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Dreaming of Europe: the last young man left in a Senegalese village

Life is lonely and humiliating for Goundo Wandianga, 21, whose friends and twin brother have all gone to seek their fortunes

Goundo Wandianga in his village, Sare Bakary, where all the other young men have left.
Goundo Wandianga in his village, Sare Bakary, where all the other young men have left. Photograph: Ruth Maclean for the Guardian

By Ruth Maclean in Kolda, Senegal

Goundo Wandianga is the only young man left in his village. Or at least, that’s what it feels like.

He spends his days lounging under mango trees in his family’s small village in Casamance, the southern region of Senegal, playing on his phone, doing odd jobs for his mother, and dreaming about Europe.

Everyone else carries on as normal in Sare Bakary, his village. Old men sit on benches cracking peanuts and chatting about cattle, the old days, and past attempts to get to Europe. Their wives and daughters work constantly, watering the garden, cooking lunch, and sweeping up the peanut shells, while children dart in and out between the huts.

But in Sare Bakary, there is no group of surly male adolescents, or strapping young men in their 20s. There is just Goundo.

He is only 21, but all of his friends and even his twin brother have left to seek their fortune elsewhere. Many have taken the perilous road across the Sahara to Libya, and then a boat over the Mediterranean to Italy. Some went by pirogue, a traditional wooden canoe, to Morocco and then to Spain. All of them have risked their lives to get to Europe, get a job, and send money back.

But not Goundo. At a family meeting, it was decided that he would finish his studies first, and then try to leave Senegal legally, by plane. Flying seemed a better bet than the increasingly dangerous “back way” across the Sahara, and with his education they thought he would be more likely to get a good job.

But being left behind is hard for Goundo, especially when he sees his friends’ Facebook posts about life in Europe, and the pride in his parents’ faces when his siblings send back money.

“Before, I had nothing. Everything I have, they have sent me,” says Djenaba Sabaly, his mother. “I can buy clothes, food and medicine. Before, I just had to lie in bed until I got better.”

Sare Bakary is not unusual, says Abdul Anne, director of the regional development agency of Kolda: almost every village in the region he works in is empty of young men.

“In the villages, there are just old people, women and children,” he says. “There are no young men because there’s nothing to hold them there. There’s nothing a young man can do even to earn enough to buy a cup of tea, or a cigarette. And there’s no family that wants its kids to stay.”

Many have gone to Europe, but many others only make it as far as their local urban centre, Kolda, where they hang around trying to find a way to earn a bit of money.

In fact, these villages spend more – in cash and cows – paying for the journeys to Europe and the protective prayers of local marabouts (holy men) than they get back in remittances. Many Senegalese migrants sit in Libya, waiting to make the crossing, or in Italy, waiting to get papers and a job. But despite this, the overwhelming feeling in Sare Bakary is that the best thing its working-age men can do is leave.

“The road is so tough, but if they don’t go, they’re seen as wimps,” says Fatou Balde, Goundo’s aunt, trying not to look directly at Goundo sitting on the mat at her feet.

Goundo feels this keenly. “Sometimes you hear someone say: ‘What are you waiting for?’” he says, sitting in the darkened cool of one of the family huts, scratching his arm with hennaed fingernails. “Or maybe they don’t even say it, but you can feel them thinking it. And the looks you get! The looks are very hard to take.”

Ansatou Sabady, who lost everything trying to get her husband to Europe. He failed three times.
Ansatou Sabady, who lost everything trying to get her husband to Europe. He failed three times. Photograph: Ruth Maclean for the Guardian

In previous generations, there was agricultural work to do in the villages, according to Djibiribou Balde, the village chief of Sare Bakary. Now, he says, prices are so low that it doesn’t make financial sense to farm cash crops – and in any case, with land degradation and less rainfall as a result of climate change, farming is difficult.

“We need the means to farm and a market to sell our produce,” he says, sitting with his fellow elders on wooden chairs in a clearing. He explains why young men don’t want to stay in the village, and why his own son, sitting next to him in clothes heavy with mud from the farm, has made the attempt three times. “In our parents’ time, life was less expensive.”In any case, he says, travelling has been the normal way of life for his people for many generations. “All of us have spent time elsewhere, experienced the outside. That’s our culture.”

