Aliou agreed on being interviewed almost immediately. Having previously talked about his personal experience as an African citizen in a television programme known as Tot un món, he was deeply interested in revealing the truth about his continent and in conveying his personal approach to migratory movements. As portrayed in depth in the following section of the project, he was born in Senegal in 1975. After having obtained the baccalaureate there, he decided to apply for a place in the University of Senegal where he would study Economics. At the end of his degree he began his life as a co-worker in an NGO, but in 2001 he decided to move to France. Two years later he moved to Spain, where he is now working as a baker. His personal experience and his high level of studies make of him a man whose country remains as his essence, and who does not want to forget nor to blur his paradoxically illusory harsh land. He welcomes us to their small flat in Granollers, Barcelona, the afternoon of a rainy Wednesday. He is elated with telling us about all the things he is proud of. And so, hearing the rain-drops tapping on the window pain and ignoring that that experience will change our lives forever, the interview begins.
Q: Good afternoon Ali. First of all, thank you for agreeing on being interviewed. We really appreciate it. Could you begin telling us about your studies? Did you study in Senegal?
A: I have got University level studies. I studied economics in my country. At first, at school, we did Maths and all of that. Afterwards, I studied secondary education and the baccalaureate. The baccalaureate I studied was half scientific, between science and literature. It was the most difficult one, because I had to do subjects from both areas. I did Maths, Social Science, Technology and Literature. I needed more than a 10, a 12, to pass the baccalaureate. I got it and so I went to the University. I studied for two years despite the struggles and difficulties of my family, because we are twelve siblings.
Q: Twelve siblings! What about your parents? Wasn’t it difficult to raise the family?
A: My father was lucky and he could work. We were a middle-class family in Africa, which means we were neither very rich neither too poor. See, my father had the opportunity to have a job, he was a soldier. But still, the job was not enough to maintain twelve children. We had to be bright and witty to succeed.
Q: Are they still there in Senegal?
A: Well, today I have a brother in the United States, in New York. Another one who is an engineer in Paris; he is the manager of a business. And I am here. The rest of my siblings are in Senegal, but each of them has managed. One is a soldier, another one works…
Q: What did you work as in Senegal?
A: At the University there was a bidding because they needed volunteers to spread the idea that malnutrition rate was very high in Senegal. So they created a project to give jobs to the people. There were three hundred candidates from which they would only take twenty. These people were to raise the awareness of the whole country. We had to go from town to town informing women, for instance, of the importance of breastfeeding. Also, we had to inform of the different kinds of diets and their importance, especially when it comes to children. I spent two years doing that.
I then found an American NGO that was hiring people with experience in the field and who had communicative skills. By that time, I had started to work with women. I was therefore made responsible of a programme whose aim was to raise awareness of the rights of women. We talked about female circumcision and healthy life conditions and habits. Also, we raised consciousness to achieve equality in the working field. We tried to make people realise how women need to have the same rights as men so that, in a way, they got a more westernised vision of gender equality. Senegal is a country where Muslim religion is widespread. Women are much dominated by men.
Q: Why did you decide to come to Europe?
A: Things were not going well economically so I took the opportunity to look for a job abroad. I had friends here and I thought that if I came here I would have the opportunity to do more things. When I was about to come, a friend of mine who studied in France told me there were many opportunities for us. I came to see the situation and to find a job. After two months I had a job.
Q: Do you think coming to Europe is the only way to succeed?
A: Definitely not, but people is pushed to come. Some people come looking for a job, but some others come because of the difficult social conditions. There is barely access to health insurance, they have no job, they have no economical resources… Life becomes very hard sometimes and people in Africa can see that. Those who have are living here and go back to tell others about their improvements and their savings and the rest also want to come. Getting to Europe becomes a matter of life and death, they believe that here they will get out of their precarious situation.
Q: You told us a friend of yours recommended you to stay in Africa.
A: Yes, before leaving Senegal, a friend who had a job there advised me it was unworthy. He had studied in Africa and came back to work to Spain, but then he headed for Africa again. He advised me not to come because things were not the way I thought. I was not going to have it easy and because of my experience I would have more opportunities in Africa. However, I did not listen to him, I paid no attention because I had no job there and I wanted to come here to improve. If I had not found a job I would have gone back, but I had to come and try, at least.
