Janjanbureh, The Gambia – The air is hot and dry, and the main road that dissects this riverside town is devoid of any sign of life. Janjanbureh was once the second largest town in The Gambia. Now, it is nowhere near that – its old colonial buildings are barely standing and most of its residents have left for other parts of the country, or for Europe in search of greener pastures.
Alieu Bah sits under a tree in the courtyard of his two-bedroom house off the main thoroughfare, taking shelter from the afternoon heat. Three weeks ago the father-of-12 received the news that any parent dreads the most: his son, Sailu Bah, had been killed by human traffickers in Libya as he attempted to embark upon the final leg of a perilous journey to Italy.
“A young man from this town who was with him called us and told us Sailu was beaten to death by the smugglers,” Bah says as his eyes fill with tears.
Desperate to get to Italy
There are fewer than two million Gambians, and by percentage of population, more Gambians have headed to Europe than any other nation, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In 2016, almost 12,000 Gambians landed on the shores of Italy and Greece. Entire villages have been emptied of their young men and women.
This island town, some 300km north of the capital, Banjul, has had some of the highest rates of youth migration in the country. It used to be home to as many as 50,000 people. Now the government estimates that only 3,600 are left. Everyone in this rice-farming town knows someone who has attempted the dangerous journey to Europe.
“I have lost count of how many young people have left. Every time you hear the son or daughter of so-and-so has left the town. Many times they die trying to get to Italy,” says Bah, his voice cracking with emotion.
A new road to nowhere
The fortunes of the town have long been tied to the country’s once-thriving river transport system. At a time when the country’s roads were not Tarmacked and boats were the favoured form of transportation, Janjanbureh was a vital stop for goods and people.
But when, in the early 1980s, the government began to build new roads and to Tarmac existing ones, Janjanbureh’s fortunes shifted. Gambians started to travel by road instead of boat and without a bridge to connect the island town to the rest of the country, it was overlooked and neglected. People and goods no longer passed through it.
A ten-minute walk from Bah’s house, beside the shore of the River Gambia, a group of men sit idly beneath some mango trees. A single skiff floats on the still brown waters nearby. It is almost two in the afternoon and they have spent the day sitting here, watching the water, in the hope that some tourists will arrive by boat.
“Tourists sometimes stop by on their way to other towns,” explains one of them, Modou Sane. “They want to see crocodiles and hippos. We take them around on our boat and they take pictures. That is the only way we make a living.
“There is no other work for us here,” the 35-year-old father of four continues. “This job doesn’t provide us with enough money to live on. Life is tough and we are tired.”
The situation isn’t much better for the younger generation. Nineteen-year-old Mohamed Lamine has just finished high school and is meant to go to university. But his family is poor and they can’t afford the fees. Many of his classmates have already left Janjanbureh and now he is considering following in their footsteps.
“My dream was to go to university and become a businessman when I finish my studies,” he says. “But we have no money for fees and I have nothing to do. I don’t see things improving and I’m almost certain I will try my luck abroad.”
‘A beggar in a foreign country’
But not everyone in Janjanbureh is in a rush to leave. Madou Toure has tried his luck abroad twice and says the grass isn’t always greener elsewhere. “I left Janjanbureh twice and went abroad to see if life is better outside,” he explains. “One time I went as far as Mauritania. It was soon after I finished high school.”
The 38-year-old father-of-six says he will not try a third time. “Life was hard abroad. People treat you like a beggar. And I found no jobs. It is better to be a poor farmer here than to be a beggar in a foreign country,” adds Toure, who now has a small rice farm.
The country has a new government, for the first time in more than two decades, and it says that addressing the issue of migration will be one of its top priorities.
“We have started to provide our youth with the training they need in order for them to be self-employed,” explains Lamin Darboe, the executive director of The Gambia National Youth Council. “There are not enough jobs in the market, so we are giving them the right training so they can be self-employed.
“We are also conducting [a] sensitisation programme where we tell our youth about the dangers involved in migration. We provide them with alternative information to what the smugglers are providing them with.”
But for many parents in Janjanbureh this has come too late.
“The new government cannot bring back my son,” says Bah. “But I hope they can prevent the rest of our youth from dying the same way as my son.”
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa