Mother Courage Fights Irregular Migration in Senegal

Strong westerly winds blow relentlessly on Thiaroye-sur-mer, a small impoverished fishing community of closely knit white shacks and sandy streets on the edge of Senegal's capital Dakar.

The westerlies bring the sound of the nearby crashing surf. But also the memories of loss and grief for hundreds of mothers, wives and sisters who lost their sons, husbands and brothers at sea as they tried to reach Europe’s distant shores.

A group of middle-aged women chitchat in Yayi Bayam Diouf’s small courtyard, sitting on colourful woven mats. They are part of a women’s group Yayi created to fight irregular migration after she lost her only son in March - called the Collectif des femmes pour la lutte contre l’immigration clandestine.

Yayi is a courageous and determined woman. She says that instead of just crying and thinking of her lost son, she decided to fight back to stop more young men dying at sea.

She sits in a cramped room, which has become her office and the meeting point for 357 distraught women who regularly find solace in each other’s company and support.

“We call this cousinage. It’s the best way we have found to try and come to terms with the tragedy that has befallen us,” says Yayi.

Clutching a faded photograph of her 26 year-old son, she says she last spoke to him only hours before he embarked on an overcrowded traditional pirogue in the Mauritanian port of Nouadhibou for the perilous two-day sea journey to the Canaries.

“Alioune Mar called me to ask that I pray for his safe passage to Europe. But my prayers were left unheard. He drowned somewhere off the coast of the Canaries with eighty young men. Their bodies were never recovered.”

She says her son paid 400 000 FCFA (USD 800) to smugglers who promised a safe passage to the Spanish archipelago. But soon the pirogue took water and experienced engine failure as it got caught in a storm. A second boat, which left Nouadhibou at the same time, sailed on to try and get help. But when it returned several hours later, only fuel drums and personal effects were visible, drifting on the long and powerful Atlantic swell.

“The women of Thiaroye are desperate to go and pray where the boat sank to allow the souls of the drowned to rest in peace,” says Yayi. “This is part of our healing process. We’ve begged for this but to no effect so far.”

Coming to terms with such tragic losses is even more difficult because many women believe they didn’t do enough to dissuade the men from leaving. Yayi says some women are overwhelmed with guilt because they sold jewellery and household items to finance fatal voyages.”

Women say the men were desperate to leave Thiaroye, where unemployment among the 45,000 strong community is said to exceed 80 per cent.

“Ten years ago, everyone was employed in the fishing industry,” says Aby Samb, whose son Matar was recently expelled from Spain. “We all made good money selling our fish as far away as neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso. But we wasted all our savings on lavish ceremonies for christenings, weddings and burials.”

Others say ageing pirogues and fishing equipment, over fishing by foreign trawlers and the use of narrow-mesh nets by local fishermen have almost emptied the waters of their high-value catches.

“So we became very poor. A few years ago, men found jobs working on European trawlers. They earned good money and helped the families back home,” says Yayi. “This fuelled a desire to leave at all cost and by whatever means possible. Near bankrupt fishermen started making good money as more and more pirogues left from Thiaroye and from other fishing communities along the Senegalese coast.”

She adds that in a society in which polygamy is permitted, women who are repudiated by their husbands often have to rely on sons to provide for them. This, according to Yayi, puts additional pressure on elder sons to find lucrative employment abroad.

Several of the women in Yayi’s courtyard have joined the Association because they have had no news of their male relatives for many months.

Fatou Ndoye’s son Abdou Rahmane left for the Canaries last February. She has not heard from him since. Fatou carries his photo in the folds of her traditional boubou to show visitors, hoping that someone will finally tell her what has become of him.

“Fatou cries a lot,” says Yayi. “Everyday she goes around the neighbourhood asking for news of him. When a phone rings, she thinks he is calling her.” Then she whispers softly, “but after nine months, there’s little hope.”

Aita Gueye was a week old when her father Siny, a 25-year-old welder from Thiaroye, decided to leave for Europe. His young wife, Arame Leye, says he stepped on a boat knowing he was embarking on perilous journey but he did so “because he wanted to provide for his daughter and extended family”.

Every week, the Association holds meetings with the young men of Thiaroye to try and persuade them not to emigrate clandestinely.

“I tell them that out of a hundred men who have left, 50 have died at sea, 25 haven’t given news of their whereabouts for more than nine months, 10 have been sent back from Spain, and the rest are probably in camps or have made it to Spain where they are without a proper job. So in the end, it’s better to stay here,” says Yayi.

She adds that no boats left in September and October but acknowledges this is probably due to increased patrols carried out by the Senegalese navy.

In an effort to convince young men to stay, the women have enlisted the support of the local spiritual leader, Marabout Serigné Babacar Mbaké.

“His word and wisdom are widely respected,” says Macode Wade, who lost two male relatives at sea in March. “During a recent event organised by the Association, many young men fell to their knees and took an oath not to take to the sea to reach Europe.”

Another heavyweight ally in the women’s efforts to stem the flow of young irregular migrants is Baye Mandiane Fall, a famous wrestler from Thiaroye who holds cult status in Senegal.

The Association also works to support the mothers and wives whose caretakers have died in the crossing. Every member of the group pays monthly dues of 1,000 CFA (USD 2). Women also meet on a daily basis to make couscous and fresh fruit juices which they sell to make extra money. Others buy fish to resell locally, although Yayi says several women have stopped doing this “because it's the sea that swallowed their sons."

The money is collected in a tontine, an informal form of saving and credit arrangement based on mutual trust found in many parts of West Africa. Credits of up to 50,000 CFA (USD 100) are then made available to the most vulnerable women in the group to help them engage in income generating activities. So far, more than a hundred small businesses have been sponsored by the Association.

“This is all part of our efforts to remind all those who say “Barca or Barsakh” (Barcelona or death) that we, the women, will have to carry the burden of their untimely deaths, day after day.”

Collectif des femmes pour la lutte contre l’immigration clandestine, BP 118 Dakar, Thiaroye sur mer, Tel +221 854 33 87, Email: hadjioumy2006@yahoo.fr.

For the nearly 30,000 irregular migrants who have reached the shores of the Canary Islands in small wooden boats so far this year, a countless number have drowned en route. For bereaved families in Senegal, stopping their men from leaving on the boats has become a matter of life and death.

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