Skip to content

You can’t breathe water

‘You can’t breathe water. You can’t announce your drowning. You know full well that mobiles don’t operate well under water.’
We were waiting. For a reaction. When we, hundreds of us, were drowning at sea. We trailed through the timelines, we listened in on conversations and checked for newly founded WhatsApp groups to ‘finally do something’. We were waiting, no, hoping, for a voice rising against, for something, a little empathy.

You can’t breathe water.

You can’t announce your drowning.

If someone is trying to record, documenting our demise up close, they too will end up amongst the fishes and algae. Dead. And you know fully well that mobiles don’t operate well under water. Not the ones we are carrying.

The sea holds so much unspeakable. Even we cannot speak to it, in its entirety.

“Drowning tends to be a quiet, silent act. Victims do not usually thrash.
Instead they expend significant energy trying to keep their head above
water and may be too tired to shout for help; moreover, if water comes into
contact with the vocal cords, they can go into spasm and prevent the victim
from shouting for help. Often, the victim is found floating or at the bottom of
the body of water…”

Of course, shouting is a tricky thing when the one we might be shouting for is determined not to hear you. When boats and dinghies are driven away from your shores, prevented from making it to the mainland. Futile to shout for you.

We know you are tired. Tired of the groups of people arriving, us, people like us. We arrive needy and unconnected. You are called for, your humanity is questioned because you don’t want to share what you have. You need what you have. We understand. Most of us are like that, concerned with ourself/ves.

It was just, while we were not thrashing, and we could not shout and we were experiencing spasms that we thought but Britain? That same country leaving the EU? The ones who wanted their country back and we were still debating what that could possibly mean?

You were never the ones carrying us. Not in any real significant numbers.

Do you remember, a few years back, when the summer lull was invigorated with endless news items of us arriving? Groups of us trying to reach mainland Europe, or docking on islands, although docking does not quite describe it. More often it was a messy scramble, us setting foot on solid ground drenched and scared, some of us with children in our arms. Remember? We enlivened the slow summer with running for trains or trying to jump onto lorries in Calais to make it across the channel. To you.

“Black people, become the carriers of terror, terror’s embodiment… the
ground of terror’s possibility globally.”

We wanted you.

We decided it had to be two things that were responsible for the constant replay of us running. Either there was no other news to frighten the population with, and we understand that fear is always good to keep alive. How better to rule over people than when they are scared? The other possibility is that you were passing laws, doing things that you did not want an audience for and we were useful in that manner, helpers you might say. A veil between your people and yourself. That too is valid and although a common trick, we understand that you would not want to change what’s been tried and tested.

“… those Black people transmigrating the African continent toward the
Mediterranean and then to Europe who are imagined as insects, swarms, vectors of disease; familiar narratives of danger and disaster that attach to our always already weaponized Black bodies (the weapon is blackness).”

We were a dramatic picture. Even we have to admit that. Like that, in that loop of an edited image and video stream: the invasion of the invader.

Yet, some people still pretend time is not circular? This is the most full-circle you will ever get. Well, we think there might be more to come now that you have your country back, of course. Finally, it is you only. By yourself. Just like you wanted.

Your home secretary is concerned, very much so, that we should stay on the French side of the channel. She praised the drones, the radar, all the technology you have for surveillance. The police. All the efforts to keep us out. This time you don’t see us running, not on the Newsnight videos. It’s the odd picture of us, defiant, still on boats, still trying to come. To you. But this is not where our stories are. Hardly. You know that fully well.

It takes a full sixty seconds for an adult to drown? Twenty seconds for a child. It’s quick, no time to make an argument. You exist, you’ve capsized, you drown. Or should we say, we, for clarity? We drown so much that a spokesperson for Alarm Phone, a hotline for migrants in distress, says “this is a massacre at Europe’s borders.”

Someone from the medical team of the NGO Italian Emergency, on-board the only rescue boat operating in the Central Mediterranean Open Arms, said:

“All this… a few kilometres away from an indifferent Europe…They
instead continue to bury their heads in the sand, pretending not to see the
cemetery that the Mediterranean Sea has become.”

We are thinking of time. Time passing, time arriving, time repeating itself. Is this too abstract?
Do you know that Sahé Sephore was the first undocumented migrant who was buried formally with both their name and surname on a tombstone in the Canaries? There is a picture of her on that tombstone. Her cheeks are round and yummy and everyone wants to play with her because we just know she was cheeky, in that good sense of the word. She was 13 months old when she drowned near the Coast of Gran Canary in May 2019. We mourn, we hold her. In our arms below sea level. It is important to have a name. Hers is there now, in writing. Still, when we search for her we can’t find anything online, other than the one news item that includes her tombstone with a photo. You don’t give us much space. Outside of the videos and pictures you like.

There is another name that echoed prominently for us. Again, not on your land, not even on your shores. But we think it might all be connected, just like time. His name is Mohamed Hasan and he was 12. He never made it onto the boats. He didn’t make it out of Egypt where he was one of many Sudanese refugees. He was stabbed to death by an Egyptian man. The peaceful protests that followed, crying out for justice for him, demanding an end to violence and discrimination, were dispersed violently by the state. Officers hurling racial and xenophobic slurs while arresting protestors.

And here it is, what we think you might understand. The link. The voices that don’t like us, that have so much to say, some of what is said is prosecutable because it would fall under a hate crime. The names they call us are not ours. They are often not even acceptable under the law. This is the same. Not the law, but the name-calling, changing us into something else. The way we are no longer persons but a mass of a problem that can be discarded. There, here, we mean, in your places and their places. We are of course not with you, neither here nor there. We are hovering in the water, not quite sinking because we have stories to tell, names to call. We have some urgent matters to take up with you.

For one, we are concerned with the children. Especially now that you and your country are all by yourself, without the baggage that is the EU and its laws. There seem to be some inconsistencies with your prime minister’s promises to have our unaccompanied minors reunited with their families in the UK. And those children who don’t have families in your country but who are alone, unaccompanied, nevertheless. He promised he would receive them. Well, not receive them personally. We cannot expect that. We don’t. We are not unreasonable or delusional. We did have visions for the future but they don’t go that far.

The prime minister said that you leaving, you getting your big wish, would not affect our children. Those alone. They would still be able to come, even after you have left the EU. Yet, we hear there are issues and if not resolved there are quite a few children and families who would be refused entry. To your land. The island. Not the one near us, your island further north. We appreciate it if you can take the time to address this. Urgently, we want to say, but we know we don’t have anything to bargain with.

We are ready to speak about the future. We are wondering what yours will become.
Will you be happy now? You will set your own quotas and the brilliant surveillance equipment that the home secretary is so fond of will surely help at the last hurdle. If any of us should still make it as close as the French side of the channel. And you know we will. We still believe in you. For a while at least. Perhaps you will be surprised if you are not invited to countries anymore by needing a visa at some point. But it won’t keep you out, we know that. Why would it? You wanted your country back. You never said you didn’t want to go anywhere. That is different.

There are a few secrets we don’t speak much about. We too want our countries back. Real ones. We won’t bore you with all that just now. We have been taking up too much of your time already.
The future we said. What is there to come? We have told you about our hopes and dreams. Several times. Some of those dreams were tied up with us coming to you, trying at least. What are yours? Just in case the big one, sovereignty, ends up a bit similar to ours. With the fishes.

Let us know. You know where to find us.

We are not going anywhere.

Olumide Popoola

London-based Olumide Popoola is a Nigerian-German writer. Her publications include essays, poetry, the novella this is not about sadness , the play Also by Mail, and the short story collection breach, which she co-authored with Annie Holmes, as well as recordings in collaboration with musicians. Her critically acclaimed novel When We Speak of Nothing was published by Cassava Republic Press in 2017.