Dreams at sea

A contribution to Harbour of Action and Research at Sea, Exhibition at Corridor Project Space, 24.07—16.08.2020. Amsterdam.

When I was a kid, we were making boats out of any useless paper we could find around to fill the empty time. The boring moments. Next to boats, we were also making plane either with papers or leaves from mango trees and to make it flying, we were running hard and holding it with a small stick that was cut from the fresh green leaves imagining ourselves in the air, masters of our destinies and the world. We were having a lot of fun.

Boat, plane... I’ve never seen a plane until a visit organised in my primary school for the whole classroom. That was magic. I don’t remember anymore how old exactly I was. Until then, when I became a little bit older, every 20th of May as every year, we celebrate Cameroon Unification, my Cousin Blanche was bringing us to the military aviation area, .And for every 20th of May after the official parade at the Boulevard du 20 Mai, there were some shows with helicopters, planes,parachutes in the air. That was beautiful!!! It was colorful and very intense. Going there became a ritual. There was no Unification day if we were not going to that place. I’ve never seen so many real boats with my eyes until I came to Amsterdam.

Any child from a lower or middle class grew with a different image of a boat. Thanks to papers. We had the opportunity to paint them with any color we had around, and to add a sail while creating successful stories of voyage. Making boats whereas we were living in an environment where to see the sea, you had to take a bus and spend more than 3 hours on the road. We just knew that to go to “Mbeng,”(Europe or America) you could use one of them.

The stories we were telling with our boats were motivated by the will to navigate around the daily dramas that were associated to sea. We grew up with these stories of neighbors who never came back alive, or from who, we never heard anymore. One day, they went on a journey to Mbeng. Flights were out of their league because it meant having a lot of money, and visas were mostly refused to them so they decided to make the trip through the desert. They never had the chance to make it through. The place they wanted to reach was still an imagination from images they saw on the TV. They unfortunately found their lives taken by the water during the “death trip”, their dreams too were drowned and eaten by the fishes and spirits of the sea. We all grew up dreaming to make our lives and those of our parents better.  This could be only possible by escaping and going to that “El Dorado”( we thought it was one). “Paris à tout prix” we say... Many of us wanted to avoid the sea. Most of us could not understand why the idea of moving around the world was not a gift to us.

These people dying in the sea (and I measure my words) if they were white the whole earth would be shaking. They are blacks and Arabs. So their death is worth nothing.”
Fatou Diome

The idea of the plane as being something for the others, the rich and the “white” was shaped by the way foreign embassies were handling applications for visas of locals: a lack of diplomatic reciprocity between nations. Crossing the borders, discovering other parts of the world is not a right for everyone as it is for a lot of kids elsewhere. How many countries are you allowed to enter with your passport without a visa? How many times have been refused a visa to visit a friend, to visit a new city, a new country or just to spend your holidays? How often have you been asked if you have enough money in your bank account to travel?

“When you look at a foreigner, look at the human story behind it, not everyone who came to steal a custard pie. We are on the same boat, so let’s row together in the right direction: fraternity!
Fatou Diome

A week ago, I went to Paris for two days and I used the opportunity to visit this place that my friend Hélène always told me about many times: Les Grands voisins.

Since 2015, the former Saint-Vincent-de-Paul hospital has been temporarily occupied by different associations and organisations offering around 600 places of accommodation to people in situations of vulnerability. At first, Les Grands voisins was a place to host former prisoners to help them in the process of reinsertion in daily social lives and later on, it opened its doors hosting migrants and homeless from all over the world.

While I was hanging around, I met with Cedric. Cedric is Cameroonian like me. He grew up in Yaounde but in a different neighborhood. It was funny to discuss and remember the social differences and similarities. He made a map of Madagascar, his former neighborhood, by drawing with his finger in the air to show me where it was situated. Cedric came to France through the sea. He made the death trip. He is a survivor. He travelled with other people who could not make it through. His story is full of drama. While hearing his path, I came to realise that he spent way more money than I did for my trip to Europe. For instance, for any trip from Morocco to Spain, every passenger must pay around 1000 euros. A price that could be used for a flight from their country to Europe. But unfortunately, Cedric was denied the visa many times. Les Grands Voisins was his home for the past year. Now he is working and living alone. He got his permit some months ago. He is very happy to acknowledge the fact that he can move around Paris without any fears to be caught by the police. He spent the time telling me: “I have to tell my people not to take that option. The desert, the sea, are experiences that you can not erase of your minds. This trip changed my dreams. Now my dream is to live fully”. Since he lives in Paris, he knows that the truth “El Dorado” is Madagascar.

We are both two former boats and plane makers, living in Europe. Cedric lives in Paris and me in Amsterdam. We have different narratives that are entangled with refusal and survival. Our separate trips to Europe had an influence on how we think about ourselves in the future. He is looking forward to going back to Yaoundé but for now,  he told me: “I have to make money to be able to afford paying a return flight ticket.”

Aude Christel Mgba, July 2020
Fences, walled up Captives of a once blessed land
And who has nothing more than his hunger to rock
Passports, accommodation certificates, visas
And the rest that they don't tell us
Are the new chains of slavery
Bank details
Address and origins
Criteria of modern apartheid
Africa, rhizocarpous mother, gives us the breast
The West feeds our desires
And ignore the cries of our hunger
African generation of globalization
Attracted, then filtered, parked, rejected, sorry
We are the Despite ourselves of the journey

Fatou Diome, Le Ventre de l’Atlantique, 2003, pp. 216-217.