In 1978, 14-year-old Joanny Zongo left his family home in Burkina Faso and travelled to neighbouring Ivory Coast. It is a journey made by thousands of young Burkinabe men who see the trip as a rite of passage into adulthood.

Most expect to stay for a few years only before returning home. But Joanny stopped sending letters home after a couple of years and never came back. Eighteen years after he left, a cousin returning from Ivory Coast told the family that Joanny had died years before.

In 2011, Joanny's brother Michel, who was four years old when his brother left home and is now a filmmaker, decides to make the same migrant journey, to try to meet people who knew his brother and to discover what really happened.


By Michel Zongo  

Joanny, my older brother and the eldest child in the family, left our home one morning sometime between 1977 and 1978. Eighteen years went by before we heard any news about him. The migration rule was "leave and return" - and for 18 years the question in our minds was "Why has Joanny not returned?"

It was only when a cousin returning from Ivory Coast himself came to speak to us that we learnt some news. The cousin, Augustin, told us that Joanny had died. But we did not know how or where, so it was difficult for us to believe that he was really dead.

To try to understand what drove my brother to leave home at the age of 14, I decided to travel from our home in Koudougou, Burkina Faso, to Ivory Coast, and to film what I found.

I wanted to get into his mind, find out what really motivated him, how he lived and why he died.

In this documentary, I make the same journey as Joanny; I travel the same bus routes to the same region of Ivory Coast and then along the same roads as he did over 30 years ago. I was looking for traces, any traces of my brother and where he had lived and worked.

I meet and talk to many people along the way - migrants setting off from Burkina Faso, still full of hope, in search of happiness and fortune without knowing what will happen to them on the other side of the border or when they will be able to return. Men who have been settled in Ivory Coast for years, sometimes decades, whose dreams of returning home with a fortune have eroded in the face of the reality of migrant life.

For the first time in my life I witness the sheer hard, physical labour of the cocoa and coffee plantations where many find work, and I begin to understand the sacrifices they make in order to pursue their dreams. And I ask myself how many other concerned families are waiting for the return of a loved one? How many other families are living in hope, refusing to believe that a family member has disappeared?

Eventually, with the help of my cousin and concerned strangers, I manage to track down and meet the family with whom Joanny lived and worked. For the first time in my life I meet people who can say "I knew Joanny" when he was older and who could tell me what he was like: a good-looking, well-dressed man who worked hard and enjoyed life. Through them and their memories of Joanny I get to know my brother better, and I know I will be able to return home and talk of him with pride to the rest of the family.

I cannot see Joanny in Ivory Coast, but I sense that he is there and at the end of my journey I am finally able to say to him, "brother, rest in peace".

Source: Al Jazeera