SARE DIALO, Senegal — After shaking hands with the elders seated around the room, I plopped down on a wooden bench next to Aliou Mballo, the short, sinewy chief of this southern village. I listened as one of the men narrated to him how his nephew had recently been robbed, again, by bandits in southern Libya while trying to migrate to Europe. Struck by how nonplussed everyone was, I interrupted to ask why young people from the village kept risking their lives to get to Europe despite the obvious danger.
“Before all we had was grass huts,” the chief explained, “but since young people started migrating many years ago, thanks be to god, our lives have improved.” He went on to describe how migrants from this small settlement of 300 people regularly send home money for rice, medicine and school fees. When I asked when emigration had started, the chief pointed across the room at a heavyset bald man in a simple purple kaftan. “He went first,” he said, “he showed us the benefits of emigration.”
As I spent more time in Sare Dialo, I confirmed that the man he had pointed to, Demba Baldé, was indeed the first person from the village to seek his fortune in Europe and had since become an example for generations of younger men. Baldé’s experience, while very different from those who try to emigrate today, offers a unique vantage point for understanding how emigration has benefited communities across southern Senegal and why young men continue to risk their lives to get to Europe. Although migration is increasingly demonized in Western countries, in places like Sare Dialo it has become, over decades, one of the few ways for young men to provide better lives for their families and develop their communities—partly the result of economic policies imposed by the West.
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Baldé was born in Sare Dialo in 1952 the third son of Malal Baldé. Like most boys in the village, he helped his father farm cotton, corn and peanuts during the rainy season with the expectation that he would eventually till the same soil. He stopped going to school when his parents died to contribute to the household. However, following droughts that began in the 1970s, farming became a less reliable way to support his growing family, which by 1980 included his first wife and their newborn son Malal Baldé, whom he named after his father.
One day, Baldé heard that his cousin, Mady Baldé, had moved to Europe where he found work and was sending money home. While he knew of a few people who had moved 350 miles to Dakar for work, and was vaguely aware of the thousands of people who travelled seasonally to work in the peanut fields of central Senegal, he had never heard of anyone going to Europe.
Baldé visited Mady’s father to ask how his son got to Europe. His uncle explained that Mady traveled overland to Nigeria, where he got a visa for Spain. He also gave him Mady’s address in Pineda de Mar, a small town in southern Spain outside Barcelona.
After discussing his plans with his brothers and his wife, Baldé packed a small bag, bid farewell to his friends and caught a passing bus to the regional hub city of Tambacounda. Nearly a week later, he arrived in Lagos, Nigeria, where he paid someone to help organize the documents needed for a Spanish visa application. It was approved within days, and on the morning of April 3, 1980, he boarded his flight to Spain.
“People got up and used the bathroom,” he said, recalling his first time on an airplane. “But I did not dare to get out of my seat,” he said laughing, remembering how he thought he would fall over. After landing in Barcelona in the late afternoon, he gave Mady’s address to a taxi driver outside the airport. As they crossed the city and drove up the coast, he was mesmerized by the hills to the left and ocean to the right. “It was exciting being in a foreign country,” he recalled. “It was an adventure.”
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When he showed up at the small farm where Mady worked outside Pineda de Mar, Mady was ecstatic. After a tearful welcome, he introduced Baldé to the Spanish farm owner, who helped him move into one of the small buildings on the property. During the ensuing weeks, Baldé, Mady and three other West Africans tended tomatoes, potatoes and onions. On their days off, they stayed on the farm and listened to cassettes they brought from home. “We were lonely and did not speak Spanish yet,” he remembered. “Those cassettes transported us home for a few hours.”
After three years of working and saving money, Baldé made his first visit home. He flew to Dakar, where along with three others, he rented a car to drive them south to the region of Kolda. No one knew he was coming, but as the car pulled into Sare Dialo, word spread and soon he was virtually smothered by people coming to welcome him.
“I cried a little,” he admitted. “I was seeing faces I had not seen for a long time.” For the first few days, people kept coming by his compound to greet him. It was no secret he had come back with money for his family, and his friends were curious. “They wanted to know if there was hardship on the road and whether you could make a life there.”
Baldé enjoyed being home and the newfound respect he had garnered, but he had planned on visiting for only a month. As he prepared his return to Spain, the chief of the village, the aforementioned Aliou Mballo, asked if Baldé could take his younger brother, Agibou Mballo (referred to as Mballo in this piece), with him. Baldé agreed and in January 1984, this time with Mballo in tow, he once again travelled overland to Nigeria, applied for a Spanish visa, flew to Barcelona and taxied to Pineda de Mar.
While he helped Mballo get a job on the farm, Baldé moved into town and found work at a cardboard factory. At the time, Catalonia region was becoming a hub for Senegalese migrants who, having been shut out of France in the mid-1970s, had come seeking jobs in the region’s burgeoning industrial sector. As Baldé hopped around from plastics factory to woodworking, he met other Senegalese and make a few friends among Spaniards. After five years, he was able to apply for permanent residency, which made it easier to find housing and employment.
