Mamadou Niang has decided he has no choice but to leave his native Senegal. He is the son of a farmer, but salinization has made it impossible to farm his family's land in West Africa.
He has tried to leave his hometown of Gandiol three times for Europe.
The first two times, he was deported. The third time, in 2020, his boat was stopped. The Spanish government caught them hours after they left Dakar.
Previous failed attempts are not stopping his plans.
He tells NPR what he has to gain — and what he could lose — if he attempts the journey again.
Listen to our full report by clicking or tapping the play button above.
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
As the Earth heats up, people are being forced to move, and that will only increase as climate change accelerates. This week, our colleagues on All Things Considered are visiting a place where it has already begun, in Senegal. It's part of a project connecting three major stories - climate change, migration and the rise of the political far right. All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro begins the journey on the coast of West Africa.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The town of Gandiol in northern Senegal is a farming community, or at least it was.
MAMADOU NIANG: (Through interpreter) All of this area used to be fields. We used to grow tomatoes and onions here.
SHAPIRO: Mamadou Niang's father worked this land until he died in 2006. And Mamadou would have liked to follow in his father's footsteps, but he can't. The town is near the coast, and rising seas are pushing saltwater into the fields.
NIANG: (Through interpreter) The saltwater runs through the village, and it kills all the plants that are being grown. That's why we can no longer grow anything here.
SHAPIRO: So if things had not changed, would you be a farmer like your father?
NIANG: (Through interpreter) Of course. I would stay and work as a farmer.
SHAPIRO: Mamadou has decided he has no choice but to leave. He's tried to reach Europe three times. The first two times, he was deported. The third time, in 2020, patrol boats from both Senegal and Spain stopped them. Senegal has given Spain's military permission to patrol these waters. Things quickly turned tragic.
NIANG: (Through interpreter) The Senegalese navy tried to scare us by shooting into the water.
SHAPIRO: Then, Mamadou says, the Senegalese navy bumped the fishing boat, and it capsized.
NIANG: (Through interpreter) There were 84 people. Only 39 out of 84 were rescued.
SHAPIRO: Oh, my God.
NIANG: (Through interpreter) All of the rest passed away.
SHAPIRO: Are you a good swimmer?
SHAPIRO: Do you think that's why you're alive?
NIANG: No. (Speaking Wolof).
SHAPIRO: "I'm alive because of God," he says. Mamadou Niang understands how lucky he was to survive. But now, even after three failed attempts, even after seeing people around him drown, he is still determined to get to Europe. He recently went to the German Embassy to apply for a visa, and they rejected him. I only fully understood his single-minded commitment when he took me up to the roof of his half-built house.
It's incredible that in this village of two-story buildings that are squeezed up against one another, there's one four-story building, which is paid for by somebody who works in France and sends money back to their family, and then there is one that is just like a palazzo, with pillars and terraces. And that's paid for by, appropriately enough, somebody who works in Italy and sends money back to their family. Looking at these two houses in this village, who wouldn't want that? Mamadou points at one of the houses.
NIANG: (Through interpreter) This one went to Europe the same year I tried to go. They let him stay there, but they deported me.
SHAPIRO: So you think, that could have been my house?
NIANG: (Through interpreter) Yeah, of course.
SHAPIRO: It's keeping up with the Joneses, but the Joneses are funded by a relative in Europe. Even if climate change weren't pushing him out, these reminders of the good life are a constant pull.
(SOUNDBITE OF METAL SLIDING)
SHAPIRO: We leave his house through the corrugated sheet of metal leaning against the doorway and walk through the village of Gandiol. Around the corner is a newly built house with tiled walls, paid for by his uncle, who lives in Italy. This house is well finished. There's crown molding, and then there's, like, the circular molding that goes around a chandelier. It's very elegant, very fancy.
When we get back to Mamadou's unfinished house with its bare concrete walls, his elderly mother, Aminata Diouck invites us all to sit down to lunch, a big bowl of rice, vegetables and fish called thieboudienne. When I ask whether any of her five children are in Europe, she says, not yet.
AMINATA DIOUCK: (Through interpreter) My wish is that he can get to Europe, but I don't want him to take the boat again.
SHAPIRO: The last time he took the boat, when there was that horrible tragedy on the sea, were you afraid that you had lost him?
DIOUCK: (Through interpreter) I was scared, yeah. But he was going in order to honor the whole family.
SHAPIRO: Mamadou's conviction to get to Europe is shared by nearly every young man we meet here in Senegal. And the people who make this journey are overwhelmingly men. It's not just houses that show them how much a man working in Europe can help his family back home. There are also men who fly back to Senegal who get permanent work visas or citizenship abroad. So it's not necessarily a one-way street.
MOUSTAPHA DIEYE: Bonjour.
SHAPIRO: (Speaking French).
Moustapha Dieye is one of those lucky ones. But his journey wasn't easy.
DIEYE: (Through interpreter) Everybody who leaves and goes to Europe on a boat, there's a moment when they wish they hadn't.
SHAPIRO: We meet him up the coast in the city of Saint Louis. He lives in Spain now. But he's on vacation in his hometown for a few months. Hundreds of pirogues line the water. They're long wooden fishing boats painted in dazzling colors. Moustapha fuels up the motor on his family's pirogue.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR STARTING)
SHAPIRO: We head out onto the water. Moustapha is 42. He reached Spain in 2006 and went more than eight years without seeing his family. But now he has papers and a good job at a restaurant. Everyone in town can see he's done well. Moustapha says what they can't see are the people in Spain who are still struggling to get on their feet.
DIEYE: (Through interpreter) I have childhood friends from here. We all left in 2006, and they still don't have their papers.
SHAPIRO: When he comes back to Senegal, he tries to tell young men about the downsides of leaving.
DIEYE: (Through interpreter) The youth, with their problems here - all they see is us coming back and forth, and they say, oh, you have a good life. You have things. But they don't want to see the difficulties that we have. People still want to go, but everybody who comes back tells people that it's very difficult, and it's not El Dorado.
SHAPIRO: The shoreline is teeming with life as we turn around and head back. This time of year, families repaint their boats to get ready for the new fishing season, a season that Moustapha will miss when he goes back to Spain.
You gave up a life as a fisherman. Is it difficult for you not to be painting the boat and fixing the nets and getting ready for the new season?
DIEYE: (Through interpreter) Yeah, it's a little difficult, but that's the rule of life. If you have an opportunity, you have to take it.
SHAPIRO: Later in our reporting, we'll visit Senegalese migrants in Spain to see firsthand how their dreams compare to their reality.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK'S "THROW DOWN YOUR HEART") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.