Lure Of Europe Leaves Town Without Husbands

Lure of Europe leaves towns without husbands
Thousands of African men pack boats bound for Europe, 'better life'

Friday, June 16, 2006; Posted: 11:52 a.m. EDT (15:52 GMT)
In all, 85 Senegalese men were captured by Canary Island officials June 7 as they tried to immigrate to Europe aboard this fishing boat.

KEBEMER, Senegal (AP) — Maimouna Niang may not own a car or an oven, but she lives pretty well for a woman in a dusty corner of West Africa. She has a phone line in her house, a DVD player and an elegant wooden crib for her year-old son.

If you ask Niang what she's missing, it's her husband, Cheikh Dia, who just returned to Italy and won't be back again for a year.

Dia's with the rest of the able-bodied men of this Senegalese town — in Europe. There they work in factories or sell watches on the street.

They take some of the money to pay for their rent and food, then send the rest home, to women like Niang, who visits Western Union once a month for her stipend.

Kebemer is packed with families who have achieved the “better life” hoped for by the thousands of young men who have boarded wooden fishing boats for risky ocean voyages to Europe in a rush of illegal migration this year.

Yet these families, many of whom were part of an earlier migration wave, describe lives that are far from a moneyed paradises. Marriages dissolve, men get stuck abroad for years and even those who gain legal status often say they wish they had another option.

Niang, 32, says her husband has rheumatism, and suffers in cold Europe.

“But here there isn't any work. Over there it's better,” she said, sitting on an overstuffed couch in her white-walled living room and bouncing her son on her lap.

Niang's neighbors in Kebemer include one woman with a husband in Paris and another with a husband in Florence, Italy.

At this time of year, in this town of about 15,000, “it's finding the men that's difficult,” says Mamadou Kebe. He explains that most of the men come home only for a couple months around August; those left are too young, too old, or too poor to leave. At 49, Kebe said it's too late for him to establish a life abroad, but argued that it's often the best choice for younger men.

The results of success are easy to see in Kebemer. Here, money from Europe pays for a two-story cement house with an arched colonnade, just steps from thatched huts in dirt compounds protected by fences of woven straw. While some Senegalese live well, 54 percent of the country's 10 million people still live below the poverty line and about 48 percent of the population is unemployed, according to 2001 estimates.

Uncertain futures

But success abroad means hard compromises and a whole new set of risks.

“There are some that go there and they steal and sell drugs. Others leave Islam,” says Niang's mother-in-law, M'Bathio Dia, who has two other sons abroad in addition to Niang's husband.

“I was worried they would change,” M'Bathio Dia says. “But I am happy they went. They didn't change.”

Niang tells stories of men who cheat on their wives in Europe, or whose one-year plans turn into indefinite stays.

“I have a friend who had a visa to go to Paris for two months. He took the train to Italy and he can't come back now because he doesn't have papers. His wife is here, and she had a child just after he left,” Niang says.

Niang was luckier. Her husband took the same route to Italy in 1994. He paid a French woman about $500 U.S. to help sneak him across the border into Italy, where he qualified for a visa amnesty program just a few months after arriving.

Niang and her neighbors say visas were so much easier to get back then, meaning men like Dia didn't resort to the dangerous ocean crossings so common now.

Packed boats travel hundreds of miles

Authorities at the Canary Islands say they have received 9,789 illegal migrants this year, more than twice the 4,903 arrivals for all of 2005.

Most of those have arrived in packed wooden fishing boats that sailed hundreds of miles from the coasts of Mauritania and Senegal. Mauritanian authorities say hundreds have died attempting the trip from that country's shores.

Women gather in Niang's house at midday and start telling stories of men who have gone bad, or who haven't made it. One left to study and never returned, another tried to go with faked papers and was deported.

Fatou Mbeigne perches on a bed holding her daughter and says her husband would like to go but can't, because he can't get the 3 million CFA (about $6,000 U.S.) you have to pay someone with connections these days to help you get a visa.

Another woman laughs and points out that Mbeigne only sees her husband once a week anyway. He lives in a village 10 miles away, where he works in a photography lab.

Migrating for work isn't new to West Africa. Men have always followed the jobs to big cities like Dakar and Abidjan in Ivory Coast.

And woman move around as well — Niang has a teenage girl living with her from a nearby town who goes to school in Kebemer. But many say opportunities have gotten sparser in the capital or in nearby countries like Ivory Coast — still struggling with civil unrest since an attempted coup in 2002.

Selling watches in Pisa

Dame M'Boup, who was still in Kebemer beyond the typical vacation season because he was recovering from injuries sustained in a car accident, first went to Europe in 1987 on a Belgian visa, then sneaked into Italy, where he heard the best jobs were. He now sells watches on the street in Pisa.

M'Boup's wife walks into the room where M'Boup and his friends are watching television and reclining on sofas to hand him his young son. He starts bouncing the boy on his knee as he talks, often answering the questions while smiling into his son's face. Asked if he would ever consider taking his wife with him to Europe, M'Boup laughs.

“If you take your wife to Europe, she'll demand a divorce as soon as she gets there!” he says, as his compatriots nod. M'Boup says the men don't want their wives to see their modest lifestyle in Europe, and decide another man might be a better earner.

There are about 168,953 Senegalese living abroad, more than 80 percent of them men, according to government figures from 2004. And the women left behind often have very little information about the lives their husbands lead in foreign countries.

“He does commerce, I think watches,” said Kine Sall, whose husband lives in Paris. He calls her every week and sends money once a month. Asked if she's curious or worried about his life abroad, Sall says only, “I can't judge him there. Only God can judge him.”

“He sells things,” says Nogaye Beye, whose husband is in Florence. She said she doesn't ask him much about his work. “The life in Italy is hard, so when he comes here he only rests.”