A Century of Migration in One Man’s Lifetime

IOM - UN Migration
Jul 5, 2019 · 4 min read
Photo: © Alexander Bee/OIM.

“In old times, it was Kumasi, in Ghana. That was our Eldorado. All Malians who went to Ghana brought back a lot of money to their families. People didn’t need to cross the Sahara or risk their life along the migration road to become rich.

“But today things have changed. The situation has become difficult. People no longer love each other, borders are sealed. In old times, life in Mali was sweet as sugar, but nowadays it is more bitter than chili pepper. Because of conflicts,” says Ag Zeini Mohamed, a 115-year-old Malian.

Mohamed shows his ID card to prove his age. Photo: © Alexander Bee/OIM.

This elderly native of Ansogo, a district in Northern Mali’s Gao region, knows of what he speaks. Mr. Ag Zeini recently was assisted to return home from Burkina Faso — at his request. It’s now been nearly 70 years since he left home.

Since May, Mohamed has been accommodated in a partner host centre of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Bamako. “I’m 119 years old, but officially it’s 115, because that’s what is written on my ID card,” he says, brandishing an ancient document pulled from a black bag carefully placed next to him.

His face says a lot about his age. Yet, despite his white beard, Ag Zeini Mohamed looks strong and solid. Surely, it is some holdover from his long military career that makes him stand at attention when visitors come, intrigued by his age.

Mohamed proudly displays his medal indicating Mali’s motto “Un peuple, un but, une foi” (One people, One Goal, One Faith). Photo: © Alexander Bee/OIM.

Suddenly Mohamed gets up! Arms hanging straight down, head erect, face squared to the front, calls out his regimental number. Rest!

“If I am still solid, it is because I walked a lot when I was young. I used to travel from village to village, on foot. I haven’t eaten salt for a very long time and I like rice with tomato sauce,” he says.

The military? Mohamed knows it well.

He fought for the French Army during the Second World War. After that he was involved in conflicts worldwide, including those in Indochina and Biafra. In 38 years of military service, this centenarian — who presents himself as the memory bank of six Malian generations — has travelled much of the world.

“I didn’t know my father well, he was a marabout {religious sage},” Mohamed explained. “He died when I was young. I have seven daughters, two of whom are married. My wife passed away.”

In Ansogo, he had been living with the son of a former Army mate.

“From Ansongo, we went to Togo, Ghana and then Indochina. We were ten persons. The other nine lost their lives in the various battles,” he recalls.

When some countries in West African gained independence, old Mohamed went to Lomé, Togo, where he raised cattle, under the protection of a local politician. But once the politician died, Mohamed had to leave the country and went to neighbouring Burkina Faso where he stayed for 15 years.

Mohamed is having fun pretending to shoot with his cane Photo: © Alexander Bee/OIM.

Eight years ago, he returned to Mali. Then, as Mali’s fragile security declined and its economy worsened, Mohamed decided to return to Burkina Faso. He went to make money. But as what? He won’t tell.

Weeks passed. Mohamed realized this time it would have been better if he had remained in Mali. He decided to return for good. He visited Mali’s Ouagadougou embassy for assistance.

He was referred to IOM, which in 2017 began implementing the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration to assist migrants stranded along migration routes.

Mohamed was flabbergasted. He had never received anything from anyone in his entire life, and certainly not at the age of 115 would he have expected such a thing!

And yet, just a few days later, IOM in Burkina Faso stepped up to help. After first ensuring that Mohamed was fit to travel, IOM assisted his return to Mali. He travelled first to Bamako. There he registered at a transit centre managed by an IOM partner.

Today, Mohamed stays in the centre where he performs his prayers and recites his rosary, waiting for his flight back to Gao.

Mohamed looks at his phone he put next to him. “The numbers on the phone screen are small, I can’t see them well, but I still pick up the calls!” he said.

One thing is certain for him:

“I want to stay in Mali. But I can’t do anything alone, I need help,” he concludes.

Mohamed on the phone with the son of his former war companion. OIM/Seydou Tangara

IOM in Mali is now working to organize his trip to his home village where he will receive assistance.


To be continued.

This story was jointly written by IOM Burkina Faso, IOM Mali and the Regional Office for West and Central Africa.

IOM - UN Migration

Written by

Official account of IOM, the United Nations Migration Agency.

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