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!