It must have been around ten years ago when I first met Momodou. During my evening walk I passed by a small park where an African man around thirty years old greeted me with kind eyes. Momodou was from The Gambia and had gone overland for almost a year to reach the Mediterranean, where he crossed in a leaky boat together with forty other migrants. In Spain he had hoped to find work so he could send money to his family, but he had been here for seven years and still hadn’t found a job.
When I asked him why he didn’t go back home he lowered his head and looked at the ground. He couldn’t go back; he’d feel ashamed to see the people in his village who had all cooperated to buy his passage.
The park was his home now, he slept under the bushes. I gave him money and he thanked me profusely, which made me feel uncomfortable. It was just a strike of luck that I was born in a suburb of Rotterdam and not in The Gambia. Nor was it Momodou’s fault that he had to sleep outdoors. In fact, he had been brave to undertake such a hazardous trip. Brave and desperate.
I would run into Momodou from time to time, and one evening he told me that he wanted to go to Girona because he could get work there. I gave him money for the bus and then I didn’t see him again for a long time. I was relieved by the thought that Momodou had indeed found work in Girona.
But one evening when I walked by the park, I saw a battered Black man, his left eye swollen, his lips cut, his jacket torn. I hastened my step and after I passed him, I heard a familiar voice say gently ‘He doesn’t recognize me’. I wanted to turn around, but I didn’t—it would have been too painful.
Just like when I see upsetting images on television, I closed my eyes.
It took me a while to realise that unlike when watching television, I could have done something. Talking to Momodou even for a couple of minutes would have been enough. I might not have been able to solve his problem, but at least I would have acknowledged his presence. I know from experience that nothing makes us feel lonelier than feeling invisible and I was ashamed that I had made Momodou feel that way.
I now say hello to the African man who sits on a cardboard box in front of the supermarket, the lady in front of the bakery, and the man who found a place near the organic food store. Sometimes I give them money and at other times we have a short conversation.
I never ask why they don’t go home.
Meanwhile, I keep an eye out for Momodou.