We got into Nourdhibou at about 9pm that night. It looked like a deserted city from the little we could see of the dimly lit stores. My friend, Father Jerome, was already there waiting for us. It felt as if we were home. We drove to his parish location which included a church that was a dome on top of a hill. A few feet away from the small church was a long house with separate rooms. We couldn’t see much of the place that night; we were too tired to take a tour. So, we had a quick dinner, took a shower and went to bed. We woke up the next day eager to inspect the area and to meet people. From the front door of his house, I could see the convent he had mentioned to us. Three Indian Reverend Sisters who were teachers lived there. Beside their convent was an elementary school where they taught the locals and mostly immigrant children. Beyond the convent was a gas station, and beside it was a major road. Father Jerome is the parish priest of the Catholic mission in Nourdhibou. Part of his ministry is to cater to stranded immigrants by seeking funding which he uses to create vocational and craft training for them. A ChicagoPublic Radio called WBEZ 91. 5 described him as a “Nigerian priest who's trying to educate the immigrants on the dangers of the [sea] voyage [to Europe] and give them tools to find a better life back in their native countries.” Gradually, we started meeting the immigrants. Their stories were awe-striking as well as tragic. One of them, a lady, happily got married to man who claimed to be a soccer player in Europe. So, after their wedding, her husband informed her family that he was taking her with him to Europe. They were happy for them. However, they ended up in Mauritania, Nouakchott, where they were trapped. The man was not a footballer in Europe. He was trying to find a way to Europe. When none of them could find a job for sustenance, he convinced his wife to have sex with other men in exchange for money. Even when he took all monies from her, he still accused her of enjoying the act. Then he would beat her, yet he didn’t stop using her for money. They had gotten so desperate for money that she didn’t mind any kind of sex, even unsafe sex just to make the money they needed until a friend in Nourdhibou helped her escape from the man’s grip. She joined her friend in Nourdhibou. There, she settled into a life of cooking, and ran a small restaurant. We visited her restaurant. It was one room which served as her kitchen, her bed room and her restaurant. She had used a large curtain to demarcate the bedroom from the kitchen and the tables for eating. During our visit to her place, we encouraged her to return to Nigeria, but she said she could not afford the fare. So, we promised to get the money together. Before we could fulfill that promise, Father Jerome raised the money for her and she returned to Nigeria. Two weeks after her return to Nigeria, she died of complications from HIV-AIDS. Another immigrant had gone as far as Spain and made some money, but he was caught with drugs during a raid in his neighborhood while in Spain. He was deported to Morocco, from where he escaped to Mauritania because he didn’t want to return to Nigeria. He confessed to dealing drugs and being deported multiple times, yet each time he changed his passport and returned to Spain. He said that his intention was to go back to Spain, find a decent job and stay out of trouble. Another immigrant said he had borrowed so much money from home in Nigeria that he would not be able to face his family and those he owed. He would rather die than face the shame. He sustained himself as a barber. A good number of the women were sex workers. Unfortunately, some of them were often raided, attacked and raped by the same police that raid them. Sometimes, they were ganged raped. In some cases, some of the Arab men that patronize them don’t pay them and threaten to deport them if they made any fuss. What some did/do was/ is to change the money they made into dollars, and send it back home to Nigeria to give their families the impression that they were/are in Europe, working. Their daily schedule included watching Nollywood movies from morning till they had to ply their wares at about 7pm till dawn. After their night work, they ate, slept and then watched Nollywood movies till it was time for work. Some of them were high on drugs. Perhaps, it was their way of coping with the harsh reality they had to deal with. The Catholic mission provides safe spaces where they could relax, use as therapy, have some form of respite and be nostalgic about home. For instance, I witnessed as they re-created church services with popular Igbo and Yoruba gospel songs. When I closed my eyes for a minute as some of them sang, I thought I was in an Igbo city attending a church service. They brought ‘home’ with them. Their sonorous voices captured the pain and travails of their journeys. Those songs reminded me of the spirituals: musical wails that bore the agony of anguish and longing. Drops of tears trickled down my cheeks. A few days into our stay there, Father Jerome organized an event to create a platform where my travel partner and I could talk to them about the dangers of attempting to reach Europe through the sea, and why it is important to consider establishing oneself at home and exploring other options. As we spoke, and I looked into their faces, they seemed detached. But, we continued the conversation beyond the platform of speech and advise doling. We continued to speak to them one-on-one, but they were still withdrawn. It felt as if we were judging them. But, a few verbalized their needs, which included assisting them to get back home to Nigeria. We all agreed to work on that.
