Fishermen wait on boats at a fish market in M'bour, Senegal
Fishermen wait on boats at a fish market in M'bour, Senegal
Christophe Châtelot

THIAROYE — Sitting on the corner of his bed, behind the curtains drawn to hide the blazing sun, Saada Ndiaye is waiting for the moment to come. That moment is his would-be departure to Spain, via a clandestine and uncertain path from this small town in Senegal, and onward through Morocco.

Ndiaye, who introduces himself as a "32-year-old carpenter, tiler, soccer player and DJ," has only this journey in mind these days. He's been thinking it over for months, saving up the necessary 500 euros in secret, keeping his hairdresser wife, their twins and the rest of his family from knowing his intentions.

"Otherwise they'd try to talk me out of it," he says.

In the fishing village of Thiaroye, outside the capital Dakar, Ndiaye's dream is hardly original. "He who stays isn't man enough," they say in this neighborhood, nicknamed the "Barcelona airport" during the major migration waves of the 2000s, when pirogues, the typical fishing boats used here, swarmed onto the Spanish Canary Islands.

That was when Makha Diarra, a local fisherman, gave it a go. Like the others, Diarra — a giant with large, thick hands who struggles to feed his nine children — took to the sea in hopes of finally being able to provide.

"In 2005, there were new regulations for fishing nets, then more and more Spanish or Korean fishing boats came to clear the sea of all the fish. Not to mention the pollution," he recalls. "In short, there were fewer and fewer fish. We had to sail further away, bring back fewer and fewer fish in our nets. Today, it's even worse."

Dangerous crossings

The area's postcard-like landscape became a scene of despair. At Diarra's feet, a layer of trash covers the sand of what used to be Dakar's most beautiful beach. Collapsed walls are evidence of the ravages of the last large tide and the inexorable rising waters that are eating away the houses along the coast, asphyxiating the coconut trees.

Pirogues with sparkling colors are rotting away at the edge of the bay. Across the way fumes rise from a chemical factory that spews its toxic waters directly into the sea. Off the coast is Gorée Island and its House of Slaves from another era.

Leaning in the shadow of a wall on this rainy day, Diarra scans the rough sea that forces him to stay ashore and ponders his double failure, already a decade old. At that time, the night-time ballet of pirogues leaving Thiaroye and two other nearby fishing villages, was almost constant.

For 500,000 CFA Francs (the equivalent of 800 euros) paid to the pirogue captains — some have become millionaires — those who wanted to leave were queuing up. Some 90 passengers would be piled up in 15-square-meter boats driven by clapped out engines, equipped with just an inflatable vest as sole life insurance.

At first, it was Dakar natives, then people came from the entire country. Later they came from all over western Africa. Thousands of people took to the waves. Some succumbed to them.

"It got to the point that one day, we saw Spanish people come in the neighborhood to teach us how to use a GPS and limit the number of shipwrecks," recalls Pape Gueye, a former migrant with two wives and 12 children.

Diarra, for his part, never even reached the Canary Islands, the gateway to the European "El Dorado" at the time. Each time he set off blasts of wind and the raging sea defeated his initiatives. "We're fishermen, we know the sea, it was too risky. So we went back," he recalls.

Fishermen prepare to unload boats in M'bour, Senegal. Photo : Jim Wells/QMI Agency/ZUMA

Creating alternatives

The son of Yayi Bayam Diouf, founder of a local women's collective, wasn't so lucky. "It was in March 2007," she recalls, fighting back the tears. "The pirogue in which he traveled started taking on water due to heavy swells, somewhere between Mauritania and the Canary Islands."

"Not far away, there were lights," she says, continuing with the story. "A second pirogue headed towards the lights, thinking it was land, where it could drop the passengers off and return to get the others. But lights were really a boat. When the second pirogue eventually came back, there were only floating baggages and debris left, no survivors."

