Europe and the Gambia - narratives, dreams and colonial power.

What dreams, ideas and stories makes young men leave their home for a deadly journey to another continent? Fredrika Uggla met with clandestine migrants and found narratives of Europe, the Gambia and masculinity - produced by colonial structures of power and the gendered idea of ‘a successful son’.

Text Fredrika Uggla

April 2015. A boat carrying about 550 clandestine migrants capsized on its way from Libya to Lampedusa. The Italian coast guard rescued 144 people of whom most were believed to be from Sub-Saharan Africa, many were very young and some probably under-aged children. Over 400 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea (BBC 2015-04-15, DN 2015-04-14). This is far from the only terrible accident in the Mediterranean. Clandestine migration from Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe is not a recent phenomenon but an increasing trend where people risk their lives in order to reach Europe (e.g. Mbaye 2014). In 2014 at least 3500 people died in the Sea, many refugees in search for asylum, but also others who are not fleeing war but poverty (UNHCR 2015). The number of migrants dying at sea has increased every year since the early 2000s (Amnesty International 2014:14). The repeated tragedies in the Mediterranean are powerful and telling examples of global stratification, and the very different realities people from different parts of the world face in terms of being able to control their own movements (Thörn 2002: 111).


Clandestine migration through the desert and over the sea raises many questions about different routes, questions about trafficking, false passports and international networks, questions about politics, borders, transit countries, about economy and remittances. Just to mention a few of the many different entry points to the field of migration (Dünnwald 2011: 105). As Dünnwald points out clandestine migration also raises the question about “dreams to earn more money, and eventually make migration a success”, and ”as migration is not always a success, talking about the failure of migration should be included, too” (Dünnwald 2011: 105). In February 2015 I went to The Gambia to collect stories of clandestine migration for my master thesis. I was interested in the dreams of Europe, the dreams that drive so many young people into small boats with no good expectations of making it to Europe. What dreams have people left on the shore?

In Serrekunda, The Gambia, I met eight young men who had all tried to migrate to Europe as clandestines. None of them had succeeded in their attempts and thus they were back in The Gambia again. I was interested in the way individual stories build a bigger one, and how individual choices build on discursive practise and broader social structures. All human beings are storytellers, and by analysing narratives we can explore events that are important in peoples lives, the frames through which people understand them, as well as the discourses of which they are part (Datta et al. 2009: 858). A narrative approach acknowledges agency as well as structure. This is important because it stresses the individual experience, but also how stories build on discursive practice, and are connected to a broader social context (Riessman 2008: 10). The stories of the young men I met were different from each other and unique as all our stories are, but they were also woven together in their many similarities that provide a common narrative of clandestine migration.

In The Gambia, many young men see life in Europe as the “ultimate dream” (Nyanzi & Bah 2010: 115). Since it is very difficult to get a visa to travel to Europe from The Gambia (Giabazzi 2014), the issue of clandestine migration, or “back way migration”, as it is locally known, is a growing problem. The Gambia is an interesting country in terms of clandestine migration since it is relatively peaceful and stable compared to other countries in the region, thus most clandestine migrants are not refugees but “economic migrants” (Samers 2010: 11). Also interesting is that, in the Gambian context it is primarily young men who become clandestine migrants. This in contrast to other countries where also women migrate through these routes (Doctors Without Borders 2010). This raises the question about what drives young men into the dangerous route through the desert?

With the aim to explore the stories of Gambian clandestine migrants in order to investigate the expectations and ideas about Europe, as well as the gendered aspects of this type of migration, I carried out interviews with these clandestine migrants called Amadou, Buba, Ousman, Musa, Alhaji, Modou, Bubacarr and Omar (pseudonyms). I was interested in how they construct their narratives about clandestine migration and Europe and what ideas about Europe, The Gambia and masculinity that are produced in these narratives.

What I found from the interview material was that the willingness to risk one’s life in the desert and in small boats is the result of primarily two discursive practices. First the ideas of Europe and The Gambia represented as binary oppositions building on colonial power structures, and second the local, gendered idea of ‘a successful son’. Narratives about Europe build on social remittances (Suksomboon 2008: 474), i.e. on stories told by family and friends who are already abroad, as well as on the representations of economic remittances, return-migrants and tourist appearance and behaviour. These stories and representations build on colonial discourse and power structures. It became clear during the research process that a postcolonial perspective is an essential tool if we want to understand clandestine migration from The Gambia to Europe.

Initially, I was interested in the dreams about Europe. How do these young men see Europe if they are willing to risk their lives in order to get there? But, while starting to ask the clandestine migrants about Europe, it became clear to me that it is impossible to separate the ideas about Europe from the ideas about The Gambia. These two places are constructed as binary oppositions that are interesting from a postcolonial perspective. This could be understood as representational work producing stereotype images of ‘the other’ (e.g. Hall 2013a and Hall 2013b). Here I will first present the representations about The Gambia that can be found in the stories told by the clandestine migrants, then I will move on to the ideas about Europe. I like to let the interviewees speak for themselves as much as possible and therefore I use direct quotes from the individual interviews to illustrate the bigger story.