Q: Do you believe young people in Africa have the possibility of working and earn a living there?
A: Yes, some of them. But it is very difficult because they lack economic resources that would allow them to have a basis to start. That is the biggest problem in Africa. There are many people with great ideas, but they have no opportunities. For instance, banks would put many conditions to give you a loan to start a company. People do not have what they ask for so they cannot be entrepreneurs. Here, with your payship you can access some things quite easily. It is not as hard to obtain a loan. If you want to study and have no money you have the opportunity to receive one to do so. In Africa there are no such things. All of these make it hard for someone to establish themselves and create something.
Q: Did surprise you, then, the different situation you found here?
A: Yes, very much. What I thought was that here it was very easy to study, that I could easily get a job… And when I came I saw that you could easily get a job in comparison to Africa, but with your earnings you cannot save anything. In Africa you are more calmed because you know that if you do not have enough you can go to your father’s house, to a cousin’s house, you can go to the countryside and eat… There is no such a pressure of having to find something. Here, no one helps you; you need to be bright and sharp. The difference is that here if you work hard you do find the opportunities, whereas in Africa that is not true. There are no opportunities there to improve your life.
Q: Would you go back to live in Africa?
A: Yes, I am sure. [He smiles melancholically] First of all, because of patriotism I would like to return to my country. I am sure I will go back. The question is when [he laughs], when is the biggest question. Right now I need to plan my return, but I cannot return yet.
Q: What struck you as most surprising when you first came to Europe? What was the most different thing in relation to Africa?
A: The most different thing? I would say my case is different because I had had the opportunity to get out of my country before coming here. But the most surprising things were the buildings and the roads. This colossal inversion made in Europe and which we do not and cannot have in Africa shocked me.
Q: You talked about your involvement in feminist issues.
A: Yes, I worked in an NGO for the rights of women. There, I had a hundred and twenty workers who had to train people and raise their awareness towards the issue. I taught them communication techniques, how to get close to people so that they would not get upset, to accept their advices… It is very difficult for people to change their customs and behaviour. I told them how to speak to people so that they would accept it and see the reality. They gave example so that they saw that what they were saying was true. They had to learn to see the rights of women as something normal. For example, we had a picture where a woman was in a garage repairing a car. We could say, ‘Look! A woman can also repair a car’. It should not be surprising. This way, people saw that they could also do that in their lives.
Q: Do you think it is very difficult to manage to change this image of women?
A: It is very difficult to change. There are always people and religions that are obstacles. They do not want these people; they believe they are westernized people who want to change their customs. There is a confrontation between cultures.
Q: How did your situation change when you first arrived here?
A: When I worked there I had a car, a chauffeur… When I left all of those and I first came here and found a cleaning job, they asked me if I knew what I had done. Friends of mine, who were here and knew the job I had, told me I had been so stupid to come here and leave all those opportunities. The first week I was paid, we were paid weekly, I got home and converted it to my home country currency. I realised that was almost what I earned in a month back in Senegal, so it was four times my previous salary. I thought I could organise myself with that money and help my country and make a plan to return. Even though I was cleaning the cutlery, it did not matter. There will be a day when I get to where I want. It is the strongest motivation I have ever had. As of working conditions, they were better there than here.
Q: What about racism? Have you ever had any problems because of your race?
