In 1998, Albert Yaka and Michael Dike made their respective ways from Cameroon and Nigeria to Morocco’s northern coast, and then to the outskirts of the Spanish exclave of Melilla. They met and became friends there, and decided to try to climb over the fence into Spanish territory together.
In those days, this meant getting past three layers of barbed wire on the Moroccan side, then tumbling down into a stretch of no-man’s land, on the other side of which was a three-meter high wall topped with more barbed wire. Yaka and Dike were lucky, successfully managing their way across the obstacle course, and within minutes found themselves in Spain. Suddenly, their lives were changed forever.
It had taken Albert Yaka seven years to reach Melilla, having first travelled through Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Mali, and then Morocco. He even changed his identity three times, passing himself off as Malian, Beninese and Togolese. “I was 23 when I left, and aged 30 when I made it into Melilla. I learned to be nobody, to remake myself at will. I had no idea of what it meant to be ‘migratory’; that’s an intellectual concept, for sociologists, for rich people. I didn’t make calculations; I simply got up in the morning and let God take care of things. When you set out you have no idea of the risks, and you aren’t prepared for it, not physically, or mentally.” Yaka had paid for his accounting studies by playing in bars in Cameroon, and then said goodbye to his job in a bank.
Today he runs a team of 24 people at Cephaim, a Seville-based NGO. “I work here to campaign for a fairer society for everybody, not just for immigrants,” he says. Now aged 45, he obtained Spanish nationality in 2008, and is divorced with two children.
He says he remembers the first words he heard in Spanish as though it were yesterday. He had just fallen to the ground after making it over the wall: “Shit, somebody’s made it in,” said a civil guard. Then he heard a shot.
I was 23 when I left, and aged 30 when I made it into Melilla”
After being questioned by the Spanish authorities, he was released, and found somewhere to stay next to the Red Cross. Eventually, he acquired a dictionary, and says he began learning Spanish by reading gossip magazine ¡Hola! and others he found in garbage dumpsters. “I thought a lot about those dumpsters, because to me they seemed like a mirror of this society. First there was the sheer amount of paper that was thrown away, and when I went back to my country, I realized the terrible environmental impact of it. The second thing was how much food was thrown away. And third, that the dogs being taken out for walks were better looked after than we were.”
Yaka soon found himself an unofficial representative of the other immigrants he met in Melilla, and has continued in that role to this day. “I am a compendium of the experiences I have had. Part of the places where I have lived remain in me, but I am not Moroccan. It was in Morocco where I began to realize that I was poor, and that we were not welcome, that the deck was stacked against us. And I was black. Now, even in Cameroon I am a stranger, a foreigner. How long will I be an immigrant for? My skin color has changed, so has the smell of my body, but how can I explain that here? I have to suffer all this in silence. I am not representative of the typical migratory phenomenon. For the last four years I have dreamed in Spanish. I now realize that I am part of this,” he says.
Since meeting Michael Dike in Melilla, the two have become like brothers, he says, adding that he has other very close friends he met there, who have since moved on to France and Germany.
The dogs being taken out for walks were better looked after than us”
Dike first travelled to Europe when he was a teenager, to try out for Dutch soccer side Feyenoord. Things didn’t work out, and after his visa expired he returned home. He then studied dramatic arts and film, working for a number of years in television. He decided to “make the journey” as the trip north is known. It took him four years to get to Melilla.
At one point, his family gave him up for dead. He crossed the desert, learning along the way that people dying of thirst will pay $10 to drink somebody else’s urine. For a time, he was forced to work for free by an Algerian soldier. When he climbed over the wall into Melilla, he says he took a newspaper with him, and instead of running for cover, sat down to read it: the ruse worked, and the police left him alone.
He is now aged 46, and lives in the town of Parla, on the outskirts of Madrid. Since he has been in Spain he has worked mainly in telecommunications, but is currently unemployed after being laid off as part of staff reductions. Married three times, he has three children, but says he has refused to apply for Spanish citizenship so that his partner’s family cannot accuse him of marrying out of self-interest. He runs a small production company called Sunshine Africa, and has filmed a few videos for African singers, as well as making several shorts.
“You have come to talk to me because a few Africans have died in Ceuta,” he says. “What happened there hurts me. We are part of this society, but we’re invisible.” Dike says there are two kinds of racism in Spain: the visible and the hidden. “People here leave you alone as long as you keep your head down. I have been paying into the social security system for 12 years, and now feel more Spanish than Nigerian. My children were born here, and I will defend my right to be here to the death. That’s why I have stayed, although I never thought I’d see a Spaniard looking through the garbage for something to eat.”
I never thought I’d see a Spaniard looking through the garbage for something to eat”
Dike illustrates his theory that black people are invisible in Spain with the following anecdote: he says he wrote several times to Madrid Socialist Party head Tomás Gómez, back when he was mayor of Parla, pointing out that it would make sense to use a black man to play the role of Wise Man Balthazar in the annual Christmas parades held throughout Spain, rather than a Spaniard in makeup. “I just don’t understand, when there are so many of us, why they need to paint up a white person. But that’s because we’re invisible.”
Michael says that Africans have only three choices in life: “You can be corrupt like so many others, die quietly, or take up arms. If you want to have any hope of a future, you simply have to leave.”
“We both have a very good education,” he says. “I spoke five languages when I arrived here, but it hasn’t done me any good. I have studied dramatic arts; I speak English better than many English people do. I grew up reading Dickens and Shakespeare, reading about white people’s children playing in the park. I believed that there was a better world out there. It’s like a call, it calls out to us.”
Albert Yaka and Michale Dike are putting the finishing touches to Copa Mandela, the African arts festival they are organizing in Parla for April 12. The MC will be Yaka, who not only speaks perfect Spanish, but for the last four years has been dreaming in it.