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Border Jumpers: Afropean Itineraries


Translated from the French by Paul Mattick, from Jef Klak 5, “Course a Pied,”


The desperate race towards the high fences of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, in northern Morocco, has become an iconic image illustrating the “immigrant problem” and justifying coercive measures like Frontex (the European agency guarding frontiers and coastlines). But it is long before there that young Africans launch themselves onto the routes of exile. They are not only fleeing famines and wars, and their journeys across Africa are not summed up by their destination. Finally, the life of those who come on foot calls into question on the ground the very concept of the dominant discourse: border, identity, freedom of movement.

“That night, several hundred clandestine people charged towards the fences. Many fewer than half made it past them. Most of those who tried were young men in their full strength. But at the start there was a pell-mell of minors and adults, men and women, and even little children. I’ve seen women in their forties, come to make a deal with the pateras,1 risking their lives on the fence out of fear of a violent raid [by the Moroccan police] the next day. I’ve seen mothers, with babies born in the camps on their backs, attempt to scale it. More than one courageous woman wearing men’s clothing tried to squeeze under the barbed wire alongside us. One of them grabbed the fence with her bare hands not far from me and I saw her later at the Temporary Center for migrants, where she said she was from Sudan. An Ivorian woman made it to the center after being engulfed in a breach in the fence with her young child in her arms—we discovered on TV that the border, as we thought it would, had collapsed in places under our weight.”2

Yes, the endurance of the border jumpers takes them far. Before the barbed wire of Europe, they have had to deal with other obstacles, less media-spectacular. Stage by stage, across the Sahel, the Sahara, and sometimes the sea, to the Canary Islands or Lampedusa, their endurance has encountered the brutality of racketeers in uniform, that of the smugglers and bad guys, semi-slavery and lies, camouflage and borrowed identities . . . It has also meant learning new languages, all sorts of tricks and know-how.

Borders and identities are not only peremptory lines drawn on a military map or the watermark on a passport. These concepts, which the owners of the world would like to make immutable, hide realities that are much more complex, unexpected, changeable. Take, for example, the story of my friend Mahmoud Traoré, who left Dakar before he was twenty. After a journey of three years, he participated, at dawn on September 29, 2005, in one of the collective “assaults” on the double barrier surrounding Ceuta. This event was splashed over the media at the time, notably because at least five participants were shot to death. But what was this crowd of death-defiers fleeing, where were they running?



At night the infrared camera eye keeps watch on the little band that moves along the side of the hill, single file, towards the valla (the barrier). It is going to attempt the impossible: to cross to the other side. Dozens of shadows, sometimes hundreds. The electronic gaze captures only a formless mass flowing along the slope. The screens show an indescribable menace, a presence perceived as semi-animal, hiding in the shadow of Fortress Europe. A disquieting vision of aliens, evoking the War of the Worlds.

One day in 2005, a Moroccan newspaper headlined, “Black Grasshoppers are Invading Northern Morocco,” under a photo of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.3 The European media speak of an “avalanche,” peddling the myth of an Africa turned entirely towards the Light of the West, with its promises of abundance and happiness. Tremble, citizens! Here are the intruders, the invaders, the fantasized enemy pressing on the edge of the desert of the Tartars. 

Once past the obstacle of the barbed wire and the heat and CO2 detectors, they have to run like hares towards the streets of the town center, zigzagging between patrols, until they get to the Ceuta reception center, before whose doors the lucky candidates for asylum fall to their knees, out of breath, exhausted but radiant, hands and arms raised to heaven. It looks like the finish of an Olympic race. The crowd applauding is made up of friends who made it earlier. Now they have to wait in the “soft prison”4 that is the Spanish enclave, where the Schengen rules don’t apply. Another frontier lies ahead of them—the Strait of Gibraltar—but the new arrival is cheered as if it was Usain Bolt breaking another world record.

There is something of an initiation in running this course, sometimes with no way back. A bitter victory, the final sprint is the lucky end of a rite of passage of continental dimensions. Supported by his or her family, or breaking with them like Mahmoud, the young adventurer is not necessarily fleeing war—apart from that waged by the border system itself. Mostly, he or she deals with hunger and danger only once on the road. What pushes such a person is the classic frustration of an adolescent who realizes that local society hasn’t much to offer him or her. “They don’t really need me here”—who hasn’t had this feeling while entering adulthood? Mahmoud had it, without knowing that elsewhere, in the working-class neighborhoods of Europe, millions of young people come up against the same feeling. He wanted to know, to experience the world. And sooner or later the world, the one they sell everywhere, is the West and its fabulous freedoms.

For Mahmoud and his fellow migrants, the double fence of Ceuta, with its concertina razor wire, is not the first obstacle they have had to deal with. Earlier, there were the mountains of Djanet, between Algeria and Libya. Going around Ghadames, in southern Tunisia. The long walk between Maghnia, an Algerian border village, and Oujda, in north-eastern Morocco. Then the return, always on foot, across the rough countryside of the Rif, after having been sent back (three times) into the Algerian Reg by the Moroccan gendarmes. Stubbornness.


A Class Runs the Roads

Mahmoud talks about the different classes of migrants. The “upper” class pay smugglers and try to cross by boat. As for the pedestrian class, they walk, drudge, and scramble to survive from one day to the next. After tacking from one country to another they inevitably run aground in the dead end of the enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta, the only land borders between Africa and Europe.5 An experience lived by the poorest of the poor, the trans-Sahel adventure is the cheapest solution, though the most costly in time, energy, and above all in human lives. How many times must they run away from the threat of robbers or cops? How many rackets, clubbings, slaps, insults at a barrier. How many companions lost on the way?

This twenty-first century version of the hobo poses the essential and troubling question of freedom of movement. At every step these destroyers of limits6 undergo a process of systematic dehumanization, experiencing an accelerated entry into the proletarian condition. However, as soon as people speak among themselves, as soon as they band together to escape calamity, as soon as they construct an encampment, they become something more than wretched people. People bring solidarity into existence and thus lay the foundation for a precarious society—almost exclusively masculine—which sometimes survives after passing the frontier. All that over time becomes a sort of subterranean culture which, while fragile and unstable, is nonetheless transmissible, bearing memory. 

Don’t give in. Go on. Turning back is unimaginable: too many dangers left behind, too much shame in returning home empty-handed, too much hope (and money) invested.This journey can’t be undertaken alone. It is vital to have accomplices, allies, to form teams, to educate oneself, to communicate as much as possible with the locals. It’s hard to imagine the thick sociability ruling life in these encampments of fortune called “ghettos.” A society of nomads perpetuates itself through constant alternation: Those who continue the trip are replaced by others, unceasingly.

The stopping place in the Sahel, both inn and informal consulate, draws on a village-like spirit. There’s a mixture of respect for the old, mutual aid, rough rules, along with the little profits made by the people who run it as they act as intermediaries for the smugglers. In the ghettos of the Maghreb the chairman, his ministers, the lookout men, the African Union, and the Blue Helmets form a hierarchy, first necessary, then smothering to the point of provoking healthy disagreements among the most determined, tired of waiting in vain.

Must all this shared energy be diluted by the ocean of individualism that Europe has become? Don’t some good habits or reflexes remain, in the “jungles” and camps, from Calais to Ventimiglia? It’s what the governing classes fear and run to earth. It was to be seen in Marseille, in the assembly of parent-less minors occupying a church to demand shelter, and in the active participation of migrant women from Sudan in a neighborhood fair in La Plaine.


The Insurgency of Forced Labor

In September 2005, people wondered if the Moroccan government had not consciously provoked the famous “avalanche” by accentuating its raids on clandestine camps, putting the European Union under pressure just before an important bilateral summit in Seville. But beyond geopolitical games, the assemblies in the forest posed the question of dignity: “We are not commodities. We are human beings.” The collective passage over the fences of Ceuta was a desperate reaction to the calamity of the ghetto and the permanent harassment it undergoes.

This is a crucial moment of recent history: the men and women who throw themselves against the barrier are rising up against hunger and cold, against the anguish of the police round-up, against deportation to the desert, against migration policy, against the traffickers, but also against the ghetto leaders unable to deliver them from their predicament. It is a cry for the freedom of movement. Crossing by force of numbers means finally to attack a mirage that has taken too long to vanish. If “going past your own limits” or “pushing the limits of the possible” are advertising slogans of the sports industry and private enterprise, here people dying of hunger dare to put them into practice.

By coincidence, several weeks after this border riot, the French suburbs went up in flames. Its rampant apartheid seemed to explode in the mouth of a foreclosed world system—what Lacan called foreclosure, even more than repression, is the origin of psychotic states, according to him.7 Aren’t those running their clandestine races, like the young rioters of the suburbs, the return of the repressed of a “happy globalization” in which the majority can’t participate?

