Senegal’s youths dream of Europe

Senegal was once the starting point for thousands of Africans trying to reach a better life, but has the economic downturn led to a reduction in the numbers seeking a new start? Will Ross reports from the West African state.
Europe-bound African migrants
Europe-bound African migrants

Senegal was once the starting point for thousands of Africans trying to reach a better life, but has the economic downturn led to a reduction in the numbers seeking a new start? Will Ross reports from the West African state.

I could not have ignored Mustapha if I had tried. The young fisherman was wearing a fluorescent yellow football shirt, Barcelona’s away strip to be precise, which must have been designed for games played in thick fog.

Chatting beside his elaborately painted wooden fishing boat in the sun soaked Senegalese fishing village of Yoff, it was clear that Mustapha wanted a lot more than a Spanish football top - he wanted a life in Spain.

“If a boat was setting off tomorrow I would jump in it,” he told me, adding that he had two brothers there already. One works in a factory, the other sells belts and sunglasses on the Spanish streets.

I asked if he had any idea how the Spanish economy was doing. Mustapha said that one of his brothers who supported the entire family back home in Senegal had not sent any money for a few months.

“I hear times are tough there but it must still be better there than here,” he said.

Mustapha introduced me to his friends who were seeking shade under a papyrus shelter, having returned from sea with a load of shiny tuna fish.

We sat on the ground and the message from all these fishermen was along the lines of: “They may be talking about an economic crisis in Europe but if you want a real crisis it’s right here in Senegal.”

A very animated and infuriated Abdoulaye told me that his son left for Spain in a fishing boat five years ago, and was now living a far better life than he was.

“I am 45-years-old and I don’t have half of what he has now, like a nice house and a car,” he said, adding that he would do all he could to send more of his relatives to Europe.

None of these young men referred at any stage to the risks of getting to Europe even though hundreds - probably thousands - have died at sea in recent years.

Senegal looks to Europe more than most countries I have visited. Not so much to Spain, but to the old colonial power, France, which has maintained strong links.

There are even French military bases in the middle of the capital, which makes you wonder who is in charge here.

Boulangeries and patisseries abound, and I spotted a few of those handbag-sized dogs that are a must-have accessory to complete the French look.

The Senegalese president, Abdoulaye Wade, is one of the few African presidents who indulges in a summer holiday. He goes to France, of course, and for the whole of August - naturally.

For many Senegalese, the obvious progression after aspiring to be European is to live there.

In Fass Mbao, another Dakar suburb, I met a man who had lived the good life in Italy for a number of years, but returned to Senegal saying the dream of Eldorado had turned sour.

Wearing his, possibly fake, black-and-white Dolce and Gabbana designer sandals, Vieux was surrounded by electrical appliances.

He had created his own second-hand Senegalese version of Dixons right there in Dakar and was doing swift business.
Vieux had spent several years in Italy where he, too, had been selling belts and sunglasses.

If it were not for the West African street traders, the whole of Europe would be squinting and struggling to keep their trousers up, judging by the number of people I have met who said they made their living selling these goods on the streets.

“I used to be able to work in Italy for just one month and earn enough money to spend the rest of the year living it up in Senegal,” Vieux told me. He said 10 years ago in Italy people would come knocking on the door offering work but not any more.

Issa walked in and took a shine to a huge fridge-freezer. As he tried to figure out how he would get it home, he pointed out that most young Senegalese refuse to believe these stories of an economic crisis in Europe.

“They just see people returning from a few months in Europe and then building a flash house and driving a nice car and they think: ‘I had better go and check this crisis out for myself,’” Issa told me, adding that even if you worked as a civil servant for 15 years you would struggle to match that.

A few minutes later there was a clip-clop sound outside Vieux’s shop and Issa’s fridge-freezer was loaded onto the back of a horse and cart.

I am not sure what the Senegalese highway code says on the issue but the last I saw of Issa, he was headed with his one-horsepower in the direction of a brand new six lane auto route.

On the surface, Senegal does appear to be booming with the new roads and an abundance of glitzy apartment blocks sprouting everywhere.

But much of the development is through money sent home from abroad, and economic crisis or not, Europe will still be the target for many young Senegalese looking to swap the horse and cart life for a Renault in the fast lane.


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