Yesterday I had lunch with a Nigerian beggar in Morocco. Not just any lunch, either. Snails, à la Marocaine.
Mondy Osarabo joined me and some friends as we sat at a pavement table in a drab street in the northern port city of Tangiers. We each had a bowl of little black-and-white escargots in front of us, and we were using toothpicks to extract their fleshy insides.
It was the first time I’d eaten snails. They were surprisingly good – a new culinary experience. But Mondy’s story was far more interesting than chillied snails.
In 2009, Mondy and his wife set off from Lagos and headed north. They crossed Niger, Mali, Algerian and finally arrived in Al Wajda, in the northeast corner of Morocco. They were hoping to reach Europe and seek out a better life.
“There was no work in Nigeria because the government is letting foreign companies come and do business without employing local people,” he said. “I do building and plastering, but I couldn’t find a job.”
Mondy ate his snails like a hungry man, depositing the shells on a plate in the middle of the table. He was short but well-built, with broad West African features and a red baseball cap. On his forehead were a couple of what seemed to be old scars. He’d been living in Morocco for four years, and like hundreds, maybe thousands of sub-Saharan Africans here, he’s waiting for his chance to get into Europe.
Mondy and his wife left their fifteen year old girl with the family in Lagos and set off with a bag each and 500 euros between them. The journey took them two months. They had to bribe the police at checkpoints in Mali. They managed to avoid being ambushed by Touareg mafiamen in the Algerian desert. Some of their friends were not so lucky.
Once they had slipped across the border into Morocco, the couple found themselves a place in the bush near Al Oujda and set up their tent. They would spend the next two years living in the forest, visiting the nearby towns to beg and try to find work.
There are hundreds of sub-saharan Africans living in the forests of Morocco. Many are clustered around the Spanish enclave of Melilla, on the Mediterranean coast. Periodically the migrants try to slip across the border, hoping that once they reach “Spanish” soil they will be given asylum.
“We tried to get across the border at night time,” said Mondy “There were 40 people. We tried to rush towards the border, but the Moroccan police came and threw rocks at us. There was no shooting. Some people were injured, they had broken legs. I was carrying clothes, money and my phone. Everything was lost.”
Mondy and his wife decided to head to Tangiers, a large port town overlooking the Gibralter Straights.
“When I came to Tangiers I had no job – sometime I had work, sometime no work, sometime I beg. Sometime I have food, sometime no food. I eat with my hand, like a Moroccan,” he smiled.
He and his wife share a one-room flat that costs 70 euros a month, and beg or do odd jobs for money. When he works, usually on construction sites, he earns about 7 euros a day.
But he still hopes to reach Europe – perhaps to join a friend in Manchester, UK.
“If I had help, I’d go to Europe. I have a baby, I need money to provide for my baby and my wife.”
I’m now in Nador, researching the legal limbo of sub-Saharan Africans in Morocco and the situation of those in the nearby forests. More reporting soon – watch this space and @Paul_A_Raymond