The Gambia

I want to go to struggle, you know, for my life, you know, because if you are here you know you will not get anything, you know, Gambia here no Gambia is too eh ... (Buba).

“It is not easy in The Gambia”, Modou tells me. While reading the statement above, from the interview with Buba, we can almost hear him sigh that “Gambia is too eh”, the statement that “you will not get anything [here]”, exemplifies the hopelessness that the interviewees expressed when talking about The Gambia. A frequent theme in the stories about life in The Gambia is poverty. Most of the interviewees talked about themselves and their families as “poor”. Alhaji said that if he would invite me home I would not be “able to sit even”, this implies that he feels like his home would not be good enough to show me. The idea of being poor is clearly part of all the interviewee’s identities. Being poor is linked to the difficulties of finding a job. There is a general feeling that life is “not easy” in The Gambia (e.g. Modou), and that if someone works for one year in Europe he/she will earn a lot more than they would do in The Gambia in the same time period.

As illustrated by the quote from Alhaji’s story there are also repeated statements from the interviewees that they would never go to Europe if they had opportunities to improve their situation in The Gambia. Ousman expressed this more than once during the interview:

I, if I’m living good in Gambia here, I could drive a nice car, you understand, and I could get an earning like a 500 ... 500 euros only 500 euros in a month, sister I’m not gonna travel to Europe ... I’m telling you (Ousman).

Thus, what the narratives reveal is a representation of The Gambia as a place of poverty, hard work for little money, no work at all, corruption, and nepotism. In sum, The Gambia is represented as a place where there are no opportunities at all to change one’s situation of life.


If things are “not easy” in The Gambia they will be so in Europe. In the narratives of the clandestine migrants, Europe is represented as the solution to all the problems they see in The Gambia.

I tell ‘mum I can’t come back home. I have to enter Europe and make everything easy’ (Bubacarr).

In the quote above “Bubacarr” tell me about when he arrived in Agadez and called his mother to let her know that he decided to go “the back way”. His mother told him to come back and that she did not want him to go because it is dangerous, but his answer was that he had “to enter Europe and make everything easy”. This idea about “making everything easy” in Europe is repeated in some way in all the interviews. Bubacarr also comes back to it and says:

Yeah it was my main intention to enter Europe and make it. Because when you are here they tell you if you enter Europe it is more easier there (Bubacarr).

When I asked about what is going to be easy none of the interviewees gave me a concrete answer. Thus, the stories about Europe could be described as un-clear. It is not clear what life in Europe is going to be like, on my repeated questions about the interviewees’ imaginations about life in Europe I got only fragmented and blurry answers. However, the bottom line of the stories is always that in Europe everything will be “easy”.

No matter how it is, it’s more better. Life in Europe will be more better [than] here (Modou).

This blurry idea about life in Europe is also illustrated by the fact that the interviewees most often talk about “Europe” as one entity. This shows that the idea about Europe is in many ways dreamlike and unclear. In The Gambia, Europe is often referred to as “Babylon” (e.g. Ousman). However, the biblical reference is somewhat different from the common idea about Babylon as representing materialism and a corrupt society. In the Gambian context Babylon “is a dream destination flowing with milk, honey, prosperity and wealth” (Nyanzi et al. 2005: 567). The idea about “Europe/Babylon” illustrates that most of the interviewees have little or no idea about the Geography of Europe and they have often not thought about where in Europe they would prefer to settle and why.

However, some also heard things about specific countries or prefer to go to certain places because they have family members or friends who are living there. Bubacarr for example says that for him Italy is just a transit point, he wants to continue to Germany which is a “rich nation compared to Italy” (Bubacarr). This shows the importance of social networks in the migration decision process. If the back way migrants have friends or relatives in a specific country it is more likely that they prefer to go there. At the same time the sudden change to America shows how little they know about their intended destinations, it is basically just “the West”, “Europe” or “Babylon” represented as one prosperous entity with many opportunities. In addition, it is interesting to note how unclear the ideas about what life in Europe is going to be like. This is illustrated by the following quote from Bubacarr:

Where to stay [in Europe] was not in my mind it was just: let me enter Europe, there I can start thinking what to do, Yeah if I have the opportunity to go to school and start with the language, then fine, yeah (Bubacarr).

As Bubacarr says here he did not even think about where to live, instead he thought that all practical things could wait until he reached Europe, because the very idea of “entering Europe” is seen as the solution to all problems.

To sum up, The Gambia is represented as a place where people are “poor”, it is very hard to find a job unless you know the right people, and even if it was possible to find a job the salary would not be enough to support a family. This image of The Gambia is produced, mainly in contrast to the idea about Europe. In the narratives, Europe is represented as a place where everything is “easy”, where you can earn a lot of money fast, in order to solve your problems back home in The Gambia. Migration to Europe is represented as a life-changing event that will improve the situations of themselves and their families.

The Postcolonial story about place

A central concept in postcolonial theory is “the other” introduced by Edward Said (1967) and Frantz Fanon (1978). In their work they have discussed in what way a western ’white’ eye looks upon the ’blacks’ or ’the orient’ as ’the other’, i.e. a stereotype different. Said argued that the European identity has been created in contrast to ‘the orient’. Compared to the image of the exotic Orient, Europe was described as a superior civilization (Thörn et al. 1999: 20).

From this perspective, identity is understood as relational and as a result of ‘representation’. Identity is constantly created in interaction with others and by noting the difference to others. In this way the colonized and the colonizer’s identities are defined, reproduced and modified by one another, in an asymmetric relation, where the colonized will understand herself as ‘the other’, seen through the gaze of the colonizer (Thörn et al. 1999: 34-35, Hall 1999: 232). Thus, from this perspective the identities of the colonialists and the colonized were constructed, and defined by each other, “reproduced, modified and changed” in relation to one another (Thörn et al. 1999: 34). The identity of the “modern western project” (Thörn et al. 1999: 29) was constituted by a basic distinction between Europeans and the others. In this story there was a stereotype classification of people, where ‘the other’ was defined by “barbarism” and a close relation to “nature”, this in contrast to ‘the European’ that was defined in terms of “culture” and “civilisation”. In this story the Europeans were carrying the weight of a universal development process on their shoulders, while the others were seen as “happy natives” (Hall 2013b: 234) and left outside this process (Thörn et al. 1999: 29).

These dichotomies are not limited to stereotyping human beings but are also creating stereotype difference between places. The concept of ‘Africa’ and the geopolitical reality it represents is a colonial construction that was forced upon the people already living there. They were forced to accept this story with all its contradictions and its impossible national borders. Mudimbe has shown how ‘the idea of Africa’ as primitive is a social construction created during the colonial era in order to justify economic and territorial colonialism. A binary way of thinking resulted in a sharp division between Africa and Europe, and in art and anthropology, Africa was defined in opposition to Europe (1994, referred to in Thörn et al. 1999: 20).

Jonsson (2005) has described this process as a kind of ‘storytelling’. He points to the function of stories as a way for people to find their place, and to create boundaries between what we call ‘home’ and other places (Jonsson 2005: 50). The boundaries between African countries were drawn with a ruler at a desk. Thus, they were not describing some absolute reality, but instead telling a story about the world that the Europeans wanted to create. Jonsson (2005: 49) writes that this was something new:

No other people had before seen themselves as the obvious subjects of world history. Never before had a people constructed their stories claiming universal truth. Outside Europe there were no other people with the wish or the resources to describe and represent themselves with the same precision as the Europeans were using to represent them. Thus, all other peoples were given subordinate parts in the universal history whose heroine was called Europe (Jonsson 2005: 49, my translation).

In the Gambian context this colonial history throws light on how places are constructed as binary oppositions. The story about The Gambia is mainly about what it is not, and what the young men cannot do if they stay in The Gambia. This story and the images in it build on colonial discourse and stereotype ideas about others, and the production of meaning in terms of identifying what things, people or places are not (Hall 2013b: 224). Just as ‘Africa’ was constructed in contrast to the colonial powers during the colonial period (Thörn et al 1999: 20), The Gambia is today constructed in contrast to the idea about Europe. In the following quote from the interview with Omar we can see how The Gambia is defined in terms of negations.

Yeah [unclear] I was in Gambia here I’m seeing many boys many countries. They are telling me, boy just try by the all means when you have a little money you just take [unclear]. When the money is finished you work on the way. You go to Europe because Gambia here, if you are here not working not strong after all you cannot help your father you cannot help your parents until you dead (Omar).

From a postcolonial perspective, we are not free from the colonial power structures. The stories about Europe and The Gambia build on the European storytelling about Europeans and Europe as the obvious subject of world history (Jonsson 2005: 51). As Jonsson writes: “at the heart of our image of Africa lies a negative presumption”, Africa and Africans is defined in terms of “what they are not and do not have”, and the lack of Africa could only be solved with aid from Europe (Jonsson 2005: 349, my translation). Thus, The Gambia is constructed as a binary opposition to Europe, and vice versa (Thörn et al 1999: 20). The Gambia is represented as ‘the other’, constantly compared to the dreamlike ideas about what life is going to be like in Europe. This aspect of Clandestine migration has too often been forgotten in the discussions on how to prevent people from going the back way. Social structures is not something that we can change from one day to another, but if we are aware of these structures we can at least start to challenge and change them.


This is a short version of the Master Thesis Looking for a Greener Pasture: Exploring the Narratives of Gambian Clandestine Migrants, the full thesis could be found at:



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Interviews with Amadou, Buba, Ousman, Musa, Alhaji, Modou, Bubacarr and Omar (all men between 20 and 30 years old) were carried out during field work in Serrekunda, The Gambia in January-February 2015. No specific dates or places for the interviews are published because of confidentiality.