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Impoverished Africans sail to Europe despite danger

24 April 2015, 10:31

Niakhar - Some sea voyages took Senegalese fisherman Samba Ngom away for up to three weeks at a time, but eventually he began dreaming of going further, to a place where he could make more money in a month than most compatriots make in a year.

He and his brother Diam, who was also involved in the fishing industry, set off in separate overloaded wooden boats bound for Spain. On the seventh day, Samba arrived in Spain. On the 10th day, the phone rang: Diam was dead.

"My brother had said there were more things killing him on land than in the water, that if God wanted to die at sea he could not escape his fate," Samba recalls quietly now back in Niakhar after nine years working the fields of Spain.

Lured by the possibility of making a decent living, Africans have been attempting the crossing to Europe for decades. Now, the option to pass through Libya, which has sunk into chaos, and to then sail to Europe seems to be fuelling both the exodus and the death toll.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn calls the trek to Europe "the death journey." Migrants can be robbed, raped or killed by bandits or extremists, die of thirst in the Sahara Desert or drown in the Mediterranean Sea. So far this year, more than 1 700 are dead or are missing and presumed drowned. Yet they keep coming.

They leave from places like Niakhar where the horse-drawn cart is more common than the car and most people toil in peanut fields, selling tiny plastic bags of nuts along the roadside. On the other side of Africa, they depart from places like Cherkos Village, Ethiopia, where families crowd into houses made mainly from mud and sticks with roofs of rusting corrugated iron sheets and where the stench from sewage makes breathing difficult.

Despite the recent massacre of Ethiopian migrants who were passing through Libya, including several young men from Cherkos, some youths say they still want to travel abroad to make a better living.

"Those who were brutally executed in Libya were desperate people who wanted to improve their lives," said Adane Bitew, who is saving for the trip but isn't sure what route he would take, citing violence in Libya and Yemen.

Yared Beyetim says his next attempt to get to Europe will be his second after his first one failed in 2013 when his smuggler left him stranded in Sudan.

"It is people who have relatives in Europe who are eating well in the village," he said. "Everybody wants to go and change things at home."

Barca ou barsak

They also leave from places like Eritrea, an impoverished and repressive nation. Eritreans accounted for 18% - the second-biggest group after Syrians - who crossed the Mediterranean into Europe between January and October 2014, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

More than 12 000 people made it to Italy or were rescued at sea in the first three months of this year, according to the International Organization for Migration. At least 1 187 were Senegalese.

How many died en route no one knows. But the dream of Europe remains so strong that in Senegal they say "Barca ou barsak," meaning roughly "Barcelona or death" in the Wolof language.

The successes of those who made it are starkly clear in villages like Niakhar, where Lademba Faye and his wife drive matching Peugeots. Faye crossed into Spain 15 years ago on a trip in which two women and a baby died.

He called his father only after he had already crossed the sea. Eventually he became fluent in Spanish and got a truck driver's license. With the money he earned in Europe and carefully saved, he returned to find a wife and build their home.

Today they and their three young children are living the Senegalese dream: a cement home with a rooftop terrace. A full-time housekeeper. A flat-screen television. They are building a second home in town that they plan to rent out.

It's a far different life than his childhood growing up with a father who had four wives and more than 30 siblings.

But it came at a personal sacrifice. Faye, 43, went years without seeing his family and spent weeks on the road driving without any break. In 2012, he returned to Senegal to join his family full time.

Study in Europe

"In Europe you're not really living. You want to succeed so you can support your little brothers, send them money," he says. "My children will never do this. Maybe one day they can study in Europe."

Only if they take a plane though, he says firmly as his 2-year-old son Cheikh Ousmane scampers around the family's posh salon.

Samba Ngom, whose brother died at sea, wants their tale to be a cautionary one. Of about 100 people aboard his brother's vessel, at least 30 perished when the motor broke and the GPS went out.

Samba takes comfort in the fact that a survivor told him his older brother fell overboard and died quickly, unlike some of the others who died slowly as the boat drifted.

Life in Spain was not as prosperous for Samba Ngom as it was for Faye. Last year he returned to his home village to reconnect with family and try to help raise his brother's son, now 12. The young boy was just 3 when his father left for the fatal journey.

Samba hopes his nephew does not join the other young men in thinking life is better across the sea.

"When he is older, I will tell him about how hard life is in Europe, how dangerous the trip is," Samba says while stroking prayer beads dangling from his hand. "But I don't know if I can persuade him to stay here when so many others are leaving."

- AP


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