Listening to Mahmoud’s story, I have the impression that with their rallying cry the inhabitants of the ghettos of Bel Younès (Ceuta) or Mount Gourougou (Mellila) are insurgents in advance against the fate that awaits them on the European side, after having experienced its cruelest forms in Libya: that of human resources subject to forced labor at will. Racing, his heart in his mouth, the black man enters into history, in the eyes of Power, only if he accepts the path traced for him by the border system, a path in which he is only the last link of dispossession . . .


A Hundred Borders, Never the Same

“I was born in Haute-Casamance, in Témanto, a Senegalese village seven miles from Guinée-Bissau and eleven from Guinée-Conakry,” says Mahmoud. “I have family in all three countries. Certain fields are cut by the line drawn by France. In the village, we speak five different languages. When my grandfather went to Bissau, he said, ‘I’m going to Portugal,’ when he went to Zambia, he said, ‘I’m going to England.’ But he refused to present his papers to the border control, because he was at home.”

At the end of the journey, two steps from the mythical pillars of Hercules, one might say that the world economy has crystallized the very concept of border. It is there, beyond the bitter waters of the Strait of Gibraltar, that the blind race of the supertankers and other floating container ships meet the pateras, those fragile clandestine rafts. It is there that Africa runs up against Europe (the most inegalitarian line of demarcation on the planet), but also the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, the East and the West, extreme poverty and the display of wealth, free movement and the governmentally assigned residency of three-fourths of humanity.

The TV reports that yesterday 300 desperate people charged the border? That only a dozen succeeded in getting through? That this morning 250 tried it once again? To two customers elbowing up at a Seville bar worried about this kind of “invasion” Mahmoud replies with humor. He undoes the arithmetic of their fears: “Señores, today’s 250 are the same ones who didn’t make it yesterday!” A drop of water on the scale of a continent.

On the road taken by Mahmoud and his brothers and sisters, there are a hundred frontiers to pay for or go around. Frontiers like so many wounds, erected against the desire and the urgency of moving. A hundred lies, a hundred scams. Borders erected against the adventurers and their dreams. Frontiers not always natural, nor even official. Sometimes historical, but also mental. Such as: 

—fictional borders drawn with chalk, old colonial wounds engraved in a peremptory way on the skin of the black continent;
—toll-borders of the Sahel, where men in uniforms make the traveler pay to get through;
—the mineral border of the Téneré, the desert of deserts;
—the frontier at once fluid and brutal between black Africa and North Africa, striped transversally by the old slave-trading routes;
—business frontiers, where Frontex externalizes and monetizes the management of migratory flows;
—frontier filters, through which moves labor without papers, of which the market is fond (the intake centers for migrants in Ceuta and Mellila are jointly managed by the ministries of the Interior and of Labor);
—the punitive frontier, pushing people back, where on February 6, 2014 the Civil Guard shot rubber bullets and tear gas at a group of migrants trying to get to Ceuta by swimming: up to fifteen drowned twenty meters from the beach. 

And this is not to mention the diffuse borders, after the main passage: the administrative annoyances of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy one must deal with to obtain a work permit, a residence permit, permission to exist . . . Once you have arrived, return to your native country is impossible if you don’t have these papers. You are a prisoner of your illegalized existence, part of an ideal labor force meeting the requirements of the deregulated market—invisible, flexible, voiceless. And the person without papers must often borrow or rent a social security number from a compatriot, giving rise to one more falsification of identity. People move apart, wealth divides. The final frontier is the lack of money.

The idea of borders has been shifted by those who, through colonial expansion, have pushed back the limits of their world—that of egoist calculation—to the last corners of the planet. Today, those same people have taken everything, or nearly everything, and they claim to take from the border its function of passage and exchange. “Before being lines, borders were sites of life where human beings were always reinventing themselves by drawing on the foreignness of those close to them,” writes Dénètem Touam Bona about Mayotte and the archipelago culture of the Comores, denied by France.8


Identity Between Camouflage and Affirmation

Mahmoud is named after a teacher, a friend of his father. In West Africa, taking the name of someone, a sort of spiritual godfather, works from birth on to anchor an individual in the community, but also outside it. In his village, my friend is named Mahmoud Bayo, with the patronym of his godfather—a patronym identical to his mother’s, which introduces the idea of matriarchy. This idea is not so far off, given that his mother’s family is one of the founding families of Témanto—his father’s arrived more recently. It’s complicated. A personal example helps me understand: as I gave her first name to my daughter, my mother-in-law calls me Papa. There is a game of mirrors in these nominative jugglings, but also a life lesson: do not remain a prisoner of a coagulated identity, for without other people you are little.

