Lampedusa Early August 2010

Damaso pulled away from his mother’s clutches, and ran towards a shaggy little doll that would later be labeled ‘fetish’ by Marian, his Italian grandmother. The shaggy doll rolled over his tiny toes as they touched the edge of the waves that washed the doll ashore, scaring and mesmerizing him simultaneously. He withdrew his toes from underneath the foreign object, stepped back and carefully eyed it before deciding to pick it up for further investigation.

Cecile, Damaso’s Ivorian mother curiously observed as her son bent over, picked up a foreign object that resembled a fish tangled in seaweed, and dashed towards him. To her surprise, the mysterious object was actually a doll with tufts of fake hair sewed on its head. Cecile took the doll from her son and suspiciously examined it, thinking: “I guess my past seems to have a way of catching up with me…” as she reminisced about her childhood in Ivory Coast and how she played with a doll that resembled the one her son just stumbled upon on the shores of Lampedusa.

On the doll’s chest, a picture of a dark-skinned man in a white robe and scarf covering the bottom half of his face was jaggedly sewed on. The black and white picture of the man was as pristine as ever, looking as if it were never in the petrifying ocean before rolling over the shore of the southern Italian island of Lampedusa. Upon further inspection, Damaso’s parents decided to keep the ‘fetish looking object’ as his Italian grandmother labeled it, as a souvenir, thinking nothing of it.

That night, eight-year-old Damaso dreamt of the image of the man that was on the doll. In his dream, the man reached over to touch his face but his accompanying light blinded him. The next day, even though Damaso had no recollection of the dream he had the night before, he had an obvious sparkle in his eyes — one so bright that his parents could not miss.

Dakar Late July 2010

Moussa looked over his shoulder as he walked away from his family compound in Pikine at the break of dawn. The pickup truck awaiting him at the corner shop was already packed with other men whom he will be embarking this journey with. The initial agreement was that they would pray Fajr on the beach together before boarding the volatile speedboat ‘Gorrgi’ (the man) arranged for them. The speedboat was to take them to a larger boat waiting off the coast of the island of Gorée. As he briskly walked out of his neighborhood, he touched the doll Mama, his eight-year-old daughter had safely placed in his coat the previous night. It was her favorite local made ‘Dormi Toubab’ (Caucasian doll) out of her collection; even though the doll was as black as Mama herself.

The stuffed doll was called Mama Sohna, named after Mama and her mother. The night before her father was to leave for work in the white man’s land as her mother had told her he was going to, she had made sure she put enough karité on the ebony doll’s nappy synthetic hair, combing it to perfection and painstakingly braiding her hair, making sure it was the best she knew how. She had made it a point to do a trial a few days prior and even spent hours watching her mother braid her customer’s hair — studying each maneuver of her elegant fingers running through the different textures of customer’s hair.

After hours of tediously braiding her doll’s hair and being happy with her results, Mama went into her father’s fishing coat and pulled out the leather strapped necklace with the picture of her father’s Serigne (spiritual guide),Shaykh Aahmadu Bàmba Mbàkke (Khadimu r-Rasul), founder of Muridiyya. She then pulled down her mother’s sewing kit from her cupboard in her quest to make her papa the best souvenir.

She cut out the straps of the necklace and haphazardly sewed the picture of the Serigne on the chest of the shaggy doll. She then carefully dressed the doll with a dress she made out of scrap fanti (Ankara) fabric she found at Papa Ndiaye’s tailoring shop next door.

Mama hugged and caressed the doll singing:

Mama Sohna, yai sam hol, yai sam harit

Yow, topal sam baye teh nga japal makor

Yai sam hol, yai sam harit

Lum yagga yagga din neng gissay…

She then happily tugged the doll in her father’s bright yellow fishing coat replacing the leather necklace she had previously removed and patted it gently knowing that her papa will take good care of her beloved doll, just as she promised it in her song.

As Moussa dug into his coat to fish out his prayer beads, his fingers tucked the soft object. He pulled it out knowing what it was even before seeing it — Mama’s favorite stuffed doll: Mama Sohna. Mama had whispered in his ears as soon as he came home from his ‘grand place’ (hang out spot with other men) the night before that she had left a surprise for him in his work coat. The doll melted his stoic face into a broad smile.

He hurriedly placed it back and pulled out his prayer beads to join the other men for the Fajr prayers. This prayer was unlike any he had ever made before — it was going to be his last prayer on the shores of his beloved homeland, Senegal. Moussa and 30 other men: fishermen like him, truck drivers, petty traders, school teachers, university graduates, farmers and others involved in other professions from Guinea Bissau / Conakry, Gambia, Mali, Morocco, Mauritania and Ghana were about to face the perilous Atlantic Ocean for the land of opportunities.

This risky passage was worth facing death for Moussa — for with high food prices, rent inflations, and the dire situation the masses of his country were under, this trip was his last resort to feed his family. Their grim life was one he felt no one in a so-called democratic country with high-rise buildings and fly-over highways should live. As hard as his life was, Moussa knew that his story was no different from the other men who were risking their lives for fairer opportunities, for poverty and inequality was the backdrop of their lives as well.