A: The main problem is the people’s beliefs. Here in Europe there is also a large amount of people without a high level of studies. There are people who do not travel, who do not get out. There are people who do not read. That makes the person closed-minded. NGOs, with whom I worked and which I ended up disliking when I came to Europe, do not present a positive image of Africa. They always give the bad image to earn money and take it there. That is the reason for them not showing the good image. On TV it is always about, ‘Oh, poor people in the streets…’. They do not show the good buildings, the people that live well and the things that work alright. They just get the worst part and bring it here to show on TV. They play with people’s feelings and take their money. Someone who does not travel, does not go out, does not read… Someone who just watches TV and sees this bad image of poor suffering people… Believes that all Africans are like that. If you come here you have problems to integrate because they always think ‘he’s no one, he’s nothing, he knows nothing…’. These people that know so little, they become an obstacle and you always have problems with them. As an African, you also have to prove yourself more, show that you can set yourself and find your place. All Africans have these problems, even people that work in big enterprises. This, added to the centuries of slavery, worsens the image of coloured people. Thus, we coloured people fight to improve our situation. This constant battle brings us problems and confrontations; racism. It is like the case in the United States, where they have killed a young man. It has been a white man, so they do not go into the streets and demonstrate, nothing happens, the killer was white. But we Africans see our low situation and whenever there is a problem with an African person, they seem to take it personally, which creates confrontation. There are people in Europe who have studied and have been to Africa that value people independently of their skin colour. There is no African I know who has lived in Europe, in the Western world, that cannot say ‘I have felt offended’. For example, if someone comes to me and tells me ‘do you eat in Africa?’, you know they have said it with good intentions, because they do not know, they have not been there, they have not travelled and they want to know. But it still offends me a little because I realise they see me as a poor African man. This creates a reaction, you get upset, I get upset, and this is it, there is confrontation. It has always been there and will always be because many Africans want to improve and there will always be someone who wants to humiliate them to stop them.
Q: Do you think that because of racism African culture is less valued in Europe? Do you believe we Europeans see racism and are unable to see beyond that?
A: That is such a difficult question to answer. Nowadays, as there is globalisation and technology is so advanced, racism is not an obstacle for culture. But in the past it has been so strong. Today people know more, they read more, they are aware of what happens in other places… So it is not an obstacle, but it was a huge one in the past.
Q: Do you have any children? Would you say they feel Senegalese or European? What do you think?
A: Because of a sense of inferiority, they do not want to be identified with Africa. That is the bitter truth. It is normal, each of us wants to be at the top, everyone wants to be Shakira’s friend and Michael Jackson’s friend… They want to be famous. Children want to feel European, but as they grow up, and with a good educational background, they are happy to be African. I am very proud of myself being African. A part of me can even say I am a bit racist. Not in the negative sense but in the positive one. In the positive sense, because I fight for the good image of Africa. If I am working I want to do it in the best possible way, so that they can say ‘the negro is the best’. In regards to clothes, I want to be dressed in the best way, so that they say ‘the negro is the best’. In everything, against a white man, I want to do it even better than he does. That way, I can feel I am at his level. Whenever I have an African by my side, I support him more than anything, because I feel he is at the bottom. And this is racism, but a positive one.
Q: Would you like your children to go to live to Africa?
A: There are always nuances. I know I will go back, but I am not that sure about them. I will try to convince them to go back. They have possibilities there, and I am investing so that whenever they want to return, as they have grown up here, they can. But they have Western viewpoints. However, in Africa, they would have good life conditions, a good home… And they would feel better. I fight for this. I would like them to return to Africa, I would be delighted and I will always try to convince them to go back. I believe that the world has evolved. This is called exponential growth. It refers to something that is constantly evolving; it keeps going up until it reaches its highest point and starts going down. In Maths, it is called exponential growth, because it keeps going up until it has to go down. I believe Europe has reached its highest point, opportunities are at its highest. The future lies in those countries that are not exploited, like Africa and China. Opportunities are there now. [He laughs] In this sense, I congratulate you because you have a very broad vision. You value that the future is in those countries. There, there are jobs to make roads, and here you do not need that anymore; you renew them, but do not make them. If people want to make roads, they need to go there, where they are not done. It is a country that also has several mineral resources, Africa, there’s marble, gold, nickel, zinc, iron… There is everything. And they are still untouched. This needs to be exported, and to export it someone needs to go there. Therefore, the future lies there. I do not know in how many years, or even if we will be alive by then, but the future is there because it is not contaminated by technologies.
Q: Do you think your life would have been very different if you had stayed there in Senegal? Would it have been for better or for worse?
A: Yes. Somehow it would have been for worse. Here in Europe I improved my living a lot. I have allowed myself some luxuries I could never have dreamed of. Working there, I never thought I would have the opportunity to have my own house in the capital of my country, because that is very expensive. Working here, I was able to save money and buy this house. This is a luxury that being there, I cannot say I would not have, but I can say that would have been more difficult. Here I have it because I was lucky to find a job, to fight, and find kind people that helped me organise and plan to get to this level. If I were in Africa, it would all be different. Secondly, the open-minded ideology here widened my horizons. It has allowed me to melt African and European culture. There, it is very difficult, so that has been another improvement for me. Thirdly, coming here has allowed me to live a liveable life, and hence to help my family. Back there, it was very difficult to have that. Helping your family was almost impossible because the earnings were not as high.