Marie-Stella Ndiaye of the International Organisation for Migration says this is true of much of Senegal: “The tradition of migration is not really new for the Senegalese, and their references have always been France and Europe. It’s a normal aspiration to move around.”

Though the journey is now across desert, not water, and the destination is Italy rather than Spain, the old migrants’ motto endures – Barça ou Barzakh, meaning Barcelona or death.

Steeped in a fatalistic culture, many of the elders, while funding and encouraging the trips, see the dangers as beyond their control. “If it’s their destiny to die, then so be it,” Balde says. “It’s a painful loss, but it’s God’s wish.”

But the young men’s desire to go is as strong as that of their parents. Something like gold rush fever has taken over.

“There are young men who don’t have the means to go, but there has never been any young man in this village who doesn’t think of going,” Balde says. “If they don’t, they have no ambition to escape from this low life, or they’re crazy. Or they might be scared – but that means they don’t believe in God.”

The villages risk not only their young men’s lives, but also their possessions. Sometimes this pays off: villages with kin in Europe often have solar panels, or motorcycles. Not all villages do well, though: Sare Bakary, for example, has none of these.

“People sell their land and their cows so their children can go, so if they send nothing back it’s very hard,” Balde says.

Ansatou Sabady, a 35-year-old mother of four, is nearly destitute after spending everything on trying to get her husband to Europe.

“The first time, his parents funded him. The second time, he sold my cow; the third, the cow we owned together. Now we have nothing,” she says. “He won’t try again. We’re putting our hope in farming – we’ve spent everything we had. His luck just wasn’t there.”

Almost all of those left in Sare Bakary say migration is a positive thing, but some admit it has changed the balance of power in the villages. For centuries, age and gender trumped all else. Old men ruled.

Ibrahim Balde, one of the oldest men in his village, should have the last word, but now those who have migrated call the shots from afar.
Ibrahim Balde, one of the oldest men in his village, should have the last word, but now those who have migrated call the shots from afar. Photograph: Ruth Maclean for the Guardian

This is no longer the case, says Ibrahim Balde, one of the most senior men in Sare Bakary: now, it’s often the migrants who call the shots, from thousands of miles away, over mobile phones.“If they’re the ones sending money, they say ‘do this, do that’,” he says with a grin. “Before, it was me who made the decisions. Now, if my son has the money, he can boss me around. But it’s not a problem – if he’s providing, he has the right to do that.”

This change, momentous as it may be for old men used to traditional hierarchies, is not necessarily a bad thing, Anne says, but there is a heavier toll that weighs particularly on women. “Women are the biggest losers,” he says. “When someone leaves, it’s she who has to sell her cows and her jewellery for them to go. And when someone dies, they’re the most affected. They feel guilty for financing the trips.”

Wives whose husbands make it to Europe suffer too, even if their men are sending money back. Some husbands are away for a decade or more, while the women they leave behind, usually with their in-laws, are expected to work, be obedient, and stay faithful.

According to Anne, this sometimes leads to infanticide: women whose husbands are away get pregnant and, worried about the shame that illegitimate children bring, their villages hide them throughout their pregnancies and kill their babies straight after birth.

Khadidjatou Balde’s husband, 10 years her senior, has been in Spain for 12 years. He married her on one of his visits home, five years ago. She has no idea what he does for a living.

“He sends money, but not much,” she says in a whisper, nursing her child. “It’s difficult living here without him, without seeing him for years. I miss him. He’s not here to comfort me. I want to be with my husband – here or there, it doesn’t matter. But I haven’t asked him yet, because he doesn’t have the means.”

Goundo listens, but he doesn’t seem to hear the part about her husband not earning much money. He looks down at Facebook as his mother stands, kneels, and stands again on her prayer mat in the fading light. His family worries he might just leave anyway, despite the family pact.

“I’m the last in this village. I really want to go,” he says, his face lit up by his phone.

Source: The Guardian

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