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Relocating Paradise by the Power of the Imagery

The first episode of Migration Stories explores the imaginary world of hope and expectations which is an essential part of understanding migration. Your guide on this journey is Alibeta, a troubadour and an artist of multiple talents. He explains how the “Saaraba” or the imaginary concept of paradise has moved over the years from home to somewhere else. Using his film, personal experiences and testimonies from family members as guidelines, he’ll explain how we can work to relocate that utopia by reconnecting with our own values.
Alibeta is an engaged artist, travelling between the lines of music, theater, and film, connecting different genres and influences in a meaningful way. Born in Tambacounda (Senegal), he’s currently based in the capital Dakar where he co-created the cultural meeting place KENU, a lab-oratory of the imaginary.

Alibeta: I am the son of a soldier and every two- or three-years soldiers move from one town to another. Our whole childhood was a series of moves, moves, moves, and when you say moves you think about meeting other people. Wherever you arrive, it’s new territory, new people you must get to know, while you get adapted; you must leave for another town. And then, talking about the Saloum islands, because I come from there, from a Serere Gnominka father and mother, the history of the residents who live on the islands is a history of travel. How did they get there? How did they move following the coast? Looking for fish, they settled from one end to the other. I would say that travel has been throughout my life, it has always been present and in my artistic work it is a question, it is one of the obsessions of my artistic practice, it is travel, movement.

Marianne: Alibeta needs no introduction. He is an artiste of multiple talents and disciplines. I would say he is an actor – movie maker – musician, a storyteller, a troubadour. One of the stories he described is the one of his cousins Aladji and Souley. Two young men he grew up with and whose migration path he presented in his movie “Saaraba”.

Alibeta: When we talk about people we love, who are close to us, we ask ourselves how to talk about them? You take your time. You can’t talk about them any way you like, you can’t say everything you like, and here lies the challenge. Sometimes, I think that it is because we lose this connection with human beings that we consider migrants as statistics. We just say numbers, numbers and numbers, so many dead, so many dead, so many have left, so many …  And we forget that behind these numbers are human beings, intimacies… How does this journey impacts one’s personality? What do these people become? How do they change along the way? And once they arrive, whether they realize their dream or not, what do they become?

Marianne: The father of the young men, and therefore Alibeta’s uncle, also chose one day, like his sons today, to go to Europe. But at that time, the circumstances were different.

Alibeta: Back in the day, my uncle and father left easily. Our relationship with Europe was different. Europe needed these people much more, so they made it easier for people to come. Even my uncle was offered papers and refused. At the time, he chose to return.

Alibeta: My cousins’ generation worked a lot on the pirogues. It was artisanal fishing, they went to Kayar, Elinkine, Ndiogue. During one fishery campaign, they could each earn 3 million CFA. I remember when we were young and we came on holiday, we envied them because they had money. They went to The Gambia to buy all the fake brands, they dressed so well that when we came, we said “wow, look at the guys”. They would come back muscular because they had done the tides, it was very physical and when they arrived, they had all the chicks.  They had everything; they had money. 

Alibeta: But at some point, due to the competition from industrial fishing, which took all the fish, these young people who saw Spain not far away when they were driving the pirogues, said to themselves: “why not”. There is a layer of geopolitics and economics they cannot understand. They are suffering, but they refuse to suffer. That’s why, in our parents’ time, it was easier and at currently, it is starting to get much more difficult. Europe started to barricade itself, Frontex and so on, it became the fortress. 

Marianne: What’s drives, motivates or inspires these young people who decide to travel by sea?

Alibeta: In the past, some civilizations have had a proposal, and throughout history, one civilization grows and declines, and another proposes something else. Today, Europe may have been the proposal of what capitalism is, which today is considered as the model to follow. The standard is globalization, and everyone must be like that. But then again, what is capitalism? It’s consumption, its enjoyment, it’s having, having, having, consuming, having, consuming and all around us, we buy. And finally, the worldwide proposal is now this one and we think that to succeed, we must have this model: a bank account, a nice car, to consume and consume and it is this model of civilization that is now in decline. The human being is egocentric, he’s at the center of things and he wants everything for himself. This is model we sell to young people; we say when you arrive in France or in the United States, you can so too… because you’ve seen it in the media.

Marianne: But that is not the whole story. Aladji and Souley were also looking for something else, on a more individual level. And, for those who may not know, a Baye Fall is a spiritual man who lives without material things. They can often be recognized by their rasta hair or patchwork clothing.

Alibeta: There wasn’t enough space for individual accomplishment, especially at that time. If I look at Aladji,  he wanted to become a Baye Fall, he wanted to wear dreadlocks,  he wanted to have a certain lifestyle… it was already complicated in the village because of social control, people look at you, you’re the son of this person or that person, you have to do so-and-so. There is this very individual dimension. When I look at a Souley, he wanted a certain level of life, being able to wear his dreads, he wished for a comfortable life, you know, nicely dressed… Even today, all the time he is posting his life on Facebook. So, there is this dimension. Maybe he can also have this kind of individual life, he can exist, fighting against destiny, proving to yourself that you can become more than what you are destined for. The proof: Aladji got his papers later, he has his papers now but continues his Baye Fall lifestyle. He came back to the village, but he married a Spanish woman and lives in Spain now, he goes back and forth. He gets some sort freedom that perhaps, he wouldn’t have had if he hadn’t left.

Marianne: I try to imagine how Alibeta discuss with these young people who want to leave by pirogues. Is he trying to change their minds?

Alibeta: Politically, socially, from the point of view of communication and so on… We must be clear: everyone has the right to travel and these young people, whether from Niodior or Koumpetoun or elsewhere, also have the right to discover the world because they live in like everyone else. Now, front of young people, I would say, but at what price? losing your life? I don’t think so. For me, the real work that needs to be done, the work of migration or travel that needs to be done, is mental. We must move the center of the world; the center of the world is no longer in Europe.  And so, once we have understood that Europe is no longer the center of the world, we will stop breaking our heads to go there and that, in the end, isn’t the center of the world here?

Marianne: To better understand what he means by this, Alibeta had to explain Saraaba, the title of his documentary film.

Alibeta: Saaraba, when you listen to popular songs, you know Samba Diabaré Samb who sang Saaraba, a popular song. This popular imagination wanted Saaraba to be a promised land. But at the time, this promised land was there in Africa, it was the land where there was natange, as they say, prosperity, the land where your desires come true, it was like the Zion, but at the time, it was there. It was somewhere in Africa, you know. But over time, the Saaraba, the place of Saaraba, moved and that’s what caught my attention, to see that the Saaraba, which used to be at home, which used to be a kind of prosperity, a certain kind of life you wanted to live at home is finally no longer possible at home.

Alibeta: And in the end, the place changed and became elsewhere, which may be Europe, which was very much Europe. And that’s why I was interested in this Saaraba concept, because it’s in the popular imagination, and in this centre, we focus the imaginary question around the journey and there is a whole set, a whole bunch of conceptions that has been built over time around the journey. And this conception is not fixed, it is constructed, deconstructed, reconstructed and changing. And perhaps for what it meant for our parents, my grandfather, my father,  and what does Saaraba mean now for us and how can we, perhaps by working on this imaginary of the journey, contribute to nourishing this imaginary, to putting other meanings into it, to not limiting it to being always linked to Western society, the West and so on. I think it’s time to deconstruct this imaginary and to build a new imaginary to say that Saaraba is there. In fact, it’s where you are.

Alibeta: Wherever you are, it is your Saaraba, if you know how to think it through. And to know how to think it through, you must know how to remove all the images displayed front of your eyes: Batieu beut. There was a job called batieu beut, the eye washers,

who went from house to house when people were in pain. It was a traditional job and they came with a bowl, a bucket, and had a technique to clean the eyes. It’s a metaphor: we must be able to clean the eyes of our young people so that they see that their future or their well-being is where they are, it’s not far away, it’s right there where they are, but that we have a whole construction in our imaginations, which makes us believe that sometimes you need to go all the way to the end, to come back and find the treasure under your bed, and it’s due to the lack of tools. How can we rebuild this, as artists, filmmakers, musicians? By participating in the construction of this imaginary journey here: in Fongolemi, here in Niodior, we can find it here in Koumpetoum. That is our responsibility.

Marianne: For many, searching Saaraba, the promised land, lies in departure. But for some, this search is in the return. I wanted to ask Alibeta about his role in this other film, Yao, with the actor Omar Sy who is also of Senegalese origin.

Alibeta: The question of the return can have an impact on the imagination and that’s where someone like Omar Sy tackles the question of return, it reaches out all this Senegalese, Malian, pan-African diaspora who was born or grew up in France or elsewhere and who consider Africa as another ideal but who sometimes don’t have the courage or the tools to go back home. And what I liked about the film, what motivated me to play in it, was the story of this writer who has succeeded, but who thinks about his home, who returns home, who  is in a questioning and initiatory journey towards his origin, who meets this child. He was not even aware of the extent of his responsibility towards the people back home, until he met this child who was leaving his village, fleeing, hiding to come and meet him. So, he decides to bring the child back home. But, by bringing the child back home, he undertakes a journey towards his origins. I was a character at the crossroads, a troubadour taxi driver who could help him return home and who asked him the right questions: Where do you come from? Where is your father’s village? You must go back to your father’s. That was the key to the character I was playing.

Alibeta: I recognized myself in this character because it’s a bit like the troubadour I am and the relationships I have with many friends who live there or who come here. I think that Omar Sy did well by producing this film. It can have an impact on a generation, especially on those who live in the diaspora and  are also afraid because they don’t know how a return will happen.

Marianne: Does he consider himself a migrant?

Alibeta: We are all migrants because the great journey is that of life, and whether we like it or not, we come into this world and we will leave this world.

What does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights say? There is an article that says that every human being has the right to choose the place where he wants to live. It’s a right that is not necessarily fair to everyone, some have the right, enjoy it and others don’t. But it’s a common right. But it is a right for all human beings. So yes, we are all migrants.

Marianne: Thank you for listening to this episode of our migr’histoires series. To follow the other episodes of the series, please visit the Yenna channel or your favorite streaming platform. 

This podcast is produced by IOM and funded by the UK government.

“The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in these podcasts belong solely to the speaker, and not reflect the view of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), its partners or donors. This podcast is protected under creative commons and can be used by third parties under certain conditions. For more information, contact [email protected].”
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