Meet Mary & Dauda

L-R: Dauda and Mary on Lampedusa island after their rescue on the Mediterranean Sea. Lampedusa, Italy. April 2017. ©Pamela Kerpius

L-R: Dauda and Mary on Lampedusa island after their rescue on the Mediterranean Sea. Lampedusa, Italy. April 2017. ©Pamela Kerpius


Meet Mary and Dauda.

19 and 20 years old, respectively, and from Freetown, Sierra Leone.

To reach Lampedusa they crossed six countries: Sierra Leone, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the most dangerous of all, Libya.

Their journey took 5 months. 

“We never think we are coming here,” Mary said about Europe and Italy. Their plan was only to leave Sierra Leone where they were being persecuted among family members for religious differences: Mary is Christian and Dauda is Muslim.

They’ve described Sierra Leone as a “traditional society” where, as a married couple, they were not tolerated for their diversity, leading them to leave, initially, to neighboring Guinea for work and safety. 

They remained in Guinea for one month. There were things about life there that made the move easy. Dauda, for example, speaks fluent French, so could communicate with people. 

Mary does not speak French, however, and so stood out as a foreigner, making she and Dauda the target of robbers. They were forced to leave since they were under constant threat from thieves.

They arrived in Mali and stayed two weeks, sleeping on the streets, where they say they were not safe, for similar reasons as in Guinea. Mali is also a French speaking country, as are the next two countries along their path, Burkina Faso and Niger, so at each stop it was easy to spot the couple as foreign, and thus, targets for thieves and traffickers.

If you go in Libya and find a job
you have money. So I tell my wife,
‘Let’s go to Libya.’

They passed through Burkina Faso by bus, then arrived in Nigerien capital Niamey where they expected to work. 

“They are making roads,” Dauda said. Seeing the infrastructure he thought this was a place where he could earn money on its construction. But as he observed it more closely, he noticed a steady stream of people traveling across it.

“Where are these people going?” he wanted to know, and indeed he got his answer.

“Libya. They are going to Libya,” he said. The rumors resounded. “There are jobs there,” he was told, “If you go in Libya and find a job you have money. So I tell my wife, ‘Let’s go to Libya.’”

The couple assumed there was little value staying in Niger for work that could be done at a higher rate in the country next door. Just a few days more on the road and they would have their chance to finally earn and settle peacefully. 

And so the next step in their journey that would soon become luckless and gruesome beyond either of their abilities to anticipate began.

Mary and Dauda passed through Agadez, Niger, then crossed the Sahara desert in a car with five people, themselves and three other young men; their trip took two weeks. 

The car suffered mechanical problems and they were forced to cross the remainder of the distance on foot. At various points they were chased by armed robbers. There was minimal food and water. They heard gunshots and would scatter, hide in the bushes. One young girl they met was shot and died. They had no sense of how many other trucks or cars would pass by on a regular basis, because any noise would send them hiding. 

I asked for characteristics of the desert; I asked to know what they saw across the landscape, and Mary told me immediately, “Dead bodies.” I asked what they did when they were thirsty and had no water. “You just pray for God, for God to forgive you,” and sometimes they were given water from passing trucks.

They arrived in Bani Waled, Libya and were put in prison where they were held, brutally, for two months. They were given salty tap water to drink, a minimal amount, barely enough to survive. They could not wash, there’s “no shower!” Dauda burst out, “You don’t have water to drink, there’s no water to shower.” They received a single plate of spaghetti once daily, pushed to them, they said, “like dogs.” He was flogged every day for money. They were both asked to call home to have money transfers arranged, but neither of them had anyone to call.

One day, a lucky opening occurred at the prison compound, a door or something like it was left ajar. They ran, among a group of others, escaping. Some of the others were not as lucky, and by their count at least six people where shot and killed before them. 

They say we are slaves
because we are black.

They moved onward to Tripoli in hopes of beginning work at last. They were kidnapped by an Arab man and taken as slaves on his land. They moved animal manure with their bare hands on his farm, receiving no pay, and only food.

“They say we are slaves because we are black,” Dauda told me. 

The man who took Mary and Dauda as his slaves would hold his nose when he came near them, waving at the stink he imagined they had on their skin for its color. Neither of them can remember the exact time they spend as slaves, because daily life on that farm was so difficult and dehumanizing they lost track.

Another Arab man finally took mercy on them. He helped them escape and allowed them to stay in his protection. Their “owner” found them the next day though. That man would come to the house three times a day, everyday trying to lure them back. But Mary told him “No, we are freed.”

Dealing with the man was wearying and worrisome, so instead of any attempt to find real work in Tripoli, the man who rescued them rushed them directly to the coastal camp of Sabratha for escape on the sea. 

They swam out to meet the palapa in broad daylight. Mary and Dauda crossed the Mediterranean Sea in a rubber dinghy with 145 people on board, including three other women, one of them pregnant, and two babies. Dauda saw sharks circling the boat. Water began leaking into the boat and they did not think they would survive.

“Everyone is panicking––“

“Even me,” Mary interrupted. 

They were out at sea for two full days with no food or water, taking seawater to drink, before they were rescued by a Portuguese ship, then transferred to the Guardia Costiera. They arrived in Lampedusa on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017.

Dauda’s favorite football club is Manchester United, and Mary is a big fan of Nigerian cinema. The thing they miss most to eat right now is an old favorite they would enjoy back home in Sierra Leone, potato leaf sauce.

Mary and Dauda are amazing human beings.

Mary in Lampedusa, Italy. April 2017. © Pamela Kerpius

Mary in Lampedusa, Italy. April 2017. © Pamela Kerpius

Dauda in Lampedusa, Italy. April 2017. © Pamela Kerpius

Dauda in Lampedusa, Italy. April 2017. © Pamela Kerpius