I am a teacher of English at a high school in the Sedhiou Region of Southern Senegal. In June 2016, a colleague informed me that Mamadou Saliou, one of our students had died in Libya on the way to Europe. Mamadou Saliou was only 23 years old.
I remembered Mamadou. In 2014, I had taught him in his first year of high school, known in Senegal as the fifth form scientific or “S” stream. In the S stream, mathematics, physics and natural sciences are the major disciplines. However, Mamadou Saliou had a genuine interest in English classes. And I appreciated his wit and strong character. As I learned his tragic fate, I remembered an incident from 2015 involving Mamadou. I was teaching in another class, fifth form literary stream, when Abdoulaye, one of the students proposed we commemorate Bob Marley’s death. As I agreed he hanged a banner, with Bob Marley’s picture stamped on it, on the front side of our classroom. Abdoulaye also sang “One Love” from the repertoire of Marley’s “Legend” album. His performance, his harsh, loud voice and the noise from the class drew the attention of a few students who were in the school yard. From that group, Mamadou Saliou confidently walked up to the classroom door, and with a bare smile, gave a thumb up to the performer before heading back outside.
The reason Mamadou Saliou decided to make the trip is obvious: the possibility of a better life. Mamadou tragically met death instead. I don’t know the circumstances under which he died. Was he alone, bereft when he died? Surrounded by strangers? Did he think of those he left behind? Had he been buried decently? These questions have been tormenting me since then, with no answers. I am sure though that Mamadou is one of the appalling numbers of young people who have died on their way to a better future. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 2,410 migrants died in the Mediterranean in 2017. But how many are unreported?
Over and over again, images of wrecking ships crowded with stranded figures, hungry for life and possibility come to my mind. These images, online, on TV and in newspapers, are so regular that we forget the tragedy they display. We condone the dehumanization of these so-called migrants, forgetting that they are people with motives, loves, hopes, and sorrows. In mid-November, the news coverage of slaves’ auctions in Libya sparked outrage in the whole world. Many people took to social media to denounce and express solidarity to the victims. Some African presidents expressed their concern and indignation. Alassane Ouattara, president of Cote d’Ivoire in an interview with a French radio condemned the slave auctions, insisting on how “choking, unacceptable and despicable” they were. Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou called for action, “to attack the deep causes of this tragedy.” President Akufo Ado of Ghana declared that “the slave auctions were not only gross and scandalous abuses of human rights, but mockeries of the alleged solidarity of African Nations in the AU.” Mamadou’s own president, Macky Sall, made well-intended declarations and heartfelt condemnations. But as columnist Hamidou Anne wrote in French newspaper Le Monde: “Citizens can be outraged, as for political leaders, they have an obligation to act.”
The deplorable situation of these young Africans is another failure of our states, one too many. It further emphasizes the fatal ineptitude of our political leaders. Over the years, governments have taken over after one another and have shown their incompetence to implement relevant development policies. Poor school systems, unemployment and inefficient health services are prevailing in many sub-Saharan countries. Alongside political instability, they give way to persistent violations of human rights. Youth unemployment is pervasive and many young men and women have no faith in a better future in their home country. They go to school, or work, with no purpose nor perspective.
In many parts of Senegal for example, more often than not, populations feel isolated and abandoned by their administration. For those who can still find a way out, going abroad is the only solution to help their parents who are struggling to make ends meet.
Ends never seem to meet. Senegal is ranked 162nd in the Human Development Index report. The Senegalese National Statistics and Demography Agency (ANSD) estimated in 2015 that 56.5% of the population is subjectively poor and nearly 45% face food insecurity. In terms of health, there is one physician for 12,373 people and only 31 hospitals are available for more than 15 million people. Also, according to a report on the state of education in Senegal, published on the Ministry of National Education’s website, school dropouts accounted for 11.5% of the student population in 2015.
These rates hardly tell the dire living conditions of a majority of the population, the degradation of the health system and the deplorable situation of many schools. Three weeks ago, the Ministry of Education shared the positive results of important investments in the construction of classrooms. The Minister declared that the number of “provisory shelters” (basically huts passed off as classrooms) decreased from 8,822 in 2011 to 6,369 in 2016. Despite a literacy rate of 55.7% (UNDP estimates), the inadequacy between work supply and professional training make it difficult for the majority of young people to find a formal job. With nearly 8 million people under 65, the stakes are high for the government in terms of social policy, demographic dividend and employment policing.
That being said, the situation of the migrants is also a crisis of our citizenry. We, the people, have set the conditions for this chaos. We elect those incapable public officials that never make it a priority to give young people reasons to stay in their countries. We observe as bystanders as they loot and thieve our resources, while our youth leave and die in the Sahara and the Mediterranean. In Senegal, we have let our school systems degrade to a complete wreck. Every day, our youth witness the degradation of decent work, moral standards and values that make a citizen and forge a nation. They have no reason whatsoever to believe that hard work at home pays off, that they can go through a thousand frustrations and privations but that at the end of the day, their honest, decent job will ensure that they “provide for their families” and settle down. We don’t show them that they can stay and long for better living conditions, that they deserve better living conditions here.
That’s why they will leave, through the desert, on tiny canoes, by any possible means at the risk of enslavement, sexual exploitation and death.