Though less than 10 minutes on foot from the splendour of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor or Puerta Del Sol, the working-class district of Lavapies feels a million miles away. While steadily emerging as the next ‘hipster neighbourhood’ of the Spanish capital, it is still clearly an immigrant barrio, home to large populations of South Americans, Bangladeshis and Senegalese.
Mamadou Dia moved back to his native Senegal 2 years ago but visits Europe often. Lavapies is where he returns when he is in Spain, which, in 2006, took him in after he made the treacherous boat journey along the west coast of Africa in search of a better life. Rather than looking for work, these days Mamadou comes to Spain to raise awareness of what drives people to risk everything to make the increasingly dangerous trip from across Africa to Europe.
Through his book 3052: Pursuing a Dream, a best-seller in Spain, and through regular media appearances, Mamadou works to counter widespread myths about migration from Africa to Europe. His NGO Hahatay works to dispel many of the misconceptions his compatriots may have about what awaits them in Europe.
In between several talks that Mamadou is delivering at Madrid’s universities, we meet in the Dakar Café in Lavapies, a popular meeting point for the Senegalese expat community.
You left Senegal for Europe in 2006. Why did you decide to leave your home, and was it a hard decision to make?
My family was never poor. We were what you would call middle-class, economically. We owned several boats and made a living from the sea, fishing, and we got enough from the sea to not just survive but to live a comfortable life.
At the end of the 1990s things started to change. European fishing boats arrived off the west coast of Africa. In most cases these boats had permits from our government allowing them to enter our waters. But many times, instead of using nets like this [spreads his arms shoulder-width] as they were supposed to, they used nets that were this wide [extends his arms to their full length]! Within a few years the waters we had been fishing had no fish and there was no way for us to make a living.
So, with 83 people, including 2 of my brothers, we decided to take one of our boats and try and get to Europe. We believed we would be able to find jobs and work long enough to return and set ourselves up without having to be fishers. It was a hard choice. In Senegal, like most of Africa, we are very close to our families, our communities, so leaving was very painful. But what else could we do?
Was your journey as we would imagine a typical migrant journey from Africa to Europe to be?
Yes. Most of us, for sure, were used to being on the sea. But this journey was far longer than any of us were ever used to. I remember we left on 11 May and finally arrived on European land on 18 May. The journey was not smooth and keeping a straight course on the ocean is not easy, so it took longer than we expected. But nobody died on our crossing.
But I have something to make clear. In Europe, they say every time, ‘they are taken by the mafia. People pay to be taken across the sea.’ For us, this was just not true. We were all fisherfolk with good backgrounds but all forced to take desperate measures after our livelihood was ruined at the end of the 1990s. Nobody trafficked us, we made the conscious decision to work together to try and improve our futures.
When you arrived, how were you received in Spain?
At the beginning the Spanish people welcomed us! This may seem hard to believe these days, but you have to remember I arrived before the crisis hit Spain and the rest of Europe. They needed lots of workers to work on construction sites, right at the bottom of the work ladder. This was the kind of job native Spanish people don’t want to do. ‘This is the kind of job for immigrants,’ they said. So they were happy for us to take the boats and come and live in misery here in Europe. What’s more, the government even helped us. They would give us access to healthcare and even help us build a social life here in our new country.
Now they have the economic crisis. They say ‘this situation has happened because we have so many immigrants! Now it’s time to keep them out!’ We are blamed for everything that has gone bad, not just in Spain but in lots of other places. This means that life in Europe for immigrants has got much harder. When they needed us there were social programmes and health initiatives. Now everything for immigrants has been cut. Before, we were almost left alone so long as we worked hard and stayed out of trouble. Now, police harassment is very common.
This summer alone, hundreds of people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. When you see the news, what do you think?
This is, of course, very sad. Tragic. And I always get asked: ‘is it worth the risk?’ You have to remember that, although things are not as good as they used to be in Europe, at least there is hope. Europe doesn’t have war! People are not dying of hunger!
In many parts of Africa, people are dying every single day, so why should they be afraid of crossing the water? Many are just not afraid to die, so however bad the economy gets in Europe, however much the authorities try to stop it, and however risky the journey might be, people will still try. Why would they be afraid of being caught and imprisoned? That is not such a scary thought for people who are escaping violence or poverty. Unless things change many miles away, Europe will carry on seeing African people attempt to enter Spain, or Italy; it’s only a question of how they are treated when they arrive.
As I say through my NGO: ‘My brothers will continue to be cut by the barbed wire of the border fences, will continue to be food for the sharks of the Atlantic and the vultures of the desert while we do not have our dignity.’
Through your NGO, Hahatay, you work closely with people who are considering risking everything to travel to Europe. How does your own experience influence this work?
All I want is that, if people are going to risk their lives to get to Europe, they at least have a good idea of what life is really like here. I have lived in both Africa and Europe and I know for a fact that the media in both places paints an inaccurate picture of the other. In Europe, people read nothing but bad news about Africa or see nothing but pictures and films of poverty, hunger and war, when in many places this is not the case. In the same way, the young people in Senegal and many other places grow up believing Europe to be some golden land. Again, this is not the case.
I came to Spain thinking everyone was happy, with their own good job, house and car. After all, in our schools we are taught all about how wonderful France and the rest of Europe is. We are taught the language and shown pictures of happy people, grand buildings and monuments and lives of comfort. Then I come here; I learn there is so much stress. What I saw in Spain is that few people have real freedom. Many are trapped by the system. They need to work to pay for their car, and their home is really owned by big banks. And, while in Africa it’s true that people die from violence and disease, in Europe, stress and suicide is much higher.
So, I’m not trying to tell people they shouldn’t travel to Europe, but only make sure that they have an accurate idea of where they are going and what is waiting for them. I want to show that instead of travelling thousands of miles away from home maybe it would be better to stay and work to improve things. In Senegal we have peace, good infrastructure and, increasingly, good broadband internet, so there are more and more opportunities here.
Now you’re back in Senegal, what brings you back to Spain so regularly?
I have seen how inaccurate our views of different cultures and places are. So, I like to work with Senegalese to show them that what they think about Europe isn’t always true. I want to encourage dialogue with the Spanish and counter the negative way many Africans, both migrants and the ones who stay, are shown in the popular media. I read from my book and try and explain what drives people to leave their homes in search of a better life, and I try my best to show that. Just like the fish I used to catch, the developed world has been taking, taking, taking from Africa for many decades. So is it really so surprising many people migrate to try and support themselves and their families?
Also, through Hahatay, we welcome Spanish students and workers to our part of Senegal so that they can see that what they watch on the TV or read in their newspapers is not the reality. We can show that, if there is peace and stability and we have the chance to make a living here without people coming and taking our resources or our fish, very few people would try to migrate to Europe.
It’s a very Occidental mind-set that we’re all migrating as we want to make more money or get free benefits. Community is so important to most Africans (I can’t even eat on my own!) and so it’s simply desperation that forces people to take that giant, dangerous step. Hopefully by going around the big media and bringing Europeans and Africans together in person, we can encourage more understanding and, hopefully, more empathy and compassion.
For more information about Hahatay visit hahatay.org.