Refugee Week Book Blog: The Gurugu Pledge by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel (trans. Jethro Soutar)

Today’s adult title on my Refugee Week Book Blog is The Gurugu Pledge by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, translated from Spanish by Jethro Soutar (And Other Stories).

To give some background to the novel, it is worth mentioning that Spain has two enclaves in Northern Africa: Melilla and Ceuta. As Spanish territories and therefore European territories, they act as a glimmer of hope to refugees desperate to make it to Europe. Climbing the fence to Europe is perhaps less perilous than the alternative boat journeys to the mainland but it is still fraught with danger. Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel is a writer from Equatorial Guinea who now lives in exile in Spain.

This novel joins a group of Africans living on the side of Mount Gurugu in Morocco, not far from the border with Melilla. For the most part, the migrants are left to their own devices as long as they stay up on the mountain, but they are rejected by the local population and treated brutally by the Moroccan police should they stray into the local towns looking for food or medical aid. On the mountain there is precious little to eat and inhabitants are lucky to get a blanket to sleep under in their caves at night

The first part of the book focuses on storytelling, the Africans sharing their stories among each other, telling the reasons for leaving their homelands. Interspersed with these stories, we are also given an idea of what life is like on the mountain. Playing football offers some relief from the daily battles against hunger and idleness: they are not allowed to work, they have nowhere else to go and so football keeps their bodies and minds engaged. They organise a tournament, but on the day of the tournament, an occurrence take place which means the tournament does not go ahead.

We are told the story of Shania. The group she is travelling with reaches a checkpoint run by “bandits dressed in official uniforms but accountable to nobody”. Spotting a woman amongst the group, the supervisor becomes “exercised and upset”. He takes Shania and shuts her in a room. Shania’s husband is at a loss as to what to do and so another man in the group comes forward and negotiates with the supervisor. Shania is released and the group leaves the checkpoint, Shania with tears flooding down her face, a disgusting smell emanating from her body. In her fear, she has soiled herself. She removes her underwear and leaves them at the side of the path. The young man who has negotiated her release promises to buy her a new pair of knickers, but “the promise became a threat”. And so in order to pay her debt, Shania is regularly called upon at night by different men sent to her by the man who “saved” her. While Shania has been saved from one awful fate, she is now living a nightmare.

Due these repeated visits, Shania and another woman are now in need of desperate medical attention. As they cannot walk, the women are carried to look for help, but rather than receive the assistance they desperately require, they are beaten by the police and left for dead. Shania miscarries in a “dry riverbed at the bottom of Mount Gurugu”. Two men escape before the beating and return to camp to tell the story and the following morning Shania and those with her hear “war cries coming from further up the mountain.” What happens next is the migrants response.

Ávila Laurel packs in so many different themes in this relatively slender book. For a look at some of these other themes, please read this fantastic review by Kapka Kasabova on the Guardian website. As Kasabova states, this is “a stark reminder that what is dystopia to some is everyday reality to others”. Two topics that really stood out for me are the abuse and suffering of women and Ávila Laurel’s discussions on the aspirations of black children.

On children he says: “You can’t expect a child, no matter how humble, to say when I grow up I want to be an agency cleaner at Charles de Gaulle airport. Or when I grow up I want to be a fake-handbag salesman, never mind a razor-wire acrobat or a shipwreck rescuee.” We need role models in society of all colours to inspire and encourage all children to achieve their full potential.

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