Photographer Seif Kousmate has travelled from Mount Gourougou to the desert of Mauritania with his camera to capture and address injustice.
Rabat – After working for several years in Paris as a project manager in civil engineering, Kousmate switched gears by dedicating himself to the hand-to-mouth existence of freelance photography. With a one-way ticket to Thailand, a backpack, and the urge for self-discovery, Kousmate spent two years of his life traveling the world before returning to Morocco to dedicate his life to what matters most to him: addressing injustice, one photo at a time.
Originally from Essaouria, Kousmate witnessed how migrants from sub-Saharan Africa flocked to the major Moroccan cities from 2010 and onwards. “I found myself asking: Why do people go through all the trouble of traveling so many miles to cross the Sahara and end up here in Morocco?”
Prevailing media coverage revolving around the lives of sub-Saharan migrants fueled Kousmate’s desire to delve into this topic. “The reports we get to read are always the same: NGO’s are collecting clothes and migrants are dying because of the cold. And more importantly, we almost never get to hear their personal stories. Instead, we get to hear of ‘groups of people who are moving from A to B’”.
“The angle of shared humanity is completely missing. We are talking about people who are leaving everything they know and care for, and are ready to die en route to their destination. Ask yourself the question, why would they do so? And Would you truly not do the same thing if you were to be standing in their shoes?”
The humanitarian photographer emphasized that trust is key to his work; “So, in 2016 I decided to tackle this topic. It wasn’t easy! It took me several months before they trusted me. Many of them come from Mali, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Senegal, in general countries in West-Africa.”
“After having spent some time at a migrant camp located around Fez, I was told to go to Mount Gourougou in the north, to get a proper taste of their lives.”
Kousmate explained that “Initially, you get to hear a lot of inconsistencies and soft-spoken lies because they do not trust you outright, you have to earn their trust. I did not take any pictures in the beginning in order to do so.”
“I have traveled a lot of back and forth to Mount Gourougou in the last three years and have spent some time living among the migrants as well. It varies how many people live there, it ranges between 400 up to 1000 people.” Painting a picture of the precarious situation in the camps, Kousmate reiterated the plight of the migrants.
“Bear in mind, it’s a hostile environment. Every year the military comes to destroy the camps. I actually came very shortly after the yearly raid and the migrants wanted me to capture the situation with my camera. That’s how I got in.”
For the Moroccan population, in general, there is not a feeling of sympathy with the migrants. “It is not just the average Moroccan that I feel the need, not so much to convince, but to point to the actual living conditions of these people. I really want to open up the debate and talk much more about this, since many people are simply not aware of the conditions to begin with.”
“Do I think it is justified of Moroccans to be angry with the migrants who come here? Of course not! We have Moroccans who are trying to get into Europe on a daily basis. How much different is that?” However, the photographer remarked, there is some variation in the attitudes towards migrants amongst the Moroccan population.
“Then again, I have noticed two distinctive sentiments in Moroccan society. On the one hand, there is ingrained racism aimed towards migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. It is not uncommon for Moroccans to say ‘even Moroccans cannot find a job, why then should we bother trying to find one for them?’. On the other hand, I see a lot of support being expressed by Moroccans, by giving them clothes, food and find a place for them to stay.”
The paradise is at the feet of the masters
Having learned a great deal about life as a freelance photographer, Kousmate was ready to tackle a new topic in 2018. Sharing a border with Morocco, he was astonished upon learning that Mauritania as a neighboring country to Morocco is one of the highest countries on the global index of slavery. Even though slavery was officially abolished in 1981, daily life in Mauritania proves the practice is still prevalent.
“Around 7% of the four million people who live in Mauritania, still live in slavery.” The shocking statistics were just the tip of the iceberg for Kousmate.
“It is a vast country that is poorly connected, so it is hard to tell how many people are exactly still living in slavery. Not unlike the topic of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, I felt the strong moral drive to delve into this topic. How on earth can slavery still be practiced?” the photographer asked himself.
Kousmate shared a glimpse of Mauritania’s rich history; “Throughout history, white Moorish inhabitants of Mauritania identified themselves as a distinctive, superior class of people. This group of people make up around 30% of the population and form the elite class who are till this day in power. As time progressed, various tribes settled into the country from Central -and West-Africa, which were classified as inferior and lived as slaves at the mercy and protection of their white, Moorish masters.”
“Paradise is under the feet of the masters’, it is a well-known saying in Mauritania that indicates how slavery is still regarded as a way of life. Today you will find how slaves are living a serf-like existence. From the outset, it doesn’t strike you as slavery. Two families living in two tents. But the main family lives in a bigger tent and is being ‘served’ by the family who has to make do with a smaller tent of often poorer quality.”
Back to Morocco
Delving into the simmering legacy of slavery in present-day Mauritania is a dangerous business. After having taken many photos and ready to go back to Morocco, Kousmate was stopped by security forces at the border between Senegal and Mauritania. “I went on a hunger strike for four days to secure my release. It was brutal.”
However, before Kousmate was arrested at the border, he anticipated trouble was in the air. “Before I was arrested, I managed to reach out to my agency in Paris who helped me via the French embassy based in Mauritania to secure my release. After four days they agreed to let me go and I finally could go back to Morocco.”
“At first I buried my experiences and denied all the stress I had to cope with. But by meditating daily, I slowly managed to process everything that had happened to me and get back in the field of journalism.”
Kousmate’s new project ‘One hundred and one destinies throughout the dreamland’, is funded by National Geographic and will be released soon.