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Senegal's Sea Widows Are Well on Their Way to Financial Independence

In the last decade, thousands of young migrants have left Senegal on rickety fishing boats hoping to find work in Europe. Many have died at sea, leaving behind a new class of women: the “sea widows,” as a local newspaper called them.

by Maïa de La Baume and Stefania Rousselle
Jun 15 2014, 2:00pm

Photos by Sam Phelps

Before Yayi Bayam Diouf’s son disappeared into the sea after a wave smashed into his boat in 2007, she was frightened by the perilous journey many young people undertake to seek work in Europe. But her son pressed his case, explaining that Europe was the best alternative to local poverty. Indeed, people here often glorify women whose sons have made money abroad.

“The child who succeeded means that the mother has served the father well,” Diouf said.

But when her son died attempting to get to Europe, Diouf realized that women like herself could help prevent other sons and husbands from fleeing, and dying, on the sea.

“It made me realize the importance of community, that women can bring social change in our community,” she said.

In the last decade, thousands of young migrants have left Senegal on rickety fishing boats hoping to find work in Europe. Many have died at sea, leaving behind a new class of women: the “sea widows,” as a local newspaper called them.

These women have lost a child or a husband, haven't received any aid from the state, and have carried on without fanfare in areas where most women depend financially on men. Only some of them have found work. 

But here in Thiaroye sur Mer, a depressed fishing town of 47,000 people, the grieving has led in some ways to the emancipation of these women, including many who never went to school. This started when the women formed a campaign to keep their loved ones home, in a city where 378 migrants have died while crossing the Atlantic.

The women knew the solution was creating jobs at home, so they developed a microcredit fund to build five factories producing soap, traditional dolls, fruit juices, couscous, and fish products to revive the dying fishing industry, lure back the city’s disenchanted youth, and empower local women through work. More recently, they opened a small-scale poultry farming unit.

“The work done by those women, the awareness that they raised, contributed to the reduction of illegal migration,” said Carmela Godeau, the West and Central Africa director of the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental organization comprised of 155 member states.

After the death of her son, Diouf, now a social worker and politician, brought together a dozen mourning widows and mothers. An imposing, wide-eyed woman who speaks lilting French, she told them that grief was not enough to change their situations. “I told them to get out of their homes, speak out, and find things to do,” she said.

With the help of two nongovernmental organizations, the group of women quickly grew into an association called the “Women’s Collective for the Fight Against Clandestine Immigration.” They spoke to migrants and smugglers to discourage them from leaving. They gave conferences at other fishing villages affected by illegal immigration by sea. They participated in an annual “national day of the migrant,” and wore red armbands to stop young people from migrating by sea.

Today, the collective has more than 400 members, including former migrants, with offices in fishing villages like M’Bour and Yarakh. In 2012, the women produced and sold 250 bottles of Tamarind and 300 bottles of Ditakh juices, which are prized by the Senegalese. That same year, they produced more than $4,000 worth of fish products, including smoked catfish, dried shrimp, and braised mussels.

The sales may be small, but in an area where people often earn a few dollars a day, they have made a difference, helping the women of the collective gain the confidence to speak out against migration and find new sources of income for themselves.

N’Della Daffé, dressed in a purple and white African dress, joined members of the collective in an open courtyard for the weekly tontine, an informal credit system rooted in African tradition in which each member contributes a share into a pot. After the hour-long gathering, Daffé recalled how she had contributed her savings to pay for her son Mbodj’s migration by boat.

He had promised her that he would make enough money in Europe to buy a concrete house with two floors, like the ones built by Senegalese migrants along the so-called “street of migrants” here in town. In 2007, he, too, died in a shipwreck while crossing the Atlantic.

“Each time I look at the sea, it makes my flesh crawl,” said Daffé, who earns less than a dollar at the women’s organization, where she makes couscous with millet, corn, or wheat. It’s a very small amount, but she said she might not have work otherwise. “If my second son is stubborn enough to migrate in a fishing boat, I would shout and call on the whole neighborhood to stop him from leaving,” Daffé said.

Many of the mothers who participated in the tontine that day had gone through similar experiences. Fatou N’Diaye, whose husband has three other wives, sold all her jewels to finance her son’s expedition by sea.

Dobé Thiam, a former female griot, or traditional storyteller, put money aside to pay for the trip of her 30-year-old son, who she described as her “confidant.”

Neither of them heard from their sons after they left. They believe their sons died. 

“Their death changed our way of thinking,” said Thiam, a plump and affable mother of seven. “When we didn’t have fish, rice, and oil, we had to get it ourselves. We became fighters.”

Though migration by sea in Senegal has dropped significantly in recent years because of tighter border controls and sea surveillance by Senegal and the European Union, Diouf has made her own efforts to discourage would-be migrants in Thiaroye.

The collective hired Babacar Niang, a fisherman who had driven hundreds of migrants to Europe. Niang was once paid $3,000 to drive 120 people at night to the Canary Islands in an 82 feet long fishing boat equipped with two engines.

“Everybody was excited by the migrants who left for Europe,” said Niang. “Here, you live with your mother and father, and you don’t do much.”

Today, Niang gathers mussels for the women’s group. “Now, my mind is in peace, and I earn my life,” he said.

In 2009, the association opened a school teaching hairdressing, embroidery, cosmetic design, couture, catering, and computer science to unemployed women who wanted to migrate illegally to Europe. Some of the students who learned couture were victims of rape and sexual violence, and they came here to find relief and work, using the school’s old treadle sewing machines to design clothes and sell them on markets. The school has a fully equipped kitchen financed by the Swiss embassy in Senegal, as part of the embassy’s 11 million West African Francs (about $23,000) grant to build equipment for the school’s catering education.  

“The girls will learn to cook, and be able to open small catering businesses here,” said Muriel Berset Kohen, the Swiss ambassador to Senegal who initiated the project. “If we want to prevent these young women from leaving, we must offer them an alternative.”

Diouf is a now well-known figure in Thiaroye-sur-Mer, where many consider her an informal spokeswoman for the city’s poor. On the eve of Korité, or the end of Ramadan, the fasting time for Muslims, dozens of residents lined up at her house to wish her the best, as tradition dictates. Diouf then slipped a bill worth $10 to one of her visitors, who performed moves of the traditional M’balax dance in return.

“I was impressed by her intelligence, her courage, and her talent in telling stories,” said Berset Kohen, who first met Diouf at a gathering of female diplomatic officials in Dakar last year. “I came to visit her without any idea on my mind, but after seeing what she did, I thought that she deserved to be supported.”

Even with its success, however, global economic conditions have had an impact, and the collective is now struggling to keep its business afloat. Many of the nongovernmental organizations that invested in the group have had to cut back on spending to save money.

But despite its financial constraints, the collective's women said that the organization saved them from despair, if not always from poverty.

“It is almost impossible to forget the loss of a loved one,” said Thiam, the storyteller. “But none of us have forgotten the solidarity that binds us together now.”

Additional reporting by Mamadou Dia.

This project was made possible by a fellowship from the French-American Foundation - United States.

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