Dakar — "It was Ibrahima Sarr, a friend and fellow fisherman, who got me involved with smuggling people across the seas." Senegalese fisherman Doudou Ndoye speaks with the bittersweet conviction of a man redeemed.
"Our clients paid between 200,000 and 300,000 CFA francs (400 to 600 dollars) per person, with 96 passengers on each boat," he told IPS.
Sarr and Ndoye were "passeurs", people-smugglers organising risky voyages from the coast of Mauritania across the open seas to the Spanish-owned Canary Islands in small fishing boats.
Those waters have claimed the lives of many hopeful migrants from Ndoye's home, the Senegalese fishing community of Thiaroye-sur-mer. More than 150 young people from this small fishing village on the outskirts of Dakar have died in the crossing, according to COFLEC, the Women Against Clandestine Emigration Collective. They left behind 88 children. The collective says 374 minors from the village have been detained in Spain and 210 local youth repatriated to Senegal from Europe as well as Cape Verde and Morocco, where they were preparing to venture the passage.
"Seven of my own cousins have disappeared on the high seas," Ndoye said. "From my neighbourhood alone, seven other young people have died at sea, two were repatriated after being caught by the Moroccan coast guard."
Five years ago, at a funeral for a group of young Senegalese who died trying to emigrate, Yayi Bayam Diouf decided she had had enough. "I decided to organise women who had lost their husbands, sons or brothers crossing the sea, and create an association to fight against this curse."
She set up COFLEC to work against clandestine migration, both through awareness campaigns that help people better understand the risks of trying to emigrate in this way, and by creating jobs that encourage young peopLe to stay and build their futures in Thiaroye-sur-mer.
Today, the collective has 375 members and a wide range of income-generating activities. There is food processing, making couscous from maize, millet and black-eyed peas. There is seafood - the collective brings three tonnes of smoked and dried fish and shrimp to market every year.
Members also make juice out of whatever is to hand, lemons, oranges and mangoes, hibiscus and ginger, as well as from the green pulp hidden inside the brown pods of the ditah (also known as sweet detar, a fruit popular across West Africa's Sahel regions).
COFLEC also makes three tonnes of soap per year from local materials (palm oil, caustic soda, shea butter and neem oil), earning around 16,000 dollars.
All told, the collective produces 30 tonnes of various goods for sale in local markets, in neighbouring Mali, Burkina Faso, and Côte d'Ivoire, and even overseas in Europe and the United States. Receipts come to around 70,000 dollars a year.
Some of this income supports microcredit, with the group lending nearly 20,000 dollars a year to its members and to people trying to re-establish themselves after being repatriated from Europe. COFLEC has also spent nearly 100,000 dollars on two fishing boats with the aim of easing 50 former passeurs back into legitimate work on the seas, Diouf told IPS.
"We put the finance for this together thanks to our own contributions and a grant from the Beneteau Foundation, based in France. The Spanish overseas development programme also helped us with a loan," she said.
These initiatives came too late for Ndoye's close friend, Ibrahima Sarr: he was lost at sea after he took his place in one of the small boats sailing for El Dorado. But for the young residents of Thiaroye-sur-mer, the energy and initiative of COFLEC points to a golden future closer to home.