This dark journey was his last escape from seeing his wife’s tear-filled eyes when all he could take home was fish his boss could not sell at times — fish that was close to rotten, for his boss would hold on to the catch longer than its required sell by date before ridding himself of it. On rare occasions, his wife would make a naked pepper soup out of the fish, for they could not afford any cooking oil to make a proper stew or any vegetables to accompany the meal. Upon consulting with his wife, they decided it was best they invested their meager savings in him taking the ‘back way’ to survival. With all the risks accompanying the journey he was to embark on, they both felt that the life they were living was no life for a hardworking man.

Lampedusa Early August 2010

The first day after Damaso’s dream, Damaso was eager to get home from school, so he could describe to his mother the strange sentiment he was experiencing. All day, he felt embraced by something warm, despite being in the depths of winter in Lempedusa. He tried to express this feeling to his friends yet his young mind would not let him describe such a complex feeling. He was comforted by the fact that he knew his mother would understand what he was trying to express with his ear-to-ear smile.

That day, after school, he was full of life; something he had not felt in a long time. His young body has been tormented by sickle cell crisis seeing him in and out of hospitals since the age of two. His parents could not miss his new energy and eyed him with awe, wondering if their wish of seeing their only child healthy was becoming a reality. The sight of their child who was diagnosed with full blown sickle cell (SF) running around and playing with no wince on his face was like the sight of the gates of heaven opening before them.

Within days of finding the doll on the shores of Lampedusa, Damaso became more robust. He ran with a fervor that his parents had never seen before. This caused them to go to church more. They started attending mass more than usual. They took Damaso to church with them to be blessed with holy water. They were firm believers in the healing possibilities of Christ and believed that Christ was finally uplifting the pain their child endured all these years.

Atlantic Ocean Late July 2010

Five days after setting sail from the shores of Gorée, most of the men were delirious from hunger and fever. Their stomachs growled till they no longer had the energy to do so. The hunger pangs brought them to their knees and clamped their mouths. The first seven days seemed like a month to the men. They would sail under darkness and within an hour be under what seemed to be daylight. The minutes stretched into days that became blurred and peppered by anger to silly jokes, all in the name of blanketing the fear that brewed in their hearts.

Moussa seemed to fair well compared to most of his fellow passengers, who were between madness and death — one person either out of psychosis or frustration, threw himself overboard within days after a huge wave crashed into the boat and washed away their precious cargo: food and water. The men were able to go on surviving on the dry food and water sachets they were advised to strap on to their bodies in case their boat was to be inundated with water — a reality they were now facing.

The men mostly Muslim would use the same prayer timing system they left behind in Senegal. In their hearts they wished to hear the Muezzin’s call to prayer and the few Christians within their midst wished to hear the church bells toll. All of them wished to be embraced by the warmth of their religion. In the boat, one could easily hear Act of Contritions and Al-Fatihas — religion was what kept them going and gave them optimism that they would survive their passage. They were pinned between the ocean’s unassailable promise of dominating and their Prophet’s promise of uplifting them from trails.

Dakar Mid-September

Mama is awakened from her nap by her mother’s heart-wrenching screams:“Wooy suma Ndeye! Wooy yai yooy! Fuma kor waheh! Wooy suma yai…!”

Mama had been looking forward to hearing her mom jubilating at her fathers’ safe arrival in the white man’s land. ‘No, no, no. These are not jubilating cries, she said to herself. Her mother’s interjections were what she only heard from people who lost people they truly loved.

It could not be a family member close to her mother for she did not hear her talk of any ill relatives. Her virgin mind could not fathom that a healthy person could fall dead at any moment in time. It must be an accident; she thought to herself, for yes, car accidents were common in a place where people barely adhered to traffic rules. Senegalese drove like headless chickens if you ask her.

Mama dragged herself to the living room with sleep still dense in her eyes; she worked out her mother’s shadow being held by her uncle Cherno. Her mother’s fingers refuse to let go of her uncle’s shirt; she tugged at it with all her might and threatened to choke him out of it. Then the screams came again; the wailing didn’t stop for the next seven days.

Family members come from as far as Banjul and Bamako to pay respects as the news of Moussa’s sad demise rapidly spread. His family provided breakfast, lunch and dinner to close friends and immediate family who stayed the first seven days, ascribing to SeneGambian tradition. This has an empathic tone to it — the people closest to the deceased are consoled by family and friends who are around the first seven days to help deal with the loss.

Then the talk came. Mama’s mother asked Mama to spend the night with her. That night, she broke the news to her. Mama was not shocked when her mother told her that all the people coming to the house were there to pay respect due to her Papa’s demise; that she knew the day the cranes of death squashed their dreams of being a happy family again. What gripped her was the way her father supposedly died. Her mother said it as best as she knew how: “Your father died at sea. He was going to Europe for a better life for us all but the might of the ocean was greater than him and all his friends who perished with him.”

Lampedusa October 2010

The man in white came every night in Damaso’s dreams. He would immerse Damaso in his light and hold his head and pray for him. Sometimes, he would lay his hand on his chest and chant things Damaso could not make out. One morning, he woke up and ran into his mother’s arms. She was sitting at the kitchen table having an early morning coffee. He jumped on top her, which simultaneously placed a smile on her face. She ran her fingers through his dirty blonde hair, an outcome of her African and his father’s European heritage, and started hymning ‘Amazing Grace.’ Damaso swung his head to his mother’s soothing voice, and whispered, “Bamba, Bamba, Khadimu r-Ras.