Mbёkё mi - hitting one's head - is the Wolof term for the boat route to Europe. A week on board a creaking fishing vessel rocked by wild Atlantic waves may prove a rather brutal headache - but it’s still a shortcut. The older, longer 'clandestine' route winds through the dustiest reaches of Mali and Niger and traverses the deadliest stretches of desert. And it might prove the more resilient of routes as sea departures dwindle in response to border controls. Instead of hitting their heads against the wall, migrants may have to dig their feet into the sands yet again.
One day he caught the long-distance bus at Dakar’s port, destination Libya. He slept in the bus stations of Bamako, Ouagadougou and Niamey. In Niger’s northernmost city Agadez at the edge of the desert, a hustler or coxeur finds him a Landcruiser heading north; then he ‘eats’ what’s left of his customer’s money. The Landcruiser is packed with people: ‘all the time, people fight to have more space’. At night, A. huddles under the car to escape the worst of the desert chill.
But the troubles have only began: the police is on their trail. The adventurers abandon the car, hide in a cave and start marching through the desert. Tuareg bandits soon appear, tipped off by the dismal gathering’s duplicitous guide. 'They took our money, our clothes, our bags.' They tore all clothes off the migrants and made them lie naked in a pile in the sand. They ripped up soles, seams and leather gris-gris or amulets, to see if there was cash hidden anywhere. They poured out their water and scattered their gari, a Nigerian staple that was all they had to eat. They took away four women in their group: one never came back. But as soon as the bandits left, A. and his colleagues set out again. No time to lose in the desert.
The migrants came to a waterhole, shoved a few goats aside and drank. And finally, dressed in someone's left-behind, ripped-up trousers, A. entered Libya.
He laughs when recalling his time in the desert as night descends on his patio and his mum - I think it's his mum - walks by and turns on the light for us just as I begin to squint at my notebook scribbles.
A. tries to scrape together some cash in languid border villages and after a few months he has enough for a lift up to Tripoli. He's told to lie down under the tarpaulin of a truck, tucked in like merchandise: the small convoy he’s travelling in is supposedly all meant for tobacco. ‘One vehicle took the men, the human beings, the other two' - one on each side - 'took the cigarettes.'
In Tripoli, he soon found out, a migrant is more of a cashpoint than a piece of merchandise. Instead of detaining him, the police extorted bribes and kept him sleepless through night-time raids on the dingy rooms where a dozen or more sub-Saharans sleep, nationality by nationality. No place was safe. 'All the time, you hide, hide, hide.'
To find 'peace' - more than anything else - A. decided to try mbёkё mi to Italy. He paid the passeurs, only to find himself locked into a barn for a month. He waited and waited, even as other migrants started trickling off, sure they had lost their money. A. was among the last to leave, penniless and still with no boat in sight. Finally he caught an IOM-sponsored flight back to Senegal where he now sits, a constant smile on his lips, reliving the madness of the road. He’s out of work but won't do it again. Still, his smile is a hint that his adventure has not been a complete failure. He’s not seen Europe, but he’s seen the world.