“I’m getting old”. At 64, you can sense that Baganda Sakho knows that time is running out and wants to share his extraordinary experience as much as he can. The experience of a “migrant” – as he would be called today – who returned to his country, Senegal, when his entire community told him to stay in France. Baganda Sakho has written a book about this 17 year-long adventure in France and several decades in Africa. The title is deliberately controversial, Emigration is not the solution (Éditions Grad / Soxaana Fedde).
The former young man, who left in January 1974, with the rather futile objective – he himself admits it today – of “earning enough money to buy [myself] a motorbike”, has become Regional Councilor and Mayor of a small municipality in the center of Senegal. The councilor makes no secret of the benefit he gained from his tough experience as an emigrant: “I owe everything to emigration. I’ve learnt a lot and without that, I would certainly not be where I am today.”
Emigration of yesterday and today
How, in these conditions, can a message be put across to the African youth of today advocating for the need to stay in the country? “What’s happening today is very different from what emigration was in the 1970s”, continues this descendent of the Soninké people. To get to Paris clandestinely, Baganda Sakho went by plane: Bamako-Tripoli, Tripoli-Tunis, Tunis-Rome and Rome-Brussels. At the time, there were no visas between Senegal and Italy or Belgium. The young man got to Paris from Brussels by taxi.
“Today, young people die on this path of emigration. 300 of them who were from my Department, Goudiri, have already died during their journey”. The city with the same name, the capital of the Department where Baganda Sakho comes from, only has 5,000 inhabitants. When a young man who disappeared from his village is mentioned, who he came across again in Dakar, his body covered in marks from the torture inflicted on him in the jails of Tripoli where migrants are ransomed, Baganda Sakho falls into a deep silence and changes subject. “We no longer have strong arms to till the earth or conduct projects!”, exclaims the Mayor. “And these arms, they belong to all these young men who try to leave at the risk of their lives.”
In France, Mr. Sakho immediately dropped the mop given to him in his very first job to work as a warehouseman in a perfumery. He very quickly wanted to learn a rewarding trade and became a self-employed plumber. In his hostel in the Paris region, where “we all used to live among ourselves, in very difficult circumstances, without ever rubbing shoulders with French people, apart from in the street or at the factory”, he forged relationships with Senegalese students and other militant migrants who wanted to change the way in which people view Africa. They mulled over the idea of “going back to their country to contribute to the development of their home villages”. Baganda Sakho returned home in January 1987, with 13 compatriots from the same village.
Further reading: AFD's action in Senegal
There was a mixed reception to say the least: “My mother didn’t understand at all. She said to me: ‘You’ve run away from the cold!’”, because it was the mothers who generally encouraged their children to emigrate, “by selling jewelry, goats and sheep”. The family and friends of other returning migrants hardly gave them a better welcome. It has to be said that the precious remittances, which often supported the family, no longer arrived. 11 out of the 14 returning villagers went back to France within two years of their return.
Water, health, education
Baganda Sakho and those of his friends who opted to stay had their heads full of plans and were determined to roll up their sleeves, in a region where everything needed to be done: “At the time, there was no concrete well in the entire area, there was nothing. You had to walk 25 km on bumpy tracks for a bandage... With our village association, we have worked a lot on water. We have created vegetable gardens in a place where no vegetables were grown, but also health huts in villages, most of which have become health centers.”
Education has not been left out: “There were four schools in the region, compared to about forty today.” The local economy has also taken off with the development of microcredit. But as the man who has become a farmer again admits himself, “much remains to be done.
To road to progress
This is especially because young people in 2018 have little to do with those of the 1970s. “There is never enough progress”, points out Baganda Sakho. “Today’s young people will complain about dust on a very flat road which connects two villages in 15 minutes by car, compared to four hours when I was young. They would like a perfectly tarmacked road...”
While in the past, two relatives or friends might not be in touch with each other for two months, “Now, it’s WhatsApp, ‘Hi, how are you, did you sleep well?’”, laughs Baganda Sakho, aware of the opportunity there is to take advantage of a demanding youth which is connected to the world. “Each generation wants better than the previous one. We need to constantly make progress. As each step forward symbolizes putting an end to an injustice.”