Bourang Ba was a young farmer in Sitacourou — a sleepy village of scattered thatched roof dwellings where cattle chomp on hay in courtyards. Last year, the father of two set out for Europe, leaving behind his son, daughter and young wife, Nialina. Like his two half-brothers who had already migrated to Spain, he hoped to send money home for the family.
Bourang Ba never made it to Europe. He drowned in the Mediterranean en route.
“He wanted to do his bit and provide for his relatives, so he left without telling me,” sobs Wassa Ba, Bourang Ba’s father.
The young man, in his 20s, is one of many victims. A little more than two weeks ago, a group of hundreds of migrants from Africa drowned trying to cross to Europe.
They were primarily from East Africa, but the migrants are the latest in a wave of people leaving the continent to seek a better life. Many in the exodus are youth from Senegal — particularly the eastern part of that nation.
It’s at busy bus stations like one in Tambacounda, the main city in eastern Senegal, that young men from villages like Missirah, Kothiary, Makacoulibantang and Sitacourou leave to become migrants.
They first cross the border to neighboring Mali — and then, via Niger, onto Libya. Their ultimate destination is Europe — hoping to make fame and fortune. But many of these odysseys end in despair and even tragedy.
It’s hard to put your finger on statistics for the number of young, undocumented men leaving eastern Senegal — the epicenter of the exodus — for Europe. Local media reported that this region alone, surrounding Tambacounda, accounted for an alarming number of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea last year.
“Some reports said at least 50 local young men drowned in the Mediterranean at the height of the migration sea crossings a year ago,” says Hubert Ndeye, a senior official in the regional government.
Ndeye says the Tambacounda area has always been a regional crossroads and source of migrants.
“But that has dramatically increased recently, because of the number of local people who’ve drowned, who’ve been lost at sea,” he says.
Undeterred, young men are still heading out. A startling reality is that many villages are devoid of men of working age, leaving behind women, children and the elderly.
Unemployment in the area is high. Official figures put the rate at more than 36 percent in 2013, in a region that is predominantly poor, rural, farming country. The government is encouraging young people to farm to help counter poverty, but the idea has not caught on. Many young people say you cannot earn enough.
Remittances from migrants abroad have helped improve the lives of many families. Speaking from a thatched wooden patio, Wassa Ba stretched out his arm and proudly pointed toward an adjacent bungalow. The concrete structure was built with money from his two sons overseas, he says proudly.
Did those contributions from his half-brothers in Europe push Bourang Ba on his own fateful journey?
Wassa Ba doesn’t see it this way. He says Bourang was a farmer and was working the land, so there was no need for him to leave home. Then again, the father also said poverty drove his son to migrate.
But family does appear to play a key role in a young man’s decision to head for Europe by the back door.
“It’s not just a case of these youths taking off,” Ndeye says. “It’s about honor among the young who see siblings or other family members overseas building beautiful villas in their villages — and often it’s the mothers and fathers who push their children to leave, so they can do the same.”
Senegalese commentator Tidiane Sy says pride and family pressure help fuel migration.
“If you talk to the young people, there’s something they say here — ‘beugue tekki.’ Tekki means to become, I want to be someone, I want to succeed,” Sy says. “It’s not just being someone, it’s getting recognition, being among those who count. The idea is — I want to be more important, I want to be among the VIPs of this society, of this community. I deserve the respect that everyone gets. You can think it’s false pride.”
So there is pressure — both direct and indirect, says Sy.
“That’s how the society works. In conversation, people talk about who has achieved what and done this or that for his family,” concluding that those abroad are more successful, he says. “They get more respect than you who stays here and is struggling.”
“This daily struggle to survive — It’s a real bad feeling that you come back home, your mother is there, you can’t support her, you can’t support your kids, you can’t support your wives,” says Sy. “When you can’t do it, it looks like you’re a second-class citizen. In society you don’t get the respect you deserve.”
Bourang Ba’s widow, Nialina, is now on her own, looking after their two children, 4-year-old Sona and the toddler, Bourang, named for his father. Nialina Ba is probably in her late teens or early 20s and is painfully shy. Her face looks drawn for such a young woman.
It’s hard to get her to say much. But a tiny gesture says it all. She opens the zipper of a large suitcase in the small hut she shares with her children and pulls out the one enlarged, laminated photograph she has of her husband. Tears well up in her eyes.
A short walk away, at her father-in-law’s compound, we’re saying goodbye. I ask Wassa Ba if, after his son Bourang died trying to get to Europe, he’d stop any of his other children from leaving.
To my surprise, this 66-year-old father, who has a wheezy, asthmatic cough, looks me in the eye and tells me that, as we speak, two more of his sons and a nephew are preparing to head to Europe, without legal documents, hoping for a better life.
With your blessing, I ask?
“Absolutely,” he replies, adding that any youngster who comes to tell him “I’m going” will have his support and his prayers.