Thursday, October 18, 2007

Clandestine, Controls and Crossing the Sahara

Can a White person be a clandestine? Is it possible? With so many Africans risking a small fortune, not including also their own personal safety to cross the Sahara and make their way to Europe, I imagine it is ironic that I did the reverse and traveled from Tunis to Niamey. Why? It is a matter of funds. And perhaps it is also to better understand the experience of crossing the paths that Black Africans move through illegally.

The route I ended up traveling was a bit illogical, but perhaps that is common experience. I initially planned on traveling first through the Tunisian cities of Gafsa, Tozeur and Nefta to cross into Algeria, but the authorities at the border refused to let me through without a guide. Since I was using forms of community transit, I had no choice but return to a border post further north, one called Bou Chebka and cross into Tébessa, Algeria. There, the authorities were surprised to see an American with an Algerian visa and on foot but after the stun of my presence, they allowed me to pass. From Tébessa, I moved on to Constantine where I was able to find frequent traffic for the south, first Ouargla, then El Goléa, In Salah and Tamanrasset. Travel from Constantine to Tamanrasset took approximately 33 hours directly. In Tamanrasset, I waited roughly 30 hours for my driver to find a sufficient number of clients; many who are illegal aliens who have run into difficulties with the Algerian authorities and are looking to cross through Libya.

So what is it like? There is the initial challenge of finding someone to trust to take you where you need to go. That in itself is difficult as people are abandoned frequently by their chauffeurs, particularly in the Sahara desert. After that, it is a matter of negotiating the fare for passage. As one can imagine, if one offers too little the chauffeur will refuse and if one offers too much, there is the concern that they will not have enough to offer the next driver for the next leg of travels.

Insecurity and harassment from authorities is a constant concern. For me, northern Algeria was a danger zone as there have been terrorist attacks aimed at foreigners recently. The authorities constantly asked for my papers: at road blocks, bus stations and along the streets. Furthermore, the looks I was receiving from young, unemployed men on the streets in Tébessa and Constantine where enough to push me further towards my goal of returning to Niger. I was a target there.

For Black Africans, the Sahara (southern Algeria) is problematic. Starting in Biskra, Algeria (the northern frontier of the Sahara) the authorities began to ask for the papers of anyone resembling Black Africans on the buses and other forms of transportation. In most cases, those who do not have their papers in order are pulled off the bus. In rare cases, a few have the chance to pay a small gift to avoid being deported. At the frontier town of In Guezzam as I was going through the formalities of crossing into Niger, I witnessed the scale of this operation. Large Mercedes freight trucks rolled by with hundreds of illegal aliens standing up in the truck beds to be dropped off in Assamakka, Niger. I estimated around 250-300 per truck from the way people were lined up.

Assamakka is a Kel Tamasheq name and actually a famous water source for their animals. There is a legend around it where in the past; a traveler who had been suffering from thirst for days arrived here at night and saw the well thanks to the moonlight reflecting off the surface of the water (the definition of Assamakka). So excited he was, that he rushed over to quench his thirst and tragically fell into the well and drowned. There is of course, a moral here and any Tamasheq who suffers from thirst or hunger will only take a small amount of water or food to begin with once they have arrived to safety.

Assamakka has transformed considerably since its days as a source of water for caravans and legend for practicing patience. There are small restaurants opened by Black African women, little ‘informal’ markets selling cheap goods from Algeria and furthermore the village is swollen with Africans from Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. There is ongoing theft, hustles and cons. But more overwhelming than the crimes that take place in the corners of the town are the rows of illegal aliens from Algeria. It was intimidating when I arrived to the control. They looked like army divisions standing in formation, thanks to their Algerian overseers.

If the large Mercedes trucks and the way Africans were lined up in them is not enough to recall the diagrams of slave ships from the 17th-19th centuries, perhaps the collective transport between Assamakka and Arlit will recall the image. The transport is a Toyota Land Cruiser, from the early 1990s, with the back seats removed in order to fit as many people as possible into the vehicle. The driver and the front seats remain, but the cost is double to sit up in front with the driver (which most Africans cannot afford, especially if they have just been deported from Algeria). The ‘back’ becomes full at about 14 or 15 people. Exhaust from the vehicle and dust kicked up from the tires enters through the back window. The distance between the two towns is about 210 km and the road is sometimes sand, sometimes rock. Ideally, the voyage should take 4 to 5 hours but the vehicle I was in had flat tires constantly and since there is a rebellion on hold in the region, a curfew in Arlit prevented my arrival into town the same day I left Assamakka. We slept about 40 km from the town, which was actually refreshing considering the lack of leg room. I arrived in Arlit the next day: dirty, unshaven, bruised from the transport and my companions had to carry me out of the back of the cab for a 20 minute rest in orer for the blood to return to my legs (I had lost feeling of my legs several times during the travel).

In all fairness to Algerian authorities and those who have created enterprises around clandestine operations, no one forces Africans from Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa to make this crossing, unless one wishes to personify poverty. Ask any illegal alien in Europe/North Africa or those deported back to Mali or Niger why they cross the Sahara and they will tell you, "There is nothing for me back in -choose a sub-Saharan African country and place here-" The conditions one experiences in traveling through the Sahara illegally are miserable and geared to maximize the returns for entrepreneurs running transport. It is an abuse of human rights, but one that Black Africans choose to enter considering their lack of opportunities at home.

6 comments:

Karl's Brother said...

A compelling read. Do you have photos to go with it? How hard is it to keep your research gear in tact during these trips?

Brent McCusker said...

Hey Franklin,
Great Blog. Cat's out of the bag, though. I've been posting as "karl's brother" for obvious reasons, but had to go "clean" to create a blog for the Malawi NSF grant over at nsfmalawiblog.blogspot.com. Let me know if you suspected it was me. I did coy little things like post "GSP" instead of "GPS" but I'm sure you've figured it out.
Travel safely, hey?

Brent said...

Never.
Asshole? Always.

Jenn said...

And to think we used to have these conversations in the same room... I guess cyber space has truly redefined space in general. Keep the posts coming! I must also admit I was slightly disappointed that there weren't any blogs detailing events in early July. Could I check a seperate blog for those pictures?

Jenn

Brent said...

Jenn,
Aren't you supposed to be recovering? I know that if you have a computer that you will be working on that document of yours. You know, with that OCD you have!!!

Brad C said...

I still can't figure out why the Coen Brothers haven't made a film about you.