“On the plane they gave me a painting by a boy, Daniel, who paints his anguish as he is drowning and wants to save his sinking partner. I recommend a book, Hermanito, that is ‘Little Brother.’ It came out a year ago. It is the story of an older brother who leaves Guinea in search of his younger brother. It makes us understand what the desert crossing is like: the trafficking of migrants, imprisonment, torture, the sea journey…” Pope Francis said this in Malta during one of his customary conversations with Jesuits on his apostolic journeys, as later published by La Civiltà Cattolica. From time to time the pontiff has mentioned this account because of its emotional intensity.
Ibrahima Balde, the boy from Guinea, narrates his quest, the search for his younger brother, to Basque journalist and poet Amets Arzallus Antia, whom he met at a meeting of an association that assists migrants. On the first page of the biographical novel, there is a geographical map of Northern Africa with a small house in the Guinea area drawn in pencil. On the last page the same map is marked by the many places and paths that the author has taken on his long, dramatic journey. This well-worn migrant road is not familiar; it is a path in life where you are ignored, trampled on, and treated like dirt.
What is childhood in poverty like?
The story begins in the city of Conakry, capital of Guinea, a country bordering Senegal, Sierra Leone and Mali, where Ibrahima was born. He lives his childhood in the village of Thiankoi, along with his mother, younger brother and two sisters. From there he moves back to Conakry, where he helps his father sell slippers, until he suddenly dies from diabetes. It seems to be Ibrahima’s fate from childhood to be forced to travel, not by his own will, but by the dramatic events of life. The death of his father forces him to return to his mother, who lives in extreme poverty, which prompts him to embark, as soon as he is 13 years old, on other journeys in search of a better life. We see him at work in Liberia, as a porter during the day at the market, and sleeping at night at the station, “But at night, everyone I knew would disappear, and I’d be left alone. So I’d go back to the station. There I would open cardboard boxes and make myself a small bed. In Liberia I learned to sleep on the street.” The author has simple encounters that reveal simple acts of charity that change the direction of his life, such as being welcomed in a garage by a mechanic, who hires him as an apprentice.
But in Africa, in the villages, life is very fragile, and so Ibrahima must leave what little he has managed to build to return to his village yet again, because his mother is sick and must be taken to the hospital. Ibrahima is the eldest son, and he is responsible for his siblings, particularly Alhassane, the second eldest boy, who must continue his education. But during one of Ibrahima’s absences for work, Alhassane leaves his village to seek his fortune in other lands. Ibrahima feels guilty because he has not been able to provide the money needed for his brother’s studies. He has left for Libya. From here begins his own dramatic journey in search of his younger brother.
In search of his lost brother
The novel describes Ibrahima’s grueling and desperate journey to find his younger brother, the search for news about him, based on a quick and confusing call that Alhassane himself had made to his mother informing her that he was in Libya.
Each initiative of the author is like a leap into the void that he takes, clinging to that thin thread of hope of finding his younger brother.
If a normal journey starts with planning and organization, support bases and safe transportation, in Ibrahima’s case poverty and grave danger are the constants as he moves, and time stretches indefinitely. Each stage has its costs, in the different currencies of the place: money that, while from a Western point of view may seem very little, for Ibrahima constitutes not only the possibility of continuing the journey, but also of survival.
Through the young author’s firsthand account, we understand the business of trafficking migrants, who soon become prisoners of different groups: soldiers, desert nomads, and others who prey on migrants. In Gao, Ibrahima experiences prison for the first time: “The pickup truck stopped in front of a big wall […]. Beyond that door was an enclosed space with walls and nets, and between those walls were many people, all prisoners. I don’t know how many of us there were, a hundred and sixty, a hundred and eighty, I don’t know. When the numbers are big, it’s hard to calculate, but there were so many of us. All like me.”
The violence of the journey
To get out of the prison, you needed money, or you risked your life attempting to escape. Ibrahima chooses the latter alternative, taking the desert route again, not knowing if he will be able to find kifs along the way, i.e., canisters that hold water or gasoline, arranged by the Tuaregs to aid those who venture through those areas. The reader is lost among the many stages of a journey that increasingly acquires a dark inhuman side because of the cruelty inflicted by those who organize the “programs” for Europe, that is for travel across the Mediterranean on dilapidated rubber dinghies. On one of these Ibrahima discovers that his brother had been the victim of a disaster in which 144 people drowned.
Ibrahima’s journey does not end with the discovery of this tragedy, for somehow he will be the one to fulfill and complete his brother’s journey, attempting night crossings, experiencing torture and prison, the unprecedented violence to which migrants arriving in Libya are subjected, and understanding how little human life is worth.
In accounts of migration, the meaning of a journey completely changes: it is not a place of cultural understanding, intimate conversion, or redefinition of one’s being, but becomes an interminable struggle for survival, involving slavery and brutal violence. Those who decide, like Ibrahima, to embark on this journey will not only see their bodies exposed to the pain of excruciating torture practiced by the soldiers, mercenaries or torturers in the prisons, but will also experience how their own minds and consciences are haunted by the constant guilt over the family members left behind: “…when I say conscience, I mean each person’s history. Everyone’s dreams and guilt. All together. […] Even here, conscience attacks me every day, and I am afraid.” Such fear does not make one forget, but always brings the pain alive, feeds it, preventing you from cultivating hope and trust in the future.
At the end of this dramatic journey, Ibrahima asks himself, “Sometimes I think, ‘Will I ever be able to forget this?’ […] But this was not my place to struggle. This was not my destiny. Neither Libya nor Europe. I wanted to live by driving a truck, from Conakry to Nzérékoré and from Nzérékoré to Conakry, and help my family that way. But Alhassane left home and I had to leave to go find him.”
The voyage, often a last resort, seems the only possible way. It ends with a miraculous landing, but will inevitably always carry the deep wound that comes with questions about being human, about the sense of justice denied, about the importance of life, whatever form it may take, about the brutal violence that continues to be perpetrated, despite being now known, and the bewilderment of the victims that it is accepted and justified.
The journey of Ibrahima and of many migrants is imbued with a hope that is set against despair in the face of events, often determined by a poverty frequently generated by policies that aim at reducing expenditure on welfare, by inhumane and dehumanizing policies, by a failure to care for refugees. The lives of Ibrahima and the migrants seem to hang on the actions of those who welcome, of those who, even in simple ways try to heal the wounds of others. But the underlying question facing readers is why we fail to find not only measures that can manage migration flows effectively in a comprehensive and legal way, but also policies that can help build more just and humane societies.
. A. Spadaro, “What is the Church’s Vocation? Pope Francis in conversation with the Maltese Jesuits”, in Civ. Catt. English Ed, April 2022, https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/what-is-the-churchs-vocation-pope-francis-in-conversation-with-the-maltese-jesuits/
.For example, receiving members of Spanish Caritas, which in September 2022 celebrated 75 years since its establishment. https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/it/speeches/2022/september/documents/20220905-caritas-spagnola.html
. A. A. Antia – I. Balde, Fratellino, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2020. Available in English as Little Brother: An odyssey to Europe.