2009-2010. Josep-María Martín. A DIGESTIVE HOUSE FOR LAVAPIÉS (2009.05 / fieldwork / Bamba´s trip)

Ever since I was a very young child I had always thought of Europe as offering the best chance of being able to have a nice life. I would still like to believe this to be true, but the reality that my flatmates and I face everyday has, at least for the time being, rendered it almost impossible.

I honestly thought that I would find work I would like when I got to Spain, a position that might allow me to support my family and, above all, to be successful in life. The truth however, despite anything we might say, is that the future for an immigrant and particularly anyone ´without documents´, is very gloomy and difficult in every sense. Harsher and harsher laws are being passed; there seems no end to the continual arrival of immigrants brought in by sea in “pateras” and on top of all that there is a deepening economic crisis… I have now come to believe that it is not worth anymore abandoning your country of origin to come to Europe or risking your life in a “cayuco” for a chance to live in Spain.

I am one of those people who risked their lives to come to Spain. After six fruitless years of trying to get a visa, I decided to achieve my dreams no matter what the cost. There were a multitude of pateras leaving Senegal in the summer of 2006, so many that it would be hard to put a number on it. Those were strange times and it seemed as though absolutely everyone was going crazy trying to get a place on a patera and make it across to Europe. According to the Senegal media, the pateras picked up their passengers in fishing villages. The one I boarded left from Kayar, my mother's village. On the day concerned I left my house at 11 o'clock in the morning after lunch. My mother and brothers were not at home. They had left for a religious ceremony and my wife, my son and I had stayed behind. I was with one of my friends when I took leave of my wife and she asked me where I was going. “Just for a walk to the beach”, I said. Then my friend and I caught the bus to Kayar. The police were carrying out checks when we arrived at Kayar bus station at four in the afternoon. The Senegalese government had decided to mobilise police troops and put an end to the pateras phenomenon, so they were arresting anyone arriving in the village with a travel bag. We were lucky that day because we had no cases or anything else with us that might have made us look suspicious. My uncle had prepared a room ready for us at my grandparents´ residence whilst we waited for the departure time. The same uncle personally knew the head of the criminal gang who organised the trip. He was a man highly sought after by the police…… I never thought we might travel on that particular day. There is so much corruption in Africa that you can pretty much get whatever you want if you have enough money and in all probability the police officials were paid for each patera that actually left. The criminal gangs had the police completely under their control. We finally managed to leave at midnight. I decided beforehand to ring my wife and tell her the truth. I quickly told her that I was getting a patera bound for Spain, and never even gave her any time to reply in case, as she surely would have, she said something that might make me change my mind. I told her to pray for me and to take care of my son, and that I loved her so much. A small cayuco took us from the beach to the patera which sat five kilometres offshore. We were the first to get in. When we boarded they were not many people. There were two engines at the back, a quantity of large containers that must have contained fuel and water. Some planks of wood had been set out across the middle as benches and all the food was out. Our provisions comprised milk, biscuits, rice and sugar. One hour later the patera was completely full of people and you could not even place another foot on the floor. The highly illegal nature of the trip itself meant that being orderly was out of the question and the criminal gangs were just shoving people in as though we were goods in transit. When it got to the point that you just could not even have squeezed another fly onto the patera the captain, who was just a fisherman, decided it was time to leave. That was when the departure speech was given: “this trip is either going to Barça or Barzaq”. This literally meant we were on our way either to Barcelona or further beyond”, and if anyone was not of a mind to achieve that dream or was not prepared to die for it, then they should get off there and then. There was no turning back.” The moments following that talk were very emotional. Some people decided to abandon the boat because a lot of them had already started throwing up. Most people who have actually made the trip have in fact been the victims of false information fed to them by the criminal gangs. They had never been on a patera. So we left for Spain over Saturday night to Sunday 27 August 2006. The first night of our journey was peaceful and there was a full moon. The night was so silent. All you could hear was the noise of the engine and the patera as it slapped against the water. None of us said a thing. You would have thought that our souls had left our bodies. We could see the last lights of the village fading in the distance behind us. We were leaving our lives, our roots, our identity and everything we truly stood for behind. Most people could not eat a thing that night and many threw up so much, to the point of becoming ill and no one wanted to eat. It was crazy. We had just started to realise what we had done. The whole thing had only just begun. The following day, after having slept in a sitting position all night, our bodies ached all over. Some people started to have a temperature, others seemed to be about to faint. The captain and his crew tried to help those who could not cope any more. When midday came, the cook, who had cooked up the rice, handed out food to anyone who could still eat. There was nothing but water all around us, the sky and the sun. There was no way of knowing whether we were travelling towards the North, the South, the East or the West. The trip had ceased to hold any meaning for me, a journey towards sure death. The first four days continued in exactly the same manner until the weather changed. That was when we reached winter. The sea became horribly unpleasant and our patera started to take in water. It was getting so bad that I decided with a friend to organise ourselves into a group and reduce the amount of water. But each time we managed to bail out one lot of water it hardly seemed to make any difference. That was the point when we thought we would drown and most people started to cry. It is difficult to see an adult crying but they were quite right, the situation was desperate. We did not seem to be going anywhere, we were just surrounded by sea and the horizon meant nothing to us. I thought we had been tricked. It was crazy to think that a patera might make it all the way to Spain. All this drove some of my companions crazy and they started having hallucinations. They wanted to throw themselves overboard and some of them, at night, jumped into the sea. They did not intend to commit suicide but just thought they were still on land. They said they could hear their children or their mothers calling to them, waiting for them on the seabed. Some people's skin was peeling off due to the salt and they had deep wounds on their mouths, legs or faces. A lot of my traveling companions did not want to move around at all, not even to attend to their bodily functions and just stayed put, slumped in their own excrement. Others repeated verses from the Koran over and over again. None of this had any effect on any of the fishermen handling the patera. They were used to the sea. The last three days went on like that up until Friday afternoon when we saw some lights on the horizon. It looked as though we were either reaching land or maybe it was another ship…….. it was our salvation. At last we had found what we were seeking, just some dry land, that was all.

