Tiny Gambia has a big export: Migrants desperate to reach Europe

Africa exodus

Tiny Gambia has a big export: Migrants desperate to reach Europe

Published on June 14, 2015

DAMPHA KUNDA, Gambia — The village was losing its young men. Hundreds had left their thatched-roof huts and tiny squares of farmland for the promise of Europe. About 40 had died on the way.

Susso knew nearly all of them. He had prayed at the funerals after their boats capsized or their smugglers stranded them in the desert, ceremonies with mourners but no bodies. The grim toll complicated his plan, turned it into a secret he hid from almost everyone.

He, too, was preparing to join the exodus from Dampha Kunda.

EXODUS | Desperate migrants, a broken system:

This is part of an occasional series examining the causes and impact of a global wave of migration driven by war, oppression and poverty.
Above: A girl walks through the family compound in Perai Village, Gambia. The compound is home to Fissa, who plans to take “the Backway” journey like so many other men in his village.

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Africa has never seen such a flood of young men heading for Europe. The number of migrants crossing by sea to Italy, a top entry point, nearly quadrupled from 2013 to 2014, reaching about 170,100. Sub-Saharan Africans made up a growing percentage of the total, with around 64,600 arriving last year. This year, the figure is expected to be even higher. Gambia, one of Africa’s smallest nations, is a big contributor to that flow.

To deter the arrivals, European policymakers have proposed reinforcing their naval forces in the Mediterranean, conducting mass deportations and destroying smugglers’ boats. When Susso turns on the radio in the bedroom he shares with his wife and six children, he hears all the ways Europe is trying to dissuade him from leaving.

But it has never been so alluring — or so easy — to begin the trip. Over the past two years, sub-Saharan Africa’s smuggling networks have expanded, as Libya has descended into chaos, leaving its coasts unguarded as migrants set out for Italy, a few hundred miles away.

Stories of Gambians arriving on Italian or Spanish shores now reach even remote Dampha Kunda via Facebook and text message, like rumors of a gold rush. Most men keep their plans a secret until they leave, fearing an outcry from worried relatives or arrest by the country’s authoritarian government. Susso asked that only his last name, common in eastern Gambia, be used in this article.

In the weeks before his trip, he veiled himself in routine, waking every day at 5 and working on the rice farm of the village’s richest family. He played on the floor with his children, most of them half-clothed in torn shirts and underwear, telling them nothing of his plan.

Then, one day in May, Susso opened a drawer hidden under a yellow blanket and removed a small metal box with a silver padlock. He counted the money: 17,000 dalasi, about $500. It had taken him three years. It was enough to begin the journey north.

Twice a week, a bus called the “TA Express,” full of young men wearing sandals and carrying small bags, clatters past Dampha Kunda on its way to Agadez, a desert city in Niger that smugglers use as a way station on the route to Libya and Europe.

Soon, Susso told himself, he would be on it.

“The Western Route,” experts call the web of migrant trails from Gambia, Senegal and Mali that now lead to North Africa. But Gambians have a different name for the dangerous path to Europe: The Backway.

“Say No to the Backway,” reads a government banner near Susso’s village, with a picture of a boat capsized in the ocean.

“Backway bad way,” says a song funded by the U.S. Embassy in Gambia and played on the radio here.

Across Africa, there are different paths to Europe and different reasons for leaving. In Somalia, refugees flee the brutal al-Shabab rebels, following an “Eastern route” winding through Sudan. In Eritrea, they escape a harsh military regime.

And Susso’s reasons? He walked by them one day in the scorching heat shortly before he would depart, homes in sandy lots with numbers painted on the walls.

A young woman looks out the window of a home that was built with money sent from a relative living in Europe in Perai Village, Gambia. (Jane Hahn for The Washington Post)

House number 1027, a mud-baked hut, was getting a cinderblock addition, thanks to money from a relative in Spain. House 301 boasted a flat-screen television, thanks to remittances from Germany. And House 311 had a big red tractor.

“So much money,” he sighed.

Photo gallery

In Gambia, desperation leads many to embark on a ‘Backway’ journey as high unemployment and poverty fuel an exodus from sub-Saharan Africa. Click on the image for more scenes from Gambia.

Poverty had once imposed a kind of uniformity here — every house with a thatched roof and dirt floor, every meal a small portion of rice and okra, every job tending to patches of rice on a small subsistence farm.

Then the wealth gap that had always separated Europe and Africa began to insinuate itself here. If you had a relative in Europe, you were rich. If not, you remained stuck on the edge of survival.

