Waly Musa and Colin Freeman, Telegraph, November 10, 2015
Just like other young men in the Gambian village of Sabaa, Ebrima Touray dreams one day of getting married. First, though, he must prove himself as husband material–and these days, that involves a lot more than it did for his forefathers.
No longer is it enough to have good looks and own a decent patch of farmland. Today Mr Touray, 23, is expected risk his life on what is known as “The Back Way”–the perilous 3,000 mile journey across the Sahara and the Mediterranean in search of work in Europe.
“I want to be able to support a family, and to do that, I have to go to Europe,” he said, tending the modest watermelon plot that is his only source of income. “Here in our community, if you do not go, you may not be able to even get a woman to marry. I must go–all my friends, those I used to play football with, are gone already.”
A glance at the village around him proves his point. Where was once a hamlet of thatched huts with spartan furnishings now boasts numerous homes with concrete walls, running water and tin roofs, some sporting satellite TV dishes.
Nearly all of it is paid for by remittances sent from locals now in Europe, with as many as 600 of Sabaa’s 4,000 residents having tried “The Back Way”, according to village elders.
Some succeed, some get deported, and some die en route. Yet no matter what the odds, today the expectation is that any young man worth his salt will give it a go. “Every parent wants their daughter to get married to someone who is in Europe,” said Mr Touray.
Reign of fear
The scale of the exodus in villages like Sabaa demonstrates the challenges facing European leaders as they hold a major summit on Wednesday in the Maltese capital, Valletta, to discuss ways of dealing with the migrant crisis.
While the spotlight in recent months has mainly on the influx of Syrians from the east, an estimated 80,000 of the passengers on trans-Mediterranean people smuggling boats since 2014 have been from sub-Saharan Africa.
Gambia, a former British colony on West Africa’s Atlantic coast, is a case in point. The tiny country of 1.9 million has neither war nor famine, and is best known to Britons these days as a budget winter tourist resort.
But away from the beach resorts, it has much the same grinding poverty as the rest of West Africa–and is also one of the last countries in the region to languish under the rule of an old-school African strongman, President Yahyah Jammeh, an army officer who staged a coup 21 years ago.
Mr Jammeh, whose voodoo-infused personality cult draws comparisons to Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier, first gained notoriety in 2007, when he claimed to have invented his own herbal cure for HIV.
Human rights groups have compiled fat dossiers against him, accusing him of jailing opponents and running torture chambers not far from Gambia’s tourist beaches.
In 2009, Amnesty International also claimed that his presidential guard hadforce fed hallucinogenic potions to an entire village of Gambians accused of using witchcraft against him.
While his record falls well short of despots like Charles Taylor or Idi Amin, it is bad enough to convince many Gambians that if they can reach Europe, they will stand a reasonable chance of being granted asylum, whether they have suffered directly at his hands or not.
The exodus, though, is not just a worry for Europe. It is also a major concern for Gambia, where the departure of so many young men is now threatening the long-term future of numerous villages like Sabaa.
For while some of those who take “The Back Way” come back again, many more settle permanently in Europe.
“The Back Way does no good for our community,” said Lamin Singhateh, Sabaa’s village chief. “Farming is our mainstay, and the young people are no longer in the fields. It is destroying our social fabric. If the trend continues, in ten years’ time it will be difficult to even find a child to send to the shops.”
Mr Singhateh, a trained stone mason, is well aware of the temptations that “The Back Way” poses. In 2006, he himself went to Spain for two years, finding masonry work that paid €180 a day–a fortune by Gambian standards.
He eventually “chose family over money” and returned to Sabaa to supervise his children’s schooling. However, many more do not. As he points out, “when you have skills, it is not easy to come back”.
Exact figures for how many Gambians have left their homeland are hard to come by, not least because it is a touchy subjct for Mr Jammeh.
Meeting Gambian youngsters in a farming town recently, he reportedly flew into a rage at the huge show of hands when he asked if any would take “The Back Way” if given the chance. He is said to have told them: “May your souls rest in peace in the Mediterranean Sea in advance”.
What is clear, though, is that Gambians are well-established customers of the people-smuggling boats operating out of Libya. In the first quarter of 2015, one in seven of the 10,000 migrants who crossed the Mediterranean were from Gambia.
Estimates of the total numbers now abroad run as high as 100,000, with roughly 20,000 in Spain, and 7,000 in Italy. Britain has received 2,284 asylum applications since 2001, of which 1,557 were refused.
Earlier this year, the US embassy in the Gambian capital, sponsored local musicians to star in a music video aimed at local youngsters called “Say No to The Back Way”.
In a variant of the way US rap stars are recruited to front campaigns warning against the get-rich-quick “gangsta” lifestyle, a local Gambian rapper, Bro K, sings in Fula dialect about the dangerous allure of the journey to Europe.
“My only friend is gone to Europe–he builds nice houses, has big cars and lots of women following him,” he sings. “But how many people passed away, and how many parents were depending on them?”
Nonetheless, many Gambians continue to learn the hard way.
Last month, in a detention centre in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, the Telegraph met Mohammed, 19, from Tangi, a Gambian town of 12,000. He was arrested six weeks ago for entering Libya illegally
“Lots of other people from my town are doing this–on my way across the Sahara I met about 25 other people just from Tangi,” Mohammed said. “But the route is very dangerous–two of the people I was with died of thirst, and we just buried them there in the desert. God knows what will happen to me know–I guess I will be sent back to Gambia.”
Just how Mohammed will fare if Libya sents him back to face Mr Jammeh’s tender mercies in Gambia is unclear. Yet many back in Sabaa say the real reason for the great Gambian getaway lies less in Mr Jammeh’s fearsome reputation, and more in the improvements in basic schooling that have been one of the few benefits of his rule.
Young people who can read and write well and use an iPhone have little desire to spend their lives ploughing fields. And while the US embassy’s music video urges them to build themselves a better future in Gambia itself, many cannot see that as a viable prospect–especially not when it is under the stubborn grip of Mr Jammeh, who infamously once vowed to rule “for a billion years” if necessary.
In the meantime, what few little employment there is in Sabaa is withering away. “First I opened a bakery, but that collapsed because the young man I put in charge left with the money and too the Back Way to Europe,” said Foday Gassama, 43.
“Then I opened a welding shop, and the young man in charge of that left too. Now I am scared of hiring anyone else in case they head for the Back Way again.”