Four days and 15 hours before Majid Diallo will return to his village in northern Guinea and destroy the dreams dreamt by others, before he will tell his mother that he won't be building her a house, that he won't be able to gift the village a school, before he will tell the village elder that he won't help develop that mango plantation the villagers so desperately want, he walks down a deserted, dusty street to one of the many bus stations in Niamey, the capital of Niger.
He looks into the sky where the flying foxes are circling high above the sleeping city. A small man. Around 1.68 meters (5' 6") he guesses. A calm 27-year-old with watchful eyes and a threadbare training jacket over his muscle shirt. The handful of scars on his face look more like misplaced freckles than the reminders of the pain he suffered not so long ago.
He pulls his headphones over his ears. They make him look like Mickey Mouse, the others used to always say - the ones who are still in Libya. Or dead. He was lucky. Diallo is walking along Mali Bero Boulevard to the north, one of the broad streets in Niamey where there is never a traffic jam because there simply aren't enough cars. It is a city built on and covered in red dust. Almost every migrant from West Africa passes through Niamey on their way to the city of Agadez in northern Niger. It is from there that the smugglers set off through the desert to Libya, the beds of their Hilux pickups full of migrants.
But Niamey has also become a hub. For those who have given up and are seeking to return home. For those like Majid Diallo.
For the European Union, Diallo is the ideal migrant. One who turned back before he reached European shores. To make sure that his sort becomes the norm, the EU is currently training security personnel in Niger, building fences and supporting dubious militia groups that are supposed to help secure the Libyan coastline. Brussels is pumping hundreds of millions of euros into the Sahel. For the EU, Diallo is a success story.
Ultimately, though, Diallo is just a boy who left home dreaming of being able to build a house for his mother and a school for his village. A boy who grew up kicking a flat soccer ball around beneath the acacia trees and stealing chickens from his neighbor, only to return them once the sun set behind the soft slopes in the west. A boy so poor, marriage is no more than a faraway dream. He wouldn't want his children to lead a life like the one he has thus far led, he'll later say. A boy who now has to head back home.
Never Quite the Same
According to the most recent study conducted by the Geneva-based International Labour Organization, there were 15.9 million migrants in Africa in 2014. As a consequence of EU policy, the number of those passing through Niger on their way north fell from 333,000 in 2016 to just under 70,000 in 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). But part of the reason for that reduction, the IOM says, is that migrants are now using alternative, often much more dangerous routes, on which they are not counted. Only just over 7,000 men and women received IOM assistance for their return journeys home from Niger last year. To understand why that total is so low, one has to go back to the place where the journey started.
From Niamey, Diallo is faced with a trip of more than 3,500 kilometers into his past - to a place where he isn't totally sure how he will be received. The past, after all, is never quite the same as it was when you left it behind.
When he first left, he had dreamed of finding a construction job in Italy and having an apartment of his own. In this dream, he would be able to send his parents money, and in the evenings, he would write a book - about Africa, about his family. A book about his dreams. And he would listen to Julio Iglesias, his favorite singer.
Today, his dream is different, but no less ardent: that his village will forgive him. That he will be proven right after repeatedly telling those with whom he had been travelling, those who didn't want to turn around, who couldn't, who were too scared of the place they once called home, that he will be welcomed back in his village.
Diallo walks past the shabby bus station from which the rusting, cheap buses depart. It is little more than an empty lot, half dust and half garbage dump, where the buses belch their exhaust at night between the torn plastic bags. Four figures are cowering in the corner: Yapi, Ms. Adama with her five-year-old daughter, and Mohammed, the 15-year-old who hasn't spoken since he made it back from Libya. They are sitting beneath a eucalyptus tree on a brittle wooden bench, trapped between their expectations and their fear. They hardly move, as every movement takes valuable energy. And energy costs money.
Yapi has been living here at the edge of the bus station for two months. He spent years as a poorly paid house slave in Algeria. But then the Algerians kicked him out of the country. Still he wants to go back - to Algeria or Libya. Past the slave markets to Europe.
"Because I can't go back home," he says, a sturdy man in a dusty leather jacket with prominent veins streaking down his forearms. His eyes, though, are tired, a sad mixture of yellow and red.
"My parents, my three siblings, my wife and my two children. All of them are expecting me to send money. Without money, I cannot return home. Ever. Our lives back home are defined by suffering. A person shouldn't have to suffer."
Those who are suffering, must go to where there is less suffering. But these four didn't make it. So they sit here as they do every evening, every day, beneath the eucalyptus tree watching the buses as they roll across the lot and staring at the people that come and go, like the tides on the shore. People like, on this evening, Diallo.
Until They Succeed or Die
Diallo glances over briefly and hesitates before looping his thumbs beneath the straps of his backpack, inside of which all of his earthly belongings are stored. A pair of shoes, two pairs of pants, three sleeveless T-shirts, a green toothbrush and a tube of Colgate. He then continues onto the floodlit courtyard run by Rimbo Transport Voyageurs, the starting point for buses heading to Gao, Bamako, Cotonou, Lomé and Abidjan.
For many migrants, returning home is more difficult than continuing along the route to Europe. The ignominy is more fearsome than the risk of death.
Which is the main reason why most do not turn back, even if they get stuck, even if they are tortured or almost drown in the waters of the Mediterranean. Those who had to borrow money to embark on the journey turn back even less frequently. They keep trying until they succeed. Or die. Or become denizens of the desolate no-man's land of camps and hostels in North Africa. Where they wait.
A poor man doesn't have many attempts. And the poorest only have one - and they wait patiently for it to arise. Those who return with empty hands are often disowned, are run out of their villages, destined to roam the streets of the rundown cities nearby.
Diallo, too, is afraid of returning. But he tried to get to Europe, he says, and he managed to survive Libya. He took money from nobody. "My family's love is greater than money," he says. That, at least, is what he is hoping. Thus far, after all, Diallo's life has been little more than a journey on the search for a better life. For the others.
He was seven years old when his mother sent him away from their small village in the mountains of northern Guinea, a region that is home to both gold and aluminum, but where crops are meager and food always scarce. A friend of one of his uncles took him in, a five-hour drive away. The man ran a gas station and he paid for Diallo's schooling in the hopes that the boy would later be able to support him and help out those back in his home village. Since he was seven, Majid Diallo hasn't just been a boy, he has also been a family investment.
He went to school but dropped out at age 15 even though he was best in class. He did so at the behest of his father, who wanted his son to go to work in Senegal. Since then, Diallo has been on the road.
In 2006, he went to Liberia where he worked in a general store before moving on. He was told there is money to be made in the Ivory Coast, but there too he didn't stay long. He moved on. Benin, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana and Equatorial Guinea. He sold rice, harvested cashews, worked as a security guard, ran a laundry and drilled wells. He would occasionally send money back to his village in the Téliméle Prefecture and to his father in Senegal. But it was never enough for everyone.
Then, one night in Equatorial Guinea, sitting on a bench behind the laundry, a friend told him that Europe wasn't actually that far away. And if there was one thing in Europe, his friend said, then it is money.
Myths and Legends
Everything is better in Europe, Diallo thought as the evening turned to night. The climate is milder, life is easier, people are more considerate. In Europe, people have respect for each other, he thought. And they would certainly have respect for someone like himself, who fought his way out of suffering and poverty.
His friend, so he said, had a cousin who made it to Italy for just 1,000 euros. Now, this cousin has a house and a job - and the friend even showed him pictures. An IKEA kitchen, the swanky streets of Milan, selfies of a strong, smiling man.
There is always the one who made it, and everyone knows him. After all, the story of flight from Africa is one of myths and legends.
The myths obscure the images from the Libyan slave market, where men are sold from cages, like in the dark days of slavery on the Gold Coast; the legends are more powerful than the videos of sinking rubber rafts or of sun-dried corpses in the desert sand.
By September 2017, Diallo had saved the money he needed, the equivalent of almost 2,000 euros, almost three times the average annual income in Guinea. The money was his secret; he didn't tell his family that he had saved that much. "That's how it is here," he says. "When someone has something, everyone wants a part of it." The result is that everyone pulls everyone else down to the low level of the community.
Diallo headed for Niamey via Bamoko and from there along the feared, bandit infested road to Agadez in northern Niger where graffiti on the walls of the ghettos where the migrants wait reads "Barca or Barzagh" - Barcelona or death.
And: "Better die in the sea than cry in front of your mother."
And: "European hell is better than African paradise."
And: "A good son has to help his mother."
Ultimately, he made it Sabratah, where only the sea lay between him and Europe. It is from this Libyan port city that the boats launch on their way across the Mediterranean.
A 12-knot headwind was blowing out of the northwest on the night Diallo finally boarded the rubber boat bound for Italy. The night was black and there was only darkness in the troughs of the waves. The boat, of course, was overloaded. It started taking on water and before long, the fears of the 130 people on board shifted to anger and then turned to rage. Over satellite telephone, the Italians told them they had to head further to the north to where the large ships sailed outside of the 12-mile zone. The Senegalese controlling the outboard kept going at full throttle, but fights broke out on board and the boat threatened to capsize. So they turned around.
A Stray Bullet
When they returned to shore, they all were arrested. They became prisoners, and victims of the savage Libyan system of torture and ransom. Diallo sat in a four-by-four-meter cell for weeks. The guards came by every day, shooting into the ceiling, shouting at the men hunched up against the walls. They would give the prisoners their mobile phones back, only to then beat them and force them call their families to beg for money. Cowering in the corner, Diallo sought to ignore it all.
Since his youth, he has had the ability to stay beneath the radar, to stay away from trouble and turmoil. It had always protected him well - until that one December day when a stray bullet hit the man next to him in the head.
Diallo had heard about the situation in Libya, but he never thought that it would happen to him. Nobody does. When he was small, his mother had told him about God and how He is merciful to those who serve him. That belief had always brought him peace, the knowledge that there was a reason for everything, that it was all God's will. But in Libya, he lost that God - when he realized that for Africans, there is no mercy.
He decided to turn back. A friend sent him the last 450,000 CFA francs - about 700 euros - that Diallo had left in Abidjan. He bought his freedom for 350,000 CFA francs and used the rest to pay for the trip back to Niamey.
At 3 a.m., the bus leaves the blue-and-white Rimbo station heading for Abidjan in Ivory Coast. "Of course I'm afraid to return home empty-handed," Diallo says as the sleeping city passes by outside the windows. "But in Libya, I was more afraid. In Libya, you're never free. Africans work like slaves there. A migrant is never free." Now, he says, he is free.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 23/2018 (June 2nd, 2018) of DER SPIEGEL.
The question is: For how much longer?
"In the village they'll say I'm a coward, a failure. They'll laugh at me. But my family will welcome me. I'll be successful there," he says. "After all, I'm bringing along two whites."
Diallo's trip changes from the moment that we, a team from DER SPIEGEL, begin travelling with him. Things become easier because people see him as our travel companion and it becomes cheaper because people don't rip him off all the time.
The bus heads past acacia and eucalyptus trees, beneath which merchants stand at rickety tables during the day selling mangos, kola nuts, rusty gas canisters and dirty gasoline in old whisky bottles. The bus is crowded, the aisle is full of red dust and garbage. The heavy smell of sweat and urine hangs in the cold air. A small child behind Diallo begins screaming, its face covered in snot. It will scream the whole night through.
The bus drives past the Niamey train station, where a new train has been standing for more than two years. It has only left the station a single time, when a couple of photographers were assigned to take pictures of it. Since then, it hasn't moved because a dispute over the contract broke out and the tracks still haven't been completed.
Diallo thinks about what he will say when he arrives home in five days - and then falls asleep, hunched over with his head propped against the seat in front of him. Sometimes he wakes up silently and listens to music before his head once again nods against the black handle on the back of the seat in front of him.
'As a Loser, He Will Never Find a Wife'
Sixty-five people packed into 13 rows of seats are heading out of the city on this night, reaching the boarder to Burkina Faso several hours later. Sixty-five people, 61 of whom are on the search for money. They all hope to make a couple thousand francs in Ivory Coast before returning to Niger for the rainy season to work in the fields.
"But it's never enough," says one. "Never enough for a good life, no matter where you go here. For a good life, you have to head north."
"In Europe," a passenger two rows up from Diallo tells his neighbor, "a cousin of mine found work there and now he sends home 200 euros each month."
"It's cold there. Dark. The people are different."
"But there are lots of jobs. When you get to a camp, you get your papers and then you get work. Agents come to the camps because they need people in the fields, in the hotels and on construction sites."
"Yeah, you're probably right."
Migration is a business of rumors.
Then the bus sinks into a sleepy silence. Heads nod forward, jerking left and right to the beat of the potholes. The clear, biting cold of the nighttime savannah seeps into the bus through the windows. Those who have a shawl, wrap it around their heads and faces. At 7:17 a.m., the bus arrives at the Pentelkole border crossing just as the sun rises over the sandy plains.
Burkina Faso. Like so many other African countries, a place dependent on just a few raw materials and their prices on the global market. It used to be known for its cotton, until Monsanto was able to convince the men in power to switch to genetically engineered seeds. Made by Monsanto. Even before that, it had been difficult to compete against U.S. cotton, but after the switch, the quality of the cotton grown in Burkina Faso became so poor that they began earning even less money than they did before.
Three Euros at Every Stop
The bus heads southwest toward the capital city of Ouagadougou. This stretch of the journey through Burkina Faso is punctuated by checkpoints. By the time the bus reaches the Ivory Coast border, it will have passed through 18 of them. Eighteen times, all passengers will climb out of the bus, show their passports, and pay off the soldiers camping by the side of the road like highway robbers. Each passenger must pay one to three euros at every stop.
Migration is a business. And everyone wants a part of it.
"On the way north, you have to pay more," says Diallo. "When you set off to bring prosperity to your people, your country, your continent, everyone wants your money. Up to 45 euros per checkpoint. We often left the bus and rented motorcycles, driving for hours through the savannah just to avoid the checkpoints. Because those who can't or don't want to pay up, are sent back. There is no such thing as solidarity with the migrants here."
By 9 a.m., the sun has risen high in the sky and the nighttime chill yields to the brutal, daytime heat - and the drivers, for reasons known only to them, turn off the air conditioning. It only runs at night, blowing cold air into a bus already full of the chill seeping in from the outside. As soon as it gets hot, the driver turns it off. The passengers accept it merely with a shrug.
The bus stops every 15 or 30 minutes and money is collected amid shouts and threats. Occasional fights break out. Children come running out of the huts, out of the shade of the aduwa trees, and stand silently before the travelers, their eyes wide and empty, their faces almost white from the dust. They look like spirits out of a Shakespeare drama, except for the small, plastic buckets around their necks to collect handouts.
"When you have nothing," Diallo says, "everything is always about money. And ultimately, it is about envy." Outside, the sun beats down on the dry, brown savannah. Everyone here is alone, says Diallo bitterly. The people are selfish, he says, if you're poor, you inevitably turn selfish.
By early evening, the bus is meandering through the traffic in the capital of Ouagadougou. Wind comes through the window and blows a curtain into the face of a woman sitting in front of Diallo. But she doesn't react. She ignores it for 15 minutes, until her husband ties the curtain back. "Sufferance has become second nature for the travelers," Diallo says. Travelers in Africa endure. The only way they can stand it is by suppressing their pride and dignity.
At 4 a.m., the bus reaches Yendene, the border crossing to Ivory Coast. Soldiers are lying around burning pieces of wood while goats poke around the garbage looking for something to eat.
Formerly a shining example of success in West Africa, a country full of cocoa plantations, Ivory Coast first descended into civil war before becoming a country wracked by mutiny. The government has proven unable to exert control over the former rebels despite having spent huge sums of money to keep them calm and under control. In the economic capital of Abidjan, people now live in fear of the so called "microbes," gangs of drugged up children who cruise the city armed with machetes, iron bars and knives.
As the smell of dust slowly gives way to the fragrance of lush, moist earth and flowering mango trees begin passing by outside the bus windows, Diallo begins to daydream, just as all travelers ultimately do.
In his thoughts, he would later explain, he arrives in his village. His mother welcomes him, and fish is caught in the river he used to bathe as a boy. Peanuts are grated before being cooked into sauce. The village listens to his tales of adventure, of how he only barely managed to survive. They understand him, his uncles welcome him. He stays a few weeks and then, well-rested, heads out again. He works at the foot of the mountains, building up a life in Guinea.
He then smiles and puts on his earphones. A Julio Iglesias song is playing.
"Je sais en amour il faut toujours un perdant" - I know that in love there is always a loser.
"J'ai eu la chance de gagner souvent" - I've been lucky enough to win often.
"Et j'ignorais que l'on pouvait souffrir autant" - but I didn't know it was possible to suffer so much.
It is his favorite song. "It is in love just as it is in life," he says.
On the road, a couple of boys are drawing gasoline out of a truck that has tipped over on its side.
Over and over again, soldiers at the checkpoints make the bus wait because the driver doesn't have enough money or presents to give them. In Ivory Coast, the passengers don't pay, the driver does. If the driver doesn't, the men with their old Kalashnikovs will gaze silently into the luggage compartment until he does.
"The soldiers on the street only want money. That's what they are there for," says Diallo. "African soldiers think like criminals."
In Bouaké, the second-largest city in Ivory Coast, it is quiet. There is no gunfire, no skirmishes as there were just four days ago, only traffic rattling through the dirty streets. The bus stops and Diallo gets off. "Welcome, white men," says a young woman with braided hair and a cheeky smile.
The Patina of Shattered Dreams
"We are two blacks and two whites," says Diallo. "Why do you only greet the whites?"
Africans, he says, still see whites as being superior. "Europe looks down on us, but we look up to you," he says. "Maybe the two things are complementary." Two hours later, we continue to the west.
On a cloudy Wednesday morning in a bus station in western Ivory Coast that reeks of diesel, 41 hours after he left Niamey and still 71 hours before arriving in his village, Diallo suddenly says: "I need to call her. At some point I need to call her." He means his mother. Nobody yet knows he is coming.
Daloa is rolling past outside, a town that isn't much more than randomly erected corrugated-metal huts interspersed with garbage. The minibus Diallo is now traveling in speeds down a street extending like a ravine through the dark green undergrowth.
Diallo travelled this road once before, back in 2016 on his way to Abidjan, where he expected to find his fortune. Someone had told him he could make money in Abidjan. But he didn't make any money there. The streets of West Africa are often covered in a patina of shattered dreams.
In Niger, explains a fellow passenger in a taxi later on, the Fulbe, Diallo's clan, have a celebration in which they fight a duel with sticks. "At my home," says Diallo, "my clan has abandoned almost all of its traditions. The only custom we still have is trying to find money."
Several hours later, after the pavement has turned to sand, a rusty Nissan drives him to the Ivorian border post. The obese officer in charge lounges in a hammock under a mango tree shouting orders. Then Diallo steps up to the hut where two bored officers examine the passports while a third fries some cassava in boiling oil. "Watch out over there with the Guineans," we are told. "They are bandits, all of them."
