This week I’m in Paris to campaign for climate justice. When I arrived here it was by plane, but when my brother and his best friend crossed to Europe they came illegally on a boat. The boat got into trouble close to shore and my brother’s friend Mamdou died.
The story of another migrant drowning at sea isn’t new in Europe. The images of people streaming in from Syria, Afghanistan and other war zones are now common-place. But a lot less is known about the real and simple reasons why people like my brother and his friend attempt the journey from Africa and how they make a fair climate deal for the world’s poorest even more important.
Everyone has one of those friends who is just really nice. That friend who doesn’t say a bad word against anyone, who is always willing to share and who never sweats it when something goes wrong. Mamadou was that friend to my brother, Surakata, and me. He was gentle to the core.
Growing up together in our village in the Gambia, we’d hang out and talk about what we wanted to do when we were older. I wanted to go to college in the capital and study communications and Surakata and Mamadou both wanted to go and make it in Europe. Mamadou was quiet but I always knew he was ambitious. He’d do anything, he said, as long as it would allow him money to send home.
Because at home there was no money. The rice we’d survived on for generations stopped growing like before and our village was struggling to find income. The rains had gradually started coming later and the crops would go from scratch dry to sodden so suddenly that nothing could grow. Year after year the same thing was happening. Then the flooding started to spread from the fields and block the roads to the market and the health centre. No food then became no food, no trade, no medicine. This was climate change.
So when I turned 18, I left home to go to the city and study, leaving Surkata and Mamadou in the village. Not having enough money to pay for college fees, I worked in a gas station to try to afford them while I also sent something back to my family. When I couldn’t make ends meet, I’d go out on the streets and hustle for what I could, buying and selling bits and pieces. But living hand to mouth while trying to study got too much, so eventually I dropped college and focused on solely on feeding myself and my family.
Seeing me live in this way was no future prospect. My brother and Mamadou saw me on the brink and in that reflection saw the need for their own and the rest of the family’s survival. As young men with a duty to bring home money for the family, climate change had confronted them with a choice - stay at home and face certain hardship or go to a place where there was near guaranteed opportunity. To them, and I think to anyone, that is not really a choice at all.
They decided, along with a small group of other men in my village, to prepare for the journey first to Libya, where they would wait for a few weeks before making the crossing to Italy. The journey would cost them $150, in Gambia the equivalent of buying just over a month’s food for one family. It took a long time to save up for the journey. Mamadou, coming from a slightly poorer family than my brother, not only sold his bull to make the journey but also convinced his mother to sell her bull. They traded both sets of income for Mamadou to make a go of it in Europe, it was the family’s last chance.
Around a month after they left home I got a phone call from my brother to say they’d be crossing the sea the following day. We waited a week. No news. A confused call from the human trafficker in Libya was eventually followed by one from my brother. He said the boat had capsized and only he had survived. Mamadou had not.
It is now so painful to me how, in Paris, climate negotiators are going back and forth over the euphemistic term ‘loss and damage’. The politics here in Paris and the euphemism of the term conceal everything that loss and damage really is. To me, my brother and our community, it is everything we are battling against at home in the Gambia, the damage that climate change has already done to our community and, Mamadou, the person who we have already lost.
The last few days of the Paris talks this week will decide whether rich countries will acknowledge that their emissions over the last two centuries are now doing untold harm to us, and other people in developing nations. We believe it is only fair that developed countries support poorer ones to deal with the effects of climate change. And to acknowledge and support us when we lose everything, as Mamadou’s family has done.