DAMPHA KUNDA, Gambia — The village was losing its young men. Hundreds had left their thatched-roof huts and tiny squares of farmland for the promise of Europe. About 40 had died on the way.
Susso knew nearly all of them. He had prayed at the funerals after their boats capsized or their smugglers stranded them in the desert, ceremonies with mourners but no bodies. The grim toll complicated his plan, turned it into a secret he hid from almost everyone.
He, too, was preparing to join the exodus from Dampha Kunda.
Africa has never seen such a flood of young men heading for Europe. The number of migrants crossing by sea to Italy, a top entry point, nearly quadrupled from 2013 to 2014, reaching about 170,100. Sub-Saharan Africans made up a growing percentage of the total, with around 64,600 arriving last year. This year, the figure is expected to be even higher. Gambia, one of Africa’s smallest nations, is a big contributor to that flow.
To deter the arrivals, European policymakers have proposed reinforcing their naval forces in the Mediterranean, conducting mass deportations and destroying smugglers’ boats. When Susso turns on the radio in the bedroom he shares with his wife and six children, he hears all the ways Europe is trying to dissuade him from leaving.
But it has never been so alluring — or so easy — to begin the trip. Over the past two years, sub-Saharan Africa’s smuggling networks have expanded, as Libya has descended into chaos, leaving its coasts unguarded as migrants set out for Italy, a few hundred miles away.
Stories of Gambians arriving on Italian or Spanish shores now reach even remote Dampha Kunda via Facebook and text message, like rumors of a gold rush. Most men keep their plans a secret until they leave, fearing an outcry from worried relatives or arrest by the country’s authoritarian government. Susso asked that only his last name, common in eastern Gambia, be used in this article.
In the weeks before his trip, he veiled himself in routine, waking every day at 5 and working on the rice farm of the village’s richest family. He played on the floor with his children, most of them half-clothed in torn shirts and underwear, telling them nothing of his plan.
Then, one day in May, Susso opened a drawer hidden under a yellow blanket and removed a small metal box with a silver padlock. He counted the money: 17,000 dalasi, about $500. It had taken him three years. It was enough to begin the journey north.
Twice a week, a bus called the “TA Express,” full of young men wearing sandals and carrying small bags, clatters past Dampha Kunda on its way to Agadez, a desert city in Niger that smugglers use as a way station on the route to Libya and Europe.
Soon, Susso told himself, he would be on it.
“The Western Route,” experts call the web of migrant trails from Gambia, Senegal and Mali that now lead to North Africa. But Gambians have a different name for the dangerous path to Europe: The Backway.
“Say No to the Backway,” reads a government banner near Susso’s village, with a picture of a boat capsized in the ocean.
“Backway bad way,” says a song funded by the U.S. Embassy in Gambia and played on the radio here.
Across Africa, there are different paths to Europe and different reasons for leaving. In Somalia, refugees flee the brutal al-Shabab rebels, following an “Eastern route” winding through Sudan. In Eritrea, they escape a harsh military regime.
And Susso’s reasons? He walked by them one day in the scorching heat shortly before he would depart, homes in sandy lots with numbers painted on the walls.
House number 1027, a mud-baked hut, was getting a cinderblock addition, thanks to money from a relative in Spain. House 301 boasted a flat-screen television, thanks to remittances from Germany. And House 311 had a big red tractor.
“So much money,” he sighed.
Poverty had once imposed a kind of uniformity here — every house with a thatched roof and dirt floor, every meal a small portion of rice and okra, every job tending to patches of rice on a small subsistence farm.
Then the wealth gap that had always separated Europe and Africa began to insinuate itself here. If you had a relative in Europe, you were rich. If not, you remained stuck on the edge of survival.
It filled Susso with an envy that bordered on anger. He was 39, broad-shouldered and sleepy-eyed, older and wearier than most of the men making the journey north.
Susso could afford only two meals a day for his family. He knew he would have to pull his four sons out of school in their early teens, so they could work his small rice field or make money elsewhere. He shared his two-room home with 12 people, including his brother, nieces and nephews, a bedsheet hanging where the front door should be.
Like so many Gambians, no matter how much he was willing to work, his ambition yielded almost nothing.
A growing number of Gambians are literate, but with “little chance at employment that matches their skills, just like China by the 1960s and India by the 1970s,” said Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration. “So they do the rational thing and they leave.”
The Gambian government hasn’t helped. Its longtime dictator, President Yahya Jammeh, has preached a life of subsistence. He has created a bizarre mythology around himself as a man who could cure AIDS and threatened to personally slit the throats of gay men. He has brushed off the thousands of young men fleeing his country as failures and bad Muslims.
But even the farmers of Dampha Kunda knew migrants were the true success stories. Twenty percent of Gambia’s gross domestic product now comes from remittances, according to the World Bank, one of the highest percentages in Africa. It’s a nation with almost no industry or valuable natural resources, where the government dominates what little private sector exists.
“The only people who can make any money in The Gambia are those very close to the president. If not, you’re making $100 a month, if that,” said C. Omar Kebbeh, an economist and expert in Gambian migration, now at the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Not far from Susso’s house, there was a massive billboard with a picture of Jammeh, smiling in a white cap.
“Grow what you eat and eat what you grow,” it said.
For Susso, that policy had one palpable impact.
“We’re hungry,” he said. “We’re always hungry.”
Susso had memorized the way Dampha Kunda looked from eight feet off the ground, as he bumped through the rice fields atop a big red tractor. The new two-story houses rose above the old, mud-colored huts. Across much of the village’s cropland, plants were ailing. With the rising prices, few people could afford fertilizer.
The tractor was an extraordinary luxury in a place where almost no one owned a car. But it didn’t belong to Susso. Its owner lived in Europe.
The first major wave of Gambians left villages like Dampha Kunda in the 1990s, mostly for Spain. By 2010, there were 65,000 Gambians abroad, around 4 percent of the population. One of the men sending money home was Alagi Ceesay, the owner of the tractor.
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