“Death Has Become the Solution to Poverty”: Gambia’s Exodus
By: Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik
“The sudden spirit
Lingers on the road
Supporting the tortured remnants
of the flesh
That spirit which asks no favour
of the world
But to have dignity.”
The Gambia is a thin sliver of land in Western Africa, enclosed by Senegal and pierced by the Gambia River.
In recent years, thousands of Gambians have fled to Europe through the “back way”: the perilous, clandestine journey across West Africa, the Sahara, and the Mediterranean. Some have tried other destinations: China, Thailand, and the United States.
Many, however, never reach their destination. Earlier this month, Fatim Jawara, the teenage goalkeeper of The Gambia’s national women’s football team, drowned in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Europe from Libya.
A country of fewer than 2 million people, The Gambia has one of the highest emigration rates in the world. 65% of its citizens who attain higher education leave the country.
Entire villages have been lost to the exodus. Almost a fifth of the Gambian economy now relies on remittances. In the first three months of 2015, one in seven of the 10,000 people who crossed the Mediterranean came from The Gambia. That same year, 8,000 Gambians filed asylum applications in Italy, the third largest nationality after Nigeria and Pakistan.
Yet these applications are typically rejected, with Gambians readily dismissed as “economic migrants,” a reductive description that is oblivious to the country’s oppressive circumstances. The Gambia is in economic turmoil. Youth unemployment is near 40%. Yahya Jammeh, The Gambia’s president since gaining power in a 1994 coup, oversees a regime of intimidation and repression. The country’s sensitivity to climate shocks has led to unstable food production.
I recently spoke with Kemo Fatty, the co-founder and director of GreenUp Gambia, who is a youth activist working on migration and ecological issues. In the following excerpts from our conversation, he reflects on the flight of young Gambians and the potential solutions to displacement.
Illegal migration is not always a choice. Those that try the “back way” don’t feel there is a future for them in The Gambia.
The conditions of our country—the bad governance, the nepotism, the corruption—don’t allow for equal opportunities. People are chosen for positions based on family relationships and connections. You end up with incompetence at every level, as square pegs are placed into round holes.
We have a repressive government that does not offer a path towards development. No one can voice their opinion freely on the streets without facing the risk of forced disappearance or torture at the hands of National Intelligence Officers. There are so many incidents where young people active in politics are killed. Freedoms are taken away and citizens do not feel safe to stand up for what they believe in. Many are psychologically neutralized by a system of fear, propagated by political institutions led by a head of state who pretends to cure HIV patients on national TV.
We have a situation of severe poverty and deprivation. I don’t like hollow statistics, compiled by people far away from reality. But over a third of The Gambia’s population lives below the poverty line: $1.25 USD per day. We have teachers or nurses that get paid less than $100 dollars a month. We are technically in an economic depression. But policymakers don’t feel this situation. This is also one of the reasons why many young people are embarking on this deadly journey.
Here in The Gambia we are seeing climate impacts firsthand. Typically, we only have three months of rainfall. The rains are supposed to stop by the end of the August. Now we’re in the end of September, and it’s still raining. We’re seeing minor floods. Properties have been damaged and some people have been forced out of their homes.
Salinity is a major issue. Sea levels are rising and saltwater is entering the rice fields, infecting the earth, and impacting production.
Fish are becoming scarcer. If you visit major fishing centres like Gunjur or Tanji right now, most of the fishermen are unhappy. Rising ocean temperatures are causing fish to move to cooler waters, making the seafood business less profitable and the cost of fish exorbitant. Climate change is ultimately a fight for livelihoods.
All of these different factors are our nightmares. Death has become the solution to poverty. Young people prefer to die than to stay behind and attempt to make a living.
I am part of a network that used to be called Youth Action Against Illegal Migration. We work to educate young people about the dangers of the “back way.” But now we’re called Youth Action for Sustainable Development. We’ve realized that you cannot tackle migration without tackling poverty. And we cannot end poverty without facing climate change itself.
We often try telling young people that local agriculture is the solution to poverty. But then climate change ruins agriculture, and so we’re back to square zero. All these issues are linked, which means you have to work on the whole thing.
We are trying to combat these realities in a number of ways.
