From Agadez to Europe

Ousman Umar with his book       Photo: African Press Club

Ousman Umar was an innocent, happy, curious, nine-year-old boy running around in his remote village in Ghana when he noticed an object dash across the sky at the speed of lightning. His eyes were on stalks as he watched the object disappear. Terribly puzzled, he tried to find out what it was. The little boy was told it was an airplane made by the “white man” and that the occupants were “white men.”

Ousman’s brain ran riot with questions, after which he decided to conduct an experiment. He threw a stone far up into the sky with all the strength he could muster. The stone came crashing down as fast as it had ascended. He was disappointed. How then could an object bearing human cargo sprint with such speed in the sky? There and then, he made up his mind to find out about the “white man.”

At 13, he was doing pretty well for himself as a mechanic. He had clients who worked in the port. He made enquiries about foreign travel there. One of them promised to introduce him to someone in the know. Following the introduction, he was required to pay a fee for the trip. Ousman eagerly handed all the money in his possession (3million cedis) to a man he would later learn was a human trafficker. The journey started with 40 young boys in Agadez, a city in Niger that lies in the Sahara desert

Mr. trafficker drove them to a random point in the desert. He turned off the engine and ordered all of them to disembark. Why? He claimed the vehicle was short of fuel. He drove back towards the town, promising to return with more petrol. They naively believed him. That was the last time they set eyes on him.

They waited a couple of days with no word from the trafficker. By now, they realized they had been abandoned. The boys were hungry, thirsty and terrified. Disillusion had set in. One of them revealed that he knew the route to Libya. Out of desperation, they agreed to continue the journey on foot. The young boys wandered around the desert for three weeks. Only six survived by the time they arrived in Libya.

Living in Libya was “hell on earth,” according to Ousman. He was chased around like an animal. For a young boy with no life experience, exploitation and discrimination were new and hard. Occasionally, he found work in the farms but mostly lived on the streets, eating from dustbins. After years of “hell” in Libya, he had some savings from odd jobs. Ousman decided to make the final leg of the trip to Europe through the Mediterranean Sea. The traffickers stuffed them in a rickety boat like sardine. One hundred and twenty people drowned at the first attempt.

Ousman hopped into another boat. For weeks, they drifted aimlessly in the ocean, with the wind nudging them in different directions. After five years of leaving home, he made it to Spain in 2005. If he thought the journey was over, he was terribly mistaken. Europe turned out not to be the “promised” land. It was hostile. In spite of the fact that he was underage, 17 years at the time, he was held in horrible conditions in a detention center for one month. When he was eventually set free, he ended up once again in the streets.

In what he described as a “miracle,” a Spanish couple saw him, learnt of his helpless situation and adopted him. Ousman is 31 this year. He has been able to go to school, set up a foundation offering digital education to kids in his village and publish a book about his life. Ousman’s foundation NASCO has seven ICT centers that currently serve 19 schools in Ghana. He strongly believes that irregular migration should be tackled from the origin by providing education and information for kids.

I met Ousman at an entrepreneurship workshop in Barcelona where he gave a talk. I was so moved by his story that I decided to share it. He is the epitome of resilience.

Folks, if you think life in your African village is tough, think again. The magnitude of suffering associated with the desert trip, which is usually fuelled by ignorance, will knock your socks off. This is a true story of the horror and indignity that befalls kids that fall into the hands of traffickers. The streets of Europe are actually not paved with gold. No one is waiting to receive you with open arms. Life in Europe is not easy, especially if one is illegal. Some never gain the appropriate documentation to settle in. If they do, it still does not guarantee a good life. Racism, discrimination, little to no opportunities for Africans are real challenges.

Students that come legally manage to integrate into society after school. It is still a struggle, though. Migration is as old as human existence on earth, however. Humans all over the world have been on the move. People naturally gravitate to areas they feel offer a better life. Africans are not the first and only ones migrating. In spite of that fact, the migration of African people seems to be criminalized, which should not be the case.

Irregular migration is a symptom of a bigger problem. The international system as presently constituted is very successful in producing great wealth in some parts of the world while mercilessly exploiting and impoverishing others. The injustice is glaring. Imbalance creates situations such as this.

Finally, are we doing enough to stop the traffickers? What are your general thoughts on migration? Enjoy!

 

20 comments

  1. What a story! I have copied and shared it with the Nigerian Collective. I hope many here in Nigeria who are spending their last dimes on plans to leave Nigeria for a better and easier life in developed countries will get to read
    Umar’s story.

    1. Flipping the script! These dangerous trips embarked upon by youths from sub Saharan Africa is the story of Nigerian Ennterpreneurs who have found business opportunities in Zinder-Niger (the most likely town enroute Europe via Agadez from most Nigerian towns especially Kano).

