4. The Senegalese House

Moving into the Senegalese house was the simplest thing – I just put my bag down in a corner and parked myself on one of the big sofa cushions around the room. The place was completely spotless, as it always was. The room only consisted of some places to sit and a Mickey Mouse rug in the middle. Everyone’s bags were always packed, ready to leave.

There were twelve other guys sat in the room when I was introduced, all sub Saharan migrants. Almost straight away every one of them, one after the other, asked me questions – mostly about Morocco and how I found it to be, which always made me feel a little uncomfortable. I knew, and I’m certain they knew too, how I was treated, compared to how differently they were treated in this country, very differently.

Before I could even return the question, they went ahead, describing darkly colourful views of the police, and the controlling powers over them. Each person in turn pointed out the places they had been beaten by police batons, depending on how recent their injuries were and how much they were affected by them. This was the most distressing yet impressionable first meeting with a group of people I had ever had, and it never lost its impact throughout the whole time I was in Morocco.

People came in and out of the room constantly. After asking, I was told that more than thirty people lived in the house at any given time. Every time someone new came wandering into the room, there would be a burst of greetings and a roar of Wolof. The newcomer would systematically go around to every person in the room and shake their hand, sometimes adding a religious gesture of touching ones forehead with the others hand, and vice versa – a way of expressing their great respect for one another which I found profoundly amazing; everyone generated welcome and warmth, such a feeling of family and solidarity.

Home life
Home life

I was guided around the other parts of the house and introduced to the rest of its inhabitants. I found that every room had a similar set up, mattresses were taking up most of the space and the rest was filled with small, packed bags, all spotlessly clean. The kitchen consisted of a gas burner on the stairs, surrounded by stacked pots and scorched walls. The bathrooms were a classic hole in the ground for the toilet and a bucket to wash with, as the shower. All very minimalist yet immaculately practical, but in a relatively small house, filled with a large occupancy, it was necessary.

Small but immaculate rooms
Small but immaculate rooms

The largest space in the house was the roof terrace. Like all buildings in Morocco, the entire roof was flat. The first time I was guided onto the roof, I was greeted with several people leaning on the balcony. Looking beyond, I saw the twinkle of lights in the distant night, and realised they were watching Spain.

After hours of hash smoking and tea drinking, in between conversations, I came to the conclusion that people stayed awake all night. With that thought, I nestled over and fell asleep. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, I was startled awake again. Two hours had past and I was told that food was ready.

Confusion set in, the time was 4am but perhaps my clock was wrong and I’d slept through to the afternoon. Regardless, I followed to the roof terrace and found that it was still dark outside. I came to terms with the fact that it really was 4am and ventured for the food.

There were three, large, orange plastic bowls filled with mostly rice and vegetables, spaced out evenly on the ground. People swarmed around, eight or nine to a bowl, just enough space to slip your hand through the crowd. There was a complete silence while people began eating; some minutes went by before the first giggle rose from the endless sound of eating.

Soon, everyone was laughing and joking with each other, sometimes even falling over, taking others with them. Obviously, I didn’t understand anything anyone was laughing about, but I just couldn’t help laughing along with them anyway. Their sense of family within such a harsh environment was breathtaking. Afterwards, the atmosphere created from eating a good meal was spread throughout the house, movement and laughter in every room, and still going on, long after I fell back asleep.

The next morning, I was startled awake by the sound of Spanish trumpets right outside the house. I grappled with removing my stiff body from the stone hard bed beneath me, and headed for the window. I pulled the window shutters open and stuck my head just at the exact moment a local slit the throat of a calf.

The machete plunged deep into the defenceless animal’s neck and blood sprayed out like a fountain for a second before splashing on the ground around it. The calf had been tied up by its ankles and laid on its back. With its head half off its neck like a Pez dispenser, the calf jolted with the initial shock, then convulsed repeatedly for twenty minutes before it died. Not a pleasant death.

Now I’m no expert, but I believe that hanging the calf upside down and letting gravity draw the blood from its body, is the quickest and most humane way to kill it.

None the less, everyone seemed pleased and the trumpets continued while the marriage procession ran circles around the dead calf, the blood running it’s own path down the street in a long streak of red, collecting at the bottom in a large pool. Attempting not to let the image of the calf settle in my memory, I rolled back into bed and got a couple more hours sleep.