Saturday 2 September 2006. I reached Isla del Hierro. I had never seen an island that size. It was nine o'clock in the morning local time when our patera docked with 74 persons on board. We were all male and 9 of us were children. I had never seen so many white men and the smell they gave off made me feel sick. Most of them were wearing a red and white uniform, others were dressed in green and there were also those who had a dark blue colour uniform. They got us out of the cayuco, and sorted us out so they could count how many of us there were. Some of us were hardly able to walk. They took our clothes and gave us new ones. You could make out people in the distance leaning out of their windows and watching what I thought must have been an unusual scene for them.

A man in uniform, who must have been a policeman, stood in front of us and asked us: Do any of you speak Spanish? No one replied. He asked again but this time in French and no one answered again so he asked for a third time in English. After a few moments I decided to speak with him because there was nothing else I could do and, even though I was frightened, I said: “I speak Spanish”. The official, acting surprised, asked me the same question again and I gave him the same answer.

That was how I started my first job in Spain and became an interpreter.

After two days on the Isla de Hierro, we were moved to Tenerife to a reception centre called Las Raíces, which was in fact a military camp. The centre was divided into two parts: one part was for the military and the other for us. Our part was then further divided into two sections called Camp A and Camp B. I was in B, which was larger, nearly twice as big as A. There were 128 tents, two large shower areas, two enormous dining areas, over 20 toilets and the police tent. Each tent held 24 people and had 24 beds. It is easy to imagine the kind of people that were there. It was my job to organise distribution of breakfast, lunch and supper. I lined people up in queues according to which patera they had come in on. Each patera group had to march in two lines like soldiers towards the dining room. When it was your turn to eat the others had to wait standing up until the first people finished. So there was hardly enough time for the 3072 people to finish having breakfast when the lorry carrying lunch would appear, and the same happened again with supper. Whenever any problem arose I was expected to work and I worked without any breaks, without a timetable, and without any remuneration. I had to take about 40 people every morning out to get water from Camp A and take anyone who was sick over to the Red Cross, then clean the entire camp with a group of people hand-picked by the police and who were provided with food in exchange for the work that they did. Some of my work, therefore, also involved resolving fights that broke out between individuals, organising departures and arrivals, attending to people with material needs such as clothes, t-shirts, trousers, shoes, teeth cleaning and shaving materials, etc. That was my daily life in that centre for a period of almost three months.

The normal legally permitted length of time that a person should remain at such a reception centre is 40 days. When I had been there for the regulatory period I was asked to stay on by the Chief of Police in exchange for being provided with legal immigration status. I had not been expecting such a proposal. So I stayed on for another month and a half longer. By then I was not sleeping at the centre any more. An inspector would pick me up every afternoon and take me home, and that was where I lived during the time that I worked for free at the centre. We would get up at dawn to go to work and during the journey I was able, to some extent, to see how wonderful Tenerife was - it was a place of dreams. After they had managed to get me a preliminary contract, however, they said that they could not arrange for my legal status to be approved because this could not, by law, be done until three years had elapsed. That inspector told me I would be better off leaving because they would never fulfil their promises. I managed to get a plane ticket to Malaga through the Red Cross and left Tenerife. I arrived in Malaga at night and caught a bus to Almeria, where a cousin of mine lived.

Once I got to Almeria I found my cousin who had already been in Spain for two years. He picked me up at the Roquetas de Mar bus station. It was a Wednesday in the afternoon. My cousin lived in a suburb called the “suburb of 200 dwellings”. It is very well known because almost 95% of the people who live there are immigrants: Senegalese, Malian, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Moroccan and Romanian. My cousin was living in a two bedroom flat with a dining room occupied by six people, all of whom made their money by selling pirate CDs. After taking a day to get the lie of the land I went off to find work in the agricultural fields, but could not get anything because there were so many people that there was not enough work for everyone. So there was only one option open to me and that was to sell pirate CDs. You would sell these in the street markets that took place in various locations around Almeria. My cousin gave me a rucksack with more than 90 CDs and films and a blanket with strings attached which went on the ground. That kind of work is horrible and is nothing like a normal job because you are always on the lookout in case some police officer catches you and takes you off to the police station. To be honest, I was very ashamed of doing that work. I did not like the way I had to act and felt ridiculous grabbing the blanket and running between people, even though I managed to make a bit of money. A couple of weeks went by and then the day arrived when the police caught me with a car in which we were transporting films, pirate CDs and perfumes. My cousin decided to plead guilty and he was sentenced to eight months imprisonment and a three thousand euros fine. That left me all alone in Spain without any family or friends; I did not know anyone, had no-one to turn to, in a complete vacuum and having to pay for a bedroom every month that my cousin had rented opposite his, with a machine for recording CDs and DVDs, a load of fake copies and blank CDs. I shared that flat with two other people from Nigeria - one man that I did not know how he made his money and a woman with a young daughter who was most certainly a prostitute. After two days of chaos and confusion, trying to find a solicitor who would represent my cousin, I decided to push ahead and substitute my cousin in the CD business which had put him in prison. From then on I just spent my time recording and selling to the people who went out to the street market. I rented a car so I could go to Granada and buy the materials I needed – the blank cds, copies, plastic covers, etc.

Seven months went by and business became less and less profitable. I decided to move area. By now it was June 2007 and I shall never forget that month, just like October 2006 when I had received a phone call on the Tenerife beach ‘Playa de los Cristianos’ telling me that my wife had given birth to a son. She had been seven months pregnant when I left home. That day I was happy and sad at the same time but this time it was bad news: my father had just died. People die each day, all the time, without you realising, but it only has to be one of your close loved ones for you to understand how truly cruel death can be. I loved my father and I would very much have liked to have seen him again and to have spent the last days of his life with him. That man really meant everything to me, he was a reference point, he meant safety, all in all he was a father in every sense of the word. He suffered from an illness that affected his heart. After spending ten days in hospital he came home and then died after supper. It was a Tuesday. I have spoken to him that day on the phone, and when I think back I understand now why he said what he did… he gave a little talk on life, on how short it is. He told me I should always pray and do good deeds as if I might die the next day, but that I should also work and become accustomed to wherever I lived as though I was never going to die. That day I cried the whole night long. Whenever I pictured my two sons and my father in my head I would ask myself whether the life I lead is worth living, so far from home, from my people, from my loved ones. Those were truly the worst days of my life. I really thought about going home then but decided in the end to come to Madrid.

I arrived in Madrid one week after my father had died. There was a new opportunity waiting for me here as well. I arrived on a Friday at 6 o'clock in the morning at the Méndez Álvaro bus station and took a taxi to the suburb of Lavapiés where a childhood friend of mine was living, in Jesus and Mary street. What I found was something I could never have imagined, an apartment exactly like a patera boat. An apartment where loads of people lived. There were twelve people in this one and you were hard pushed to find a corner to sleep the night, a real hole of a place rented to my friend by a Bangladeshi for €1200 a month. This apartment had four bedrooms and a living room and, just like in Almeria, the people living there made their money by selling pirate CDs. The next day I grabbed my rucksack and went off to find some way I could get ahead. After spending some time on the Spanish national Renfe railway I got off at a town called Torrejón de Ardoz. I found people from Ecuador there carrying on the same illegal sales activities in a pedestrianised street near the main square. Truth be known, I did quite well there because I managed to make €50 in that place every afternoon. The higher the rise, however, the greater the fall. After I had been selling CDs for a month the local police arrested me together with a lad from Ecuador and I spent my first night ever in prison. I thought the world had come to halt that night because, after I had been put into the closed room and the iron doors banged shut, I lost all sense of time or what the weather was like, nothing about the world outside and this was a very painful experience for me. They took me to court the next day and the judge ruled on my case. My lawyer told me that I had to sign every month on the first and the 15th day of the month. I went back to my home quite crushed, so depressed that I did not want to hear any more about CDs. I lost the will to live. I could not face doing that work any more. Not a night went by without one of my companions at the apartment spending the night at the police station. I have never seen such high levels of security on the Madrid streets. It would appear now that just about everybody wearing sunglasses on the street is secret police. I just had to find something else to do, whatever it might be.

