Photo Gallery: African Sons in Spain


The Second Niodior Spanish Wages Keep African Island Afloat

Niodior is an African village that exists in two different places: in Senegal, where the families live in poverty, and in southern Spain, where their sons live together after making the perilous journey north. They work illegally and wire their earnings home, as a form of private development aid.
Von Dialika Krahe

The sentence is still there, written on the dusty wall of his room in Niodior. It's a little faded by now, but the letters are still as curved and rounded as ever: "The strength of a man does not lie in his freedom, but in the ability to fulfill his duty."

The old women sit outside in the courtyard, nodding as they shell mussels and spread the yellow meat out to dry. Yes, Mamadou Ndour, they say, they remember him. He's a good boy. He wrote the sentence on the wall with a piece of white chalk. Then he got into a wooden boat and headed out into the ocean.

Any of the boys from this island could have written the same sentence. It's what they believe in, the young men of Niodior, a speck of land off the coast of Senegal. It's the reason they have to leave their village, and the reason they get into boats and risk their lives on the open seas. This sentence explains why the village of Niodior exists in two incarnations, one in Spain and one in Senegal.

Every year tens of thousands of illegal immigrants land on Europe's shores. Several boats reached the Canary Islands two weeks ago, for example. When the coast guard pulled the last of the boats out of the water off the island of Lanzarote, there were 26 West Africans on board, many of them minors. The boats represent the modern migration that Europe fears and is trying to fend off, and yet needs: the countless sons and daughters who systematically export their labor, the workers in Spanish greenhouses, the dishwashers in French restaurants, the cleaners in German households. Some arrive on boats or hidden on trucks. Others arrive by air on tourist visas, and when it comes time to leave again, they disappear into the cracks of a society that doesn't want them and yet cannot function without them.

Those who believe that there are too many foreigners in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Spain perceive someone like Mamadou Ndour -- a man who has left Niodior Island for Europe's coast -- as a threat to peace and prosperity on the Old Continent.

'It's Hard Work'

Ndour works in a gigantic greenhouse in Roquetas de Mar on the Spanish coast, where he is currently crouched over, cutting zucchini from low-growing vines. "You cut one off, throw it in the box and look for the next one. You spend the whole day bent over." The French words in his head have gradually given way to Spanish ones. He laughs when he confuses the two languages. "€30 ($42) for eight hours," says Ndour. "This isn't what I had expected in Europe."

Ndour, 31, a tall young man, is wearing a light-brown T-shirt that's frayed around the collar. He has been living in Spain as a clandestino, or illegal immigrant, for the last three years. "It's hard work," he says, as he tosses the green vegetables into crates under the watchful eye of a Spanish farmer. He says that he was able to send his parents €150 ($214) recently.

Ndour was a fisherman back in Niodior. The little money he earned was enough to pay for food, but not enough to buy medication for his parents. And it wasn't enough to make a wife happy one day, he adds.

Then he saw Europe on television. It had clean cities, tall buildings and neon signs. He pauses to reflect for a moment. "Here between the greenhouses," he says, "I feel like I'm not in Europe, but in a second Africa." There are no streetlights at night, no shopping centers and no restaurants. Only dust, heat and work, says Ndour, as he snips off the next row of vegetables. "We have to do this," he says.

He is referring to himself and the two other workers crouched in the greenhouse with him. He is also referring to the many other young men from Niodior who work together between rows of plastic tarps in Spain and send money home to their island.

There is Almamy Sarr, who trained to be a tailor. There are the brothers Seyny and Aliou Thiare, who are trying to earn enough money to send their mother on a pilgrimage to Mecca. And there is Moussa Thiare, who, by working in Spain, is supporting his father, his father's two wives and his nine younger siblings.

They attended school together, played together under palm trees as children and went fishing together as teenagers. They are neighbors, cousins, brothers or otherwise related. They live in small houses that they have rented from the farmers for a few hundred euros a month. In the biggest of the houses, "la grande maison," 25 young men share three rooms, a kitchen, an outside bathroom, a few discarded sofas and a few beds. "There must be 100 guys from Niodior here by now," says Ndour.

