By Patrice Sowanou
September 28, 2020
Editor’s note: While reporting on the aftermath of a shipwreck in Guinea in 2018, journalist and seafarer Patrice Sowanou interviewed a family who told him about their son, Bombakhla. Desperate to escape his home country and in search of a brighter future, Bombakhla became involved with criminal elements in an effort to migrate to Europe. What follows is Sowanou’s recounting of Bombakhla’s story as gleaned through Sowanou’s interviews with the family. — N.M.
BOMBAKHLA, a poor citizen born on the Gulf of Guinea, sat down one evening and took his head in his hands. His thoughts were far away; the challenges of life at that time weighed heavily on him. He often asked himself if it is a crime to be born Black. He knew he was born brave, as he was told that bravery runs in his family, and he knew he had to make it and succeed in life, no matter what.
At 30 years old, an orphan who grew up in the custody of his aunt, Bombakhla was unable to count any of life’s blessings, as his only reality was nothing better than extreme poverty, hardship and potential illness. Things must change — these words he said a thousand times to himself. He had no idea how things could change and get better for him and for his family he loves so much, but still, he strongly believed in the possibility of a great turnaround of his life’s condition. Already tired of an oppressive political system and fed up with his multiple failures, Bombakhla started contemplating the idea of traveling: it might be better if I go away. He decided to take the chance and go away. I don’t really care if I suffer abroad on unknown land where people know little about me, he reasoned. After making his decision, in the following days Bombakhla resolved himself to travel to unknown destinations in order to find greener pastures, and peace.
Bombakhla had tried many times and in different ways to succeed in life but he never happened to knock on the right door. Finally the idea and plan of escaping to Europe became overwhelming. He had worked for several companies but got into different kinds of trouble, leading him to lose his jobs. As a result he could barely use the minor skills and talents he had, as he had already lost confidence in himself. As soon as he got a new petit job, he would not stay for more than three months. Bombakhla had been fired from his last gardening job due to coming late every morning. His manager, a nice man from Pakistan, was understanding for a time because he knew Bombakhla lived very far from the workplace, but by the end, the company could no longer tolerate late comers. Bombakhla was fired and became reckless and obsessed with going abroad at all costs.
It is a disheartening situation that young Africans have completely lost interest and confidence in their own governing systems. You can see them wandering—without clear future plans, in full despair—getting involved in all kinds of criminal activities. Hardship and suffering become their daily routine. Political instability affects the incomes of people and disrupts economic systems across Africa. As a result, the younger generations become desperate. For them, then, the immediate and only solution is to travel abroad to western lands.
Over many generations, Africans have developed a deep-rooted complex about the chronic poverty that defines life on their own continent. The direct consequence of this complex is the clandestine migration to Europe. Europe has become the promised land where money and wealth grow quickly, like mushrooms.
In Africa there is a superstition that says it is better to suffer far away, than to suffer in the eyes of your own people. In fact, many believe, your family doesn’t really need to know how you are doing, once you are no longer with them.
After a few weeks of preparation, Bombakhla left his home, stole a few precious items from his relatives and vanished away into nature. His obsession with Europe had led him to make some plans that could help him reach his destination. Money was badly needed for the voyage and Bombakhla had no savings. He traded the items he stole from his relatives in another village. Then he left with a dark heart and a dark mind.
After two months, his family received word that Bombakhla had been seen strolling around in a well-known market, in the companionship of some drug dealers and other unknown folks. It was said he was involved in all sorts of activities to get the necessary funds to pay for his voyage across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy.
For those coming clandestinely from Africa, Italy is often the first destination, the door to Europe. It never occurred to Bombakhla to think about the risks of the voyage. At that time in his life, there was only one thing he wanted: to go abroad, and whatever means of transportation could get him there was welcomed.
Eventually, Bombakhla found himself stuck in Libya as the result of illegal travel. He had no idea that Libya had become, for many, comparable to Hell. He quickly learned that the atrocities he could face in Libya were far worse than the relatively minor difficulties he had faced in his home country. He soon became very weak and sick due to the excessive heat and lack of food and water. He could barely stand on his feet.
Eventually, a group of human organ traffickers found him and rescued his organs, but not his life.
After a few days, Bombakhla’s traveling companions identified his rolling head near a dry pit in Benghazi. He was recognized due to the traditional marks on his forehead and cheeks. That was the end of Bombakhla’s adventure. His compatriots stood helpless, weary and scared in the cruel land of desolation and human organ trafficking. Bombakhla’s cousin, who had accompanied him to Libya, was quickly summoned. He immediately shrank away at the sight of the head. But there was no time to ponder over the sad situation; the cousin knew that something needed to be done.
A few days later, the cousin managed to contact Bombakhla’s family back home. His first intention was to discourage any further illegal voyage attempts. He did not have enough courage to break the sad news to the family until Bombakhla’s father sensed something was wrong. Then, the cousin told the story of what had happened.
“I had the opportunity to raise an intelligent, hardworking and wonderful artist after my sister died,” Bombakhla’s aunt told me when I interviewed her. “I took care of him since his childhood until he grew up into an attentive and caring young man. His quest for easy and quick wealth led him to the wrong destination,” she continued. “Nobody was aware of his travel plans, not even his father. I would have discouraged him myself if I had known. He stopped visiting me years ago. I can still remember the last time I saw him,” she added. “His death is and will remain as painful as any other death in the family.”
Fiarova, the younger brother of Bombakhla, was inconsolable when he spoke with me. “Both of us had good plans about our future. We had plans of working hard and helping our family. Bombakhla thought me how to repair shoes and that is my job. I never knew he wanted to embark on [such a] journey; now he’s left everything on my shoulders. I don’t think any other person could replace my brother. I miss him now and am going to miss him for the rest of my life.”
Bombakhla’s family marked his passing with a traditional ceremony to honor his memory. The ceremony consisted of gathering and burning some of his precious belongings at midnight on a crossroad.
These were the last words of the elders of the family.
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Photo by Bashar Alaeddin.