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Orality versus Writing: A (Hi)Story of inequality in migrant storytelling

By Irene Praga Guerro | Issue 23


Ibrahima Balde and Amets Arzallus, authors of Little Brother. Image courtesy of Blakie Books.

In his fascinating and timely book, Nomads. The Wanderers Who Shaped Our World (Norton, 2022), Anthony Sattin takes a broad view on the (hi)story of nomadic communities from pre-historic times to the present, shedding light on important issues of freedom of movement, mobility and knowledge transfer. Challenging dominant narratives of global history, Sattin asserts that much of our understanding of the past – particularly the events, chronology and communities' identity – has been constructed through the analysis of objects and written records – material traces provide evidence of existence. But what happens with those stories that only the ear captures, passed down from one generation to the next, and only fade away when an individual can no longer remember them or can no longer ensure the continuation of that memory?


As Sattin demonstrates in his book, we do not need to travel thousands of years back in time to grasp the profound inequality between those who write and who shape material traces versus those who rely on orality – although that journey back in time helps us picture the origins of this inequality. Contemporary forced migrants, particularly those from oral communities, are at serious risk of being relegated to a forgotten chapter in the writing of (hi)story. Inevitably, the reconsideration of forgotten and undervalued traces, such as migrants' journeys, will imply a revaluation of how human history has been broadly understood and conceived – a perspective provocatively advocated by David Graeber and David Wengrow in The Dawn of Everything (Penguin, 2021).


Ibrahima Balde and Amets Arzallus's Little Brother (Scribe, 2021) is an example of activist writing that seeks to restore the forgotten place of oral tradition in contemporary journalism – although, paradoxically, this implies capturing orality itself. Little Brother reconstructs the life story of Ibrahim Balde, a mechanic apprentice from Thiankoi, Guinea-Conakry, who left his home upon learning that his little brother Alhassane had set off for 'Europe'. Balde then travelled across the Saharan desert, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and the Mediterranean before being rescued in extremis and transferred to the Spanish peninsula. There, he continued the journey until he was stopped by French officers at Bidasoa River – a new “death trap” for migrants – and was sent back to Spain in late 2018. In Irún, a small town in the Spanish Basque Country, Balde crossed paths with poet and activist Amets Arzallus Antia for the first time, with whom he would co-author his first book.


The writing of Little Brother was a linguistic odyssey, imbued by a sense of place marked by oral tradition and freedom of movement. It is also a story of international solidarity and political commitment. At the time of drafting the book, Balde could not read or write in any language. Arzallus transcribed and edited the story of Balde's journey as chronicled by Balde in a series of “interviews” in French that reflected, in Arzallus's terms, ‘the movement between us’. This movement transcended the dialogue between two voices, two memories and two authors; it embodied a collaboration between orality and literacy as well as listening and writing. As Arzallus has observed, finding a balance between writing and re-writing while preserving Balde's literal sense of language did not come easily: ‘I did not want to be in between, casting a shadow. I did not want a hand directing him, although one hand is bound to appear; I did not want to be some sort of master between his way of telling and my writing’.


Orality in Little Brother can be read as an attempt to remind the reader of the problematics and politics of representation not only of the events and the story itself but also of the language. Arzallus wrote his/their story in Basque, a marginal and minority language within Spain. Miñan, the book's original Basque title, was written in ‘a type of Basque that fits [Balde's] orality’, which is a mix of French, Pulaar, Malinke and Susu. Balde's migration story then travelled from French into Basque through Arzallus' writing.


The number of words from Guinean native languages and French artfully preserved in Little Brother reveals an untranslatable orality, which Arzallus carefully crafted and was then strictly respected by translators into English, Spanish, German, French and Italian. Among many others, tami, the word for bread in Susu, jam tun, fine in Pulaar, dakor, a phonetic transcription of the French “d'accord” (meaning “agreed”). Some words carry connotations too profound to be transposed into a foreign language: miñan, little brother in Pulaar; naufrage, shipwreck in French – an unfamiliar term to the author-narrator before being informed of the deadly fate of Alhassane, his little brother. Other terms, such as kilo, convey a world-vision rooted in “Africa” that subverts the colonial dimension of the dominant language, in this case, French. This is explained by Balde on many occasions in the book as when he points out: ‘[w]hen I say 'kilo,' people here correct me and say kilometre. That is how it happens here, but in Africa, it is not like that; we prefer to shorten words. If you call it a kilometre, it makes the journey longer.’ The narrative unfolds within the framework of the poetics and politics of kilo, signifying the aesthetic and political choice of presenting the story in Balde's terms and, more importantly, Balde's orality, and not those of the "here" from where the book was penned – not only the Basque Country but more generally Europe and the Global North.


During a recent seminar at CIDOB Barcelona, author and dancer Ibrahim Bah, who, like Ibrahima Balde, was compelled to leave Guinea-Conakry and make a clandestine journey to Spain, albeit for different reasons, pointed out that in Africa, there is a saying that ‘when someone passes away, a library dies’. Since 2014, 28,133 “libraries”, alongside their stories, have tragically lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean, leaving no trace in any official document. The pressing question we must now confront is how can history pay tribute to these lives and stories? How can we prevent their memory from fading into oblivion? The answer, dear reader, most likely resides within books like Balde and Arzallus's Little Brother.



Irene Praga Guerro was born and raised in Valladolid, Spain. While completing her BA in Modern Languages, she moved to Canterbury, UK, and stepped out of her comfort zone - she would never return. Since then, she's been trying to learn new languages and ways of thinking, while deepening her commitment to fostering freedom of movement and freedom of speech. She is now pursuing an MPhil/PhD in English and Humanities at Birkbeck College, and lives, works and cooks in London. She is afraid of word counts and blank pages.


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