast is also available in French: Dans la Tête des Hommes.
This programme was funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the European Development Journalism Grants programme. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.