Remittances Exceed Development Aid

It's as if this collection of young men, almost the entire able-bodied work force on the island, had traveled together to Spain to establish a second Niodior. They are the bank accounts that their parents never had, they represent the hope of obtaining refrigerators and mobile phones.

There are a billion people living in Africa, and about 22 million have left their homes. In 2009, economic migrants like Mamadou Ndour sent about $316 billion (€227 billion) back to their native countries. In Senegal, the money coming from Europe represents close to 10 percent of the gross domestic product. The flows of capital generated by these migrant workers already exceed the foreign development aid Senegal receives.

How does the life of a family change when one of its sons has made it to Europe?

Niodior is a test case of sorts, an island whose sons working in Roquetas de Mar in southern Spain are its most important source of income. Month after month, more of Niodior's young men disappear, traveling in their wooden boats to the Canary Islands, where they are then taken to the Spanish mainland. Almost every mother in the village now has a son living in Spain.

The island they have left behind is considered to be one of the most beautiful in all of Senegal. It lies in the delta of the Saloume River, where the river water mixes with the saltwater of the Atlantic. There is a poem children there learn before they even go to school. The verses paint a picture of Niodior as a place of fishing boats bobbing in the water, coconut palms lining the shore and a white carpet of shells crunching underfoot.

The Cycle of Money

The island has a population of 6,704 people, according to the last census. They catch mahi-mahi and sea bass for Thieboudienne, a traditional Senegalese dish made with fish and rice. In the morning hours, when the tide is out, the women walk out onto the mudflats and gather mussels. They harvest the millet that they sow and get their water from wells. Only a few houses have electricity, and there are no cars, supermarkets or Internet cafés. Tourists rarely visit the island.

Life in Niodior is simple. There is no war or real hunger. But man needs more than food and a safe place to live. With the first television sets reaching the island and the first migrants sending home money, building houses and talking about Spain, Niodior was also introduced to new dreams -- dreams that require money, money that can be found in Europe.

The cycle of money begins early in the day, at 5:30 a.m. In Niodior, the muezzin is calling the faithful to the first prayer of the day, and in Spain Ndour, Sarr and Thiare are putting bright yellow protective vests over their work clothing.

They get on their bikes. There are no buses servicing the labyrinth of dusty gravel roads and paths connecting the greenhouses, and the men don't have drivers' licenses. It is still dark when they leave for work.

There are many reasons why people leave their homes, cross borders and deserts, and risk their lives at sea. The United Nations estimates that about 200 million people worldwide have left their native countries to live elsewhere. About a third of international migrants are drawn to countries that are more economically developed. They include people from Asia's crisis regions making their way to Australia, Mexicans dodging border guards to enter the United States illegally, Eastern Europeans trying to get into the European Union and people from the Middle East seeking to gain entry into Europe through Greece.

The Altruism of the Refugees

There are "real refugees," people who have left their country of nationality "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion," according to the definition provided under the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. There are also environmental refugees, climate refugees and so-called internally displaced persons. And then there are people like Almamy Sarr.

He is a friend of Mamadou Ndour, a powerfully built 24-year-old. His friends call him Ili-Boy. He has been in Spain for three years. He says that the money he sends home goes to his sister Mariatou and her 10 children, his 102-year-old grandmother, an uncle and his mother, a widow with three other children. He says: "Without our money from Spain, life in Niodior would simply come to a standstill."

Sarr talks about his two-year apprenticeship to become a tailor. He says that he likes embroidered festive clothing, but that there is no market for that in Niodior. Sarr decided to leave Niodior because there was no money there.

First he went to Gambia, where he found work at a tailor shop in a market. His mother also went to Gambia, where she worked as a washerwoman, because she could no longer earn enough money in Niodior after her husband died. "I'm only here for my mother, really," says Sarr. He couldn't bear the thought of her having to work so hard. "I want to make enough money so that she can go back to Niodior."

Listening to Sarr, one gets the feeling that he has made himself into his family's slave. It sounds as if he were no longer living for himself, reflecting an odd altruisim with which many refugees view their world.

Perhaps this is because they grew up believing that it is a son's duty to care for his family, but also because they will expect the same from their own children one day. For them, a few years of self-exploitation are apparently part of life.

Relying on Cheap Labor

Sarr turns to the left and then to the right, leaving the others behind. He continues on, zigzagging between the plastic tarps for a few kilometers, until other black men on mountain bikes suddenly seem to appear from everywhere. More bikes join the flow at every corner, forming a trek of low-wage workers. Their destinations are the intersections and traffic circles.

Intersections are the employment offices of illegal workers, the places where the farmers of Roquetas de Mar pick up their day laborers.

A large portion of Spain's fruit and vegetable exports come from this region near the coastal city of Almeria. With its 40,000 hectares (98,800 acres) of greenhouses, the region is one of the world's largest greenhouse farming area. It's probably also home to one of the largest settlements of illegal immigrants. Workers like Sarr are tolerated there, despite their lack of papers. This is because Spanish immigration law is inconsistent, stipulating that boat refugees cannot be held in refugee camps for more than 60 days. If they have not been deported by then, they are released. After that, they become illegal workers.

Another likely reason that they are tolerated is that this enormous farming region couldn't exist without workers like them. The farmers are dependent on cheap labor, which allows them to keep prices low for the zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers and melons that end up on supermarket shelves in Central Europe. Roquetas de Mar is simultaneously a laboratory for the EU's foreign, economic and development policy.

Sarr parks his bike at a fork in the road and looks around. "Not too full," he says, as he leans against a red-and-white striped barrier near the road, along with two other young men. They gaze at a sea of white plastic sheeting in the distance, shimmering in the light of dawn. They yawn and wait.

The first truck drives by. The farmer looks but doesn't stop. They wait until the next truck arrives, but it too keeps moving. It continues like this all day long.

The lucky ones, like Ndour and Thiare, jump up onto the bed of a truck covered with green and blue tarps and are driven out to the melon, cucumber and zucchini fields.

The unlucky ones, like Sarr, wait in vain for hours. The unlucky days have become more common recently, says Sarr.

"There are too many of us now," he says, as Roquetas de Mar gradually exceeds its capacity for workers. More illegal immigrants are constantly arriving from home, "and we accept them," says Sarr, calling them "family." When one of them doesn't have enough money to pay his rent, he says, the others cover his share. When one of them knows how to cook, he cooks for everyone, and when one needs money for clothing, the others pool their resources to give him the money.

Competing with Spaniards for Work

But since the economic crisis began, says Sarr, unemployment in Spain has risen so sharply that they are no longer just competing with each other, but more and more frequently with Spaniards who come to Roquetas de Mar to earn money under the table. The unemployment rate among migrant workers in Spain rose to 27 percent in 2009, compared with 16 percent in 2008. Today Sarr goes home without finding work.

When the others return in the afternoon from picking zucchini, cucumbers and peppers, they have earned €33 each -- the standard wage for eight or nine hours of work.

They shower, pray, sit around a plastic table and eat their fish and rice, almost as if they were at home, while watching Senegalese music videos on television. A few of the men record their earnings for the day in small notebooks and start calculating. It's the end of the month, and Ndour has earned €600. Sarr hasn't made as much. Issa Diouf who, at 40, is the oldest in the house, managed to make €839 in the last month after finding a job that lasted for several weeks.

Now, at month's end, the men are counting up what they have left after spending a month in the fields, after deducting the cost of rent, food, clothing and everything one needs to get by in Europe. Then the men take their savings to the small Internet café, where they can take phone calls, send e-mails and transfer money. They push a few bills across the counter, their private development aid, earned on the continent of their dreams and earned for the continent of their fathers. Their money begins its journey.

It travels about 3,000 kilometers (1,875 miles) to the small Western Union office in Niodior, in a flat building on a sandy village square. A woman dressed in business attire has come over from the mainland and is now sitting behind the counter, dispensing the money. She is, in a sense, the most important woman in the village.

