The Senegal Migrant Quilt

Background

This page tells a story of death and perseverance. It describes the journey made by migrants who leave West Africa in the hope of reaching Europe via the Spanish Canary Islands. Over 20,000 migrants made the trip in 2020, but many more turned back and over 2,000 may have drowned. The rate of departures is sharply higher in 2021.

The profiles and stories shown here are part of an initiative by The Advocacy Project to change the narrative of “illegal migration” and hear directly from migrants and their families.

In the summer of 2021 we asked Jeremiah Gatlin, one of our 2021 Peace Fellows, to travel to Dakar and investigate the causes of the migration and the human cost it involves. Jeremiah is a Masters student at the Fletcher School, Tufts University and he is an expert on the issue of migration. Before joining AP he volunteered in West Africa for the Peace Corps.

Jeremiah has produced extraordinary stories and remarkable material. He spent the summer working with returned migrants, family members and civil society leaders in the fishing village of Sendou-Bargny and the community of Thiaroye, outside Dakar. Both have sent migrants abroad, and struggled with the consequences.

Jeremiah interviewed five migrants who had recorded video clips from their voyage and agreed to share their footage with AP. Jeremiah worked with Gio Liguori, our video editor to produce a powerful video, Barcelona or Death (“Barca Wala Barsakh”) that can be viewed on YouTube.

The film also draws on a rap song about the journey that was subsequently recorded by one of the five migrants, Ama Ndiaye Thiombane (AKA Papa Mbissa Boy). It describes Mr Thiombane’s horror where migrants died on the boat and were thrown overboard: “Monsters show their face and start to eat people.”

As part of the project, several women from the village of Thiaroye have used embroidery to describe how their sons and brothers drowned and how their own lives have been shaped by tragedy. The stories are shown on the next tab and they are both poignant and deeply personal. One artist, Khady Mbengue describes how one of her brothers, Ibrahima died during the passage and was thrown overboard.

Ms Mbengue’s second brother, Abdou Karim, survived but “came back a different person,” as she explained to Mr Gatlin. There are few services for returned migrants and clandestine migration is generally a taboo subject in Senegal. Many returnees suffer from mental illness.

The embroidery training was funded by AP and managed by OPEN-SARL, a social enterprise in Thiaroye that has provided support to over 750 returned migrants. The blocks are being turned into an advocacy quilt by Kathy Springer and a team of quilters in Indiana. Kathy has assembled other quilts for AP.

Jeremiah provides context for the embroidery and video in a series of blogs which place the blame squarely on misguided development policies in Senegal and pressure from the European Union, which is desperate to prevent the exodus of migrants from West Africa. For more information read this news bulletin. Email Jgatlin@advocacynet.org for more information.

 

Artists and Blocks

 

Khady Mbengue


Khady has two brothers who have attempted to leave for the Canary Islands. The first brother to try and leave died while at sea. The other migrants on the boat threw his body into the ocean and his body was never recovered. There has been no closure for her or her family. Burial practices are very important in Islam and she worries that they will never be able to bury him. Her second brother attempted to go to the Canary Islands as well, but returned after nine days at sea. He sold most of his belongings to pay for the trip and has been unable to find work since his return. Khady has had to pick up numerous jobs (primarily working on cereal transformation and selling fruit at a kiosk) in order to support her family.

 

 

Nianga Ciss


Nianga’s husband left for Europe six years ago and was brought to Mauritania. While there, he worked and saved money for the opportunity to try again. His communication with Nianga became less and less frequent. She hasn’t heard from him in over three years. She doesn’t know if he is still in Mauritania, if he attempted the trip again, or if he is alive or dead. She worries about her son, who often talks about going to Europe for work, the same way her husband did. She sells fruit at a kiosk to support her family.

 

 

Manatou Seck


Manatou’s brother was a housing painter who attempted to go to Morocco twice. Both times he sold everything to pay for the trip. He was unsuccessful and returned home. She explains, without going into detail, that he witnessed terrible things en route to Morocco and has never been the same since. He was the head of the house but doesn’t work anymore. Manitou has had to support their parents and her children, working with a cereal transformation cooperative. She says her children go to school, but they barely get by. She knows her kids think about leaving too, and worries what will happen in the future.

 

 

Ndeye Gueye


Living in a village outside of Thies, Ndeye has four sons who died. She was put in charge of her nephew, a tailor, who left by boat in the night without telling her. It has been two years since he left and she hasn’t heard from him since he left. Her husband is older and unable to work. She washes clothes and works with a women’s peanut collective in order to support her seven children and the seven children of a family member (14 in total). She hopes to buy land and farm/raise animals with her children to support them.

 

 

Ndeye Fatou Lo


Ndeye Fatou starts by saying that everyone in Thiaroye has a story of someone who has passed away while trying to migrate to Europe. The community funded an association for taxi chauffeurs to create work opportunities for youth in the community. A few men in the group took the money and used it to finance their trips to Europe. 
Two of her brothers died while attempting to reach the Canary Islands. She explains that they were under pressure from their parents to leave. They were unable to secure work and were often pestered for not doing anything. She says this pushed them to try their luck migrating for work. Ndeye also explains how education doesn’t secure a livelihood and many don’t see the point in seeking a higher education because it will not lead to better opportunities. Ndeye Fatou sells fish to support her family.

 

Maté Dia 


When Maté was a child, her uncle used to sell shoes at the market. Just after marrying, her uncle left without warning to go to Europe. The wife never had children, and she was blamed for her husband leaving. They never heard from her uncle again. Maté now cares for her grandma, crafting jewelry that she taught herself how to make. She says she “loves art” and has always had a passion to create.

 

 

Nogaye “Mati” Niang


Leaving eight children behind, Mati’s brother attempted to reach Europe and was never heard from again. Her mother passed away from a heart attack soon after, leaving Mati devastated. She works as a community health agent at the local health center, but there isn’t a fixed salary and her pay often depends on the generosity of patients and health care staff. She supplements her income by producing soap locally in order to support her three children.

 

Rokhaya Diallo


Leaving in 2003, Rokhaya’s brother left with an earlier wave of migrants attempting to reach Europe. He asked friends and family for support to fund his trip. Traveling through Morocco, he arrived in France but was unable to find work. While abroad, Rokhaya’s brother passed away and was brought back to Senegal to be buried. He left his wife and child behind. Rokhaya now helps support her brother’s wife and child, cooking meals for families and selling goods at the market.