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.

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By 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.

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