The next day, we decided to do something different, a walk, a restaurant visit or a visit to the beach for a swim. We opted for going to the beach. When we got there, I wore my black shorts and a pink tank-top because I knew I didn’t want to swim. It was the nethermost part of Western Sahara. I was eager to see and touch this ocean that is about 600-700 seas miles to Spain. It was intimidating, deep and blue; it was unlike any ocean I had ever seen. There was something fierce about this North Atlantic body of water. I was deep in my reverie when my travel mate pulled off her long gown, revealing her bikini. It was a normal routine for people who were headed to the beach, or so we thought until she waded her way into the deep ocean to swim. Out of nowhere, a group of men, both young and adults,gathered closer around the shoreline and started yelling and staring at her. Maybe they were not used to women in bikini splashing into the ocean to swim. It all seemed to make sense because, there were no women swimming. Instead, they lingered a few feet away from the shoreline admiring swimmers while the wind flirted with their hijabs. Most of them wore black. I was worried for my friend. For a moment, I thought the excited men would dive into the sea and make their way to attack or hurt her. Nothing happened. They just yelled and cheered at her, and excitedly beckoned at his friends to join them and watch what was supposedly a spectacle. Because she was mostly under water as she swam, their curiosity died down. When she was done swimming, I pushed my way into the restive sea to give her a large towel to cover herself. While she sun-dried herself, my eyes fell upon a group of children playing soccer. I joined them and played for a few minutes. They were more taken in by the fact that I could play soccer than the game itself. I showed off the little dribbling and shooting skills I knew. Each dribble and shot was punctuated with an excited shout or screech. The kids were mostly black kids, perhaps, the children of West African immigrants. A couple of Arab kids stood around and watched. It was fun. But, our trip to the beach was ruined. When we returned to our trucks to go back to the mission, we realized that our truck had been raided. All the items we left at the back of the truck like shoes, slippers and water containers were gone. We looked around distraught, hoping to get some kind of concern or sympathy from the crowd milling around. We were ignored. Distraught, we headed back to the mission. A few hours into the early evening, a family from the Gambia invited us to their child-naming ceremony. We used the opportunity to see more of the city. Half of the time, the neighborhoods looked like unfinished construction sites. Except for a few beautiful buildings with fences, most of the houses were run-down. At the venue of the naming ceremony, the place was abuzz with life. Arab kids were thrilled by the West African music and dance.They swayed to the music in clumsy movements. It was obvious that the Gambians brought life and delight into their neighborhood and into their lives. Inside the house where the gathering was taking place, there was food everywhere even when there were not enough seats. A lot of the West African immigrant men and women were at the party. They had a bond and they had made a life for themselves. A number of the men worked at the docks and were paid for cleaning out fish. Some of the women were cooks, while some others sold food items. It may not have been the kind of life they would have wanted, but it was a life nonetheless. We ate, drank, danced and conversed. After the party, laughed and joked about how the immigrants made their neighborhood livable. Apart from their music, everything and everywhere else around them seemed like a dull trance-like existence. Gradually, the party came to an end. As soon as we got back to the mission with Father Jerome, we got a call from our NGO friend from Nouakchott. He was to come with a taxi to pick us up and take us round town. In no time, he appeared and we were glad to drive with him. Our first port of call was a luxurious hotel perched right near the north-Atlantic Ocean. It was a breathtaking sight. We sat at the ground porch of the hotel and could almost scoop some of the water of the ocean. Moist sea winds caressed our faces. We drank in the very elixir only the deep blue sea could offer as it lapped and crashed into the barricaded wall of the hotel. We could have lived there at that spot, near the ocean for the rest of our lives. But, we had other places to see. We toured the ground floor of the hotel. It was strangely quiet. They didn't seem to have any guests at that time. At a corner, was a glass wardrobe that contained West African art work, beads and jewelry. I thought it strange that a Mauritanian hotel would display in its hotel West African items. Though Mauritania pulled out of ECOWAS, they are still considered a part of West Africa. This is in spite of the fact that their border in the north stretched as far as the Western Sahara. Also, that they shared borders with Mali and Senegal justified their display of West African art works and fabric. Hence, both countries likely share cultural similarities. Nevertheless, I did expect to see more of a North African influence. When we left the hotel, it was a joy to stumble upon camels strutting across a rail track. We paused, watched and took pictures. We arrived at the entrance of Mauritania's military base. There were about six soldiers with guns guarding the base. The men who were strolling around the gate were black, but