She was 28 years young with very little to hope for but, somehow, she still kept her faith. For her, that was the only thing that had brought her this far.
I was on my way home from my Arabic lesson the other day when I passed a woman who caught my attention. She caught my attention because it was the first time I recognized another black African woman on the streets of Tangier. She was dressed in all black, wearing a dark black djellaba with blue trimmings and a hood, which formed her hijab. As she noticed me notice her in passing, she began to beckon toward me, obviously asking for monetary donations. I stopped. Usually I don’t as there are many people who need help on the streets, and as one person, I cannot help everyone. But something about her caused me to stop. I approached her in front of a cafe and began to talk to her, subconsciously taking notice of the eyes of Moroccan men in front of the cafe where we stood, looking at us in confusion and some with suspicion.
I gave her three Dirham; it was less than a Euro, I could definitely spare that. I began to ask her where she was from. She told me that she was Nigerian, from Edo State. I asked her if she would be able to meet with me another day to talk a little bit. In a rush she agreed, “Yes, yes of course.” I asked her of her family, how she came here. She told me that she had two kids and she came here to be with her husband. We exchanged numbers and went our separate ways.
We arranged to meet near the cafe at which we initially met. She showed up two days later, in the same attire that she had worn the first day. I sat down and started to speak with her and she proceeded to tell me her story.
Three years and six months ago, on October 31st she’d paid 300,000 Naira (1,500 Euros) to be transported illegally by land from Nigeria to Morocco. She called herself, in transit to Spain, as her final intended destination was Europe. When she spoke of her upbringing, she described herself as dull, unable to achieve high marks in school, despite her efforts. She’d left school to pursue fashion design but had to abandon that quest as well, as it was too expensive to continue. When her parents asked her of her future plans, she told them that she was going to attempt the journey across the Sahara and across the Strait of Gibraltar to reach Spain. She described her journey to Morocco as one characterized by maltreatment, and both verbal and physical abuse, ultimately comparing it to slavery.
When she arrived, she found that her living conditions were no better than when she was in Nigeria. She lived as a beggar, walking the streets hoping some kind stranger would spare her enough change to eat and afford her expenses. She had grown accustomed to lying and saying that she had two children in order to procure more pity from people. Her situation was better than others, she said, as many women who came to Morocco come with children or fall pregnant intentionally with the hope of touching the hearts of kind souls who had money to spare. I’ve seen with my own eyes as women line the street corners begging with their child in arms, often an infant in hand and a toddler in stroller.
She’d noticed that here in Morocco, an Arabic, Islam nation, the people seemed to be more sympathetic to beggars who were Muslim, recognizable mostly by dress. Hence, although she was Christian, she’d turned to dressing in hijab, the traditional Muslim veil worn by women, and covering her whole body, so that the Moroccans would be more likely to give her money on the streets.
According to her, her options were begging or prostitution with no other work available for her as in illegal immigrant in Morocco. She spoke of the women who seek to leave their home countries in order to find a way to make their families proud. The ultimate dream of many Nigerians, and Africans at that, is to be able to take care of their family financially, build a house for them so that their families could be comfortable. Many who leave with this dream and no plan, see no other way out than to sell their bodies to men. Often when they are lucky enough to cross into other countries, they fall into prostitution, working for madams in brothels where they don’t see a quarter of their earnings. All of the money they do see, going back home to construct houses in the villages for their families; all in the name of pride.
I asked her about her own family, what did they think of her plan? She replied that her mother and father encouraged it as long as she thought she would be successful. However, the truth was, the chances of her ever successfully crossing the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain were very slim. Even if she somehow found the money needed to secure a place in one of the illegal boats headed to Europe, the chances of surviving the journey are very slim. She spoke of an immigration intent made in December by 44 men, women and children. They never made it to the shores of Spain; the poor quality of their boat was hardly sufficient enough to brave the nine-mile stretch. Twenty-four lives were lost, while the other twenty were rescued and returned back to Tangier, where they await until the next opportunity to cross. The journey cannot be described as anything else but a death trap. The trip itself is so dangerous that the odds of surviving are slim to none. In the miraculous case that one should successfully make it across to Europe, without papers and a plan, immigrants have no means of providing for themselves. Women are often exploited, used for prostitution or as drug mules, while men wander the streets aimlessly, begging or distributing odds and ends for a little bit of loose change.
She ended our talk by telling me that if all else fails, she will have no choice but to go back to Nigeria and try to pick up life where she left off. I wonder should she ever make it to Spain, what she plans on doing. With no degree, no skill set and no family to take care of her across the sea, where could she end up? What would her options be? The sad part is that this is only one story of thousands who wish for a better life and take the leap of faith from their home countries to Europe each year.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewee