Prospective migrants made great sacrifices were made to raise money to go to China:
My uncle bought my first car. I am a driver. I paid him back little by little. One month I paid him, the next I saved for myself, the third I paid him, and so on. He said ‘take your time in paying me back’. I knew I could do it, finish paying, because I have the experience of working for others. The car was sold for 50 000 dalasi [EUR 1,140]. This was less than I bought it for because it depreciates. I paid 25 000 for my visa [EUR 570], and borrowed the rest of the money I needed for the ticket and pocket money from the bank. In China, I used to think about the car.
Travelling from the Gambia to China costs at least 2,000 Euros. Air tickets and visa are the biggest expenses. Gambians raised money in a number of ways: Taxi drivers sold off their cars, apprentices collected the wages earned throughout years of service, and family members got together to sponsor the migration. Whether or not the money is explicitly given as a loan, the expectation is that the migrant will repay their sponsors once they arrive at their destinations. Social relations are therefore as much at stake as material wealth when Gambians seek to migrate.
There is no Chinese embassy in the Gambia, and the Gambians must travel to Dakar to get a visa. Some are told by migration agents that they can obtain a European visa. Only when they get to Dakar do they realize that the visa will be Chinese.
Dakar. Photo: Andrew Whiting, CC License
The visas are sold on a commercial basis. However a relationship between the visa dealers and the prospective migrants is necessary for making a transaction.
The people making the visas are Nigerians. However, no Gambian can trust Nigerians, so they need Gambian middle men who can contact potential customers. The Gambian middle men listen to the Nigerians when they tell them that there are lots of opportunities in China. Nigerians have travelled the world for decades, whereas Gambians have only started going out recently, so it is easy for Gambians to trust Nigerians when they paint a picture of China as an attractive destination. But that picture is not realistic.
At that point, many opt to proceed to China, knowing little about what to expect there. Some think China can be used as a springboard for migration to more attractive destinations.
Arrived at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, the 2nd busiest airport in China in passenger traffic, some Gambian men’s optimism already started to fade…
I went to China with 17 USD and 25 GBP. When I reached the airport [in Dakar], they asked me about pocket money. I don’t like to lie, so I didn’t. I told them the truth. Then I said that my friend would be wiring pocket money to me. They believed me and let me enter. A similar interrogation took place in Dakar. In Ethiopia, they did not care.
At Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, you could often observe Africans being singled out by the airport staff and asked to show hard cash, so-called “pocket money”. The men usually carried between 50 and 100 US dollars in their luggage, the required amount to pass the controls.
The migration brokers adviced their clients to bring money to show in customs in order to be credible business travellers:
I travelled to China with 500 USD. You cannot travel there with no money on a business visa. I was in a very nice suit, looking like a diplomat. When I was questioned at the border, I was gentle. I took my time. I approached him gently. You have to be humble. There are people who travel there with a lot of money, but they are still not given entry. They want elders, over 50 maybe. I am 44, but I can manipulate.
The visa agents cooperate with Gambians based in China on student or business visas. Prospective migrants are handed a phone number along with the visa. They call this number once they arrive. The Gambians based in China sublet apartments to newly arrived compatriots at a high markup. A one-bedroom apartment can be rented out to 14 persons, each paying RMB 50 (Eur 7) per night. The relationship between the proprietors and tenants are often ambiguous, and one in which the tenants have little choice but to put their trust in the landlord.
I thought everything was free. I had the number of a Gambian man. I thought I could stay with him for free and get some food […] It was only when I arrived at Kamara’s place that I understood I had to pay rent. He was a very wicked man. This is China, it is not Africa, you should not trust others.
I took pictures when I left Gambia. I sent them to friends. Three pictures on the plane. I also took three pictures that I sent in Guangzhou, when I had newly arrived. They were just of me and the city. I had no idea about how things were. I looked at black people. They were carrying things, going in and out of the bus. I thought they were working. I thought that one day, I would be one of them. I thought I would be part of that system. I took the three pictures of myself because this was the start of something new.
While some, like Lamin, were impressed with what they saw in Guangzhou at first, the hardships migrants in China face became evident as soon as they entered the apartments and talk to other tenants.
After my first three days in China, I called Amadou outside. I have to ask, I said, what are the plans here? Amadou told me “Brother, there is no plan. We wake up, we sleep, we wake up, we sleep. We put money for food together. There is no job”. I said “I am respected in Gambia. I have a job My boss will do nothing there without my idea”.
The man come and pick me and then take to the guest house he is living. When he open the door and see young Gambians sitting, i immediately lossed hope […] All of them, their conditions are not easy with different bad conditions. I totally regret why i come to China. Food problem, water to drink, where we sleep is people in two rooms, even blanket is a problem.
Listening to music was or became an important strategy to cope with the stress and the challenges the men were facing in Guangzhou: