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How vocabulary reveals the tough reality of sub-Saharan migrants in the city of Kenitra, Morocco

Soumia Bouhdoud Pic 1S.jpg

Picture by the author.

This article was first published in French. You can read the original here.

Morocco is a migratory crossroads and a host country for irregular sub-Saharan migrants from West Africa who seek to settle temporarily in the Kingdom while waiting to continue their journey into Europe. Their vocabulary reveals their hope to continue the migratory adventure. Upon arrival in Morocco, they face vulnerable and precarious living conditions, expressed in their language, which vividly unveils the reality of their daily life in Kenitra – a city overcrowded with clandestine migrants.


Indeed, for many sub-Saharan migrants fleeing their countries for various reasons (wars, political conflicts, unemployment, misery, climate change...), Europe comes across as a heavenly destination. The migrants embark on perilous journeys through the world’s most dangerous routes (facing the threats of the desert, human trafficking, drug trafficking, terrorism...) in order to reach Morocco, a destination of choice given its proximity to Europe. They are often young, working-age people, sometimes accompanied by their children. 


Thirsty not only because of a lack of water, but also due to dire living conditions, migration candidates are filled from the very onset of their adventure with a strong ambition, which awakens their optimism and erases the mental limits of each person, with the aim of reaching the Eldorado. Throughout the process, ‘Boza’ – a word of Malian origin which translates as ‘victory’ – accompanies them: ‘I take on the roads to find my boza in mbeng’. ‘Mbeng’ is Europe. Similarly, the verb ‘frapper’ – literally ‘to hit’ or ‘to strike’ in French – shows how perilous their adventure is: ‘I will hit the Ceuta border’ means ‘I will attempt to cross the border of Ceuta’. 


Irregular migrants of various nationalities from West African countries accumulate assiduously and settle long-term on Moroccan soil, unable to reach Europe because of restrictive policies. Mbeng then seems both near and far at once. During that stage, boza is drawn in virtual cartographies, through social networks, in order to facilitate encounters and trips across the Kingdom. ‘Bozer’ – or ‘to win’ – either by sea, which requires crossing the Atlantic to the Canary Islands in the south, or the Mediterranean Sea to Spain in the north, or by land, which requires crossing the fences around Ceuta or Melilla.


Tormented by the multiple routes to Mbeng, but also by the hermetic closure of Europe's borders, this critical phase does not discourage sub-Saharan migrants who take it upon themselves to reorganise and adapt to a new, temporarily sedentary but vulnerable life, while waiting for the right opportunity to achieve their goal. They find shelter in ‘guettos’. In this context, ghettos mean a refuge, a house for more than twenty people on the outskirts of large cities, or ‘bunkers’, constructions made of plastic, sheets, rope and poles, near European borders. According to them, bunkers bring them strength, but also security, warmth, and equality.


When it appears that their stay on Moroccan territory will inevitably become permanent, a large proportion of migrants abandon these collective shelters and head for the capital, Rabat. There they obtain the status of asylum seekers from UNHCR, and are thus able to recover all their human and social rights (to health, to children's education, to training, to work, etc.) from the government, as well as access humanitarian aid from NGOs and charities. However, it should be noted that these charitable organisations do not have the capacity to meet the needs of such a massive migratory flow, which is constantly growing due to social networks that facilitate communication between aspiring migrants.

This is how a large number of migrants settled in Kenitra, a city close to the capital, because, according to them, life is cheaper and the local population is more generous. They live in collective housing that accommodates ‘brothers’ of several nationalities in the most vulnerable areas of the city, who split the rent and other bills. This makes it clear that brotherhood is a symbol of solidarity and cooperation that brings them together throughout their migratory journey.

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Picture by the author.

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Soumia Bouhdoud

My name is Soumia Bouhdoud and I am a doctoral student in sociology at the Mohammed Ben Abdellah University in Fez, Morocco, where I work on international migration. My thesis is entitled ‘Sub-Saharan migration on Moroccan territory – between international relations and reality’. I also have a master's degree in the sociology of local development. I am active in community work. I love travelling, reading, exhibitions... Do not hesitate to contact me at


With no legal status, no work, and no fixed home, this disorderly situation has taught them to reorganise and adapt. Namely, a small proportion of migrants make ends meet thanks to personal projects, such as selling on the street, without social security coverage. As for the others, who are more destitute, they make do with begging. ‘Faire la salam’ is used to describe asking for charity at traffic lights, in the main avenues, at markets... by calling women ‘mama’ and men ‘baba’. These words from the Moroccan dialect mean ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ and are signs of respect that affect the people who sometimes behave generously towards them.


Another practice by these migrants is the ‘chetaba’. This word, which is part of the Moroccan dialect, means ‘the broom’, a symbolic gesture to earn their bread by sweeping the working-class areas of the city. Also, ‘nadafa’, an Arabic word meaning ‘cleanliness’, is used by irregular migrants as an offer to local inhabitants to throw their household waste into the dustbins they are looking after. They go around the streets shouting ‘nadafa! nadafa!’. Thereby, local inhabitants no longer need to go far from their homes to perform this task. They then give them a few pennies in return.


Although Morocco has become a pole of attraction for ever-arriving irregular sub-Saharan migrants, the Kingdom does not ensure the overall integration of all of them. In order to get out of their deplorable situation, migrants are reorganising and integrating into Moroccan society, developing new begging practices to survive day after day. With their love of boza, the majority of these asylum seekers have no intention of regularising their refugee status in Morocco as they hope to continue their journey to Europe.

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