Seven years ago, Alhassane Bangoura left behind everything he had ever known. Now, he’s on track to become champion of the world.
“I’m going to be the champion of the world. That’s all I’m thinking about right now.” Alhassane Bangoura explains in his living room, adorned with trophies and medals from all the marathons he has run, and photos of him crossing finish lines from Córdoba to Berlin. While he’s mastered the 42.2-kilometer distance, his longest journey, of over 4,000 kilometers, saw him fleeing his country, Guinea-Conakry, to arrive at the continent that many Africans dream of, the “paradise” of Europe. Using a route across the African continent which many take every year, and which many die trying to complete, he arrived at the northern coast of Morocco on June 6th, 2010, from which, with the help of the Spanish Civil Guard, he managed to enter Motril, a town on the Mediterranean coast of Granada.
Death was the reason Alhassane left Africa in the first place. On September 28th, 2009, tens of thousands of Guineans gathered at Conakry’s Stade du 28 Septembre, the multipurpose stadium of the capital. The stadium bears the date of Guinea’s independence from France in 1958. A pro-democracy crowd protested peacefully against the presidency of Moussa Dadis Camara, who had seized power in a military coup in December 2008. Guinean security forces descended on the stadium firing tear gas grenades and live rounds into the crowd. 157 people were killed, over 1,000 injured, and numerous women were raped. Mohamed Bangoura, Alhassane’s father, a member of the Guinean military, was not present. He had refused to participate in the murders. Later that night, members of the militia entered his home and killed him. “He was always telling me to join the military,” Alhassane recalls with an irregular cadence in his voice, possibly the influence of one of the seven languages he speaks.
Though he had not lived with his father since he was seven years old, when he was sent to study the Quran over 200 kilometers away in a city called Mamou, the murder impacted Alhassane all the same. His mother had died 12 years earlier, giving birth to his younger sister. So, he decided to begin his journey. He had saved up the money working at a restaurant selling kebabs and ice cream, and fixing cars. In 2010, when he was 18, he took a plane from Guinea to Casablanca, Morocco and then a bus to Nador, a city on the Meditarrean coast of Morocco, just south of the Spanish enclave of Melilla. Once in Nador, he got on a boat with 34 other Africans and made the two-day long pilgrimage to Spain.
For two days, he was wedged in the small fishing boat –which in the ports near the Strait of Gibraltar they call patera– with 34 other people, a supply of bread and water, and a couple changes of clothing. The night time was the most dangerous, he explains. The shallow boat was tossed about, with many of those onboard shivering and vomiting. “Many die that way. They’re scared and they’re vomiting until there’s nothing left in them.” Fortunately, no one on his patera died. About 15 of the 35, however, were sent to hospitals once they Civil Guard rescued them from the sea.
“I’m always going to remember that. If the police hadn’t come, we would’ve died there.” The guards climbed into their boat and gave them food and clothing before taking the rest of them to the Centro de Internamiento para Extranjeros in Madrid. He stumbles over the word “internamiento” before brushing it off as a nonessential detail.
“They’re jails.” His wife, Cristina, steps in. The couple met four years ago in a reggae club, a hotspot for the many African migrants looking for a touch of home. She comes back a couple more times throughout the interview to give her opinion as a Spaniard. “They put you in jails and then leave you out on the streets,” says Cristina.
“The treatment of immigrants is unjust. They’re too hard on you when it comes to test you for citizenship. They ask questions that Spanish citizens don’t even know.” So it goes.
Alhassane denies every interjection. “They’re not jails. You stay there for a month and they set you free. They give you food and clothing; they let you study and play football. The citizenship process is hard in every country.”
In 2012, he left soccer behind and began running because, as a clandestine migrant, he still did not have the papers that they would always ask of him. Thus, he embarked on a new journey filled with intense training and hard work. “¿Sabes?” It’s as much a filler, as a question. He pauses after every detail, making sure he’s well understood.
As a long-distance runner, Alhassane trains for two hours each morning and one more in the afternoon. However, he makes it clear that he enjoys running too. His best training, he says, was in the mountains of Morocco last year, where he stayed for 20 days, climbing and descending mountainous forest paths to build endurance. At mountainous altitudes, the body adjusts to the lack of oxygen by generating new red blood cells, which increases oxygen capacity.
On the evening of November 23rd, he attends this year’s award ceremony for the Circuito de Carreras Populares #Sevilla10. #Sevilla10 is a circuit of five races, from March to October, organized by the municipal sports commission in five different districts of the city. Alhassane has made second in the overall classification, out of more than 10,000 participants. He’s qualified second in three of the 10 kilometer races and fourth in the other two. His training companion Samuel Lay Rincón, who won three of the races, has taken first place.
Though he was frustrated the few minutes prior to arriving at the ceremony because he and Cristina had spent a while circling for a parking spot, the minute he steps in, he’s enchanted. He strikes a couple poses on the way to his seat, pointing at the golden ceiling ornaments of the old Cruzcampo brewery where the ceremony is taking place. The place is filled with runners and trainers. “Take pictures…” Alhassane urges excitedly before the program has even begun. He and
Cristina sit behind his trainer, Mauri Castillo, a Cuban athlete who moved to Spain in 2010 and now runs the self-titled Mauri Castillo School of Athletics.
As the program begins, a photo of Alhassane crossing the finish line flashes across the huge screen on the stage. He doesn’t even acknowledge it. “Second place,” the announcer lets out a slew of praise before he gets to the name, “Alhassane Bangoura!” In the seconds before his name is called, he waves off the praise, a gesture of humility, before going up to accept his trophy. Throughout the rest of the night, a procession of runners and friends pass by his seat to wish the man congratulations.
The same man, seven years prior, left his family and everything he knew behind. He walked alone through the streets of a new country that was nothing like he’d dreamt of. His people had always viewed Europe as a paradise with so much work and so much to gain. There was no work. There was no money.
Now, he walks the streets of Seville, on a path he’s created for himself. He has many aspirations, which include running in the coveted New York City marathon. Next year, he plans on returning to Guinea to visit his family, whom he has not seen since he left Guinea in 2010. When his career as a runner comes to a close, he hopes to become an athletic trainer.
He’s crossed many finish lines since he began his journey to Europe, but a bigger feat, his citizenship, lies ahead. Until then, he’s focused on one thing: becoming the champion of the world. •