"There is so much racism here," says Diallo. "Between tribes, between countries."
Then the overweight boss shouts from his hammock, scratching his belly bulging out from beneath his tank-top: "Africa is a free continent!" He brushes off some cassava that has fallen on his chest. "Free for you. You can go anywhere. Where can I go in Europe? Nowhere."
A muddy rivulet crossing the dirt rack marks the border a few miles down the road. And there, deep in the bush, feelings begin stirring within Diallo that he hadn't expected. Pride and happiness. He is home.
Fifty-six hours before he takes his mother into his arms, Diallo showers using a plastic bucket at the bus station in the southern Guinean city of Nzérékoré. For one euro, he spends the night in a windowless room which is barricaded at 11:30 p.m. "Don't go outside and don't go around the corner," says one of the boys sleeping in the room. "There are vagrants out there. They'll beat you and rob you."
Corruption and Poverty
A man sits down next to Diallo and sells him a SIM card. He is a geology student. "The country actually has everything it needs to be rich," he says. "But all we have is corruption and poverty."
The soil of Guinea is indeed full of natural resources. There is oil and diamonds, gold and bauxite. And iron ore. According to some estimates, the Simandou range alone could hold as much as $140 billion-worth of iron ore, with more than 2 billion tons of the stuff underground. It is considered the world's largest untapped deposit, and yet Guinea, with its over 12 million inhabitants, is one of the poorest countries in the world thanks to dubious deals struck by its corrupt governments. This is how a company belonging to an Israeli diamond merchant received permission in 2008 to mine the Simandou deposit. Apparently without paying anything, at least not officially.
In lieu of wealth, Guinea now has Highway 10 - so-named because it runs more or less along the 10th parallel. It is part of the route used by South American cartels to smuggle drugs through Africa to Europe.
Late at night at the bus station, you can hear the rats - and the thieves who steal batteries out of parked cars. At daybreak, young boys will sell them to those who suddenly are in need of a new car battery.
The next morning, Diallo is once again standing in front of a shared taxi. Eleven people in a Renault Nevada station wagon for a 20-hour trip to Labé in the north of the country. But the taxi suddenly disappears with all the luggage and only returns an hour later.
"That is the problem here," says Diallo. "No rules, no order. Everyone does what they want." Then we leave.
On the shoulder of the road, posters have been erected to warn of Ebola's return. Others warn of the dangers inherent in the journey to Europe. They have been put up by the EU.
By the time the overloaded Renault finally rolls into Marela 12 hours later, night has already fallen. The villages all look the same, with the street used as a market square, a place to hang out and a home for livestock all at the same time. There is rarely any electricity, and if there is, then from solar cells set up by NGOs. Sometimes there is a well, sometimes there isn't. But there is always a stand where cell phones can be charged for a fee.
'God Is Great!'
Then the atmosphere in the car changes. There are still seven hours left to Labé and the driver steps on the gas, but the passengers are growing fearful. It is the time of the month when the merchants return to Labé, and with them, after darkness falls, the robbers. An argument breaks out and ultimately, the decision is made to wait until sunrise in three termite-infested huts. "The one thing a good driver in Guinea must be able to do," Diallo explains, "is to tell the real checkpoints from the fake ones. The uniforms are the same, but at the real ones they look at your papers. At the fake ones they rob you blind." The passengers must have silently decided that driver wasn't really up to the task.
The next evening - the last one before he is to look into his mother's eyes, a moment from which he is hoping for nothing less than absolution - Diallo can be found in the courtyard of a rundown hotel in the small town of Gaoual. He is sitting next to an empty pool, where children wash themselves under a trickle of water streaming out of a stone dolphin's snout. Diallo looks at his phone. Then he dials.
"It is me," he says, "Majid, your son." His mother is silent. Then she says: "God is great!"
