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On Surviving a Journey Across the Sahara (and Other Impossibilities)

Ousman Umar Reveals His Harrowing Search for a Better Life

In the memoir North to Paradise, Ousman Umar tells the story of his migration from rural Ghana to urban Europe, a five-year journey that took him across 11 countries. These years are so eventful and rife with suffering that just one could be a book unto itself: Ousman is exploited in Accra; abandoned without water in the Sahara; nearly raped in rural Libya; forced to sell drugs in Tripoli; targeted by anti-Black vigilantes in Benghazi; trafficked through West Africa; beaten by guards in an Algerian prison; smuggled into Europe aboard an overpacked dinghy; beaten by guards again, this time in a Spanish prison; and nearly raped again, this time in Barcelona. He watches dozens of his companions die horrific deaths. And he experiences all of this between the ages of 12 and 17.

Ousman doesn’t spend much time reflecting on any of these events, however. In fact, he packs all of them into 160 pages. Catalan, Spanish, and now English-language readers are often shocked by Ousman’s matter-of-fact style and brisk pace, even when he’s describing unspeakable trauma. Some appreciate his brevity: it’s nice to have a book you can start and finish on a flight from DC to Chicago, assuming you don’t want to pay for wifi.

When I began translating North to Paradise, I wondered why Ousman made this stylistic choice: did he worry smartphone-addled readers wouldn’t have the attention span for deeper reflection? That further discussion would necessarily take a more political turn? Was he himself unprepared to grapple with the emotional weight of his experience?

Within minutes of our first meeting, the reason became abundantly clear: Ousman is possibly the most charismatic, voluble, unabashedly extroverted person I have ever met, and this makes him an uncommonly eloquent, affable oral storyteller. As he details in the book, he grew up listening to village elders recounting folktales, and these days he gives TED Talks. In fact, his memoir is barely “written” at all; if you met Ousman at a bar and asked him how he ended up in Barcelona, I’m sure you would get something very close to the final manuscript of North to Paradise. During our conversations about the English translation, Ousman would often share an event or circumstance from his journey that hadn’t made it into the original version of the book—not because it was too boring or too political, but simply because it hadn’t come up in his original “telling” of the story.

This approachable, show-don’t-tell style also has obvious social implications: though Ousman is clearly the victim of systemic, racialized violence, his memoir is strikingly apolitical, at least on the surface. But North to Paradise is no American Dirt: this is Ousman’s story, and he knows what he’s doing. By sharing his experience in his own words rather than citing the history of structural violence (in which he is well-versed), he attracts readers who aren’t necessarily interested in an intertextual dialogue with Angela Davis or Paulo Freire. Adapting the folkloric tradition in which he was raised, Ousman is using an accessible, compelling story to teach a lesson.

The passage below is taken from a key moment in that story: it begins shortly after 12-year-old Ousman departs from the city of Agadez, a Nigerien trafficking hub at the inner edge of the Sahara. He joins his best friend Musa and a group of 44 other migrants who have hired smugglers to bring them through the Sahara to Libya. After driving for a few hours, the smugglers abandon their passengers; leaving their human cargo to die in the middle of the desert is cheaper than driving all the way to Libya, after all. One migrant in the group claims to know the way to Libya and offers to lead the way, for a price.

–Kevin Gerry Dunn (translator)

*

The first time we encountered human remains in the desert, we were horrified. They lay on the sand in the middle of nowhere, under the boundless sky. From afar, they were just unmoving dots on the sand. As we got closer, we saw that it was nine people, their bodies rigid and dry. We took their passports and the rest of their belongings, then buried them.

Who were these people? Who loved them? Who was waiting for news from them? Where? Now they were just anonymous corpses in the desert, their final resting place. Ever the optimist, I thought we were lucky because we hadn’t met the same fate. We were going to reach our destination. I was still young, I must have been around 13, and I was used to doing whatever adults told me. Still, I felt like we were some kind of heroes, that we would emerge from our struggles victorious. Maybe it’s because I was just a kid, but for some reason, I thought our chances were good. For the first few days, I wasn’t afraid at all. The fear came later.

That was how we drank, drop by drop, each of those drops essential to our survival.

When we had used up our jugs, our priority quickly became finding water to survive. But valley after valley, everything was dry.

“We’ll find water tomorrow for sure,” Musa and I reassured each other.

At one point, we found a drinking well for goats: the water was contaminated with their excrement, but we drank it anyway. Considering the things we ate and drank, I don’t know how we never got sick.

