Thiaroye-sur-mer, Senegal – The morning shift begins under a bright, clear sky. At the fishing wharf of Thiaroye-sur-mer, a coastal town of 45,000 people, a handful of pirogues return from a long night at sea. Others slowly drift away from the shore.
Women stand on the wet floor of the wharf. Buckets of fish destined to be sold at the local market surround them. But filling those buckets is becoming harder.
Due to depleting stocks, fishermen in the town, located 12km from Senegal’s capital, Dakar, often have to go 30km out in order to find fish. It is making it increasingly difficult for them to sustain a livelihood, and many young men are responding by looking elsewhere for work.
Awa Kane, 33, and her aunt Anta Kane buy fish every morning. Awa is giggly and joyful until the issue of young men migrating to Europe is raised.
“If I start to talk about my brother, I’m going to cry,” she says.
Awa’s brother disappeared on his way to Spain 10 years ago, along with two cousins.
According to Thiaroye-based associations, 156 local young men have been lost at sea since 2006. A further 374 are incarcerated in the Canary Islands after being caught trying to reach there illegally, while 210 have been repatriated.
Thiaroye-sur-mer is one of the Senegalese communities most affected by what has become known as the “pirogue phenomenon”. The children and youth call it “Barca mba barzakh”. In the local Wolof language, this means “Barcelona or death”.
Boarding the crowded pirogues in Thiaroye-sur-mer in the hope of reaching Spain is a calculated risk that many continue to take. Reaching Europe appears to be their best hope of earning money with which they can support their families back home.
In 2005 and 2006, this crisis reached a peak as Senegal witnessed a massive wave of departures for Europe, but it has since subsided. The Spanish authorities of the Canary Islands reported apprehending 30,000 migrants in 2006 from several African countries, 15,000 of whom were Senegalese. At least 1,000 out 7,000 African refugees who died during the crossings in the same year were Senegalese.
In 2016, only 4,047 Senegalese crossed the Mediterranean sea according to the IOM.
Every year, 200,000 young people join the labour market in Senegal, according to the United Nations. With a rising population and urban growth, the same Thiaroye families who, a few decades ago, owned a field and a pirogue, now have to find new ways to make a living.
When Spain expanded its border surveillance to the entire Andalucian coast and the Canary Islands in 2007, the roads of migration took a more precarious turn by pushing migrants to set off from Senegal’s shores instead of taking the much-shorter route through Morocco.
Towns such as Thiaroye-sur-mer, with fishing communities already equipped with pirogues and the skills to navigate them, became popular departure zones for these economic migrants.
Those embarking on this illicit journey, pay an average of 300,000 CFA Franc ($511) to smugglers, a sum that can only be arranged with the help of the entire family, in order to leave by boat. Yet, the journey remains perilous. According to the Catholic NGO Caritas, 2,000 Senegalese and Malian citizens perished in these waters in 2014-2015.
Anta Kane, Awa’s aunt, has also felt the pain of this. Her son was 22 years old when he died. It was in 2003, on a Tuesday, she recalls as she sits on an empty bucket that has been turned upside down.
“He spent one month in Mauritania before attempting to cross over to Spain. He called home to say he was about to travel by sea. We never heard from him again,” she says, wiping away her tears with her shawl.
Her other son lives with her, but doesn’t work. Anta supports his family so that he, too, isn’t forced to attempt the journey to Europe.
A collective of women
Anta is among the 375 women who have come together to form a mothers’ collective that is trying to stop the young men from undertaking the perilous journey.
Being part of the collective has helped her cope, she says. “It’s a way to entertain ourselves, to forget a little,” she says. “We have never found their bodies so … we pray for them.”
The Collective of Women against Illegal Migration was formed by Yayi Bayam Diouf in 2006. She is a popular figure in Thiaroye-sur-mer. The kids call her Maman Yayi.
She lost her only son Alioune in 2006. He was 26 years old. Eighty other men, mostly from West African countries, died alongside him that day. They were trying to reach Spain.
Upstairs in her Thiaroye home, Yayi sits barefoot on the floor of a large kitchen with an open laptop in front of her. She is in her 50s and wears a traditional wax cloth tied to her waist and black glasses.
Her serious countenance contrasts with her lively household. Behind her, three women bake cakes. Outside, on the terrace, chickens run between the drying laundry.
Yayi has just returned from Morocco, where she received an award from a Swiss NGO, Crans-Montana Forum, for her work in the community.
