Risking Death to Recover Life

Review by David Haines
July 1, 2015

Darkness before Daybreak: African Migrants Living on the Margins in Southern Italy Today

by Hans Lucht
Published 2012

University of California Press

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Europe today is convulsed with the problems of migration, both cross-national migration within the European Union and migration from outside the EU. The scale of the influxes is often dramatic, as with the Poles whose numbers have upended migration policy in England or the Latin Americans and Africans who have remade Spain as an immigrant country. Italy is an especially crucial link in this new European immigration, as people from Africa move north across the Mediterranean into southern Italy, then into northern Italy, and often on to northern Europe. Their passage is not an easy one. It is no accident that the new Pope’s first visit outside Rome was to Lampedusa, an Italian island farther south than Malta, and the crucial access point for migrant arrivals from Africa. There Francis spoke with immediacy of those “dying at sea, in boats which were vehicles of hope and became vehicles of death,” victims of the sea but also of the “globalization of indifference” that leaves migrants to suffer and often die (Papal homily of 8 July, 2013).

Hans Lucht introduces us to the experience of a particular set of these African migrants who have made it as far as Naples, an intermediary point between the arrival zones to the south and the better destinies offered in Rome, Tuscany, Turin, and Milan to the north. He shows us many of the same patterns of temporary, uncertain labor that are familiar from studies of undocumented migration in other parts of the world, of people caught in the crosshairs of the “double nature of globalization” that creates “both connectedness and disconnectedness at the same time” (19). His discussion of the mostly male laborers he knows best is often harrowing, and even more harrowing are the stories of the young female prostitutes who occasionally drift into the periphery of his discussion, shadowy figures living in the open at the side of the road to Rome, with little more than a fire and a mattress. Here is hard and dangerous work for the undocumented at the fringes of an economy that is itself substantially “undocumented.” Estimates of the proportion of the overall Italian economy that is off the books are very high (Lucht provides the figure of 28 percent). This is labor at risk: “They want to use us up,” remarks one informant (106); another wonders, after an emergency visit to the hospital, if his employer actually poisoned him to avoid paying wages.

This discussion of labor at the margins is itself a major contribution, given the need to develop a broader global understanding of migration, and one that can account for the migration tumult in the Africa-Europe corridor. But Lucht also expands his discussion of the travails of labor to a broader appreciation of the skills and abilities of these migrants. His core informants are former fishermen and he is intent on showing the full range of their work: how effective they had to be in reading the complex signs of the seas, in assessing the will and resources of their crew, and in making timely decisions in the face of shifting, unpredictable, and dangerous air and ocean currents. Indeed, it was for that expertise that many of these migrants were chosen by smugglers in North Africa to captain the ships that sailed across the Mediterranean. Here then is work that is of the hands, of the mind, of the character, and of the spirit. Here also are skills that may well project forward into future stages of the migrants’ journeys.

The book also benefits from the way Lucht turns the tables on time by first discussing the current lives of the migrants in Naples, then backtracking to their journeys by land across North Africa and by sea across the Mediterranean, concluding with the Ghanaian village from which they set out. Lucht knows that village well, having done fieldwork there in the past and returning now to discuss the hazards, losses, and occasional successes of out migration. One result is that he and, through him, his informants have a chance to reconsider whether the present is sensible in terms of the past and also whether the past is sensible in terms of the present. Risk, for example, appears in a different light as informants explain that there was a risk of “death” in staying because life at home had no future. “Better than to rot away in the village in Ghana,” notes one. That risk had to be weighed against the risk of physical death that often occurs in migration. The decision is not simply about what might be done now in a hypothetical risk-calculation decision, but whether the correct decision was made in the past even if it led to physical death.

The book also benefits from the way Lucht turns the tables on time by first discussing the current lives of the migrants in Naples, then backtracking to their journeys by land across North Africa and by sea across the Mediterranean, concluding with the Ghanaian village from which they set out. Lucht knows that village well, having done fieldwork there in the past and returning now to discuss the hazards, losses, and occasional successes of out migration. One result is that he and, through him, his informants have a chance to reconsider whether the present is sensible in terms of the past and also whether the past is sensible in terms of the present. Risk, for example, appears in a different light as informants explain that there was a risk of “death” in staying because life at home had no future. “Better than to rot away in the village in Ghana,” notes one. That risk had to be weighed against the risk of physical death that often occurs in migration. The decision is not simply about what might be done now in a hypothetical risk-calculation decision, but whether the correct decision was made in the past even if it led to physical death.

Lucht thus moves the discussion beyond the predictabilities of undocumented labor migration into a broader consideration of the human condition. Mobility, he suggests, is a mechanism to realign people with an environment that is sensible to them and that responds to them in a logical way. His key notion is existential reciprocity. The migrants may seek practical outcomes, but they also are seeking an existence in an environment that interacts with them; migration permits “regaining a sense of direction and recovering one’s life from a discouraging future” (96). That search for a meaningful future exists at the practical level (a better job, for example) but also at a broader spiritual level. As Lucht notes, the practical and spiritual passages interact in complex ways. For example, the migrants often interpret the danger and darkness in their lives as the basis for an accumulation of hope, that the greater the suffering, the greater the chance they will ultimately be blessed.

The book is not without difficulties. The theoretical sections are frequent and often rather long. They may require warnings to students if the book is used in undergraduate classes (as I have done). For example, an incidental reference by one of the informants to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac leads to an eight-page discussion of the morality and theology of that sacrifice, from Kierkegaard to Derrida to Mauss. But even on this point, it is hard to fault Lucht for taking the religious sentiments of these migrants so seriously on affective, cognitive, moral, and theological grounds. Granting them the right and authority to participate in biblical exegesis seems a rather fitting anthropological courtesy.

Darkness before Daybreak should indeed be required reading for those interested in the intersection of labor and migration. Lucht’s work provides a useful topical extension of the literature on labor and migration to crucial settings along the path from Africa to Europe, offers a framework for an integrated understanding of the practical and spiritual meanings of work and migration, and links the past and future in intriguing ways (both theoretically and methodologically). Above all, he provides a most useful reminder of how migration for work is a journey with roots that run deep in the human heart and spirit, and forward – through hope – into the future.

© American Anthropological Association
Originally published in Anthropology of Work Review 35(1): 47-48.