Friday, May 1, 2009

Grasping at America

Recently, I had a conversation with a man named Commandah. He detailed his various attempts to get to Europe illegally. Once, he tried to cross the Sahara through Mali to Morocco and from there, a boat to Spain. Like coyotes leading illegal immigrants from Mexico to the US, the “boys” guiding across the Sahara often cheat or rob their desperate clients, forcing them to march until exhaustion or taking away their water and then removing them of all valuables. Commandah marched all night, fearful of desert snakes or being cheated, before he turned around and headed back to Mali. He also tried to stowaway on several boats with the help of bribed accomplices on board. Once, he had to stay strapped into a tiny cot, unable to move except briefly at night when the crew was asleep. He abandoned that venture. I asked him if he would try again to enter Europe. “Not the bad way. Not through the back door. It is the main gate for me,” he said. He now has a wife and child.
Almost everyone I have talked with in Sierra Leone has expressed a desire to go to the US or Europe (except for the 5-year-old daughter of a patient, who shook her head when a woman asked if she wanted to leave with me—clever girl). With the patients, I’ve gotten into a long joking routine where they ask to come with me to America and I tell them they’ll have to stop eating to get “small body” as I open up my purse and point inside, saying “No fine. You body BIG.” This never gets old for them. They’ll ask whether there is palm oil, cassava leaf, and crain-crain (another leafy green) in America. I say no, and I warned them, when they bundled up on mornings that were no cooler than 68 F, that they would be miserable. The usual response is that they’ll pack a five-gallon jug of palm oil with them and they’ll dry cassava leaf. Winter cold, as one may experience in New York or Boston (we won’t get into Chicago, Maine, or the Dakotas) is not a concept for them. One man I spoke to told me that his friend had gone to America legally—a long, intensive, and extremely costly process that often results in a rejection with no monetary refund—only to wish that he could come home. Family pressure kept him from returning to Sierra Leone, after all the money and stress spent on getting him there, and he’s gotten used to it.
It’s sort of strange that the image of the US to people living in such dire circumstances has never changed. Replace a Sierra Leonean wishing to immigrate with a Russian, Italian, or Irish person in the late 1800s/early 1900s, and it’s the same. Everyone is rich and free. The streets are paved with gold (though I prefer “Fievel: An American Tail”—“Where the streets are paved with cheese”). Etc. As I’ve written before, I once had to explain in Senegal that America was still struggling with racism and that Martin Luther King, Jr. had not solved racism in our country. I feel like I’m constantly explaining—the cost of living is so expensive, work is hard to find when you don’t have a lot of experience or education, it will be so different, the food will not be the same, etc, etc, etc. I guess, however, that for most people in the US, things are almost infinitely better—medical care (though expensive) is generally safe and effective, water is almost always clean, malaria, polio and other tropical illnesses are rare to non-existent, and there are job opportunities that will pay incredibly higher salaries than Sierra Leone as long as you can work hard under poor conditions (which is, of course, the standard here anyway). People will work for 60,000 Leones ($20) a month and even lower. Some stay in volunteer jobs for years hoping for full employment. And seeing an expat working for an NGO here reinforces this idea—we have enough money to get over here, at least (one patient was shocked to hear that it costs six million Leones to fly here, then admitted that she wasn’t sure how much six million Leones is), and we drive around in shiny NGO cars and eat out in restaurants or buy expensive groceries from the Lebanese supermarket. But we’re the lucky ones that can afford to come here. And the idea of a world economic crisis is widespread and discussed among Sierra Leoneans, but the image of the rich American is unshakeable, and the dream of becoming that rich American endures.

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