In Thiaroye’s patriarchal society, it was a bold move for a woman to try to make her voice heard as Yayi did when she formed the collective.
“Women are talking to each other, they help and trust each other,” Yayi says. “This kind of trust didn’t use to exist among us.”
Today, the collective organises workshops, skits and video screenings at Thiaroye’s youth centre aimed at persuading teenagers not to undertake the journey to Europe.
“Frontex practices a very repressive policy,” Yayi says of the border and coastguard agency created by the European Union in 2016. “If we had invested this money in skills training…” she adds, leaving her sentence unfinished.
Meanwhile, the baking session continues in Yayi’s kitchen, the aroma filling the room.
The collective runs a range of economic activities with the help of microcredit in order to diversify the community’s sources of revenue. It is an effort to support their families in the absence of sons, and to support their jobless sons.
The flour for the cakes they are baking was bought thanks to microcredit and the cakes will be sold at the market the next day. There’s also a fridge full of sea products cultivated or transformed by the women, such as mussels and dried fish. Under a piece of cloth intended to keep the flies at bay, jars of vegetables wait by to be taken to the market.
‘He is not stepping one foot on a pirogue’
Three times a week, the women gather for what is called a “tontine”, a kind of credit union that takes place in someone’s house or yard. On this particular Wednesday afternoon, 12 to 13 women converge in the yard of the tontine’s president, Mdeyek Kane. They sit on a mat, their brightly coloured wallets on their legs.
Aisha Diallo is in her 50s and is the oldest in the group. She dyes wax for a living. One of her sons does not work and all of her earnings go to him in the hope that it will prevent him from taking the risky boat journey.
The amount of credit they will be able to make depends on how much cash there is in the calabash, which fills up slowly. Loan rates aren’t cheap: women will have to repay 10 percent of the total sum they borrow by reimbursing it in small amounts every week.
Penda Diallo is also attending the tontine. The mother of four works at the wharf most of the time, but also tries her hand at other odd jobs like selling homemade fruit juice in the neighbourhood’s schools.
She vows not to allow her 22-year-old son, a mechanic in Thies town, 70km east of Dakar, to go to Europe by sea.
“He is not stepping one foot on a pirogue, no way. I tell him over and over again that I won’t let him go unless he manages to get a proper visa,” she says.
‘Our sea has been sold’
That afternoon, Yayi doesn’t attend the tontine. She’s busy braising mussels on a grill in a yard, 15 minutes away from her house. Children play football nearby. Some of them climb the wall to watch her at work.
She believes that migration is so popular among the young people here because it is a way to escape a form of social death as a result of unemployment. “When you’re jobless and you see people being able to afford a house after only two years spent in Europe, it gives you the wrong idea,” she says.
“There is no work for young people any more. You can imagine how they see things. They say: our sea has been sold,” says Yayi referring to overfishing practised by industrial trawlers from Europe, China and Japan.
Although President Macky Sall criticised these practices when he came to power in 2012 and briefly put a stop to it, new fishing agreements have been signed between the Senegalese government and the EU for the 2014-2019 period.
It enables the EU to fish for 14,000 tonnes of fish a year in Senegalese waters in exchange for 15 million euros ($16.75 million) in compensation.
That those families who have a son living in Spain and sending remittances home are comparatively better off than the rest of the community increases the social pressure on young men to undertake the journey.
According to the International Organization for Migration, 3.73 percent of Senegalese lived outside their country in 2015. Remittances account for 12 percent of the West African nation’s GDP of $13.7bn.
Lost to the sea
Khadijata Kandji, 19, lost one brother and three cousins to the sea. Another of her brothers made it to Spain.
Sitting in the comfortable living room of her first-floor apartment, she explains that she doesn’t know where exactly in Spain her brother lives, although he has been away for more than 10 years. He is 35 now, and is unable to return for a visit because he doesn’t have legal documents.
She flicks through pictures on her mobile phone. “He lives with a Spanish girl and just had a baby, look,” she says.
Khadijata has no idea what her brother does for a living. In most migrants’ stories of their lives abroad, the details are skipped over. What matters to their families is just that they made it alive.
Like every evening around 6pm, Penda Diallo is on her way to catch a bus that will take her to the Soumbedioune fish market in Dakar. She will return home between 11pm and midnight.
“In Thiaroye, nobody sleeps,” she says. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat. That’s no reason to get on a pirogue, though.”
Aurélie Darbouret also contributed to this article