"Up to 80 transactions a day," she says. At the end of the month, when all the sons, brothers and husbands send home money from Spain, the line extends out to the square and around the corner, she says. The parents of Ndour, Thiare and Sarr are also waiting in line to be paid for their sons' work in blue and red banknotes.

This is the moment that brings movement to Niodior. All of a sudden people start building, buying and investing. The number of refrigerators increases, as does the number of beds in houses and better-dressed women in the streets. Like a mill wheel set into motion by water, the monthly flow of cash from Spain sets a development process in motion in the village.

It is early in the morning in Niodior. While Thiare takes up his position at an intersection in Spain, back in Senegal his family is deciding once again how to invest the money from Europe in their fields.

The money goes into a gourd that the mother is carrying on her head, several kilos of millet seed, a dried reptile head and a few leather wreaths -- good luck charms they have purchased from the local religious leader, the Marabout, so that they will have a good harvest.

They use the most rudimentary of tools, long sticks with metal pieces attached to them. Moussa recently sent 50,000 CFA francs, or about €75. "First we use the money to buy food for everyone," says the father, a small man wearing a red visor cap. He says that he buys a large sack of rice for 17,500 francs, which is enough for 20 days, and then the millet seed, which costs 250 francs per kilo. He needs 50 kilos for the entire field. Then he buys clothes for the children and school supplies.

The trip takes almost an hour, leading through hot sand and mangrove forests, and past a series of rectangular properties separated by palm leaves and wooden fences. Gray bricks are stacked on the plots, sometimes only 50 and sometimes a few hundred. This is the first new housing development site in Niodior.

Sita, the second-eldest son, with the same round face as his brother Moussa, leads the way. "Here," he says, "these are Moussa's bricks." Whenever there is a little money left at the end of the month, the family takes it to the brickmakers in the village. Sita points to a small pile, enough bricks for one or maybe two rooms, the result of four years of work in Spain. A bag of cement costs 4,300 francs. They need 20 tons of cement to build a house, and there are 20 bags to a ton. It isn't difficult to figure out how much longer it will take Moussa to realize his dream.

Beefing up the Defense

Some send their sons to Europe while others try to prevent them from going. Just as Moussa is returning home from work, a conference is beginning on the ground floor of a four-star hotel in Almeria. The lobby is filled with security personnel, including men from the coast guard, the Guardia Civil and the Policia Municipal, in their green and blue uniforms. Cookies and coffee are served, and the attendees are briefed on the question of how people like Moussa can be stopped most effectively.

The conference is being held by Frontex, the Warsaw-based EU border protection agency charged with organizing the defense against illegal immigration to Europe. With boats, aircraft and helicopters, border police coordinated by Frontex intercept refugees and convince them to turn around. Their deployment zone stretches from the African coast to the Canary Islands to the Strait of Sicily.

According to Frontex, 106,000 people trying to reach Europe illegally were intercepted last year. The EU nations have also beefed up their contingent in Senegalese waters. Aircraft now patrol the Atlantic between West Africa and the Canary Islands, searching for refugee boats and returning them to their point of origin as quickly as possible.

These efforts are gradually reducing the numbers of refugees trying to reach Europe through Spain. But they also encourage refugees to take increasingly dangerous routes, as well as increasing the number of those attempting to get to Europe via the Aegean Sea.

Ndour, Thiare and the others in Spain say that they try to tell their brothers and friends in Niodior how difficult it has become in Europe, that there isn't as much work anymore and that the trip has become more dangerous.

But the dreams, fueled by television images, appear to exert a stronger force than any warning.

The next young man who plans to embark on the trip from the Senegalese Niodior to its counterpart in Spain is Sita Thiare, Moussa's younger brother. "I know that the trip is dangerous," says his father. When a family doesn't hear anything from a son for a year, he is declared dead and the imam is invited to participate in a ceremony. The father says that he knows of many families that have lost sons. "But we are all counting on Sita," he says, adding that he will have the money saved up for his passage in a few months, Inshallah.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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