From a playful child, dividing his time between school and laboring in the fields, Mahmoud went to high school at Dakar. There his pals mocked him as “Mahmoud the peasant,” but also “Mahmoud the rebel,” since his area, Casamance, was then still secessionist. When he helped his uncle, a port agent, because he left school to apprentice himself as a woodworker, he opened up his life a little more. When the carpentry workshop collapsed for lack of customers—the fishermen of Thiaroye were ruined by the factory-boats sweeping the seas from there practically to Cape Verde9—he decided to leave. He intended to try his luck at Abidjan—“For us at that time, the Ivory Coast was our little Paris.” But the civil war that broke out there prevented this. So he looked in another direction. It seemed that one could make money in Libya.

Migrant. Refugee. Exile. Clandestine. Illegal. These words meant nothing to a young man who “makes adventure,” an African style of good breeding which the travel writer Nicolas Bouvier would not disown. Once en route, Mahmoud became a vagabond foreigner in Mali (a borodjan, “someone from far away”), seller of flavored water at Agadez, a black threatened with slavery in Libya, a Malien in Algeria (because the Malians do not require a visa) a beggar and pariah in Morocco, a Guinean refugee in Ceuta, and . . . an African-Andalusian in Seville! From one end of his odyssey to the other, Mahmoud underwent, but also played with, multiple identities, misused and reinvented, official or made-up as needed—an exercise continually oscillating between doing the needful and pride.

The art of camouflage became vital once he reached Libya, a hostile territory. “It’s as if we had already left Africa,” explains Mahmoud. “Even at the mosque, the Libyans refused to pray with us. We were the dark-skinned ones, the burned ones, who had known the flames of hell.” Black women lived hidden, for fear of being taken and sold into prostitution. Our Christian friends took on Muslim first names while crossing the country, so as not to draw attention. The walls broke down under the permanent threat of racist aggression or forced labor.

Mahmoud spoke of another imposed identity: once his foot touched European soil he had to put himself into the skin of the poor-black-victim-of-a-massacre and choose a nationality compatible with refugee status, while everyone knew that behind this humanitarian hypocrisy hid Europe’s demographic needs, as Angela Merkel half-admitted in 2015, at the moment of the Syrian refugee crisis.10

If today Mahmoud calls himself Afro-Andalusian, it is at once to demand new roots and to give the finger to rigid designations of identity. Andalusia is a territory well suited to this game. Its seven centuries of Muslim presence, with the cohabitation of three monotheisms and the flowering of a civilization, Al-Andalus,11 have left traces in architecture, gardens, agricultural techniques, but also, and above all, in the way of life and the culture of a population which considers itself fundamentally mixed-race.


Beyond Limits

Who is invading whom? Bolloré has its hands on the ports of West Africa, Areva on Niger’s uranium, Bouygues is racing against Chinese concrete mixers. Industrial fishing, intrusive monoculture, Franco-African corruption, wars over diamonds or rare earths, pillage of bauxite and petroleum . . . Neocolonial rapine provoked an exodus that some have nightmares about “invasions” or “great takeovers.” The scale of today’s migrations is smaller than those Europe experienced in the 1940s or America in the nineteenth century. And the labor market (feeding retirement funds) requires this demographic support. But people are made to enter through the smallest of doors, so that above all they never feel welcome, authorized to dream of liberté, egalité, or fraternité . . .

And then these exiled young people are a safety valve for the African regimes. If they could no longer leave, the youth would become the seedbed of revolution.12 “For our diplomats, we are lost children, a negligible quantity, or even worse: useless people whom they are glad to get rid of,” Mahmoud reminds us. 

It is the hardening of border restrictions that has transformed normal smuggling into powerful networks of traffickers. A hideous mirror of migration policy, the traffickers are amassing colossal fortunes on the backs of the migrants. The militias who are now dividing up Libyan territory have taken over the cynical game of subcontracting the control of European borders for hard cash and diplomatic recognition that Gaddafi practiced with brio (“If you don’t pay, I will open the gates and tomorrow Europe will be black,” the Libyan dictator declared during an official visit to Italy). This situation, with its slave markets and forced filling up of boats doomed to shipwreck, would be enough to bring Sarkozy and Bernard-Henri Lévy before an international criminal court, if the Hague was not reserved for African kinglets and former Serbian warlords.