It filled Susso with an envy that bordered on anger. He was 39, broad-shouldered and sleepy-eyed, older and wearier than most of the men making the journey north.

Susso could afford only two meals a day for his family. He knew he would have to pull his four sons out of school in their early teens, so they could work his small rice field or make money elsewhere. He shared his two-room home with 12 people, including his brother, nieces and nephews, a bedsheet hanging where the front door should be.

Like so many Gambians, no matter how much he was willing to work, his ambition yielded almost nothing.

A growing number of Gambians are literate, but with “little chance at employment that matches their skills, just like China by the 1960s and India by the 1970s,” said Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration. “So they do the rational thing and they leave.”

The Gambian government hasn’t helped. Its longtime dictator, President Yahya Jammeh, has preached a life of subsistence. He has created a bizarre mythology around himself as a man who could cure AIDS and threatened to personally slit the throats of gay men. He has brushed off the thousands of young men fleeing his country as failures and bad Muslims.

But even the farmers of Dampha Kunda knew migrants were the true success stories. Twenty percent of Gambia’s gross domestic product now comes from remittances, according to the World Bank, one of the highest percentages in Africa. It’s a nation with almost no industry or valuable natural resources, where the government dominates what little private sector exists.

“The only people who can make any money in The Gambia are those very close to the president. If not, you’re making $100 a month, if that,” said C. Omar Kebbeh, an economist and expert in Gambian migration, now at the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Not far from Susso’s house, there was a massive billboard with a picture of Jammeh, smiling in a white cap.

“Grow what you eat and eat what you grow,” it said.

For Susso, that policy had one palpable impact.

“We’re hungry,” he said. “We’re always hungry.”

The home of Foday Ceesay, who has six family members spread across Europe and is said to have the nicest compound in Dampha Kunda Village. (Jane Hahn for The Washington Post)

Susso had memorized the way Dampha Kunda looked from eight feet off the ground, as he bumped through the rice fields atop a big red tractor. The new two-story houses rose above the old, mud-colored huts. Across much of the village’s cropland, plants were ailing. With the rising prices, few people could afford fertilizer.

The tractor was an extraordinary luxury in a place where almost no one owned a car. But it didn’t belong to Susso. Its owner lived in Europe.

The first major wave of Gambians left villages like Dampha Kunda in the 1990s, mostly for Spain. By 2010, there were 65,000 Gambians abroad, around 4 percent of the population. One of the men sending money home was Alagi Ceesay, the owner of the tractor.

Ceesay had left for Europe in 2002. Back then, the journey was expensive and often futile. Because Libya’s borders were well patrolled, migrants traveled through Tunisia. Still, they were typically apprehended before crossing the Mediterranean.

Ceesay made it through. He found a job in a factory in Italy, where the economy was booming, and authorities looked the other way when men arrived from Africa to work.

Ceesay sent between 200 and 300 euros home a month — as much as $450. His family tore down their home with its thatched roof and built two large, rectangular buildings out of concrete. Ceesay’s photo now hangs on a cream-colored wall, as if he were surveying his grounds from the frame, a proud man in a shiny brown suit.

“Life has been good to us, praise God,” said Foday Ceesay, his brother, sitting beneath the picture.

By 2008, Ceesay was earning enough to send $9,000 back to Dampha Kunda in a single Western Union transfer — enough for a down payment on the big, red tractor.

Susso has been driving the tractor for three years for the family, earning around $5 a day.

“All day, all I think is that I wish this tractor was mine,” he said.

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By 2009, cellphones had arrived in Dampha Kunda, and Susso’s battered silver Nokia began to fill with numbers of Gambians in Europe. Their boats had arrived, but many of them had been taken directly to an immigration detention center, which Gambians referred to unironically as the “campus.” They could spend months or years there, seeking legal status. The more you picked away at the stories of those who had made it to Europe, the slimmer Susso’s chances seemed to be of succeeding.

“I know what the risks are. I know it’s very hard,” he said. “Making it to Europe is luck.”

Susso’s family hadn’t had much luck. One of his cousins had been left by his smugglers to die in the Libyan desert. Another had drowned at sea. Susso himself had made two previous attempts, and both had failed. He couldn’t even swim.

Susso knew the realities, but it was as if poverty had narrowed his field of vision. He obsessed over the success stories, the men like Ceesay.

He thought about how much wiser he would be with the money. He would send his children to private school. His family would eat meat for dinner. He would build a more beautiful compound than Ceesay’s, one that wouldn’t flood during the rainy season.