Whenever we were lucky enough to find moist sand, we grabbed fistfuls of it and squeezed it until a single drop fell on our lips. Other times, we couldn’t even get that much; it was maddening. That was how we drank, drop by drop, each of those drops essential to our survival. Thanks to those tiny servings of water, we lived a few more hours and continued our journey. We ate garri, a typical Ghanaian food, a kind of dry paste you mix with a little bit of water. We had powdered milk, a few cookies, and hard bread. We pooled our food so that everyone could eat, if you can call that eating.

Day after day, we walked until we couldn’t take another step, then looked for somewhere to spend the night. At dawn, we’d resume our journey, another day of walking. We rarely spoke: everyone was in his own head, immersed in his own thoughts. We were silent, like frontline soldiers focused on their targets. The difference in temperature between day and night was brutal: we practically melted during the day, when it was over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, but at night, it dropped to around 50, and we had to bury ourselves in the sand to keep warm.

Walk, that’s all we did. Eventually, we had to make the grueling journey over the Hoggar Mountains. When we encountered another set of bodies, I started to realize that the desert was like a mass grave for migrants on their way to a better life.

The mountains were pure rock: it felt like if you removed a single stone, it would set off an avalanche and crush us. The ascent was difficult: it wasn’t a question of walking up the mountain, but of scaling it, step by step, rock by rock, looking for a passage through wherever you could, often retracing your steps, with your body in a constant state of tension. The moun­tain seemed to go on forever; we climbed and climbed, and it remained before us, indifferent to our efforts. It was during that ascent that I began to be plagued by more somber thoughts. We had been walking for seven days, maybe ten, and I was beginning to think that maybe we wouldn’t make it out alive. With every new stage of the journey, I lost a little more hope.

*

The desert is not a homogenous place: sometimes it’s sand dunes, sometimes it’s rocky flatlands, and sometimes it’s moun­tains and hills. From a distance, the desert seems monotonous, but as soon as you start walking, you see that it’s quite varied. When we’d finally made it through the mountains and found some water, our spirits improved a bit. The terrain leveled out, and flat land felt like a walk in the park. We arrived at a beau­tiful spot with very tall stone walls—it looked as if it had been made by human hands, but it was a natural structure created by the wind. We were walking along the borders of Algeria, Niger, and Mali. We found water at the bottom of a deep cleft in the rock walls, surrounded by smooth stones. At last, water, all the cool water we wanted! We drank and washed; then we slept in that place, finally able to relax.

It got pretty cold, so I curled up in a stone nook and fell asleep there. The next morning, everyone woke up and began preparing to leave. They nearly started walking without me, but thankfully, one man came to relieve himself near where I was sleeping. His piss splashed off a rock and onto my sleeping body, and I woke up.

“What are you doing alone down there?” he asked. “Why did you leave the group? Come on, we’re about to go!”

If it hadn’t been for that lucky coincidence, I would have been left behind, and who knows what would have become of me. Everyone else was already in a line, ready to start walking.

The next few days were unspeakably painful. We had no food or water. We had to drink our own urine, but we were so desperate we didn’t care. One man’s feet were badly swollen and his shoes were falling apart; he had to use strings to hold them together. The sand is burning hot during the day and walking barefoot isn’t an option. Survival seems impossible in these conditions, but when we encounter physical challenges, our bodies adapt in astonishing ways. The man with the swollen feet was the first to choose to die—he was the one who sat down in the sand, alone, waiting for the end. He couldn’t bring himself to walk any farther, and he gave up: his fatigue and despair had become so great that he preferred a slow, certain, agonizing death.

Survival seems impossible in these conditions, but when we encounter physical challenges, our bodies adapt in astonishing ways.

We left him sitting there, and his figure receded behind us, as if the Sahara were swallowing him up, as if the desert were an enormous monster whose belly was full of the dead. I didn’t want to think about his final hours. He wasn’t the only one. When a member of the group died or told us to leave them, things changed. Our spirits fell. Musa and I tried to cheer each other up:

“The fact that we’re still alive is a good sign,” Musa would say.

“Yeah, we’ll make it to Libya for sure,” I’d answer.

“Once we’re there, I swear, I’m never setting foot in the desert again.”

Truth be told, we were all frightened, but nobody wanted to say it out loud since it would just feed our despair. How had we ended up in this inferno? We had no choice but to carry on. So we continued, until, one day, we decided to kill our guide.

Maybe it was a decision born of desperation: every day, he told us we had only one or two days to go, but then he’d say it again. The journey never ended. There was always farther to go. Eventually, he became a target of suspicion among the group. Why was he the only one who knew the way? At first, we thought he was like us, another migrant who wanted to go to Libya. But the longer our trek lasted, the less sure we became. Doubt had infected the group.

“What if he’s with the smugglers?” someone suggested.

“How did he know the smugglers wouldn’t come back with their Land Rovers?” another asked.

“Why does he keep asking for money?”

