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A different kind of pilgrimage

Photograph by Neil Rickards
Photograph by Neil Rickards

By Dimetri Whitfield    The most surprising thing for me about conducting fieldwork is that you encounter all these interesting people that ultimately do not end up in your final project. Alieu Sowe (this is a pseudonym to protect his identity) is one such person. He is Fula by ethnicity, Gambian by nationality, taxi driver by occupation, and refugee by aspiration.

One cool February evening, after his 14 hour work-day, and my 3 hours of writing field notes, we sat down and chatted. Like most 20-something Gambian men, “backway” was on his mind. “Backway” is the illegal method of migrating to Europe, generally via Libya into Italy. He declared, with one index finger pointed to the sky, “by the grace of Almighty Allah, next year I will be in Europe.” 

I came to find out that this trip would be his third such attempt, the first two having already failed. Attempt number one ended before he even crossed a border, as the Gambian Police Force detained him trying to enter into Senegal. The second one went better. He got up on a Thursday morning, at dawn, without a word. He gathered his belongings, and by mid-day was in Senegal. Two days later, he was in Burkina Faso. By Monday, he was in the Sahara, with nothing in front of him but sand, sun and the Libyan border. Along the way he evaded a police barricade (read: bribe) in Niger by trekking through the brush at night, alone, without a flashlight, only to pay a passing motorcyclist to take him to Agadez. Alieu was fast, and lucky. However, his luck ran out on Wednesday morning, as the Nigerien army handed him and his bus-mates over to the Nigerien police, right before they crossed into Libya.

Two trips and 500 euros later, Alieu had nothing to show for his efforts. He had never even glimpsed the Mediterranean, much less stepped foot in Europe. He returned to The Gambia, and his eldest sister bought him a taxi in an attempt to persuade him to abandon his ‘backway’ dreams.

“Why do you want to go back again?” I was perplexed. Alieu looked me straight in the eye and answered as smooth as a close shave. “Dimetri, you think I want to go? I don’t want nothing more than to stay here and see my nieces grow up. But I don’t want to work for 10 years and still can’t buy a compound (land and accommodation).” This answer left me only with more questions, but I dropped the topic and put it in the back of my mind since migration had nothing to do with my research topic.

Photograph by Frans Peeters

About three weeks later, being tired of the fieldwork grind, I went with Alieu across the river Gambia to visit his father’s village and do some exploring on the North Bank. One evening as I was relaxing in our mud-house which was bathed in candlelight and the sound of crickets, Alieu called me outside to meet someone. All I “met” was her back, as she quickly turned around the corner in haste, into the cover of darkness, never to be seen (by me) again. Alieu laughed and told me that it was his girlfriend, “but she is a little shy.” He was dating her for three years. He pointed out that she was Mandinka and he was Fula.

The next day, when we were walking into Barra to get a ferry back across the river, Alieu started telling me about the fighting in Tripoli and how he plans to avoid getting killed while awaiting a boat to take him to Italy. Alieu was clearly in a sad frame of mind. Yet I asked, in no uncertain terms, why he would even consider doing this. His response focused on his girlfriend, although he did not name her. “When you have money, you can marry who you want. The family would be afraid to tell you no because then you might not want to help them. But when you don’t have money. You just have to marry someone you don’t know.”

It dawned on me. Alieu was not migrating because he was poor. He was not running from poverty per se. He was running from the lack of choices. He did not want to spend the rest of his adulthood being effectively a child, still living on his father’s land. He knew that marrying his girlfriend was not possible. Her parents would never consent to the marriage because he was not Mandinka, neither was he well-off. And, he would be stuck marrying a distant relative. To him, Europe is not a land flowing with milk and honey. It is a land flowing with choice. The choice to make his own decisions. The choice to marry whomever he wanted to.

We crossed the river in silence. Alieu’s eyes were dead, scanning the horizon slowly, for what I don’t know. When we reached Banjul, Alieu told me that he was leaving for Europe at the end of April and he was going to a marabout that weekend to wash his body. A marabout is an Islamic teacher in West Africa, who in addition to studying the Qur’an, makes traditional medicine, amulets for protection, and prays on behalf of believers, generally for a fee. What surprised me is that this full body wash is also done by Muslims embarking on Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca obligatory for all Muslims at least once in their lifetime provided that they can afford it.

I suddenly realized the significance of this event for Alieu. “Backway” was Alieu’s hajj. The once in a lifetime event that he must do. It represents, like the Hajj, a process of self-renewal; the transformation from a person weighed down by the constraints of his current society to a person emancipated by assimilation into another. Hendrik Vigh (2009) calls this phenomenon ‘dubriagem’, that is, a process whereby people navigate in order to avoid or escape the constraining effects of powerful actors or events, not being held in space and time because of them. But to Alieu, I think, he just called it life. I wonder now how our understanding of and approach to the “refugee crisis” would change, if we remember that many of these migrants are not running from something, but running to something.

Dimetri Whitfield is Master’s student in Social and Cultural Anthropology


Vigh, Henrik. 2009. “Motion Squared: A second look at the concept of social navigation.” Anthropological Theory 9: 419-438.

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