“People Don’t Disappear Like Animals”

Hope-travel (Espoir-voyage), by Michel Zongo, France/Burkina-Faso, 2011 - Paris, March 26, 2012.

In West Africa, family and community ties are a vital component of the social fabric. When labor migration to the Ivory Coast became a widespread subsistence strategy for poor communities in Burkina Faso – even becoming an “initiation rite” - the idea was to leave, earn a living and then come back. Why, then, do so many young Burkinabese, headed off to work in cocoa and coffee plantations in their more affluent neighbour country, simply disappear from their relatives’ radar screens?

One of these young migrants was film director Michel Zongo’s (Espoir-voyage/Hope-travel, France/Burkina-Faso, 2011) older brother, Joanny, who left his village in 1978 at the age of 14 - never to return. Eighteen years after Joanny’s death was reported to his family, Michel sets out to recover the history of his missing brother in Ivory Coast.

Michel’s journey to Ivory Coast is a genuine immersion in the reality of Burkinabese labor migrants. The footage of silent, serious-minded, and patient passengers traveling long hours in a packed, ramshackle bus on deep-rutted roads in a deafening noise says a lot of the state of minds of these individuals, as they prepare for a difficult time in Ivory Coast. The interviews of fellow citizens on Michel’s way to the village where his brother lived confirm this initial sensation. A Burkinabese migrant who runs a canteen says the work in plantations is a new form of slavery. Later footage of labor in the plantations vividly show the pain experienced by workers using machetes, while an interview with a group of workers reveals their bitterness about the low wages they reap from their harvest.

When Michel meets his cousin Augustin, also living disconnected from his family in Ivory Coast, the real story of these Burkinabese migrants emerges. After watching a video recording from his mother, who reproaches him for not contacting nor supporting her, Augustin’s reaction gives the key to why migrants stop keeping in touch with their families: pressure, guilt and shame. “I’m trying hard”, he says, “I’m really trying hard, but since I have not been successful so far, there’s no proof of it.”

Michel eventually reaches the village where his brother lived, finds with difficulty the owners of the plantation where Joanny worked and, overcoming their resistance, learns from them the story of this older brother he never knew. Filming in the plantations where he labored, Michel’s voiceover gives his brother a fitting funeral oration. 

The noble impetus that drove this autobiographically-inspired documentary is more than a personal quest. It is a quest to re-establish the human reality of these Burkinabese young men who have been lost to their families due to economic migration. Zongo’s movie addresses with great sensitivity a taboo in many regions of Burkina Faso. More than just a documentary, Espoir-voyage is a powerful human experience that has the potential to help re-establish contacts between immigrants and their home communities.

Frederique Guerin, Special Correspondent, The Global Journal.


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