VKana sir says he has seen four people die from close quarters. Refugees on a boat en route from Morocco to Spain. Spontaneously crashed into the open sea. The 51-year-old didn’t know if it was heat stroke or thirst. He remembers the Spanish coast guard towing the boat to a Spanish port and immediately taking it to a refugee shelter upon arrival. 2006 it was.
Six weeks later, Sar was deported. Return to Senegal and return to the remote island of Diamniadio. The Ghanaian sir is still there – and says: “If I get the chance to escape again, I’ll definitely try a second time.”
Anyone who spends some time in Diamniadio will understand why not only Ghana sir but many other villagers want to leave. Nestled in the delta of the great Saloum River amidst mangrove forests, this island may indeed be a picturesque gem. A few miles away is a bird-watching resort, but life here is tough.
The half-ruined concrete houses have no electricity, and only the mosque’s loudspeakers are powered by a generator. Almost everyone in the village is a fisherman. They attribute their gilt decline to overfishing, environmental pollution and climate change — cumulative pressures that threaten to destroy Senegal’s centuries-old fishing heritage. And they speak of the hopelessness of many small-scale fishermen that migration to Europe is the only option.
It’s a quiet day in Diamniadio. The day’s catch is brought in and brightly painted wooden boats – called pirogues – rest on the island’s littered sandy beaches. Three fishermen are repairing the hull of a boat with a loud noise.
Kana stands a few meters away on Sarr Island’s concrete jetty. Sarr is a thin man in a blue tank top who constantly chews on a piece of toothbrush stick – his age is unknown at first glance. Only the short gray sticks and the tired, grim facial expressions reveal how much the fishermen’s hard work is maturing the people.
Sarr, who has been at sea since childhood, says how the situation for small-scale fishermen has deteriorated in recent decades. It started in the early 80s. Large boats from abroad have arrived in Senegal. “From Korea, France, Spain, Italy.” And they would have emptied the water on the beach.
Smaller boats are now forced to venture further into the open sea as fish stocks dwindle. Dangerous. “I know many people who stayed at sea,” says Sir. They drowned at sea because small pirogues were not well suited for navigating the open sea.
The problem of overfishing has plagued Senegal for decades. Fisheries off the West African country’s coast are particularly rich and diverse. For decades, the Senegalese government freely granted fishing licenses to European and Asian investors and wealthy locals. This is a disaster for traditional small-scale fishermen.
More than half a million Senegalese work directly or indirectly in the industry, with many fishing as their only viable source of income. For about ten years the government has tried to curb the exploitation of coastal waters by not issuing new licenses and reducing recreational non-fishing hours, but this has not alleviated the plight of coastal fishermen. “The big boats are coming back later,” Sar says.
The reality is that small-scale fishermen in West Africa’s contested waters are missing out on large boats and fish processing businesses, and no processing and marketing opportunities to make big money from their work. The lack of infrastructure is particularly evident in Diamniadio.
Due to the lack of electricity, residents cannot operate cold storages or fish processing plants to process and monetize their own fish. The result: the catch cannot be profitably resold, and the fishermen find no opportunities for livelihood.
Ghana Sar didn’t just start his perilous journey to Europe in the village, or at least try to. Many people in the village here have already tried to migrate. Under the only sun canopy in the island’s barren harbor, other fishermen recount their attempts to escape.
Friends of Ghana Sir also tried to go to Europe in 2006 with their little pyros. But off the coast of Mauritania, they ran into a storm with small, barely seaworthy boats and had to turn back. Others from the village – so the residents say – made the deadly sea voyage and now live in Spain. They tell realistic stories – hard work, poor pay. No one in Diamniadio has any illusions about a carefree life in Europe. But in general opinion it is definitely better than here.
Prosperity of the returnee
But the longing for a better life in the neighboring continent to the north is nurtured not only by successful exiles but also by returnees. By people like Diamé Sarr (many on the island share the same surname).
Diamé Sarr is quickly identified as the mayor of the small community and its wealthiest resident. Instead of cheap gym clothes, he wears a light blue dress. A gold watch is engraved on his hand and he lives in the most beautiful and well-furnished house on the island. Sar lived in Spain for 30 years, where he achieved relative prosperity.
Now he is an advocate for his village and trying to persuade Senegalese authorities to connect the island to electricity. He also hopes that foreign aid agencies will fund a modern fish processing plant in the small community. Paradoxically, however, the returnee’s prosperity proves that Diamniadio can achieve more abroad than he did.
Ghana sir is confident that he can do the same in Europe. He can swim, sail, cruise around the ocean so he can earn enough money for his wife and three children to live a better life in Europe. Many in the Salome Delta, including those who have yet to embark on the long journey to Europe, express similar optimism.
For example, there is Ibrahim Deuf. The 44-year-old has been guarding the island’s hotel complex overnight. For that he earns almost three euros a day. He is also a fisherman. At one point he was unable to support the family. “The government has sold our sea,” he says bitterly, referring to foreign ships that are draining the sea like other fishermen. He sits on a camp chair at the hotel door while talking and stands guard. He has left the ocean that once provided his income.
Diouf wants to go to Europe and earn money there for a few years and then come back. That was his plan. Because there is no point of view in his hometown. But he really didn’t want to leave. In fact, he feels at home here. “If I could finance my life here, I would never leave my homeland.” But he has given up hope that this is possible.
This story was created as part of a research mission by the German Society for the United Nations.
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