One evening in November 2014, Aissatou Sanogo’s husband came to tell her some startling news.
“Aissatou,” he said, “I’m leaving for Europe” — that very night. He earned a modest salary as a bakery delivery man in Senegal but had dreams of making far more in a European country.
“I told my husband I didn’t want him to leave Senegal and that the little money he brought home was enough for us to live on,” says Sanogo. “But he got angry with me saying I wanted him to stay close to me.” He said reaching Europe was the only way he could properly provide for his family and earn enough to look after his sick father.
That was the last time Sanogo saw her husband.
It’s been a year since he drowned crossing the Mediterranean. He’s one of probably hundreds of African migrants who’ve drowned on the journey from Africa to Europe. And the numbers keep mounting. In just the past week, there were reports of dozens more drownings. That means more African women have likely joined Sanogo in the growing ranks of migrant widows.
Aissatou Sanogo is 29 and lives in Tambacounda, the main city in eastern Senegal, a region at the epicenter of the migrant exodus from this stable and democratic — though poor — west African nation. We met at the modest home she shares with her ailing father-in-law and the three children she bore during ten happy years of marriage to Souleymane Diaby.
Diaby was one of many young men from eastern Senegal who’ve begun the treacherous 3,300-mile odyssey to Europe. He traveled first to neighboring Mali and onto Niger, then across the Sahara Desert en route to the last stop on land, Libya, where he spent several difficult months. Migrants often have their money stolen and get thrown into jail. And they must run the gauntlet of traffickers to find passage for the crossing to Europe.
They briefly spoke on the phone a few times, says Sanogo. Then, in April last year, her husband called to say he was boarding a boat that was smuggling migrants to Italy. She ended that conversation saying she needed to recharge her cellphone.
That was the last she heard from her husband.
Sanogo has shared her story calmly so far, but at this point the young widow breaks down, weeping quietly. The boat carrying her husband capsized the next day, and he perished in the Mediterranean. Sanogo was told by the Red Cross that, as some Senegalese put it, Souleymane “remained in the water.”
We’re sitting on a king-size bed, and Sanogo stands up to adjust a whirring fan to cool her youngest child, 2-year-old Alioune. The toddler is sprawled on the floor sleeping in the bedroom where we’re talking. Sanogo’s eldest, Issa, who’s 7 — a boy with a strikingly steady gaze and a mournful air about him — is outside with his playful younger sister, 3-year-old Binetou. Their father’s father, who appears to have had a stroke, lies immobile on a bed on the veranda.
Aissatou Sanogo and the many other young widows in this part of Senegal are now coping with the reality of life without their husbands, the breadwinners.
But there’s no official assistance or coordination to bring these women together, says Sanogo. The main focus of nonprofit organizations is helping to resettle returnees — those who have been deported from Europe and repatriated to Senegal — and to try to stop them from migrating again illegally and to stop first-timers as well.
Sory Kaba, a senior official at Senegal’s emigration ministry, told NPR by phone the authorities have difficulty even identifying such widows. “It’s hard to find these widows, because they hide and keep themselves to themselves,” Kaba says. “Can you give me names and numbers?” he responds to when told that journalists visiting the region easily managed to find half a dozen widows. “If we can find them, then we can link these women up with the social and protection services that can help them,” says Kaba.
Twenty-five miles away from Tambacounda city, where Sanogo lives, is the rural village of Dyabougou, near Missirah. Giant shade trees dominate the thatch-roof and earthen huts. Outside a hut that is her father’s grocery shop, Batourou Cisse is on a bench, breastfeeding her son, Sory. He’s 2. Sarta, her 3-year-old daughter, sits close by.
With a look of permanent bewilderment, Cisse relates a similar sorrowful tale to Aissatou Sanogo’s. Cisse’s husband, Mahamadou Sylla, a farmer, also perished at sea, trying to reach Europe in search of a better life for his family. Cisse too expresses a wish to discuss her troubles with other women suffering the same fate but says she wouldn’t know where to start. No official or non-governmental group has been in touch to find out what she’s going through.
That’s nothing new, says Kadiatou Cisse, no relation. This sickly 56-year-old woman lives in a crumbling compound home with her son, two daughters-in-law and five grandchildren, in Balla village. It’s also in the Tambacounda area, a regional crossroads that historically has been a springboard for migration from Senegal.
Cisse says women just have to cope and find a way to feed the family. Her husband emigrated decades ago, when she was pregnant with their last son. She struggled on her own to raise four children, while he sent home remittances when he could. He was deported — she’s not sure from where — and ended up in Cameroon, where Cisse says he settled and started a new family.
She did not use the word “abandoned” but her rheumy eyes were full of pain. She says the bug to migrate has infected their children. Dates are hazy, but her eldest son left for Europe as an undocumented migrant and now lives in Spain, with his wife and children and is sending money home to his sick mother.
Her youngest son tried to get to Italy more than a year ago but was deported from Libya. Cisse says young people are under pressure to leave from family and society, as well as a sense of pride and desperation to prove themselves and succeed. But she is no fan of migration.
“In my view, it’s just not worth it, no it’s really not worth it,” she says. “Illegal migration is no good. We’re full of regrets. Even young women want to leave now. It’s like gangrene, like a cancer among young people.”
Back in Tambacounda, fiddling fondly with a treasured photograph of herself and her husband smiling in happier times, Aissatou Sanogo makes this vow: “I failed to stop my husband leaving Senegal, but the only way any of my children will ever travel to Europe is armed with a plane ticket and valid papers.”