The Ancient Greek geographers described the islands west of the Straits of Gibraltar as the “Islands of the Fortunate” (" μακάρων νῆσοι “). They were referring to the Azores, Canary Islands, Cape Verde Islands, Madeira Islands, and the Savage Islands.
Well, after many visits to the Canary Islands which began in 1979 and which increased in frequency over the years, I became one of “the Fortunate” – and started living here in Tenerife, which is the largest island in the Canaries.
Four or five years ago, there was a wave of illegal immigration by the Less Fortunate from West Africa into the Canaries. They arrived in open boats, known as "Cayucos", which looked like large canoes, and which were typically powered by a couple of 40HP outboard motors, carrying up to 150 people at a time. They came from countries like Morocco, and from countries even further away like Senegal and the Gambia in the south. There were smaller open boats too, the "Pateras", which could carry up to 30 people.
I saw many of these fragile craft arriving, usually being towed into harbour by a Guardia Civil patrol boat after having been intercepted on the high seas. The condition of the would-be immigrants was, more often than not, utterly lamentable. Some had spent two weeks at sea, and were suffering from exposure and dehydration. Many had died en route.
Then they stopped coming. The Spanish government, helped by the European Union, stepped up its maritime patrols and negotiated deals with West African governments to prevent the would-be immigrants from leaving the continent.
Life here in Tenerife returned to normal - until one day two weeks ago. That’s when I took an early morning walk, far along the sea shore, beyond the man-made tourist beaches.
I’d left my car at the end of a dirt track, and started my walk by clambering over the breakwater that separates the last beach from the big Atlantic Rollers that attract so many surfers here. I’d been along this stretch – the rough surfer stretch - before, but this time I wanted to reach the headland point, and see what was on the other side.
It was slow going, picking my way step by step along the narrowing seafront, with the towering cliff on my left, and the sea swelling closer and closer on my right. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t particularly dangerous, just slow and careful steps. You wouldn’t want to slip on wet volcanic rocks and fall and possibly cut yourself.
As I said, it was slow and careful going. But I got to the headland point and worked my way around into a small cove. And the first thing I saw was a Patera, on its side, its bow smashed and wedged up on rocks that would have been below the water line at high tide. Apart from a couple of jerry cans, the Patera was empty.
Then I saw them, two forlorn figures, sitting on a patch of sand at the far side of the cove. I yelled and waved to attract their attention as I made my way over to them, but they just sat there, side by side, eyes downcast, staring at the ground before them. As I drew closer, I could see they were two young girls, without a single possession between them, lost in a world of their own.
I pulled out my mobile phone, but decided against calling for help. Instead I used it to take a photo of the scene, whilst deciding - for the first time in my life, to take pity and do the right thing on my own. I took them back, to my place, where I’ve been caring for them ever since.
I’ve included the photo in the space below.
2 years ago