The Helplessness of the Fleeced

When did home stop being the place to be?
When did being at home become
proof of failure?
a life gone wrong?

Should we all fly away?


Get lost?

— Ama Ata Aidoo

All these sub-Saharan Africans boarding rickety boats for Europe–who invited them anyway? A couple thousand have died already this year, but come on: who would be so rude as to show up somewhere univited, begging for a piece of the pie?

Nobody invited them, it’s true. And most of them are not fleeing what we consider states of emergency worthy of our visas. They are looking for money. What Europeans would do such a thing? Would English people? Would Germans and Portuguese and Belgians and French and Spanish just show up in someone else’s land uninvited, demanding local resources?

Unthinkable to those of us who don’t read history, who don’t want to think too hard about why we in Europe are sitting on top of the world, enjoying lives of comfort while denying access to this wealth for non-white peoples.

Unthinkable to people who don’t want to consider that before Europeans arrived, Africa was home to thousands of tribes who had lived for thousands of years without needing help from anybody. Their livelihoods and belief systems were decimated by greedy Europeans stealing every resource they had, from rubber to palm oil to human beings.

One would think it’s becoming harder to live in ignorance of basic facts, and yet look at the discussion among European analysts since a boat sank Saturday night killing about 800 migrants. We hear about “push” and “pull” factors that have to be eliminated. Go after the smugglers! We don’t hear words like colonialism and capitalism. As soon as you hear someone talking about a “push factor” or a “pull factor,” you know you are listening to someone who wants to score points and is not serious about the world and who has never spent time in sub-Saharan Africa.

Last week on a train going east from Genova, I watched the eyes of a black African moisten as he had to admit to a train conductor that he had no money for a ticket. Judging from the way he first pretended not to understand what the conductor wanted, then stalled by slowly unzipping two pockets of the pack in his lap, he had been through this before. He was trying to buy time for the train to reach another station before getting kicked off.

Finally he muttered, “No ticket.”

“Why no ticket?” asked the conductor, half the man’s size but with a meticulous buzz cut and uniform that meant he belonged.

“No money.”

“No money, no train!”

“My brother,” said the African. “No problem.”

“No problem, no problem, I call police.”

“My brother, no problem.”

“You get off next station. I call police.”

Some heartbreaks hit you in the ribs. This one hit me in the head. I found my mind racing as to how humans could be so cruel. Not this train conductor, but the history of a humanity that has so tilted the world as to have scraped a continent’s resources into its own pockets and then shrugged at the helplessness of the fleeced.

Even for those who survive the Mediterranean passage, one senses a less dramatic, more stretched-out tragedy than dying at sea. Immigration rules across Europe need to be radically opened, but a visa cannot make a person whole. A culture — a system of shared beliefs and understandings, along with ways of earning resources and status and sharing jokes and food and language and extended family and community — cannot be patched up with a visa. It is a moral duty to accept desperate migrants, especially if you’re the one who made them desperate, regardless of whether their narrative falls into a “political” or “economic” pigeonhole, but let’s not pretend we’re saving souls. Let’s let them use us if that’s what they want to do; it’s peanuts in the scheme of the wealth imbalance between the rich and poor continents.

There on the train, my cash suddenly burning a hole in my thigh, my mind rifled through a hundred images and moments. The smell of open sewers in Mali, the fresh-cut flowers in Danish windowsills. I thought of the Senegalese man in a Roman square selling little wooden turtles that looked like they’d been carved by children with penknives. He said his friends send them from home and he sends the money back. After three years in Rome, washing dishes and selling trinkets, he couldn’t survive anymore and was heading back to Senegal. His eyes teared up as easily as this man’s on the train.

I bought a turtle off him and ducked into a bar, where I saw an amazing move on TV by football star Balotelli, born in Italy to Ghanaian parents. “How about that Balotelli?” I said to the bartender.

“I don’t like him,” he said.

“How come?”

“He’s a monkey.”

My best friend in West Africa is a guy named Bakari, who owns a small shop in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso. He laughs at people who dream of finding their fortunes in the white man’s lands. One I met was Drissa, who was full of good-hearted smiles but who begged me to take him back to America. “I’ll do anything,” he said. “There must be some job no one will do. I’ll wash cadavers.” Bakari cackling in the background.

Every day Drissa came to Bakari’s shop and took whatever canned goods he wanted from the shelves. It was not so much that Bakari was generous as it was an understanding that those who have share with those who don’t. I have no doubt that Drissa would have taken his chances on one of those flimsy Libyan ships, but there’s no way he would ever be able to summon the $1,000 smuggle fee.

Another person Bakari helped was a guy he called “The Italian,” because the man had lived in Italy for a few years tending horses for a traveling circus. He had returned destitute, which Bakari found hilarious. He let him work at a trunk shop he owned. By work, I mean he let him sit on a trunk in the shop all day, since no one ever came in to buy trunks. The only customers were people shopping for bride price, and wedding parties don’t come along every day. When Bakari and I first approached the Italian, his stare was so distant and sad-looking that he didn’t see us, even after Bakari waved his arms from a few yards away. Uncontrollable laughter from Bakari. But where Bakari found humor I could see only a bleeding continent of one billion.

The sadness of the Italian is the sadness of the “been-to,” a term that’s been used to describe those who have been to Europe at least since 1911, when the Ghanaian J.E. Casely Hayford published Ethiopia Unbound, the first African novel published in English.

Hayford writes of the colonialist: “With the gin bottle in one hand, and the Bible in the other, he urges moral excellence, which, in his heart of hearts, he knows to be impossible of attainment by the African under the circumstance, and when the latter fails, his benevolent protector makes such a failure a cause for dismembering his tribe, alienating his lands, appropriating his goods, and sapping the foundations of his authority and institutions.”

When I visited the Italian alone, I would find him sitting on a trunk staring out into space or trying to teach himself piano on a little piece of cardboard on which he’d drawn the keys. Once he asked if he could listen to my music, so by chance I put on “So Lonely” by the Police and handed him the headphones. He rose from his trunk and closed his eyes and started swaying. I could hear the part where Sting heats up, and the Italian started bouncing up and down to the song. When the song ended and he opened his eyes, there were tears in them. He said he used to listen to that song in Italy. He listened to it while sleeping on the ground in a circus tent, and he listened to it while living in the slums of Italian cities, before realizing he was so lonely he had to go home, no matter the humliation.

BRENDAN COONEY is an anthropologist living in New York City. He can be reached at: