Against all odds, teens chase elusive African dream

Three brothers from Gambia set out on a journey to find wealth in Angola's dangerous diamond fields.

THE three Ceesay brothers left their parents' impoverished peanut farm in rural Gambia and headed to the capital Banjul to get their passports. That was their first time in a city.

A day later, they boarded a plane for Nigeria. "I wish I could tell my mother about the sky," says 14-year-old Sulayman, the youngest of the three Ceesays, who spent most of the six-hour flight staring wide-eyed out the airplane window. "I cried when my mother kissed me goodbye," he admits, "but I told her I would find a diamond and buy her a house some day. And I will too."

The following day – dizzy from the flight and holding on for dear life to the railings of a contraption they were told was called an escalator – they descended into the city of all African cities, Lagos. It was there, explained the teenagers, in the concrete jungle of 13 million people, that they would begin to seek their fortune.

There are millions of young, poor, uneducated Africans just like the Ceesay brothers, traversing this continent looking for the one place – any place – where they might find work. No comprehensive data exists on the magnitude of child migration and labor, but the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that in Nigeria alone, about 12 million children under the age of 15 are on the move, out of school, and working for a pittance. Worldwide, the ILO estimates there are some 250 million child laborers, more than half of whom work full time, every day, all year round.

Many of these children are lured across borders or into cities by unscrupulous syndicates specializing in child trafficking and prostitution. Some are sent off by desperate families, and others still are simply following their dreams. The more fortunate ones may find menial labor as waiters, cleaners, car washers, bus touts, or domestic servants. Others will end up selling chewing gum, apples, or rolls of toilet paper at street corners, sleeping in filthy shacks or on the pavement.

At immigration in the Lagos airport, the Ceesays encounter their first hurdle. They can not fill out the entry forms. Completely illiterate, only the eldest, 16-year-old Bakoreh, knows how to sign his name. "But where we are going this will not be too important," says middle brother Salimou defensively, "... because we are not staying here. We are going to the diamond fields of Angola."

The plan, as outlined with great enthusiasm, words toppling over one another, is to work in Lagos for a few weeks "or even months," earn the money needed for passage to Angola, and then spend the next few years getting rich. Their parents had saved money for two years to enable the boys to make the trip to Lagos. Now the brothers are on their own. Between them they have nothing but $20, "the plan," and a great deal of hope.

Gambia, according to the World Bank, is no easy place to grow up. One of the poorest countries in Africa, 85 percent of the population lives in rural areas, barely eking out a living on the peanut farms. Sixty percent of the population is illiterate, 35 percent can expect to die before their 40th birthday. It's no surprise that many, like the Ceesays, try to escape.

But Nigeria is not all that much more promising. In this vast, oil-rich country, the levels of corruption and mismanagement have reduced two-thirds of the population to living under the $1.40 a day poverty line, and more than half the people do not have access to clean water, electricity, or employment.

On the streets of Lagos, many are those who dream of riches. "One day I will have houses and cars and even more things," says Usman Ibre, a crippled teenager who spends his days at a busy intersection rolling between cars on a homemade skateboard, selling pens and dirty pads of paper.

"Most of the time no one looks at me. Sometimes they buy a pen," says Ibre, who arrived in Nigeria six years ago from Niger, able bodied and filled with his own dreams of cocoa plantation riches in the Ivory Coast. "But I still hold my plans."

And Angola, the destination of the Ceesays' dreams, has been rated by the United Nations as the worst place on earth to be a child, where over 30 percent of children die before they turn five. It is the country with the highest number of landmines per person scattered in its soil. Some 60 percent of the population has no access to food and must rely on aid agencies or face starvation.

One of the Ceesays' distant cousins struck it rich in Sierra Leone a few years back, making enough money, the boys boast, "to buy 12 houses in Gambia." So, they used to dream of going to the diamond fields of Sierra Leone, too. It was a place where youngsters could toil for the rebels in return for small percentages of the diamond sales, or even, if very fortunate, smuggle out a diamond on their own.

But the recent peace accord ended rebel control over the diamond fields, regulated the sector, and thwarted such plans. "Sierra Leone is no longer a place for a young man to work," says Bakoreh. "Its too organized today. There is no room for us."

In Angola, meanwhile, while the killing of UNITA rebel leader Jonas Savimbi in February brought hope for ending the decades-long civil war, the rebels still control the diamond areas, and it is still possible for a young boy to find some backbreaking work under the sun there. Many end up sick, hungry, or dead. Some do hit pay dirt, but even those who actually find the precious rocks are more often than not cheated out of any reward by rebel bossmen. And those who try to steal are usually killed.

Finished with immigration at the Lagos airport, the Ceesay brothers find themselves in the departures terminal, holding onto a slip of paper on which is scrawled a relative's phone number. His name is Kissime, and when they find him, they explain, he will give them a mattress to sleep on and show them the ropes. And then they wave and disappear into the chaotic world that is Lagos.

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