Dakar, Senegal – The last thing Aïssata Ndiaye remembers before waking up in a Moroccan hospital was shivering helplessly while watching her friend Khadija – a young mother – drift away in the Mediterranean. The inflatable dinghy on which they had been trying to cross the sea had just capsized. Ndiaye was only one of a few who managed to make it back on board.
Ndiaye, who was only 21 at the time, had paid a woman more than one million CFA francs (about $1,700) to secure her passage from Tangiers to Spain. She was hoping to attend university once she arrived.
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“I have lived a lot of pain,” Ndiaye said. “I dreamed of travelling the world, and I did it, but not the way I wanted to.”
Every year, thousands of people find resourceful ways to travel from different parts of sub-Saharan Africa to attempt to cross into Europe in search of a better life and to flee conflict and persecution.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), some 2,400 people died or disappeared while trying to migrate to Europe in the first nine months of this year – more than in the whole of last year. About 1,200 deaths were recorded on the route from Libya to Italy. Others end up stranded in labour camps or random places in remote parts of North Africa.
On average, more than half of Mediterranean crossings are unsuccessful.
On Ndiaye’s trip in 2019, four of her friends died. She found herself alone and says she was tortured in Morocco, then sent to Algeria where she was beaten and sent to Niger. Eventually, she managed to return home to Senegal with the help of the IOM.
Now, the 23-year-old, along with a number of other returnee refugees and asylum seekers, has turned to film to explore the complexities of migration. Their work is in the spotlight at this year’s IOM Global Migration Film Festival, currently being held in 13 countries across West and Central Africa. It runs until December 18, when winners will be announced on International Migrants Day.
“We always see images of migration that are made by Europeans or Americans,” said Tabara Ly Wane, co-producer of La Maison Bleue, a documentary competing in the festival’s main category. “It is absolutely necessary that Africans themselves speak about their stories – that they tell their own experiences.”
For the first time, a special competition is being held for films by people such as Ndiaye who volunteer with the IOM’s “Migrants as Messengers” project.
Her film, Sous Mes Pieds (“Beneath My Feet”), was shown at a community screening last weekend in Dakar’s Yaraax neighbourhood, where the informal outdoor venue was packed with children and young people.
“Cinema has the advantage of immediacy,” said Magueye Kasse, a Senegalese art critic who chose the film festival’s jury. “It confronts you, it shocks you with an image, and the image makes you think.”
The idea behind the Migrants as Messengers initiative is to overcome potential distrust for institutional messaging by using peer-to-peer messaging from returned migrants instead. The programme trains volunteers in photography, theatre, journalism and video production, and works with them to start conversations in their communities.
The IOM has said the objective is not to discourage people from travelling, but rather to raise awareness about the risks of irregular migration and promote safe routes. Christopher Gascon, the organisation’s West and Central Africa regional director, knows that is not always realistic.
“When you’re dealing [with] desperation, it’s very difficult to say, ‘Oh, why don’t you look for a regular route?'” he said. “There are regular options to travel, but those are all linked to how well-prepared you are, and that has to do with development and education.”
Still, he wants to inform people about “what might be waiting out there”.
Migration again became a hot-button issue recently in Europe when thousands of people amassed on Belarus’s border with Poland, camping out in the freezing cold. This week, at least 27 people drowned in the English Channel when their dinghy capsized during an attempted crossing from France.
And for those who do make it, things usually do not get easier.
Zeidy Dabo, a Malian, in 2017 travelled by dinghy to Italy with his wife and three children but they ended up living in a tent on the outskirts of Paris. Four years later, he is still waiting for a response to his asylum application and is not permitted to work.
Though his family now lives in a safer shelter, and his children are in school and doing well, he does not recommend the path he took. “I wouldn’t encourage anyone to cross the Mediterranean – not even my worst enemy,” Dabo said.
There also is the stigma refugees and asylum seekers face upon returning home. Fatou Guet Ndiaye, who directed the film Mantoulaye, said she had to repeat a school year following her own attempted journey.
As a teenager, she had boarded a wooden fishing boat bound for the Canary Islands, but had to turn back after six days when the captain got lost. Her parents were devastated.
“They scolded me – they even hit me – because they said it wasn’t right for a girl in her last year of high school to leave all that and go to Spain … in a pirogue with boys,” she said.
As for Aïssata Ndiaye, who says she has wanted to be a filmmaker since she was a child, she is hoping the film festival will help her build a career in the industry.
If she wins the competition, she plans to use the prize – new film equipment – to launch more projects and “showcase her talent” to the world.
“I know I will continue to focus on migration,” she said. “I have a lot of things to tell about migration; it’s so vast, so vague, there is so much to tell.”