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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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