The broken dream of a Senegalese man and his desperate attempt to reach Europe

Published: 3 March 2016 12:43 CET

By Moustapha Diallo, IFRC

From Tambacounda, the largest city in eastern Senegal, to the Libyan capital Tripoli, Aliou Mbow, made a very long and risky journey.

Before deciding to leave his home last February, his friends say he was scared. “We all know the Sahara desert is very long and the journey very difficult, and many people die during the crossing,” they say. But Mbow’s parents are farmers and he himself is unemployed and desperately looking for a job after the failure of last year’s harvest. In addition, he lives in Tambacounda, a region with a long tradition of emigration, and where many agro pastoralist families rely on income from a relative abroad to survive.

Last year, due to erratic rainfall, the harvests were very poor. As a result, there is not enough food for his family to eat. 

“I couldn’t cross my hands (and do nothing),” says Mbow. “My only option was to go elsewhere.” Like thousands of other young Senegalese, Mbow sees Europe as the place to escape poverty and find a job to support his family.

Ibrahima, his best friend is now in Italy after safely crossing the Mediterranean sea by boat, so why not him?

“I went by car to Bamako, the Malian capital. Then I headed off to the north desert of Agadez in Niger. The trip took one week and from there, smugglers drove us to Tripoli in an overcrowded and open-topped truck,” explains Mbow.

In his dream to reach Italy by boat, the 26-year-old nearly died.

With 32 other migrants, they spent 9 days in the desert because the truck they were in kept breaking down. They were exposed to sand storms, heat, and lack of water. To survive, they were given some biscuits, sardines, and 2 to 3 litres of water each. Mbow says the traffickers do not want to carry a lot of supplies because they make the truck heavy and slow it down.

“Two people died from the heat and thirst. We survived by paying other smugglers who were crossing around. In total, each of us paid 300 US dollars to different smugglers from Agadez to Tripoli,” says Mbow. For someone who is unemployed or earns one or two dollars a day, it is an exorbitant sum.

Once in the Libyan capital, Mbow found himself living a nightmare. With no money, and debts to pay off to the smugglers who hosted him, he was forced to stay in Tripoli for two months, looking for casual labour, until he paid back what he owed.

“It was very risky, mainly because there was fighting in the streets and you could be killed by a stray bullet. Many people lost their lives like that,” he says.

Selling family jewels

After several months in Tripoli, working as a gardener, cleaner, and mason, Mbow finally boarded a zodiac boat bound for Italy. His mother had sold her jewellery and one piece of land, paying a further 650 US dollars to the traffickers. It was a voyage doomed from the start.  

“There were between 120 and 130 migrants on the boat even though its capacity was for about 40 people,” says Mbow. One hour into its journey, the boat capsized. Many people died, including fellow Senegalese in search of a better life, but Mbow survived. He was one of the few to spend precious dollars on the purchase of a lifejacket. Not everyone could afford the 88 US dollars for one. Mbow was rescued, imprisoned for several months in Tripoli, and is now back home in Tambacounda, his native region.

“I spent almost 2,000 US dollars. If I had access to that amount at one time, I could have opened a small business here. Unfortunately, that was not the case,” says Mbow.

For now, he has rejoined a theatrical troupe where, as a comedian, he sometimes uses his migrant journey as fodder for his routine. But the show does not pay. He would like to return to farming, but with increasingly erratic weather and inadequate equipment, he feels the odds of him being successful are stacked against him. Despite the bleak future, Senegal is where Mbow intends to stay.

“I will never again try this route to get to Europe,” says Mbow. “I am now telling people about the risks, but who can blame them for wanting to leave when there are no jobs at home?”