After doing nothing for a month, the people I was living with decided to change apartment and split up to different locations. We found a flat near Lavapiés Square, with three bedrooms and a living room. The owner was from Pakistan and he required someone with a residence permit to sign the contract and €3600 for the deposit. We gave him part of that money. The gentle man wrote down and acknowledged having received €1000 from us on a piece of paper and signed it with his National Identity Document. He kept one copy and he gave us the other one. However, when we asked him for our money back the following week because we had not been able to put together the remaining portion, that man refused to give it back to us because he said that the date of the preliminary contract had already expired. We argued with him and then the police arrived and the police officers told us that nothing could be done because the preliminary contract was actually not legal and that we did not have sufficient evidence to charge this man. The truth is that the first thing that you learn when you are here is that you cannot trust anybody, not even yourself. This man had stolen our money. We eventually put enough money together to get another apartment with two bedrooms in Lavapiés for €850 per month. There were six of us from the start. By now it was already August 2007.

One month later I managed to find a job at San Martín de la Vega in a scaffolding warehouse. I worked for seven months at that warehouse and received €50 a day for my efforts. I handed over €100 a Ghanaian gentleman for the use of his legal immigration status documents. You can work in this country using other people's legal documents because most white people think that all black people are the same and cannot tell us apart. I would get up every day at five o'clock in the morning to go to work but the truth is that in our apartment you cannot survive if you are working because there is always somebody new arriving and in the end there were 12 of us living in a two-bedroom apartment. My flatmates never slept at night and would argue about stupid things and speak in loud voices that could be heard from the street and in the end could not take it any more so I decided to move. I found a room for €300 in Torrejón de Ardoz which I shared with a fellow national, but seven months went by and then I ran out of work. That was April 2008 just when the economic crisis began. I went back to the same nightmare as before, exactly the same situation that I had been in at the beginning, seeking and not finding work. I hung on for three months but then I had to do something and went back to selling pirate CDs. This time I was selling them at the Legazpi Metro station but sure enough the day came when a security guard chased me to train carriage and wanted to get me out of there. He had not asked to see a ticket or any documents and told me to get out of the carriage. I refused because I had a ticket. After pushing me around for a few minutes he took out his safety baton and hit me twice until two people I did not know had to step in and help me defend myself from him. That night I went home very angry and I just did not know what to do. I went back to Legazpi station and asked that man's boss for an explanation, but when I got there the man did not even have his safety baton and he denied having hit me. I took my shirt off to show him the injuries he had caused me but those people did not want to know anything. They asked me to leave and stop bothering them. I decided to get back on the metro but those gentlemen escorted me out of the station. I decided to go to the police and report the matter, which still has not been ruled on.

I really miss my country, and especially my family, my mother, my two brothers, my two sons and my wife. She is a woman of natural beauty, an African lady. I am really fond of my wife, I love her, I adore her and I would give all the money in the world just to see her again. She is the only person that makes me feel human when I am at her side.

I feel like I have no family, I have nothing, because I never found what I came to Spain looking for and I doubt I ever will. I would really like the African political leaders to review their methods of government, because things just cannot go on like this. It is true that Africa has been the victim of three centuries of slavery, but that it is not a good enough excuse. We have to forge ahead, solutions must be found, we must work and stop deceiving people, stop robbing and put an end to the killing. Europe must also be made aware of what is happening in Africa and why it goes on. Perhaps the fault lies with all of us but we do not all suffer the consequences. The decisions are taken in Europe and the Earth in Africa cracks open.

Immigration is a good thing in one sense, but it must be said that not everybody who arrives from over there has the same opportunities and they certainly do not all have the same skills. It would be crazy to think that all Africa's young people might continue to come over to Europe.

Mouhamadou Bamba Diop

(December 2009 / this text was published in the Madird Abierto 2009-2012 book)