By HEIDI VOGT and MARTA FALCONI
The Associated Press
Saturday, July 1, 2006; 11:42 AM
KEBEMER, Senegal -- Maimouna Niang lives pretty well for a young mother in a dusty corner of West Africa. Although her house sits on a dirt road and a sheep pen occupies half her yard, she also has a DVD player, a phone line in her house and an elegant wooden crib for her 1-year-old son.
What's missing, she says, is her husband, Cheikh Dia, who has just returned to Italy and won't be back for a year.
For much of the year, many of the able-bodied men of this town in northern Senegal live in Europe, where they work in factories or sell watches and knickknacks on the street. They spend part of their earnings on food and rent, then wire the rest to families back home.
Once a month, Niang visits Western Union to collect her $400 or so _ sometimes more, sometimes less, but always enough to keep her comfortable, she says.
These Kebemer families have achieved the better life pursued by thousands of young men who migrated to Europe, first by air, now on hazardous ocean voyages in wooden boats. Yet those in Kebemer speak of long separations, broken marriages and men stuck in Europe for years, undocumented, ever fearful of arrest and deportation.
Niang, 32, says her husband came home sick on his last visit. "He has rheumatism, and with the cold in Europe, it's difficult for him," she says, sitting on a living room couch and bouncing her son on her lap. "But here there isn't any work. Over there it's better."
"Over there" is Milan, where the 39-year-old describes his life in stronger words than his wife.
It's "a mess," he says when contacted by phone, adding that he's "absolutely unhappy." Dia refuses to go into details, saying only, "I just wish I could be there, near my family."
Most of the migrant men of Kebemer were lucky enough to leave for Europe when it was still relatively easy to fly there and enter with or without a work visa. Dia's theology degree got him work in Senegal but at very low pay, so he flew to France in 1994 on a tourist visa. Once in France, he paid a French woman about $500 to sneak him across the border into Italy.
A few months later an amnesty was declared for illegals in Italy and Dia became a legal worker.
Today, as Europe moves to curb immigration, thousands of Africans try to get in by boat. Hundreds have drowned. Authorities on Spain's Canary Islands, the nearest European territory to West Africa, say the number of arrivals has doubled to more than 10,000 so far this year.
Dia says even with documents, life is hard. The car parts plant where he was working closed just before he left for Senegal on his yearly visit and he had to find a new job when he returned. He didn't meet his son until the baby was seven months old.
Niang's neighbors in Kebemer include one woman with a husband in Paris and another with a husband in Florence, Italy. At this time of year, in this town of about 15,000, "it's finding the men that's difficult," says Mamadou Kebe. He explains that most of the men come home only for a couple months around August; those left are too young, too old, or too poor to leave.
"Here, there's no work," he says. "I'm here, but I don't work." At 49, he says, it's too late for him to establish a life abroad.
The results of success are evident in Kebemer. A two-story cement house with an arched colonnade is built by money from Europe. Nearby, other families live in traditional thatched huts in dirt compounds, fenced off by woven straw.
While Senegal, a Muslim nation of about 12 million, is peaceful and relatively well run by the region's standards, 54 percent of its people live below the poverty line and about half the population is unemployed, according to 2001 estimates.
But success abroad means hard compromises and a whole new set of risks.
In Florence, where throngs of African men in brightly colored robes sell watches and bags in the shadow of the city's glorious Renaissance monuments, Malick Gueye describes a Spartan life.
"I have very little spare time and I have no Italian friends," he says.
"Life is expensive in Florence, there's no time to go out for dinner, or to go dancing and if you don't do this ... you stand little chance of making friends," he said. And besides, he said, he would rather devote his waking hours to earning money to send home.
Gueye, 40, is from another north Senegal town, one of many whose men are in Europe. In Senegal he taught the Quran, a respected but low-paid job. Like Dia, he left for Italy more than 10 years ago. He visits his wife and 4-year-old son once a year. In Florence, he shares a flat with five Senegalese men.
Italy adopted a tough law against illegal migrants in 2002 that threatens immediate expulsion, and many in the community were reticent to talk. Though Gueye now has working papers, he still seemed nervous about telling his story; he refused to be photographed and insisted on meeting in a piazza in central Florence. Throughout the interview, his eyes darted around warily.
At midday in Niang's home, women gather and tell stories of men who have gone bad, or who haven't made it in Europe. One left to study and never returned. Another tried to go with fake papers and was deported. Niang tells of men who sell drugs or cheat on their wives in Europe, or go there for a year and stay indefinitely.
"I have a friend who had a visa to go to Paris for two months. He took the train to Italy and he can't come back now because he doesn't have papers. His wife is here, and she had a child just after he left," Niang says.
Fatou Mbeigne perches on a bed holding her daughter and says her husband would like to go but can't, because he can't raise the $6,000 needed to pay someone with connections to help him get a visa.
Migrating for work isn't new to West Africa. Men have always followed the jobs to big cities like Dakar, or Abidjan in Ivory Coast, and wives are used to depending on extended family members. But many in Kebemer say jobs are fewer now in West Africa.
Nor are they plentiful in Europe anymore.
"I found five different jobs right when I arrived," Dia says. "Now, you can go months without finding work."
"Europe before was good," says Dame M'Boup, a father who was still in Kebemer beyond the typical vacation season because he was recovering from a car accident that injured his hand. "But now it's not good. Everyone is there." M'Boup arrived in Europe in 1987 on a Belgian visa, then sneaked into Italy, where he heard the best jobs were. He now sells watches on the street in Pisa.
There are about 2.8 million legal migrants in Italy, according to the Italian Interior Ministry. ISMU, a think tank specializing in migration, estimates another 500,000 are there illegally.
M'Boup's wife walks into the room where he and his friends are reclining on sofas, watching television, and hands him his young son. He bounces the boy on his knee as he talks, smiling into his son's face. Asked if he would take his wife with him to Europe, he laughs and says he might not be able to hold onto her there.
"If you take your wife to Europe, she'll demand a divorce as soon as she gets there!" he says, as his compatriots nod in laughing agreement. The joke has a kernel of bitter truth. Some of the men say they would be embarrassed for their wives to see the lowly life they lead in Europe, and possibly leave them for a better earner.
Senegalese government figures from 2004 say about 170,000 Senegalese live abroad, more than 80 percent of them men. The women left behind often know little about how their husbands live.
"He sells things," says Nogaye Beye, of her husband in Florence. She doesn't ask him much about his work. "The life in Italy is hard, so when he comes here he only rests."
"He does commerce, I think watches," said Kine Sall, whose husband lives in Paris. He calls her every week and sends money once a month. Is she curious or worried about his life abroad? "I can't judge him there," Sall says. "Only God can judge him."
Sall says cousins and brothers do the construction and yard work that her husband might otherwise do. Still, Cheikh Lo, from a group that works with the migrants in Italy and their families back in Senegal, says life is hard for the women.
"One woman alone in a house, if you give her an electricity bill and she can't read or write, she can't do anything," says Lo.
Back in Milan, Dia brushes off questions about the specifics of his daily life, praises God and cuts short the conversation with a wary, noncommittal assessment of his life 2,600 miles away in Italy: "I have everything an immigrant should have."
Associated Press writers Heidi Vogt reported from Kebemer, Senegal, and Marta Falconi reported from Florence, Italy.