The days started to roll by, and I realised how little there was for people to do. Most people barely left the house for fear of being picked up by the police or were just simply avoiding racial confrontations. The times I walked with people from the house around town I would notice how the locals would treat them, from small gestures of ignorance, right up to full blown racial abuse.

Shopkeepers would refuse to serve items or attempt to charge far too much. Passers-by would shout comments – one time I saw someone spit at the ground. Women would shield and guide their children away from the path of a migrant, and small children would throw rocks. Even the taxi drivers were willing to lose a fare or two for their racial discriminatory views.

One night, someone found out that a club was doing a reggae night and had a DJ. They knew the owner personally and were informed that anyone, especially sub-Saharans, were welcome. Because of passport and document issues, only about six of the guys were willing to take the risk. So there were seven of us in total, and off we went.

After a couple of hours confusingly figuring out where the club was, taking a couple of taxies and walking long distances, we finally had a good lead. We all crammed into a taxi once more and told the driver where to go.

Now the ‘grand’ taxies in Morocco can for some unknown reason take more people than their supposed capacity, unlike the ‘petite’ taxies that only take three customers at once. So it’s normal for a taxi to fill up as much as humanly possible – once I even saw the driver share his seat with someone, along with 6 others squashed in, just for that little bit of extra cash.

Anyway, there we were, on our way to the club after finally nailing the location, when suddenly the conversation in the car gets a little aggravated. I couldn’t understand most of it because it was in rapid Arabic and French, but it seemed the driver took a sudden dislike to his passengers. It was translated to me that the driver believed that everyone was going to try to go to Spain… right now.

How he came to this conclusion was beyond anyone’s belief. If people were to go make an attempt right at that moment then they would be wearing far warmer clothes, not night club attire. And they certainly wouldn’t be taking a taxi there. Regardless of these obvious discrepancies, the driver convinced himself that that was what was happening. So with a fierce debate and no hope of him backing down, the driver took it upon himself to do something about it.

As all this was going on, we noticed ourselves going past the night club we wanted, which caused a frantic uproar in the car followed by a unanimous vote to be dropped off there and then. But the driver refused. It was then that people realised what he was trying to do. He was looking for police, and soon enough, he found some in a car driving a little ahead of us.

He caught up with them and tried to flag them down with a wave of his hand, but I guess he was unsure if he’d caught their attention because he swerved in front of them instead. His dramatic move had successfully attracted the attention of the police and they pulled up behind us as we came to a stop. We all stayed in the car while the police approached and had a look in with a torch.

Waves and smiles were our reaction to the light and the police asked us to step out of the car. There was some Arabic banter between the guys and the police, all mixed with smiles and laughter, so I knew it was all okay for now. I was mostly ignored but I took that as a good sign. Some minutes of explanations went by and then we were told to go on our way.

We tried to pile back into the taxi, but it was then that the taxi driver’s bitterness for being made a fool of came out, and he told us the taxi was only allowed to have six passengers, not seven. We made a small fuss but quickly gave up and walked away.

We made it to the club and ended up having a great night. But it just goes to show that as a sub Saharan migrant you can’t trust anyone and have to treat everybody as a potential informer. No-one just minds their own business – instead they go out of their way to cause problems for others.

It’s not safe for people to work either. A lot of people live by working in the streets, buying and selling things. They often set up stalls in and among local markets, selling anything from vegetables; handmade crafts; cheap jewellery; to electronics. But again, the locals may not approve and inform the police, or the police may just spot them in the street and control them.

This forces people to be more hidden while working or makes them feel they just can’t work at all. If caught, on top of being arrested, taken away and possibly deported to the desert, they are certain to lose all their valuables. Sometimes, they just have their merchandise taken away from them without reason. This affects the daily struggle of basic needs like buying food and paying the rent.

Caritas is an organisation that has one of its many bases in Tangier. They can help migrants with many things like medical advice, finding work and funding. Unfortunately, speaking with workers at Caritas, it’s easy to see that they are hugely under-staffed and under-funded. The most obvious impact is that not everyone who needs help gets enough, and many people are overlooked or dismissed.

Migrants can sometimes show a lack of understanding of how the organisation works and can take things personally when not helped. I saw this a few times, when someone would completely refuse to go to Caritas after being rejected help or funding, even going as far as trying to discredit the whole organisation as some kind of fraud. I can also see how a migrant in need might feel when they see that organisations supposedly there for migrants don’t actually help.