During a visit home in 1993, he married his second wife, another sign of success for young men, who in Islam are allowed up to four wives. His second wife stayed in Sare Dialo to look after the growing household while he brought his first wife to join him in Spain. They moved into a three-bedroom apartment in the larger town of Granollers where he worked in various factories and she found cleaning jobs in hotels and restaurants. Life was by no means easy, but he was happy to finally have his wife by his side.
Back in Sare Dialo, the economic situation was worsening. Macro-economic “adjustment” policies foisted on the country by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in the 1980s reduced government subsidies for cotton farmers. The reforms disproportionately affected small-scale growers like those in Sare Dialo, who could not compete with mechanized plantations in other countries and suddenly lost one of their few local sources of income.
At the same time, young people saw how Baldé, Mballo and others who had found work abroad were able to help support the community. As it became easier to communicate across continents, families could let their relatives in Europe know when school fees were due, the rice was about to run out or someone needed money for medicine. People abroad also financed televisions, motorcycles and farming equipment. “You could tell which houses had a family member abroad,” the chief Aliou Mballo told me, “because they had concrete buildings instead of grass huts.”
Linguère Mously Mbaye, a research economist who studies West African labor migration to Europe and works at the African Development Bank, echoed Aliou Mballo’s comments. In a conversation via Skype, she explained how migrants across West Africa often end up supplying the kinds of basic goods that governments should be supplying. “Migrants finance infrastructure, they finance schools, they finance hospitals and so on,” she explained. “Basically, they are funding the development of their communities.”
However, Baldé and Mballo could not possibly help all those asking for sponsorship to get to Europe. Instead, beginning in the 1990s people from Sare Dialo, along with thousands of others across West Africa, began traveling overland to small European enclaves in North Africa and claiming asylum. When the European Union employed draconian deterrents, migrants just developed new, and often riskier, routes. In the 2000s, people started taking small boats up the Atlantic coastline. Then, beginning in 2014, migrants started travelling through Libya and across the Mediterranean. In addition to being dangerous, those attempts were not cheap, so sometimes elderly family members, eager to establish lifelines in Europe, pooled their money to finance a son or nephew’s “clandestine” trip.
Meanwhile, back in Granollers, after bouncing around from factory to factory every few years, Baldé landed a job in construction. Over a few months in 2000, he learned the specialized skills involved in interior finishes such as applying trim, mounting cabinets and installing flooring. With a better salary, he now enjoyed a new degree of stability. The next year, when his first-born son Malal turned 21 years old, he submitted the paperwork to bring him to Spain.
While Baldé was now surrounded by at least part of his family, Sare Dialo was never far from his mind. In Granollers, he spoke Spanish, had built a community and was invested in the country, but ultimately, he never felt at home. “Spain was never my country,” he said, “that’s why even though I could have, I never sought citizenship.” When he reached retirement age in 2017, he packed his bags and moved back to Sare Dialo.
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As we settled into the faded plastic chairs in his otherwise barren foyer last month in Sare Dialo, Baldé commented on how the village had changed since he moved away in 1980. Apart from the obvious things—more people, solar panels, televisions and cell phones—he also noted how now nearly every compound is at least partially supported by family members working abroad. I interjected that I, too, was shocked at how even people who had never left southern Senegal knew the names of transit towns in North Africa and industrial hubs across Europe. While he acknowledged that his life served as a model for many young people, he pointed out that his experience, particularly the ease of getting the visa, bore little resemblance to what migrants face today.
When he arrived in rural Spain in 1980, the country was still emerging from Francisco Franco’s insular authoritarianism and Baldé and other Africans faced racism and discrimination. “We made Spain a multi-cultural society,” he proudly said. By making it easier for future generations of immigrants to find a place in Spanish society, he added, he set them up to enjoy greater success than he has. He pointed to the large mosque at the center of the Sare Dialo, financed by recent emigrants, as an example of how they have been able to achieve more than he had.
Since he returned to Sare Dialo, Baldé has also noticed that people’s ideas about Europe have changed. When he left in 1980, he said, he had no preconceptions about what he would find. Now, however, many young people think arriving in Europe makes you rich immediately. At the same time, he continued, European leaders are deluded if they believe they can stop people from immigrating. Every time Europe imposes barriers, he pointed out, migrants find ways around them. “People in Sare Dialo do not know the full truth about life in Europe,” he summarized, “but people in Europe also do not understand why people leave here.”
Baldé now spends his retirement enjoying his status as a respected elder in the community. While he misses Malal and his first wife, who still live and work in Spain, he said their continued presence there and the money they send back enabled him to return. He hinted that his experience in Europe meant that he knows better than other family members how to spend the money they send. Instead of buying fancy clothes, he said, he has invested in chain-link fencing for the field where he wants to establish a mango and citrus orchard.
As we finished our conversation and I prepared to leave, Baldé mentioned that he was headed to the nearby town of Velingara that afternoon to check on a multistory house Malal was building there. When I asked if he would move to Velingara when the house was finished, he laughed. “Maybe my son will retire there with his family,” he said, “but I spent a lot of my life outside my father’s village. Now I want to be at home.”
 The “Dialo” in the village name refers to a small hand hoe used for weeding, not the common Fulbe surname Diallo.
Top photo: The hut in the foreground is the family’s kitchen, the cement building in the background is owned by Agibou Mballo, the second man from the village to go to Spain