  2. Like many of us as children Ousman in the absence of experience let one glimpse of something extraordinary take hold as a life ambition. Where he differs from most was arguably in taking steps to fulfill that ambition and definately in surviving such suffering, degradation, danger and crushed childhood dreams.
    For me the word miracle is apt when he was discovered and rescued by the couple. This for me ranks alongside any of the epic biblical stories in the Old Testament. To say it is only chance or luck shrivels the whole human narrative to an arbitrary meaninglessness that like the apostle Paul I can’t accept based on my experience.
    Then to take advantage of the help and achieve what he has as an adult is truly outstanding and a tangible example for many disadvantaged young people in particular to take hold of and run with. It is to believe that nothing is impossible. To believe that honest practical kindness and only that can bring about a miracle that, like a pebble thrown in a pond, can create waves of miracles as Ousman reaches out to others with his story and experience.
    Well done Constance for taking us into your heart on this one.

  3. Wow! Thanks so much Consi for sharing this story. Yes and unfortuneately, so many in Africa are uninformed about basic facts. I think it’s deliberate though and because Africans are a huge part of the horrible human trafficking chain and profit from it they collaborate in this dispoiling of humanity! A crying shame! Employment and literacy are still lofty goals in our continent. In the interim, grass root education the old fashioned way, in the town squares, village schools, churches, mosques and markets – where ever the most vulnerable are is a must if things are to change. Imagine this story made into a film and viewed for free in your village! People are less likely to take the risk no matter how hungry they are. Thanks again for sharing.

  4. Thanks Ian and Amara for your contributions. Uzo, I absolutely agree with you that this will have a huge impact in the rural areas but also in the cities, if made into a film. Visuals are powerful! Thanks Prof. Ebere for sending the link to the “Nigerian collective.” Our young men and women need to be aware of the dangers. So many souls perishing in the desert and at sea.

  5. An incredible story. My nanny is indirectly a victim, her young husband left her and their two very little children to seek greener pastures in Europe through this perilous journey from naija to Libya and Mediterranean sea to Europe. They were 8 friends… only one made it back home after 6 years. It was not her husband. It’s been 10 years without closure. Of course she knows he is late, the only survivor amongst them hinted it… but without a body she kept hoping, kept going from church to church where pastors were kind enough to tell her to stop hoping because the hope was over. So today she’s remarried to an elderly man who can’t stand the children from her ex. There are four children as at today. Two of us have opted to pay the school fees of her first two children. But she still lives in an uncompleted building, with a man old enough to be her father. What a drastic digression from the life she had hoped for with her ex. That was until a trip to Europe in search of better life took all that away.

    If its not a legal migration, you have no business taking that trip. If it’s a gamble with your life, common sense should prevail to stop you. My opinion.

  6. Great storytelling, Chiogor, I’ve liked it very much, and above of all, the conclusions that emerge from it. Let’s spread them!

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  11. Una historia que merece ser contada como la de tantos otros que no pudieron.

    Excelente trabajo Constance 👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾

  12. For those who do not understand Spanish, the language in which Mariama wrote, she was basically saying this story deserves to be told. I like this. Please feel free to comment in whatever language. Some of my French speaking friends are slow to engage because of language barrier. Please any language is welcome. That’s the richness of our network.

  13. Wonderful and apt. One of the biggest challenges confronting Africa is human trafficking. This is a new form of modern slavery laced in deceit and exploitation. Majority of the human capital needed to develop Africa are either drowned in the Mediterranean or forced into trafficking owning to harsh economic climate and uneven economic policies meant to prosper citizens. However, the streets of Europe also has its challenges as well. Opportunities for better life certainly makes humans migrate. Thanks to Ousman who is giving back to his society in bridging the digital divide and offering opportunities in the ICT. That makes a whole lot of sense.

  14. This is a topic that needs to be addressed. A lot of people I know still believe that going abroad is their ticket to a better life without actually thinking about what they’ll do once they get here. I hope that more people get accurate information about this and that in turn reduces the rate of trafficking

  15. I met Ouzman in person in February 2019 during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. He is so humble and calm.

    The first time I heard about his story was a YouTube advertisement. I would normally skip it but his story touched me, so I decided to learn more about what he does with his social enterprise.

    I am glad to see he published his book.
    I do hope many young Africans don’t come through the illegal horrible route risking their lives. Nevertheless, I think about their desperation and who are we to tell them not to come. They prefer to try to get to a new land with at least some hope of a better life than stay in their motherland that have failed them and denied them of what belongs to them as citizens.
    More should be demanded of our so called African “leaders” who don’t know the meaning of good governance and accountability, less to talk about loving their citizens.

    Thank you Constance.

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