Inside a Gambian village where youth dream Europe

Main street that tears the village into two halves

Main road that tears Salikenni into two halves

Mustapha K Darboe

Irregular migration to Europe often called “back-way” is very popular among the young people in The Gambia but in the village of Salikenni in the North Bank Region, like many others, it is seen as a hope for better future.

For years now the village has been famous for producing the biggest chunk of irregular migrants who leave The Gambia for Europe via the Sahara Desert and subsequently the Mediterranean Sea to Italy and beyond.

A forty-year old farmer leader, Basaikou Kanteh, said the problem has began affecting agricultural productivity in the community.

“Agriculture in Salikenni is based on human labour and these young people who are leaving are those who provide that labour. So when they go, they leave behind a huge vacuum,” Kanteh whose first son, Lamin, left the country since 2014 for Europe via the same desert route, said.

“In the past five years the number of youths who left this village is close to 1000.

Lying about 73 kilometers from Banjul the country’s capital, Salikenni is one of the biggest rural settlements in The Gambia with a population of over 5000 people.

People in this rural community survive on subsistence agriculture that often leave them food scared when there are erratic or insufficient rainfalls.

Salikenni was also one of the places in the country that were first to have been introduced to western education with their school built in 1951, 14 years before The Gambia became independent.

Sainey Fatajo, 53, is the principal of Salikenni Senior Secondary School who has been resident in the community since 2011.

He said two of his teachers have left for Europe via the desert route in 2015 adding that even his school children are often heard talking about “back-way” in classrooms.

“Education is now very low in this community… These young people think that even if you are not educated you can go to Europe and get money and come back. Students are even speaking about it in classrooms,” he said.

“Two of our teachers, Baba and Lamin, have also left for Europe via the back-way in 2015. …About 10 students have also taken the same route in 2015, most of them in grade 9. As we speak, 3 students have left school to assert pressure on their families to sponsor them to take the route.”

Students taking English lessons at Salikenni school

Upper basic students inside a classroom at Salikenni 

According to a government statistics, 48% of Gambians are living below a dollar per day with an unemployment rate of 30%.

However, poverty in rural Gambia is more intensive, 73.9%, as compared to urban areas, 32.7, thus a person living in a rural area is twice likely to be poor than his urban counterparts.

Moreover, agriculture that employs majority of rural Gambians has recently slumped from employing 71 to 31%, showing a decline of 40% in less than 2 decades.

And the principal said poverty is the biggest motivating factors.

“The biggest driving factor for irregular migrants is poverty…Peer influence is also playing a role,” the principal said.

“The fact that these young people are seeing uneducated people going to Europe through back-way and are building elegant compounds back home, they no longer look at education as a means of acquiring better life.”

For fear of backlash from family members and friends, young people who intend to go to Europe through back-way in Salikenni, as in many communities in the country, don’t inform their relatives.

“The village is almost empty of youth because of youth migration,” Lamin, whose nephew recently left the country for Mauritania, said.

Lamin’s nephew, also call Lamin, and 4 other teenagers within ages of 17 to 18 have mobilized themselves by the end of February 2016 and left the village for Mauritania.

“There was no way you can stop them,” Lamin said. “When these young people are going they don’t inform anyone.”

One of the young boys who went with Lamin, Sanna aged 17, is a twin and his twin brother he left behind is also thinking of going if he has money.

“If you stay here and get educated you don’t have job after completion,” Sainey also 17 noted.

The twin’s father has also left the country for Italy via the same route and he has just finished building a cement house in their compound.

The last decade has seen rise in the construction of houses in the community by “Semesters”, a local cliché used to describe people who have gone to Europe.

But the problem of irregular migration is not just limited to young uneducated people; even educated and tertiary school going students do take the route.

“If I have money, I will leave Gambia even tomorrow,” Ebrima, 20, also a native of Salikenni, revealed.  “What is here that I should stay for?”

Ebrima is an accounting student at a local college in the country but he has no fate in what Gambia could offer to a young man like him.

Like Ebrima, his best friend, Ousman who was on his final year studying Development Studies at a local college has left for Mauritania with the ambition of making it further to Libya and to Italy.

Ousman whose family has asked him to come back but refused has taken his college fees, over 20, 000 dalasi, and left without informing any member of his family.

“We have only got to know he has travelled to Mauritania when he called us after his arrival,” his sister, Fatou said.

But not every family in the community has a good story to tell.

Bafanding Kanteh, 26, was presumed dead by his family while he languished in Al-Karari prison in Misirata, Libya, where he spent over 6 months.

Kanteh said he has attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea three times but failed.

“I have spent over six months in Al-karari prison in Misirata. I was arrested on three different occasions and I paid D35 000 ($875) for my release in each of those arrests,” he said.

“I have also attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea three times and failed. In total, I have spent over D300, 000 ($7, 500) to go to Italy but failed.”

“The smugglers beat some people to death and when they are transporting people across Tripoli they put us in a 40-foot container. There are still many Gambians in Libyan jails,” he added.

Like many Gambians, Bafanding left Salikenni on February 26 in 2012 and travelled to Mauritania, Morocco, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Benin before he went to Libya.

He said he went to many African countries to work in order to get some money to pay the human traffickers when he gets to Libya.

After many arrests, sufferings and failed sea trips, Bafanding was evacuated back in The Gambia with 20 Gambian youths in 2015.

“My mother couldn’t believe it when she saw me… She thought I was dead,” he said with flicker of a smile.

Bafanding is a professional carpenter and currently has a workshop in Serrekunda where he makes furniture.

He, however, said business is not doing well and if it continues like that he would try his luck on the route again.

This feature was done for Anadolu Agency

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