The sands of the Malian desert have been silent witnesses to the many sufferings that migrants have experienced there. Sometimes they come out and tell the story of their ordeal. Other times, it is parents who are devastated by the loss of their child who cry out about their suffering. Beyond the borders of the Sahel, the Senegalese-Malian novelist and journalist, Mame Diarra Diop, echoes this pain. She tells the story of Badu, Djibril, Mor and Lady’s journey in her first work, “Return to Ceuta and Melilla”.

Where did the idea for this novel come from?

The idea for this novel came after the attacks on Ceuta and Melilla a few years ago, in 2006 I think. Several migrants have died while trying to cross. Then, in 2009, there was a young Senegalese, Alioune, son of Yayi Bayam Diouf, who boarded a canoe with 80 young people and they all died. These two events really marked me and made me want to write this story about migrants who try the adventure, who leave their country and try to reach Europe. First they try at the Canary Islands and they fail, then they take the road to the desert. The idea of ​​the novel was to tell their journey from Dakar to these two enclaves.

Part of the profits were donated to Yayi Bayam Diouf, to whom the novel is dedicated. What connections do you have with her?

In fact, we decided to give part of the profits to Yayi Bayam Diouf. Because first of all, the novel is dedicated to her, and it is also a way of recognizing her action around this association that she created, the Collective of Women against illegal migration (Coflec), which employs young people and women in local fish processing, that provides training in income-generating activities. I have no special connection with her, apart from the fact that her story has made a deep impression on me and that I have followed her journey and how she fights daily to retain young people in Africa. It touched me so much that I decided to dedicate the book to him and donate part of the profits to support his association. A portion was donated to him during my stay in Dakar and we will return to give him another portion of the sales of the books. It’s just a way of supporting her, and it’s purely symbolic.

The novel is written in the style of a journalistic investigation. Have you yourself followed the journey of these migrants?

It is true that it is written as a journalistic investigation with a kind of road trip. The four characters leave Dakar and hit the road. We have Alain, who is a journalist, who is a bit of a common thread. He follows them for a while and talks about his journey with his notebook. It is a way of understanding the journey these migrants make from country A to country B with all the risks it entails. I did not follow migrants in the desert, but I was in the Canary Islands where I met many migrants and tried to understand what happened when they arrived there in the canoes. I also met a lot of organizations like the Red Cross, migrants who told me how they managed to arrive there in Spain and for the desert I questioned a lot of reports, made documentation and talked to journalists, read press articles, called organizations such as IOM, Mauritanian Red Crescent and Doctors Without Borders. I really did a very thorough documentation work and the geography of the countries, the cities that I mention, I studied them. I based myself on facts and figures to be able to write and dress the plot of the novel.

The special thing about your characters, all of them had a professional activity before they went adventuring. What does this choice say about the motivation of young migrants?

All these migrants actually had a job. There is Badu who was a tailor, Djibril who worked as a mechanic in a garage, Mor who worked in public dumps. And there is Lady, who is a young artist who dreams of settling abroad. They all have personal motives. This means that the migrants’ profile is variable. We have all kinds of people who one day would like to change horizons, are tired of their condition and dream of a better life. And they think, why not try their luck in Europe. I think they are not aware of the risks and even what they see on TV and in the media does not demotivate them. But how far can you risk your life to reach this eldorado when you know how difficult it is and how people are rejected. In the desert, there are harrowing reports of migrants being turned away, jailed. Migrants who suffer, women who are raped. Are these young people somehow aware of the danger of crossing a desert or trying to board a canoe? The migrants’ choices are variable, the motivations are variable, and therefore I wanted to expand a little on all that and also with the form, romanticize my story because the characters have different motivations. And that is a choice I make as a writer. I dictate the fate of my characters.

What lesson did you learn about migration in our countries from writing this book?

The lesson I am learning is that this migration phenomenon is not yet well under control. And by our states and by the young people themselves. I think there is a lot “said”, a lot unsaid. Unspoken things from those who traveled and returned or from those who are in Europe, which may not describe reality enough. There are also many “says” about the smugglers, the conditions. The ones that tell you how to get there, who to contact. It is really a phenomenon that needs to be better understood by young people. And the states must seize it, because underneath all that there are problems of governance, poverty, unemployment, future prospects for young people. Because if we felt good where we were, we wouldn’t look anywhere else. Today we need to create more debate and not let this debate go to international spheres. This debate must go to the neighbourhoods, to the televisions, everywhere. Journalists must seize it, even if they already do, but this debate must reach the ears of the youngest. We have little brothers who are tempted to leave and we have to explain to them this phenomenon of migration and what its components, dangers and risks are. It is important that everyone addresses these issues to avoid these tragedies occurring more.

A few weeks ago, when your book was published in Mali, there were still tragic events in Ceuta and Melilla! What should we think?

I myself was surprised by these events in Ceuta and Melilla. And I tell myself that more than ever the question is relevant. What you need to know is that these migrants have been holed up for months and months around Ceuta and Melilla, waiting for the right moment to pass. The Moroccan and Spanish authorities are overwhelmed. The question deserves to be put on the table. If that happened and none of our states responded, there is a problem. This means that these young people do not feel supported. There really is a problem and the causes have not been attacked. There have been several assaults in recent years. And we must hope that it does not happen again. But what is to be done? It is to be hoped that African countries will take up this issue of migration. People have always migrated, but we need to give emigration a more human face and make it less secret.

What hopes do you have for your country Mali, which is going through a complicated situation?

My hope is that Mali regains its stability very quickly. We are in a period of transition, and who says transition, says change. I pray that the country will regain its stability because Mali is one of the Sahelian countries facing many challenges. Security and government challenges, but also for young people, because there are many Malians among the migrants. My wish is that this unity which constitutes the Sahel regains its stability. But the big challenges in Mali are security, peace and development. And that is what I want for this country, which is my mother’s.

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