Bayam Diouf feels largely responsible for her son's fate. "The young people emigrate to help their mothers," she says while cutting up fish. "Working in Europe and sending money back. It's the children's role to take care of their elderly. I myself drew in my savings to pay for his departure. He died from it. Now other mothers are doing the same."

Bayam Diouf set up the collective later as a way to fight against illegal emigration. The group smokes and packages fish, which it then sells both locally and abroad — even to members of the Senegalese diaspora in Europe.

One of the goals is to help mothers who, like her, have lost their only son, a tragedy that is all the more devastating given the patriarchal structure of the Lebou people, Dakar's original community. "For the Lebou people, alliances are made through the marriage of the son, it's the guarantee of a social position," she says calmly. "Without a son, you're nothing, neither socially or economically."

The second goal of her collective is to help the youth in Thiaroye — a town that is eaten away by the economic stagnation of the country, one of the poorest in Africa — by enabling them to have access to professional training courses, and inform them on the reality of emigration.

"The European Union works with the Senegalese state to fight against illegal emigration," says Pape Geye. "But there are no national policies to support our youth and prevent them from leaving, even if the days when those who left had all the pretty girls and nice houses."

There and back

"Go elsewhere? That's smoke and mirrors," says Abdulaye Mar. This 50-year-old knows what he's talking about. For seven years, he worked as a tailor in Morocco. Then, on the insistent advice of his family, he left for Spain. "I was supposed to earn more," he says.

Mar swam from the Moroccan coast to Melilla, the Spanish enclave in Morocco — a five-hour marathon of a swim only to get picked up, in the end, by the Spanish border guards, who handed him over to their Moroccan counterparts. They, in turn, took him and many others by train and bus to the Algerian border.

"I stayed a few months in Maghnia (an Algerian town near the Moroccan border) to have the time to recuperate financially and find a new way to get to Spain," he says.

Once he finally made it there, Mar worked odd jobs. He became a seasonal fruit picker, lemons, oranges or mandarins in the region of Murcia — often underpaid, sometimes not at all — before working as a cleaner in the company where his brother, who arrived a few months earlier in Spain, was employed.

"I even ended up receiving a residence permit, but I missed my family, my seven children, my country," he says. "Despite the poverty, we're better off here, with our families. People need to know emigration can be a nightmare."

Yayi Bayam Diouf agrees. "The temporary work agreements in Spain, the Senegalese agricultural development programs, the young entrepreneurs support. None of that works," she says. "No matter how much we explain how dangerous it is, that the life of an emigrant isn't pretty, young people are still leaving. Girls, too. More and more."

The call from the sea

What have slowed, thanks to new detection equipment used by the various coast guard services, are the hazardous trips in pirogues. Senegalese migrants are instead making their way to Morocco by land.

The most audacious go up to Tambacounda, in eastern Senegal, an intersection of roads that lead to Mali or Mauritania. The Dakar branch of the International Organization for Migration calls it "a real meeting point for emigrants from Senegal and the whole region." From there, the Sahelian networks get organized: Mali, Niger, Libya or Algeria, then Morocco until the Mediterranean shores — the gamble of smuggling, the hellish desert for days, or even weeks, hunger, thirst, sometimes death.

Mata, a 35-year-old car mechanic, will make it simpler. "All my friends have left for Spain," he says. "Two of them drowned during the crossing. But the others made it. With what they earn, they built new floors on their houses here." Mata is preparing his departure towards Mauritania, then onto Morocco. Another option is to sneak up there directly, hidden in the back of a truck.

"The Mauritanian roads are becoming too well-known," he says. "Now, there are roadblocks. The solution is currently to get on a Moroccan truck delivering fruits or vegetables in Senegal before returning empty."

Once in Morocco, he would then need to reach the coast thanks to smugglers who provide an inflatable dinghy and life jackets to cross the 18-kilometer-long Strait of Gibraltar. "Several people need to row strongly for an hour and a half, I'm training for this," he explains, flexing his biceps.