As if it was turning into the reconquest of a lost kingdom, the visaless journey takes on the shape of an odyssey. “If we die on the way, we are poor blacks. If we organize ourselves to avoid death, we are criminals.”13 Nevertheless, these African Ulysses never think of themselves either as criminals or as victims. Instead, they pose the question of free will: everyone has the right to leave his country and to return there, according to the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man.14 In witness to this, Mahmoud does not try to discourage his sisters and brothers: “Who am I to tell them not to come?” He defends the freedom of movement in a world where only capital and commodities really seem to have this right.

Who can decently justify the fact that Mahmoud and his companions are obliged to risk their lives for three years to reach Europe while European tourists need only a few hours to go to tan themselves on a beach in Senegal? 

In April 2018, Federico Brivio (Italian translator of Partir et raconter. Une odyssée clandestine), Mahmoud, and I came to the Center for Workers Mutual Aid Cantagalleto, in Savona, on the Ligurian coast. After a meal, an old lady read part of our book and declared to the audience that “Antifascism is not only about celebrating the past, it is also refusing the death of migrants in the Mediterranean.” She ended by quoting a leftwing priest in Genoa, Father Gallo: “No one frees himself or herself alone. No one frees others. We must free ourselves together.” A woman came out of the kitchen drying her hands on her apron. She proposed that Mahmoud take part in the festival of April 25 commemorating the liberation of the village. “On that day, people go down from their neighborhoods to the port, like the partisans of 1945. It would be good if this year you come to speak of your journey, Mahmoud.”

The road traveled is making an effect—Mahmoud tells his story in high schools, bookstores, universities, squats . . . Roots multiply. “Never forget where you come from, nor the teachings of the old people,” old Bolé advised him on a trip back to Témanto. “I will drink my first glass of wine to celebrate my 80th birthday,” says Mahmoud laughing at the table of a trattoria in Genoa. Running against death, passing to the other side—that’s what shakes a too-limited vision of life. To jump over the border is also to redraw the world.


  1. Patera means the kind of vessel used by migrants to cross the Mediterranean.
  2. Bruno Le Dantec and Mahmoud Traoré, Partir et raconter, 2017. “Spanish trans: Partir para contar. Un clandestino africano rumba a Europa (ed. Pepitas de Calabaza, 2014); Italian trans.: Partire—un odyssea clandestina (ed. Baldini+Catoldi, 2018).”
  3. Ashamal, September 6, 2005.
  4. See the documentary film, Ceuta, douce prison, by Jonathan Millet and Loïc H. Rechi, 2014.
  5. Even if, these days, some of them are sequestered by Libyan traffickers who, after making them toil for no pay, force them on to whatever boats are around to serve as exchange value in obscure deals with the European Union.
  6. In the Maghreb, migrants (or “adventurers”) are often called harragas, “border-burners.”
  7. “Foreclosure,” a term introduced into contemporary psychoanalytic discourse by Jacques Lacan, means the forfeiture of a right that hasn’t been used within the time set for it; Lacan meant it as a translation of Verwerfung (rejection), designating the defence mechanism peculiar to psychosis.
  8. See Dénètem Touam Bona, “Mayotte, under the Dom,” in “DOM-TOM. Colonies d’aujourd’hi,” CQFD 155, June, 2017.
  9. Iniquitous fishing agreements with China, Europe, or Russia have emptied the waters along the Senegalese coast, damaging a sector where 15% of the local inhabitants work.
  10. With a largely negative natural rate (the difference between births and deaths), Germany’s demographic decline slowed in 2015 thanks to the entry of a million refugees. The number of inhabitants grew that year by 0.86%, a record since 1992.
  11. Area of the Iberian peninsula under Muslim domination between 711 and 1492.
  12. See the recent uprising of Senegalese young people, of whom one was killed by the police during a demonstration at St. Louis on May 15, 2018.
  13. In Tanger, le rêve des brûleurs, documentary film by Leïla Kilani.
  14. Article 13-1: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his or her own, and to return there.”


Bruno Le Dantec

BRUNO LE DANTEC is a journalist living in Marseilles. He is the author, with Mahmoud Traoré, of Partir et raconter. Une odyssée clandestine (Éditions Lignes, 2017)


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2018

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