The problem, I feel, is that Caritas gives people false hope, in the sense that they give appointments and timelines for results, but those results never come through. In the end, nobody wants to go to endless meetings for nothing. But ultimately, the things needed the most are more workers and funding.

One of the main organisers of Caritas that I spoke with gets a lot of insults from migrants; he explained that he gets abuse or the cold shoulder from many people, and people have said many harsh comments to me about him. But the other side of the story is that he is a migrant himself, so he does have a far better understanding of the position people are in than say, European volunteers. Being unsuccessful in getting to Europe, and growing tired at the increasing level of risk, he decided to stay in Morocco and try to make a difference where it’s needed the most.

One of the ways he does this is through supporting The Senegalese Restaurant, an addition to an already existing café in the heart of the Medina. The café owners, with a more open and liberal view on nationality, welcome migrants and allow them to have a place they can hang out.

Solidarity in the Medina
Solidarity in the Medina

The restaurant was a late addition and is run by migrants, for migrants. Offering cheap, wholesome food, and open every day, it allows migrants with little money to band together and share a large meal. The police mostly leave the place alone, with only some occasions where they come in and do a tour of the place to check papers.

Visiting the café, I found many migrants there but also many local Moroccans too, and it felt refreshing to see the nationalities mix. Its one of depressingly few places that act as a safe haven for the sub-Saharans, but it’s wonderful that something like this exists, where normally excluded people can drink tea and coffee, sit around talking or watch the television.

But for some people, places like these are still not an option and instead they need to be completely clandestine, hidden from all authorities, for if they were caught they would certainly be deported to the desert.

Overstayed visas, incorrect papers or perhaps no passport at all – there is a surprising amounts of reasons that people need to stay hidden. Even just having a different skin colour in the centre of town can be enough to get taken in and checked. It’s just too easy to get caught up in a situation that will result in detention, so a lot of people must avoid the streets completely.

Perhaps a third of the people I lived with were in this sort of situation, in which they felt that they couldn’t leave the house, forcing them to spend most of the day just hanging about around inside. Endless amounts of tea, coffee and joints are consumed throughout the days and nights. Quite often, in between the greetings and handshakes, there would be very little conversation, very little will for conversation.

People were clearly tired – tired of their lives being wasted in a country that doesn’t respect them and tired of being halted at every attempt of a better future. The days seemed almost never-ending, like it’s within a different timezone, or a non-timezone perhaps. It’s as though there’s no morning, afternoon or evening, and there’s no day or night.

People sleep when possible and are awake almost like they’re asleep, in a daze. Of course, there’s the communal meal early in the mornings to sort of set the clock on each day. But apart from the occasional outbreak of Moroccan politics; police hatred; dream-like contemplation of the possibilities of Europe; or reminiscences of home – the rest of the day is quiet and thoughtful.

A rare break from the slow momentum comes in the form of a boat trip, or “strike”. This is an occasion where a group of people who all have the sufficient materials, money and time-frame to attempt to get to Spain. I had no involvement with this side of migrant life, the reasons being that they didn’t need me and that I could cause problems for both them and myself.

All the necessary materials would be in storage for the duration of time it took to formulate the plans of a strike. Unfortunately, this had the potential to take months.

However, one night, when everything had fallen into place, they would all disappear from the house and I would wait for any of the possible outcomes; the police catches them on route or on the beach and confiscates all their materials, they get spooked by guards; the boat fails and they come home; they get out to sea but get caught and deported, they make it to Spain; or they die trying.

I’ve listened to so many stories of success, failure and everything in between. Unfortunately, it saddens me deeply to say that there are far, far more stories of failure than there are of success, and it’s getting increasingly more difficult every day for people to successfully cross to Spain by boat.

In the time I was there, I heard about dozens of friends and friends-of-friends that had gone out to sea but never made it there or back, and of bodies washing back up on the shores of Morocco – where they’re maltreated, kicked and poked by police before being taken away.

I was told of bodies even washing up on the shores of Spain – making it the only time they will have made it to Spanish shores, sadly not alive to see it – and sometimes they disappear altogether, leaving family and friends to wonder what happened to them.