First, we are adamant about education. Most people in The Gambia aren’t aware of climate change. They know the impacts, they see changes in rain patterns, they feel the excessive temperatures, but they don’t see the causality. For many people it’s liberating to locate the origins of the mysterious changes they’re seeing.
Our main focus is reforestation, because it brings together awareness and practical action. The Gambia’s vegetation has been severely reduced. Most of our water comes from rain patterns in the region of Casamance [in southern Senegal], which has the richest forests in West Africa—but it is losing them, largely due to Gambian logging.
We strongly advocate for agroforestry as a long-term solution to the climate crisis. By planting perennial crops such as cashew trees, we can address erosion and deforestation, and also give people sustainable livelihoods. We can abandon the monoculture of cash crops such as groundnuts and sesame, which are prone to sensitive harvests, and replace them with different varieties that are more resistant to drought and other climate impacts. This will take agriculture forward, combat climate change, return our forest cover, and help improve people’s lives, generating income and serving as an essential source of nutrients.
Doing the work we do is very challenging because you have to uproot myths, ideas that have been sold to the masses for generations. Every average young person in The Gambia wants to get to the West. It’s a built-in complex, a living obsession.
If you confront young people about the “back way,” they rightly come back and accuse you of hypocrisy. “Who are you to tell me not to go, when for the past five years since graduation I haven’t been able to get a job?” they’ll say.
You don’t get far by telling them the “back way” is dangerous. You have to ask them: what do you want to achieve? And the answer is: “I don’t have a job. I’d rather die than actually stay here, facing the shame of not being able to feed my family.” You accept that as the starting point and you propose a solution. What if we ventured into agriculture? What if we set up our own projects?
Talking to young people isn’t enough. You need to talk to community elders about people who have suffered from the “back way.” You talk to parents who have lost their loved ones on the roads and seas.
People need to understand the journey, because too many think they’re going to travel in safe buses and boats. It’s incredible how they react when they see pictures of the boats they actually travel in. Community elders are shocked by the conditions.
In our country, there is deep respect for the elders, so you have to gain their support. The voice of the elders is what most successfully encourages young people to get involved in skill acquisition and the building of a regional economy.
We do this work across many different spaces. We’re trying to collaborate with everyone from the national ministries to social and environmental clubs in schools.
The Gambia is a very small country, but our role is not insignificant. Obviously we are not an economic powerhouse like the United States or China, but The Gambia does export large amounts of timber. We don’t have renewable sources of energy that are available to many and the majority depends mostly on charcoal mining and firewood, which require practices like deforestation.
So The Gambia is definitely contributing to climate change. But also, we can’t just wait around for the rest of the world. We have to build solutions ourselves. Most people don’t want to hear about the entire globe; they want to see how their own lives can be transformed.
Europe’s reaction to the refugee crisis is entirely misguided.
They want to build fences to keep us out but that is not the solution. Trying to stop people from coming is futile.
What they [Europeans] are doing is also a waste of resources. Knowing the problem is only halfway to solving it. You have to tackle forced migration at its root.
As long as you don’t help young people, they’ll keep coming again and again, and they will be prepared to die. Genuine help means creating and maximizing opportunities for people to survive and thrive in their own home.
Just look at Melilla, the Spanish enclave inside Morocco. They built a razor-wire fence around Melilla at a cost of €22 million. You have no idea what even half of that money could do here in The Gambia.
So rather than spending money trying to keep refugees out, take down the fences and put resources towards tackling the underlying problems. We could build up a manufacturing base in The Gambia, which we don’t have. All our raw groundnuts are sent directly to Europe, rather than being processed in The Gambia. We could support initiatives led by young people, which would create opportunities for others to stay.
Overall it’s a basic principle: rather than building fences, let them help us build our potential. Help us emancipate ourselves in our own homeland.
We as citizens, particularly the young, also play a crucial role in this fight. But many times our thinking is imprisoned in the predicaments of the present, or by stereotypes that presume that high social standards and better living conditions cannot be attained if one does not have relatives in the Western world sending money. That needs to change within ourselves. Set objectives and take initiatives on our own, for “we are what we think.”
All images courtesy GreenUp Gambia.