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The Middle Passage, 1999
By Michael Lambert (Univeristy of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

1999 Copyright © American Anthropology Association

There was a miracle in Lyon, France this past Spring. Bouna Wade, a Senegalese teenager, was found huddled in the landing gear of an Air Afrique Airbus. Wade had climbed into this space in Dakar and had somehow survived the brutal conditions of cruising outside a pressurized cabin at 30,000 feet. The medical authorities were at a loss to explain how Wade was able to survive the sub-freezing temperatures and trace levels of oxygen.


Wade was not the only West African youth to attempt this perilous journey. Less than two months later the bodies of two Guinean teenagers, Koita Yanguiné (15) and Tounkara Fodé (16), were pulled out of the landing gear of a Sabena Airbus in Brussels. While they might have been inspired by the news that Wade had actually lived through the perilous ordeal, a letter found with their bodies suggests that they knew that they might not have his luck.

Unlike Wade, who had a history of psychological problems, these two aspiring travelers were by all accounts of sound mind and body, even if they were young and immature. The press portrayed them as down right smart. Much was made of the fact that their letter was penned in impeccable French. Yanguiné had apparently been pushed to tempt fate by his desire to become an author or study law in Paris. His parents were separated, and he lived with his father in Guinea. He wanted to surprise his mother who was living in Paris.

Yanguiné’s letter was addressed to European government officials. As a way of explanation for their brash decision, the letter spoke of how conditions in Africa for youth were deteriorating. Specifically, it mentioned the lack of education, food, leisure activities, sports and other opportunities. In addition to making a general plea on behalf of all Africa’s children, the letter requested, quite simply, that European authorities treat these two voyagers with respect. This request suggests that Yanguiné and Fodé knew that when they arrived they would not be in any condition to speak for themselves. While they probably knew that they had but a slim chance to survive, they may have hoped to arrive as did Wade, unconscious but alive, huddled in the landing gear. It was a sign of their youth that they believed that their explanation would matter to European immigration authorities. Apparently they did not hear that Wade, for all his efforts, was swiftly repatriated to his native land.

Irresistible Pull

From the many years I spent in Senegal, I was well aware of the irresistible pull that caused many of that nation’s youth to yearn with an incomprehensible fervor to leave home in search of their fortunes in distant lands. One friend so doggedly hoped that I would deliver him to what he believed was the promised land that, on the eve of my departure just after I had explained why it was not a good idea for him to go to the US and that I would not help him get there, turned to me and asked for his ticket. A few years ago I ran into a man in Dakar who spoke perfect vernacular English. Asked where he had learned to speak English so well, he told me that he used to live in the US. Incredulous, I asked why he chose to return to Senegal, given that everyone in Senegal dreams of living in the States. He said that he didn’t like living in the States. He found it lonely, expensive and difficult to save money. When I asked why he didn’t tell this to his friends, he responded that he eventually gave up, after they refused to listen.

The logic behind transnational migration is similar to that of the lottery. No matter how heavily the odds are stacked against success, nearly all believe they will be the exception. Although no one knows how many West Africans have done well by leaving the continent, I imagine that success stories are few and far between. At the very least only a few migrants succeed but the few (elaborated) stories of success are those that everyone hears. After all, who would have the courage to return to Africa and brag about having spent the last seven years living in the squalor of a Parisian slum with nothing to show for it? Even so, everyone I knew was aware of tragic failures. One man disappeared while crossing the desert between Tunisia and Libya. After more than a decade, his wife and children are still waiting for him. Another man tried to enter Germany with an invalid visa and a stolen plane ticket. He never made it past immigration officials in Frankfurt, and now lives in Benin because he is afraid of arrest if he returns to Senegal. His wife has filed for divorce. The tragically all-too-frequent stories of migrants murdered abroad make good grist for the local press: these stories range from stories of migrants who are murdered in South Africa while attempting to get to Australia to accounts of migrants who die at the hands overzealous European immigration officials. These stories cast a dark shadow against the large villas that those few successful migrants have built in a suburb of Dakar called Cité Millionaire. Everyone I knew was convinced that they, too, would be able to build their villa in Cité Millionaire if only. . .

Notwithstanding the fact that reports described his survival as a miracle, unexplainable and impossible, no, I was not surprised that news of Wade’s miraculous ability to survive such a dangerous passage would inspire hope in the minds of a few West Africans that they, too, could survive this new macabre version of the middle passage.

Unanswered Questions

On June 8 Wade’s father, Mamadou, came across the story of yet another West African youth who had been found dead in the landing gear of an airplane. He notified the authorities that his son had left home on June 7 at about 10 pm and had not yet returned. Mamadou spent the next 45 days chasing officials in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire before he finally received photographs of the young voyager. These photographs confirmed that this was his son. This time Bouna Wade was found in Abidjan, not a European city. One is left to wonder if he had crawled into the landing gear of the wrong plane or if the plane had plied across the Sahara twice before its clandestine cargo was found. Now Mamadou is fighting, apparently with little success, to have his son’s body returned to Dakar for burial. He is also fighting to understand who is to blame for the tragic end met by this boy who was once a miraculous young man. In Senegal questions have been raised about security at the airport, which Bouna skirted not once, but twice. Some have suggested that security guards were bribed with full knowledge of his plans. Alternatively, Mamadou might look for an answer in the letter penned by Yanguiné and Fodé decrying the conditions under which Africa’s youth are forced to live, conditions which Yanguiné and Fodé believed justified a desperate and hopeless act. Perhaps Mamadou should decry immigration policies that make it increasingly difficult for the people of Africa to participate in the current global economic boom. Or, should Mamadou just dismiss his son as a young man whose life had collapsed into an obsession, a dream of paradise: a madman destined to follow the path of his own success into the bowels of a Treichville morgue? A man to be remembered as a haunting icon of his generation.

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