Neighbourhood boys and the Babylon Dream

Rudychaimg / Wikimedia

The numbers of boys that converge on the bantabas of Fajikunda have been dwindling steadily in recent years. Many youngsters have been heading off in droves to Europe through the ‘back way’ –crossing the Sahara Desert to Libya and the Mediterranean Sea to Italy.

Gambian youths, like those from other West African countries, are very much caught in the maw of the illegal migration monster. In the past government made efforts to check the trend by clamping down on human traffickers, and apprehending young people attempting to leave the country in groups.

The authorities also announced that they have built youth centres across the country where people can acquire skills that will enable them earn a decent living. At first the government seemed to be winning the war against illegal migration, as there were occasional national news stories about the arrest of human traffickers and would-be illegal migrants being stopped by immigration authorities while trying to leave the country. But it wasn’t for long.

The migrants simply changed tactics. Porous borders meant that someone from The Gambia can easily enter neighbouring Senegal as easy as you can stroll from one street to the other in your neighbourhood. Once inside Senegal, it is just a matter of getting a bus or taxi heading to Bamako, capital of the Republic of Mali. From there they board another bus to Niger Republic. The government seems helpless to do much in such circumstances.

Like in other African countries, many of the migrants from Gambia are below the age of 35. Very many are in their early and mid-twenties. While discussing and planning a back way trip, they are adamant that there is no future for any young person in Gambia, and Africa.

For decades travelling to the West has been a phenomenon in this society. Here Europe is fondly referred to as ‘Babylon’ while Gambians based in the West are called ‘Semesters’. Also like in many other African countries, the Dollar or Euro when changed into the local currency, the dalasi, becomes a lot of money.

Thus semesters are able to build houses for their families, pay school fees for relatives, send parents to Mecca etc. Little wonder that whenever these ‘semesters come visiting they command so much respect from the young and old alike. Every parent wants his or her child to be a semester, while many a girl wants to get married to a semester.

Though tough economic conditions in Europe in recent years meant that African migrants are no longer able to remit a lot of money home, this has not dampened the enthusiasm to migrate to Europe among locals. Rather, the reverse has been the case. Photographs of relatives and friends taken in Europe and sent home seem to overawe the young people. Everything about Europe and America tickles their imagination.

They dream it, fantasize on it, and desperately want to live it. Many have the opportunity to get well educated, and with hard work, cut a career for themselves. News of tragedies that befell some friends or loved ones in the Sahara Desert or in the Mediterranean Sea seems not to faze any of these boys. Usually in any society, there are the steel-hearted and the lily-livered; here there is no dividing line when it comes to braving the perils of the desert and the raging Mediterranean; when it is suggested to him that risking one’s life is a combination of impudent bravado and fool hardiness, the Gambian youth that has made up his mind to migrate usually gets philosophical: “Death awaits everyone, somewhere, someday.”   Many Parents in Fajikunda are constantly harassed by their sons to raise money that will enable them travel to Europe through the ‘back way’. Sedat Camara (not his real name), a 64-year-old man, is in that category. When one of his sons, Modou, a grade nine dropout succeeded in entering Italy through the ‘back way’ in 2014, his half-brother, Abdulie, also a grade nine dropout, started harassing his father to provide the money for him to migrate. “He refuses to speak to me these days,” Camara, a pensioner, lamented. He was not too enthusiastic for another of his sons risking the perilous journey through the Sahara Desert and the Mediterannean Sea. News occasionally filter in about boys from the neighbourhood who perished in the desert or sea.

The most recent was a young man with a flourishing shop along the same street. One day he decided to sell off everything in his shop and travel to Europe. Unfortunately, he drowned in the sea, leaving his young wife a widow. “I don’t want to lose any of my children like that,” Camara said. He feels Modou’s journey was one risk too many, and would rather Abdulie had emulated his big brother, Assan, obtained a degree in economics from a Moroccan university where he went to study on a Gambian government scholarship. He did so well that he was offered an international job on his return.

Assan is one of the boys in the neigbourhood now reaping the rewards of hard academic work. His friend, Buba, from a neighbouring compound, also got a Gambian government scholarship to study in Malaysia. Upon his graduation and return home, a brief stint with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) was rewarded by another scholarship for a post-graduate degree programme somewhere in Eastern Europe. Momodou is another success story. Refusing to be detracted by the illegal migration bug, he concentrated on his studies, and eventually gained admission into the University of The Gambia (UTG) to study accounting.  Upon graduation he got a job with a leading financial institution in the country.

It is rather unfortunate that many boys in Fajikunda are not ready to emulate the likes of Assan, Buba and Momodou. They only want to cross into Europe via North Africa, like many of their relatives have already done. Someone like 17-year-old Sulayman has made up his mind. Ever since his 25-year-old brother, Lamin succeeded in entering Italy, Sulayman, who dropped out of Grade 8, quit his job as an apprentice mechanic, and is now hell bent on going back way. “All I need is D10 000 [US$200],” he says. Sulayman and others are not really bothered by the fact that many people who entered Europe in the past few years have not been sending money home.

It is rather an irony that while boys from Fajikunda and other places in The Gambia hope to boost the economic fortunes of their families by migrating to Europe, their departure will also impact negatively on the Gambian economy. It is usual for able-bodied young men to converge on their native villages during the country’s short rainy season to help in the farm work. Fewer boys are available to work in the farms now, as many youths in the rural areas have also embarked on illegal migration. Mbye, a 36-year-old Fajikunda resident, captures the seriousness of the situation: He said: “Fula [Fulani] boys resident in the villages do sell cattle from the family herd in order to raise the money to travel back way, as a result, the villages are becoming increasingly empty of young people.”

There is every indication that the villages and neighbourhoods like Fajikunda might get emptier if the illegal migration bug is not gotten rid of soonest.

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