After many short, hushed conversations like these, we truly believed our guide was in league with the smugglers, working with them to squeeze every last penny out of us. Or at least, that’s how it seemed at the time, based on the evidence avail­able. Granted, it seemed insane to think that he’d risk his life and undertake this hellish journey under the burning sun just for money. But he was North African, probably Sahrawi, and used to living in these conditions, in a hut in the middle of the desert. It wouldn’t have been as arduous for him as it was for us. He was familiar with the region and the climate, and his body was adapted to it. There are people who can survive for a full day on just one drop of water.

“We have to kill him,” several members of the group declared.

I was a child, so I wasn’t part of big decisions like this. But the adults had made up their minds: it was time to eliminate him.

The atmosphere within the group became strained; you could feel the tension as we trudged through the desert, staring at our feet. I think the guide could tell that a mutiny was brew­ing against him. Our prospects weren’t good: we knew that if we killed our guide, our own deaths were all but certain. But we wanted to make sure he died first, so he wouldn’t survive to lure other migrants into his trap. We would sacrifice our lives to save future victims from his deadly scam. We would sacrifice our lives to stop the suffering. That said, killing a man is no easy task, especially if you have to do it with your bare hands.

At the agreed-upon time, on the nineteenth day of our journey, we tried to jump him and beat him to death. But as soon as he detected the attack, he pulled out a knife and stabbed the first attacker. The man began bleeding heavily. After so much time in the desert, we were too weak to outmaneuver our guide, who screamed that he would kill anyone who came close. He wasn’t bluffing. He’d entered a violent rage, and we didn’t know what he was capable of. He had thwarted our attack, saved his own skin, and escaped.

*

After our guide ran off, the situation went from bad to worse. We were completely lost. Members of our group were passing out left and right, and all we could do was tell them to hang in there. Before long, we passed another set of bodies: one of them, wearing denim, had a canteen on him. I don’t know why I thought to check it, but surprisingly, there was a little bit of liquid left, water or urine, I couldn’t say. I felt guilty because in Muslim culture, stealing is wicked, even if it’s from a dead person who doesn’t need material things. Musa was the only one I told. I didn’t know it then, but those few drops would save my life.

Not everyone had my luck. Many gave up and let death take them. Our group stopped walking—most had no strength left, and with no guide, they saw no point in fighting. They had reached their end. But Musa and I, along with four others, decided to continue. We still had a shred of hope, so we kept walking in the direction the guide had shown us before we tried to kill him.

“Are we even heading in the right direction?” I asked. “Or was he trying to trick us?”

“If we wait for nightfall, we might be able to see lights in the distance. That way we’ll know if it’s the right way,” Musa reasoned.

So we did, but there were no lights. Even so, we kept walking for lack of an alternative. We agreed to continue as far as our strength would take us. My lips were so dry they split open every time I opened my mouth. I finally drank the liquid from the dead man’s canteen, and that’s what saved me. Three days after leaving the group, we saw vertical sticks in the distance.

“Do you see those sticks?” I asked the others. “Do you think they’re electric poles?”

“I can’t tell,” Musa answered. “They’re too far away. You might just be seeing what you want to see.”

“If those are electric poles, that means there are people nearby. We have to go toward them!”

We didn’t know if they were a hallucination produced by sheer force of will, but to us, they looked like power lines along a road. It was possible that we were finally approaching civilization, and as we got closer, our enthusiasm grew. Within a few hours, we could see that they were unmistakably power lines. We were elated, though our extreme exhaustion prevented us from jumping for joy. In fact, I didn’t even manage to reach the village on my own two feet: I passed out before we got there. The last thing I remember was opening my mouth to cry out for help—to tell the others that I wasn’t going to make it—but no words coming out.

The next thing I remember is water being poured over my head, trickling down my body, soaking me. It wasn’t a dream; it was real. My five companions had carried me the rest of the way, saving my life.

Of the 46 of us who had been abandoned in the desert, only six reached the village. The other 40 had died in the sands of the Sahara. It was heartbreaking, excruciating. We cried our hearts out. We had traveled along the path through hell for three weeks.

__________________________________

Ousman Umar Paradise

Excerpted from North to Paradise by Ousman Umar. Translated by Kevin Gerry Dunn. Courtesy of Amazon Crossing, all rights reserved.

Ousman Umar
Ousman Umar
Ousman Umar was born in Ghana and immigrated to Europe when he was seventeen. In 2012 he founded NASCO Feeding Minds, an NGO dedicated to the principle that the most effective way to prevent migrants from leaving Ghana for Europe is to provide top-notch opportunities for education and advancement in Ghana. North to Paradise was originally published by Penguin Random House Spain in 2019. He lives in Barcelona.





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