the one military man inside the post who was barking his orders at the black soldiers was light skinned. It had almost become a trend I observed, but maybe I was misreading innocent situations. The light skinned Arabs tended to be in charge while the dark-skinned ones took orders and obeyed as instructed. The light skinned man must have told them not to let us come any closer because as soon as he was done giving his orders, the two black men yelled at us to stop. Their guns were raised. Our NGO friend tried to let them know that we were tourist from Nigeria and that we were exploring the country for our reportage. They were not interested. With deep frowns, they waved their guns at us to step back. Our NGO friend was embarrassed. He profusely apologized to us. We told him that it was not his fault at all. We rushed out of the place and went to a restaurant in town. I had forgotten all about flies until we sat at a vacant table. The whole table was full of agitated flies. I shoved and slapped and pushed my chair away. The flies barely noticed that I was doing anything. We looked around for the third time anticipating that somebody was coming to take our orders and perhaps, try to spray the table with something to get rid of the flies. Nothing. When a tall bearded Arab man finally appeared, he asked what we wanted. When we told him, he informed us that it might take a while to be ready. Simultaneously, we stood up. I grabbed a bottle of Fanta and we hastened away. The place was known for their shawarma. Our NGO friend had a meeting to attend. So, we agreed to meet on another date. At the mission, we met Father Jerome cleaning the parish’s library and re-stocking books. He shared that he wanted to build the library so that immigrants can make better use of it. He then took us to a computer laboratory where there were a number of computers. It was a computer training center. His intention was to expand it and involve more people in computer training skills. The last place we toured was the graveyard of immigrants. He said that often the corpses of immigrants were brought to him after they've been washed ashore. He did his best to give them a decent burial for the repose of their souls. He recounted the story of some immigrants aboard a ship, on the deck. They had been smuggled into the ship for a fee, and were headed to Spain. Dolphins started following the ship. The captains of the ship got scared and told the ladies that they were about to bring them bad luck because the dolphins followed them dedicatedly. The ladies insisted on their innocence, but the captains threw them into the sea. It was later that somebody explained to Father Jerome that when dolphins sense that humans are in distress, they tend to trail them to help. Eventually, it was time for us to take off and return to Nigeria. We were to drive past Mauritania into the Senegal-Gambia region and push towards Dakar. We encountered butchers on road sides, but this time it was camel meat they sold. Just as we patronize butchers for cow and goat meat in Nigeria, Mauritanians line up for camel meat. It didn't look or sound tasteful. As we pushed south, it was interesting to notice how the landscape changed from dry land to a near tropical stretch. Through the southern plain of Mauritania, zipping through their game reserve, the variety of birds and animals we saw were a feast to behold. They ranged from wild ducks, bright birds, to grunting hogs. It was when the tires of our truck got stuck in the mud, right in the middle of a water-logged terrain that we came upon a frantic hog. It was then we realized that it was the kind of hog that hunted humans. Some say that when such hogs were determined to eat a human, even when such a human climb up a tree, the hog uproots the tree just to get at him or her. We panicked as we thought about the idea of being mauled by a wild hog. Father Jerome stomped on the speed pedal of the truck, but the tires revved up and dug even deeper into the marshland. One of us must have whispered a prayer because as the hog raced towards our truck, instantly the truck moved forward and we sped off. We continued through the water-logged plains of southern Mauritania into Senegal, Dakar. It was quite a feast to gaze at the endless expanse of their body of water. There were gazelles prancing around for frogs and water insects. There were long streams and what looked like rice plantations. Another hog almost gave us a hot chase when our jeep almost lost its grip for the second time on a marshy land. That was indeed a wild hog infested swamp. By late night we were at Dakar. Too tired to lug some of our luggage upstairs where we were to sleep, we left some of our items in the truck. The next morning, we discovered that the truck had been broken into. All the laptops gone, some purses and bags were gone. We were in shock. When we recovered somewhat from the devastation, we went to the police station to give a report. I couldn't be more depressed when at the police station, there were about a dozen young Nigerian men arrested and detained. Their crime? They came all the way from Nigeria to Senegal, trying to find a way to Europe without passports. All they had were identity cards. I couldn't stand the way they were being humiliated as the Senegalese police eagerly prepared the paper work for their deportation to Nigeria. I was so ready to take the next flight to back to Lagos. The near ten days road trip in an attempt to see, feel, taste and touch what West African immigrants encounter in their attempt to reach Europe through North Africa was quite a challenge. It was, however, a revealing and an enriching experience.