"I'm coming home mother," he says. "I'll be there tomorrow."
"God is great," she says again.
"Everything will be ok," he says, as he hangs up.
He didn't said why he is coming home. He didn't say that he was bringing nothing with him.
"I know now what I will say. That it was difficult in Libya. That I want to live in my country. I will need to do a lot of talking tomorrow. I will describe every step of the journey."
Then he goes to sleep. Peacefully.
The drive up to his village, Boual, takes five hours. There are no more roads, only deeply-rutted tracks.
Once a week, a car struggles its way up the mountains, through the forests, home to the baboons, over the high plateau covered in reddish-brown bauxite. The mountains may be rich, but the people living on them are poor.
Diallo is silent. At one point he says: "Soon everything will be ok." He buys 20 kilograms of oranges on the side of the road, so he'll at least have something when he arrives home.
After several long, bumpy hours the car finally rolls into the village where the dirt track comes to an end beneath an old acacia tree. It's hard to imagine a place any further away from Europe.
The villagers here used to hunt the antelope that grazed next to their huts. But the forest that once sheltered the antelope no longer exists. They burned it down thinking they could plant corn where the trees once stood. But the ground is too rocky for agriculture and once the forest disappeared, the wells went dry. That's why Diallo was supposed to earn money for a mango plantation. Mangos still grow here.
Round huts are scattered on the hillside. Six homes in the village are rectangular. "Real houses," the villagers call them, because they look like houses in Europe. Or at least that's what they think. They were paid for by men who left to work in Europe or the U.S.
The village is so remote and poor that the poverty isn't immediately visible because there is no wealth around to contrast it with. Diallo's mother's hut lies in the shade of a mango tree behind shoulder-height, sun-withered grass. Diallo walks up towards the hut, slowly at first and then faster as he gets closer to the small, brown building. As he jumps over small rocks, chickens scatter and pigeons flutter away. Then, finally, he is standing in front of his mother.
She cries and hugs her son. "Thank you, God," she says. Again and again. She takes off his backpack and sets it in the hut next to the mats and the pots.
Everything is ok.
She hugs him. Then she says quietly, so that only he can hear: "You were gone for years. Look what my house looks like. You were supposed to build me a new one."
The happiness lasted two minutes.
I need to explain it to her, Diallo thinks. I need to tell her about the trip. Of the death I saw on the sea. But his uncles are already jostling him away. A single tear trickles down his cheek.
A family meeting is called for the evening.
Six elderly men are sitting on thin straw mats talking about the goats that had been killed by an unknown predator a couple of days ago. Fifteen women, most of them with children, sit on the periphery. An LED lamp shines a dull light on the group sitting in front of Diallo like a tribunal.
'I Am Very Disappointed'
Diallo begins. He strives to draw them in to his story, to captivate them, to make them understand the fear he experienced. He describes the desert, the people dying of thirst, the crippled migrants in Libya who had been shot in the legs, the slave markets, the sea, the jail, the guards, the death. And his long journey home.
Then his mother stands up and leaves.
"I am furious," she will later say. "He left to build me a house, and he hasn't managed anything. I am very disappointed. As a loser, he will never find a wife."
Diallo remains seated before the group. Nobody asks him anything. At least he's brought the first whites into the village, one of the men says. Another adds that Diallo is a bad role model for the younger ones. Two women whisper quietly that the boy might be cursed.
Then they go off to bed.
"I feel like a stranger," is the only thing Diallo says. But he still understands them. It has always been this way: The younger generation heads off to provide for their elders. He failed in that mission. "That is," he says, "my mistake."
The dream of the migrants isn't just their own. It is the dream of an entire community they must defer to, a community for which they embark on their journey.
The next day, Diallo packs his backpack and climbs back into the car for the journey back down to the plains.
He is bound for Conakry, the capital. To make money. Somehow. He must head out again. To Europe. Because the dreams of the others are expensive and difficult to fulfill.