How many Matas, Saadas and others does Senegal have? It's impossible to establish precise figures for these illegal movements. The Senegalese authorities estimate 3 to 4 million of their citizens live, legally or not, abroad (out of a total population of 14 million). And, according to the World Bank, the money sent back by Senegalese immigrants amounts to 10% of the annual GDP. A real windfall for this poor country that isn't likely to dry up soon. In Senegal, the call from the sea is very load still. And very clear.

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January 15-16

  • Kazakhstan’s vicious circle of strongmen
  • COVID school chaos around the world
  • The truth behind why we lie to ourselves
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. What extreme measure did the Canadian province of Quebec take to encourage people to get vaccinated?

2. What caused a massive power outage in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, leaving 700,000 in the dark for hours?

3. Norwegian soldiers were asked to return what piece of clothing at the end of their military service, so that future recruits can reuse them?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? ❤️ 🐖 🏥 👨 👍

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Djokovic, BoJo, Xi Jinping: rules & power in pandemic times

It was the phrase of the week down on Fleet Street, the historic HQ of the London press corps: “Bring your own booze” — BYOB — the instructions secretly sent around for the garden party held at 10 Downing Street in blatant violation of the first coronavirus lockdown, back in May 2020.The revelations of the event (the second such scandal to emerge in the past two months) has left British Prime Minister Boris Johnson barely holding on to his job after his admission to Parliament this week that he was there … and he was, well, quite sorry.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the former British empire, Australians are following how their public representatives will resolve the latest twist in pandemic policy that has captured the sporting world’s attention. Back and forth, like a tennis match. By the end of the week, Australia had reversed a Monday court decision, and canceled Novak Djokovic’s visa that would have allowed him to defend his Australian Open title. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the visa was revoked on the grounds that the presence of the unvaccinated Serbian star risks fueling anti-vax sentiment on home soil.

This is high-stakes political gamesmanship indeed. The unprecedented health crisis, and associated restrictions to limit the spread of the virus, requires our elected leaders to react to ever-changing information and a chain of lose-lose public policy choices. COVID continues to make the hard job of being a public representative that much harder. The best, we can agree, are doing the best they can. The worst, well … are the worst.

The British public has rightly taken offense to the idea that the very people charged with making and enforcing COVID rules, were also busy breaking them. In the Djokovic saga, skeptics of vaccination mandates — in Australia, Serbia and beyond — will have new ammunition if the world’s top tennis player is kicked out of both tournament and country.

The good news is that in our eternally flawed democracies, the public eventually (though not always!) finds out what goes wrong, and ultimately has the final say of who’s in charge. The same can’t be said everywhere, including the country that has been cited for having the most successful methods for controlling the virus and limiting death tolls. That is, of course, China … where it all began.

Yet the authoritarian regime's “Zero COVID policy” comes with deeper questions that largely mirror the downside of authoritarianism in general: ruthless enforcement, quelled dissent and the sometimes blind following of the masses. It’s hard to imagine that Xi Jinping has had any “BYOB parties” in the past two years. But if he did, you can be sure we’d never know.

— Jeff Israely


🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Makar Sankranti 2022: The Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti is celebrated on January 14 and 15 in almost all parts of India and Nepal in a myriad of cultural forms. The festival marks the end of winter, the beginning of a new harvest season, and has ancient religious significance.

• Parthenon fragment returns to Greece: A marble fragment from the Parthenon temple has been returned to Athens from a museum in Sicily. Authorities hope the move will rekindle efforts to force the British Museum to send back ancient sculptures from Greece's most renowned ancient landmark.

• 400 years of Molière: France honors its seminal playwright on the 400th anniversary of his birth. His influence, comparable to that of Shakespeare in the anglophone world, is such that French is often referred to as the "language of Molière."

• Vinyl surpassed CDs sales for the first time in 30 years: For the first time since 1991, annual sales of vinyl records surpassed those of CDs in the U.S, according to MRC Data and Billboard, with an estimated 41.72 million vinyl records sold in 2021 (up 51.4% from 27.55 million in 2020). This means that vinyl is now the leading format for all album purchases in the U.S.

• Kendrick Lamar teams up with South Park creators: Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar and his former longtime manager Dave Free are working with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to produce a live-action comedy for Paramount Pictures.

📚😷 COVID SCHOOL CHAOS AROUND THE WORLD


The decisions to close schools have been some of the toughest choices made during the pandemic, with students suffering both academically and socially from online learning or no education at all. It’s universally acknowledged that children most succeed with in-person classes, but the question still remains whether the health risk to students and those around them is worth it.

The Omicron wave has only caused this debate to heighten, with teacher strikes in France, rising drop-out rates in Argentina and shortages of staff in South Africa. But there are signs of hope: Uganda has finally reopened schools, ending the world’s longest shutdown, and some American parents have decided to offer more personalized education with homeschooling.

Read the full story: COVID School Chaos, Snapshots From 10 Countries Around The World

🇰🇿  KAZAKHSTAN’S VICIOUS CIRCLE OF STRONGMEN


The real transition of power in Kazakhstan was supposed to have taken place in 2019. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron first since its independence in 1991, finally stepped aside to allow his successor, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, to take power.

However, Nazarbayev retained enormous influence behind the scenes. The real transfer of power is in fact happening only now, following large-scale unrest and protests around the country. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev promises a new way of doing things, but his methods are strikingly similar to his predecessor. For Russian daily Kommersant, Vladimir Soloviev and Alexander Konstantinov ponder why strongmen are able to keep power in Kazakhstan — but can't ensure its peaceful transfer.

Read the full story: Kazakhstan, When One Strongman Replaces Another

🐟 DENMARK, A SMALL FISH IN THE SALMON INDUSTRY’S BIG POND


Things are getting fishy over Nordic fishing regulations, as the Danish government has banned further growth in sea-based fish farming, claiming the country had reached the limit without endangering the environment. In Danish newspaper Politiken, marine biologist Johan Wedel Nielsen explained why Demark’s policy has given Norway a de facto monopoly on the lucrative salmon industry. This is particularly significant as changing diet habits are increasing demand for the nutritious pink fish, and Norway has taken advantage, accounting for about half of the world’s salmon production.

Nielsen argues that environmental concerns aren’t warranted, as fish have an inherently small impact on the environment. Denmark has the potential to establish 150 salmonid (a family of fish including salmon and trout) farms in the Baltic Sea, producing some 500,000 tons of trout per year with a value of 2.7 billion euros and employing tens of thousands. But the Danish government has so far given no indication of allowing any addition to Denmark’s 19 existing farms.

Read the full story: Norwegian Salmon v. Danish Trout: Lessons On Ecology And Economics

💡  BRIGHT IDEA

French start-up Airxôm has unveiled its unique respiratory device at Las Vegas’ CES tech event. Their plastic and silicon face mask is the first capable of destroying particles of all sizes and has inbuilt decontamination properties, hence protecting against pollution, bacteria and viruses including COVID-19. Oh and, as a bonus, it also prevents your glasses from fogging.

#️⃣ TRENDING


Boris Johnson memes flooded social networks this week, mocking the UK’s prime minister's excuse for attending what was quite obviously a party at the height of the pandemic: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event.” The quote was shared alongside a toe-curlingly bad 2013 video of BoJo dancing to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” which resurfaced on Instagram, while Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair puts its own spin on the lame explanation.

🤦‍♀️🛴🤦‍♂️ FACEPALM OF THE WEEK


A Belgian national was intercepted by the French police while riding his e-scooter on a highway in eastern France. The confused trottinette user said it was his first time riding in France, and that he’d failed to select the “no toll roads” option on his GPS.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Climate, COVID, Costa Concordia: why humans are wired for denial

This past week marked 10 years since the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Tuscany. Writing in Italian daily La Stampa, Guido Maria Brera sees connections between the way passengers and crew reacted in the minutes and hours after the ship ran aground to other calamities we face that may seem to be moving more slowly:

In 2012, the same year the Costa Concordia cruise ship sank off of Giglio Island, David Quammen published his book Spillover, which predicted that somewhere in Asia a virus would be attacking the human respiratory tract on its way to becoming a global pandemic. And so it was. This terrible shipwreck, which the world watched in slow-motion exactly ten years ago on January 13, 2012, now appears to us — just like the COVID-19 pandemic, like the trailer of a horror film we are now all living for real.

Millions dead, ten of millions sick, and the psychological collapse of entire generations, the youngest and most defenseless. In the meantime, climate change is spiraling out of control: sea levels are rising, land is drying out, ice caps are melting, not to mention hurricanes, storms, floods, droughts, famines, wars, migration.

The correlation between climate change and the pandemic has been demonstrated countless times by scientists. Soaring temperatures, intensive livestock farming, deforestation and the devastation of the natural animal kingdoms have led to zoonosis: Species-hopping, in which a bacterium or virus escapes from its host and spreads to another, creating a chain reaction with devastating results.

Finding the correlation between the sinking of the Costa Concordia and the current situation is more a subtle exercise: by looking at the decisions we made to respond to the disaster — or rather, how we failed to take action.

"The Concordia has become a maze of choices in the dark, deciding whether to open a door or not, whether to move or stay put, can be the difference between life and death,” Pablo Trincia said recently in his podcast “Il Dito di Dio.” (The Finger of God). A cruise ship with more than 4,000 people, including passengers, crew and ship personnel, is a microcosm in itself: it contains everything. And indeed, in these very long and slow moments, when time seems suspended, a tragedy was in the making.

There were reported many notable demonstrations of solidarity, as strangers helped each other. There were also those who fled as quickly as possible, seeking their personal safety at the expense of others. There were those who, between the ship crashing into the rocks and the dropping of the first lifeboats, seemed not to care.

If it is true that there are lessons to learn even from the worst tragedies, then we must make sure that the terrible wreckage of this small world can help us understand and identify the rocks we are heading towards today: the climate crisis and the pandemic. Time is the discriminating factor, as always. Director Adam McKay explains it well in his movie Don't Look Up, showing us how people react as they face slow-motioned tragedies.

In this scenario, the slowness of the film is the central narrative choice: there is initially plenty of time before the comet would hit the earth, ineluctably ending human life, and there remains plenty of time to live and love and enjoy.

Hence, we also have time to expect that the asteroid is still far away, to imagine that it will deviate from its course. We even have time to forget that the impact is inevitable, and to continue to live as if nothing is happening.

This is the most common reaction to pandemics and environmental disasters. Turn your head away, pretend you don't see, don't look up.

Denial is the work of politicians incapable of questioning the only development model they know, of the billionaires who built bunkers to survive in New Zealand, (where it seems that the crisis will have less impact), of the Silicon Valley gurus have already bought coolers to preserve their bodies for eternity by cryogenics.

On the Costa Concordia, refusal to look the disaster in the eye wasn’t just the work of those who were supposed to give the alert and manage the evacuation: we are all in the same boat when it comes to denial. When a disaster happens in slow motion, it feels as though there is still too much time to bother rushing for solutions now.

We tend to think about the time we have left, about the costs and benefits to our tiny lives, without even realizing that never has the need for salvation been more collective.

Ten years ago, as today, we convinced ourselves that we are absolved of responsibility precisely because we know that everyone shares the same responsibility.

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov set next week as the ultimatum for a confirmation that NATO will neither expand nor deploy forces to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations.

• Next Sunday will mark two years since the World Health Organization declared during an emergency meeting that COVID-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

• On Tuesday, a 3,400-foot-wide asteroid will make a safe flyby of Earth, whooshing by our planet at the equivalent of five Earth-Moon distances (still pretty close from a cosmic point of view).

• Monday is Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day, so you still have a few more hours to decide whether that gym membership really was a good idea.

News quiz answers:

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