“It’s worth risking my life,” he said. “The Backway is my only chance.”

Susso, 38, plays with his children, niece and nephew in his home in Dampha Kunda Village. He has saved 17,000 dalasi (about $500) and plans to use a portion to fund his journey. (Jane Hahn for The Washington Post)

Here was Susso’s plan: in the city of Agadez, Niger, he would meet a smuggler who would take him to Libya. And from Libya, after working and saving more money, he would board the boat to Italy. The development of the migrant route meant he could pay for the journey piece by piece, one smuggler connecting him to the next. If everything went right, the trip would cost around $2,000.

When he revealed his plans to a few people, even the ones who disagreed with his decision were hesitant to admonish him. A few days before he boarded the bus, Susso went to the village’s imam, Saikou Drummeh.

Drummeh convened a group of men who had studied the Koran, and they prayed over Susso. It wore on the imam to see a succession of men leave on the dangerous odyssey; he had lost his own brother to the Backway when the man’s boat capsized.
“But what can I do?” the imam said. “They’ve already made up their minds. There is nothing for them here.”

Late year, the U.S. Embassy held a concert called “Say No to Backway,” paying 12 musicians to record songs about illegal migration and perform them in an amphitheater.

“But not many people came,” said Fattoumattah Sandeng, one of the performers. “A lot of people are planning to go the Backway, and they didn’t see the reason to go to a concert like that.”

Even Gambian migrants themselves are trying to persuade their countrymen to stay home. Nfalamin Gassama, a Gambian in Italy, started a Facebook group called “Difficulties faced by migrants in Libya” to underscore threats of kidnapping and extortion.
Instead of deterring people, though, Gassama was flooded with messages from people who needed a smuggler’s contact or more money to pay their way.

“The whole country is running for their lives,” he said.

A bus that serves as the beginning of 'the Backway' journey with a final destination in Agadez, Niger, departs from Banjul. (Jane Hahn for The Washington Post)

The white bus pulled up in downtown Banjul, Gambia’s capital, on a warm Friday night, glittery streamers hanging from its windshield and palm tree air fresheners dangling from the ceiling.

The men waiting for it were typing text messages and making final calls on their cellphones to their families. A 19-year-old named Amadou was dialing his smuggler in Niger, but the call wasn’t going through.

“He told me to call him, but he doesn’t answer,” Amadou said, exasperated.

Some of the men sitting at the bus stop in the 100-degree heat clutched winter coats. They had been warned that in the lands north of Libya, they should be prepared for rain and cold.

Photo gallery

Filled with promise and hope, thousands of young Gambian men are making the dangerous trek to Europe in search of a better life. Click on the image for more photos of the ‘Backway’ bus.

The journey through West Africa to Libya once could take months. Now, thanks to the bus, it’s a six-day drive.

The men awaiting the bus hardly look like men at all, each in his late teens or early 20s. One sold a laptop to afford the $150 bus ticket. Another worked for a year baking bread at a restaurant. Another got a loan from a neighbor.

A skinny man working at the bus station came out to survey the crowd.

“The journey is step by step. This is the first one,” he said.

It was dark when the bus left Banjul, driving through the city’s sprawl, past stores called European Fashions, Swiss Secondhand Goods, German Enterprise. It continued on Gambia’s only highway, a two-lane road that splits vast acres of scrubland.

It passed the village of Dumbuto, where last month a teenage boy quietly sold his family’s only cow to fund his journey. It passed the house of 20-year-old Buba, who had been kidnapped in Libya on his own journey. His brother, Lamin, was repairing bicycles for $5 a day to pay the kidnappers their $350 ransom.

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The television on the bus played an American action movie starring Will Smith, flashing scenes of car chases and money falling from the sky. Amadou’s smuggler finally called him back.

“Let me know when you get to Agadez,” he said.

It was well after midnight when the bus approached Susso’s village. He was sleeping in the one room he shares with his wife and six children. Under his bed he kept a photo album. A few days earlier, he had pulled out a picture of himself and four friends.

“Everyone else has already gone the Backway,” he said, referring to the men in the photo who had left Gambia.

Susso wasn’t ready to catch the bus that night. He still had a few last-minute things to do. He had to follow the instructions of a traditional healer, giving away food and other charity in exchange for good fortune. He had to buy the small knapsack he would fill with clothes and photographs. He had to reveal his secret to his mother.

He was growing restless. The men in Europe, even the ones at the detention center, were beckoning every day by text message.

“They tell me, ‘We’re here. We made it. It’s okay,’ ” he said.

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