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COLUMN ONE

A passage buoyed by hope alone

Senegal's fishing villages send off their young men in canoe-like vessels with dreams of Europe and prosperity. Each year, thousands die.

March 16, 2007|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

Kayar, Senegal — THEY are known as "the candidates," and the test they face is desperate, dangerous and completely illegal. The odds are about the same as Russian roulette.

Yet nearly every mother wants her son to undergo the test and nearly every young man on the faded and tattered streets of Senegal's fishing villages wants to be a candidate. To become a candidate is to be gilded with heroism. To stay behind with the women, the boys, the old men and the cowards is to know shame.

The test is one of mythic proportions. The men brave the Atlantic in rickety wooden boats with dicey motors, often navigating by the sun and stars to try to find the tiny chips of land that are Europe's back door: the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory 950 miles away, off the west coast of Morocco.

Thousands of the would-be immigrants die each year when their "pirogues," open fishing boats that resemble giant canoes, go down. But as they prepare for the greatest journey of their lives, the mood is jubilant, optimistic, exhilarated.

They have taken a final bath in holy water. They have prayed with their families and promised their parents that they will never forget where they came from and will always send home money and help. They have tied protective talismans with passages from the Koran around their waists.

"Once we were in the boat, we relaxed. It was fun, as if it was a party. We sang and danced," said Thiacko Ndiaye, 41, of one of the fishing villages, Thiaroye-sur-Mer, who sold his fishing boat and engine to leave. "Everything was wonderful. Everyone was confident that we were going to make it."

But the 75-foot pirogue, with 81 terrified men on board, got lost and the waves smashed the timbers at the prow and side.

"The wooden boat started to break up. That's how we knew we wouldn't make it. We knew it wouldn't get us there, so we turned back," he said. The boat was picked up by a vessel close to Morocco's coast.

The scale of the exodus is extraordinary. Ask anyone in these teeming seaside villages: Nearly all have a relative or friend in Europe. Spanish immigration officials said 31,000 illegal immigrants, 60% of them from Senegal, reached the Canary Islands last year, six times the previous year's number. On a single day in September, 1,000 arrived. By mid-February this year, 1,000 more had landed there.

Six hundred bodies washed up last year on the Canary Islands or the African mainland, but Spanish authorities estimate that 6,000 died on their journeys, making the odds of dying similar to playing a game of chance with a six-chambered revolver.

Still, Issa Dieng, 35, a photographer here in Kayar, a village north of the capital, Dakar, feels a compelling, restless energy to be gone. Five months ago, he paid the $700 boat fare to send his brother, who is now working in Florence, Italy.

"It's reached the point where there is shame not to go, and all the brave and courageous men go. If there's a boat ready to go, I won't miss it," he said.

IN this country where about half the people live below the poverty line and about half the workforce is unemployed, even the humblest job in Europe can help set a Senegalese family up for life. At $70 a day, the average wage in Spain is 35 times higher than Senegal's, at about $2 a day.

The candidates send back televisions, music systems and cash, from about $200 a month up. The new houses going up in dilapidated seashore villages are bought with money sent from Europe, locals say.

Modou Diop, 32, a Kayar fisherman, made the journey last year only to be flown back by Spanish authorities after a massive flood of immigrants.

"Only the women stay behind," Diop said. "I had the courage, the bravery. When people ask you, 'Were you among the candidates, the volunteers?' then you answer with great joy and pride, 'Yes.'

"Of course, I became a great hero."

Spain repatriated 4,000 who made it to the Canary Islands last year, and European patrols intercepted 53 pirogues with 3,643 would-be immigrants between July and December.

Diop intends to try again. He knows about the big waves. Some boats get lost or the outboard motors die. Sometimes food and water run out or people sicken and their bodies are thrown overboard. Sometimes fights break out, not to mention the worst, rarely spoken fear: the demons with lightning in their eyes who might have hitched a ride, disguised as men.

Candidates tell tales of men crazed with seasickness, or terror, or grief for a brother who died on the voyage, hurling themselves into the waves rather than go on.

In Yarakh Tableau, a big departure point, children scuttle along narrow sandy alleys and women throw their household trash on the white shore. People here darken with suspicion at strangers with questions about the candidates.

One woman who recently lost a son at sea peeked out of her front door: "I don't know anything about it," she said.

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