Q: How do you see the political situation in Senegal? Do you think the government tries to improve the situation?
A: It is the most democratic country in Western Africa. We have the third democratically-elected president. All of the countries surrounding Senegal have always been at war, they have always had a military regime, but we never did. Secondly, it is also a country where people are very just and constitutional, they are very nice, very open-minded… The first president of Senegal was a Christian, a Christian who managed to unite the Muslims and the Christians. He created a union so that there is tolerance between them. This has played an important role in coexisting together. He was a very philosophical president, you need to know him.
Q: Do you mean that Europeans do not know a lot about Africa, generally speaking?
A: That upsets me a lot. Indeed, there is no European that knows Africa, but every African knows Europe. If I am asked about the history of France, or the history of the United States or the history of Spain, I can tell you about it. But no European knows the history of Africa. If you ask me about the big names in literature and things like that, I can tell you. But do you know who invented carbon-14?
Q: We don’t…
A: Why? Because he is from Africa. Willard Libby. He was born in my country, he invented carbon-14. This has been useful to determine where was the first man born in History. If it had been a European everyone would know about it. It is shocking, it is shocking. This is what we fight for. There are so many other things, the kings of Africa, no one knows about them. My children, they do not know. I have studied the population of the United States, the Melting Pot, American political and democratic movements. I studied the Alps, the Pyrenees in European Geography. But do you know about the Kilimanjaro? It’s the highest mountain in Africa. This kills me.
Q: Thank you for such sincere answers, Ali. We would like now to tell you about some statements we made up that offer a stereotypical portrayal of Africa. We want your reactions, just as they come to your mind. One, There are no opportunities for people to live a good life in Africa.
A: That’s not true. There are opportunities.
Q: Two, we still have a lot of racism in Spain.
A: Not much, but it is there. I say not much because today there are laws, there are many things, but there is still racism. Not much, but it is there.
Q: Three, Africa is normally seen as a very exotic continent. We believe it is a land of tribes and rituals.
A: Yes, it is true. That is very typical of Africa. It is not a stereotype, it is real. In Africa there are tribes, and it is exotic because that is what we have lived. There is around a 40% of people that have gotten out of that culture, but the remaining 60% are still at that point.
Q: Statement four has two parts. The first one, describe Africa in 3 words.
A: The world of difficulties, the world of socialism, and the world of sharing and preserving.
Q: The second part: describe Europe in 3 words.
A: The world of opportunism, for everyone looks for their own benefit, the world of opportunities, and the world where no one is a no-one and no one is nothing. Everything gets confused here in Europe. I told many friends that in Europe it is difficult to know the rich one from the poor one because everyone lives in a flat. If you do not have money you do not go out. Everyone can have a great car no matter if they have money or not. In Africa it is not like that, if you have, you do, if you have not, you do not. There is no inbetween. It is either yes or no.
Q: The last statement, number five. When immigrants get to Europe they do not want to go back to Africa.
A: Yes, they do want to return. But they also want to return with something. All Africans want to go back, but they want to go back with something. To get that something is impossible, well not impossible, but it is very difficult. All Africans want to return, there is no immigrant, there are very few, a 2%, that tell you ‘no, I am in Europe and I am fine, I do not want to return to Africa’. They all want to go back, but they want to go back with something. To have that something, though, in the end you stay.
Q: That is the end of the interview, Ali. Thank you very much for helping us. It has been quite a revealing conversation. You helped us not only with the project, but with the widening of our perspectives towards Africa.
A: Thank you for asking me all those things and for having such an open vision of Africa and migration. What do you want to do in the future?
Q: [We think for a moment]. We love literature. We would like to do something related to that, for sure.
A: Literature is important. As I told you, there are two ways of changing the world. One is travelling, the other is reading. You have the power in your hands. So take all the things I have been telling you about, go there, and change the world. Make the difference.
Isabel Flaquer Beltrán
Sílvia Pérez Carro
Mireia Trejo Domingo
Ada Guiteras Canal
Eva Puyuelo Ureña