For many hours I would sit on the balcony of the house, talking with individuals about either their attempts or of others they knew who had attempted. They would open up, slowly and painstakingly, re-telling me stories of heartbreak, losses in the sea and how close they had come to freedom.

I was told about the difficulties of paddling for countless hours until every muscle in their bodies was exhausted, to have passing boats spot them or a big wave come crashing and destroying their boat, taking it all away at the last moments. There were stories of Spanish authorities, knowingly handing them back over to the Moroccans illegally, after they had made it within Spanish waters.

But still, after all these disheartening stories, they almost always say that they will never stop trying. They say this because they believe it’s their right to go to Europe and have a better life. And although European and Moroccan authorities will always try to stop them, they won’t give up the fight and will always attempt to strike the borders.

I had one very memorable day on that balcony, the day of the sheep slaughtering. It’s a Muslim tradition, and since Islam has spread to a lot of North West Africa, including Senegal, everyone in the house was also celebrating. The day started as any other, but when I took a walk into the market to grab a bite to eat, as well as all the shops being closed I was surprised to find the streets running red with blood.

The balcony
The balcony

For locals, the early morning had been spent ceremoniously slaughtering the sheep … in the streets. The sheep had their throats slit like the wedding calf and were left for dead, followed by the de-horning and skinning of their bodies. The bodies were taken away inside, presumably for preparation before eating. All that was left were horns and skins, deposited in huge piles every few meters, with blood flowing in between them.

The stench was almost unbearable as I walked down the road. I could only take it for so long before coming to terms that I wasn’t going to find anything to eat and that, frankly, I was put off by that point anyway, so I turned back. Feeling slightly disturbed by the surprising sight of the massacre in the streets, I was comforted by everyone back at home.

barbecuing sheep heads
barbecuing sheep heads

I was told that later that day, everyone in the house and many others from other houses would be having a huge festival dinner. Everyone would prepare the food together and eat together – the plan sounding so wonderful that it brought a smile to my face. Then, throughout the afternoon, people started arriving at the house.

It began with the usual residents of about thirty and grew to perhaps double that, maybe more. In the end, the roof terrace and house were completely full of people. Everyone was smiling and laughing, playing games, fixing each other’s hair, and of course, smoking joints.

I got involved with the food preparations, mostly cutting vegetables. I must have chopped around two hundred cloves of garlic; I could taste the garlic in my mouth by the time I was done. The food took hours to prepare. It normally takes about four hours just for a communal meal at any given night, but today we were cooking for double or triple the amount of people and the food itself was way more elaborate than usual.

Everyone in the meantime just continued to entertain themselves. I was constantly asked to take lots of photographs of everyone – people insisted on continually making funny poses. They made videos, which ended up being really interesting. I think because everyone was in such a lively mood, they were really excited and open up to the camera. They were shouting and singing, talking about Morocco and how they wanted to get to Spain, which of course we could all still see from the balcony. They were also excited to explain what was happening that day, with all the food, all the guests and why everyone was celebrating.

"this is a day that everyone is happy"
“this is a day that everyone is happy”

Finally, it came time for eating. Everyone was signaled to come together onto the terrace and prepare to eat. I think I counted eight big bowls of food, all dotted about over the two roofs. People started gathering around the bowls, about eight or nine to a dish. I gazed at the gathered groups just before I started to eat; they were all so calm and content. I heard an “OK” from somewhere, followed by a “Bismela” from everyone in unison, which is a type of grace and a sign to start.

Then everyone stuck their hands in and began eating. Once again, jokes and laughter rose from the silence little by little, until whole circles of people were falling over themselves laughing. The food was so delicious too: the bowls were full of mouth-watering salad and chips. Pilled on the top was some sort of onion stew with lots of garlic and spices -the mix of different foods together was so interesting.

I always loved all the food in Morocco and especially in the Senegalese house. Afterwards, we all helped to clean up and got back to the talking and smoking joints. Speaking with a few people later that evening, I was told how this was one of the big events of the year, and is very special for people here to celebrate. In the midst of all the racial hatred that is experienced here, people still had things such as this to appreciate and take pleasure in.

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An autobiographical novel documenting the struggles of Sub-saharan African migrants in the EU border town of Tangiers, Morocco. Content note for rape, trafficking, police violence, murder and racial abuse.

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