Ninety-two corpses have been found in the Niger desert; mothers with braided hair and infants strapped to their backs, children with Qur’anic boards tucked under their arms, old men in prayer caps and long robes. They died sometime in October but their remains have only been discovered now, threading the route to a well that some were only a short distance from reaching. They had been buried already, in the sand, far from the villages in which they had names and their personalities were known. The desert that always encircled their world has finally consumed their dreams and their bodies.
Some say they were trying to reach Algeria to beg on city streets, others that Europe was their destination. What can be said is that their desire to leave Niger was strong enough to force them into the Sahara without adequate supplies or any way to call for help. Their story is repeated across Africa, from Nigeria to Somalia, and the Sahara is busier today with human traffic than it has been since the medieval age. Except that now there are no caravans of gold, just beaten-up lorries juddering between dunes with hopeful Africans as their cargo.
A cousin of mine recently travelled from Somalia to Libya and then sailed across the Mediterranean just a few days after the sinking of a boat carrying migrants in which 365 people died. This combination of hopelessness and hopefulness is hard to fathom for someone like me; I can find everything I need spiritually and materially in the city where I live, London.
The migrants I know also have a courage that I lack, born from having life offer you nothing but what you take yourself. It is a non-violent version of the recklessness that makes teenagers in skiffs attempt to board immense tankers. Their dignity and their refusal to accept that Somalia’s failure should doom their lives is something I can respect, even though I often despair of the risks they undertake. I go to Somaliland laden down with the booty that a life in the west can provide; computer, cameras, cash in my pocket and a passport that allows me to travel pretty much where I please.
However, there is more to this exodus than just possessions or safety. Individuals with relatively stable middle-class lives in Africa might still want to take great risks to reach a country they know little about because they believe they will become a different person there, develop new talents, and enjoy freedom and meaning in their life. It is not so different to what made millions of Europeans travel to the US in the 19th century.
Even in more peaceful parts of Africa, an economy that keeps the fruits of development in the hands of just a few, together with the environmental degradation that has forced many from their land, ensures that the movement of people from their homes is constant.
The willingness of western states to support governments and corporations that make life difficult for local people does nothing to help. Neither does the failure of African countries to crack down on the callous people smugglers who crisscross the continent with apparent impunity. The reality of life in the west – from assaults on asylum seekers in Ukrainian prisons to the murder of non-white people in Greece – also needs to be made clear to prospective migrants. Europe is not always safer than the countries they’re leaving.
Unlike my cousin, if I ever visit the Sahara or the Mediterranean it will be as a tourist, looking at the expanse of sand or sea without fear and with wonder at the beauty of this world. I hope that neither place continues to act as a graveyard; full of the uncounted remains of people we preferred not to think about or see as equal to ourselves.
Somali-born Nadifa Mohamed is the author of Black Mamba Boy, which was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and won the 2010 Betty Trask Prize from the Society of Authors.