Saint-Louis is being swallowed by the sea. Residents are bracing for a new reality
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
As President Biden and other world leaders meet at the climate summit in Egypt, we're going to spend some time looking at the impact of climate change in Western Africa. At the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, the city of Saint-Louis, Senegal, is sandwiched between the river and the sea. It's an ancient fishing town, a UNESCO World Heritage center. During colonial times, Saint-Louis was Senegal's capital. Today, it's steadily shrinking under rising seas. This is where we begin an epic journey from Senegal to Morocco to Spain, tracing a line that connects three of the biggest stories of our time - climate change, migration and the rise of far right political leaders. To understand that global story, we need to start local, with a grandfather named Mamadou Thiam.
MAMADOU THIAM: (Speaking Wolof).
SHAPIRO: He carries himself like a community leader, an elder, which he is. As a child, he was raised in a family of fishermen. Every day, when his mother made lunch, she would send young Mamadou to fetch his father from the shoreline.
THIAM: (Through interpreter) Even if our mom hadn't started cooking the food, because the sea was very far from the houses, by the time you came back from calling your dad to have lunch, the lunch was ready. Nowadays, God has pushed the sea up to our houses. Climate change destroyed many houses.
SHAPIRO: This old man no longer lives in the home that his parents built. He no longer lives in a permanent home at all.
THIAM: (Through interpreter) We no longer have the cool, fresh air we used to have from the sea.
SHAPIRO: He sits in a temporary shelter built by the U.N. It's a camp called Diougop. Hundreds of people live here, all of them displaced by rising seas. Mamadou leads their community organization. When I ask if he misses his former life as a fisherman...
THIAM: (Speaking Wolof).
SHAPIRO: "Of course," he says. The camp's landscape is uniform and monochrome. The flimsy plastic walls of the cookie-cutter buildings are the same tan color as the sand that surrounds them. The structures sit on gray concrete blocks in an orderly grid. These homes have no running water or electricity. Goats forage for any small nub of greenery.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOAT BLEATING)
SHAPIRO: This place feels miles from the ocean, and it is. Some of the men here still catch a bus every day to go fishing at 4 a.m. They pay a bus fare they can't always afford. They tell us it feels insulting having to pay to get to water that used to be at their fingertips.
HADI SAR: (Speaking Wolof).
SHAPIRO: Hadi Sar (ph) is Mamadou's wife.
SAR: (Through interpreter) It's really strange because for generations we used to live near the sea. Fishermen, kids - they only know the sea. We don't know anything else but the sea.
SHAPIRO: She sits in the sand with her daughters and grandchildren, pouring tea.
SAR: (Through interpreter) When I was a child, every morning we used to go to the sea to swim and to play hide and seek. Our kids nowadays won't have the opportunity to do that.
SHAPIRO: There's an expression in Wolof - water doesn't leave its path.
SAR: (Speaking Wolof).
SHAPIRO: It means once water decides where it wants to go, there's no stopping it.
SAR: (Through interpreter) Our ancestors talk about that, people who passed away a long time ago. Today, if you go and wake them up, they'll tell you, look; we had predicted this.
SHAPIRO: Hadi Sar's ancestors also experienced floods. The water would come, and everyone would relocate for a few months.
SAR: (Through interpreter) Before, when the sea rose, our ancestors used to go somewhere else until it went back. And then they'd go back to their houses. Today, it's still happening.
SHAPIRO: But your ancestors left and returned. Do you think you will be able to return?
SAR: (Through interpreter) I don't think so. The sea is still there.
SHAPIRO: Climate change means weather events that used to be rare are common. Floods that happened once every century now arrive once a decade. There's no going back. And it's getting worse.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Crying).
SHAPIRO: Kids at this camp used to attend a school that faced the sea. It was destroyed in the flood.
AMADOUN JAI: (Non-English language spoken).
SHAPIRO: So kindergarten principal Amadoun Jai (ph) is raking the sand before the first day of school here at Diougop.
JAI: (Through interpreter) These kids - they're used to swimming and playing. That's what they know. But here, there's no water, no river, no sea.
SHAPIRO: When a kid says to you, why did we have to leave our home; why did we have to leave the sea, what answer do you give?
JAI: (Through interpreter) The first thing I tell them is that there was a catastrophe. Your house has been destroyed by the sea.
SHAPIRO: We step inside the classroom tent, and it's sweltering.
It's very warm inside. But on the walls, I can see somebody has colored in a Santa Claus. And then there's an alphabet on the wall.
I'm trying to imagine being a child who spends all day playing in the sea and suddenly coming here, where you are surrounded by sand, and you're sitting in this school where it's very hot, and you're being told to learn. It must be so jarring.
JAI: (Through interpreter) Yeah. It's difficult. But whatever situation these kids find themselves in, they can adapt to it.
SHAPIRO: I wanted to know what life was like before the catastrophe, before the waters rose. So I asked the community leader, Mamadou Thiam, to take us back to the house that he abandoned. And he agreed.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE RUMBLING)
SHAPIRO: We reached the community of Gindar (ph). If I expected a cordoned-off disaster area, it's the opposite. There's a cacophony of life here. In contrast to the camp's orderly tan monochrome, here, waves crash. Birds wheel. Wind blows. A pelican stands in the road. Fishing boats in rainbow colors line the shore, and the smells of fish, salt and cooking fires mingle in the air.
THIAM: (Speaking Wolof).
SHAPIRO: Mamadou points. This is where the edge of his house used to be. Now it's rubble. He leads us back to a room that's still standing. The deep blue walls are stippled with white and green where saltwater and wind have peeled away the paint.
THIAM: (Through interpreter) I was born in this room.
SHAPIRO: And now, what is this place?
THIAM: (Through interpreter) It's the sea. The sea was right up to here.
SHAPIRO: Tell me what you think as you stand here. What is in your mind?
THIAM: (Through interpreter) In this life, a person is only linked with his origins, something you inherited from your parents. When you lose it, you lose everything.
SHAPIRO: He'll never forget the day the water arrived.
THIAM: (Through interpreter) Yeah, like it was today.
SHAPIRO: There was no storm, just a very high tide.
When you were in the house and the water was coming in, can you show us how high it was?
THIAM: (Speaking Wolof).
SHAPIRO: It was - the water was up to your hips.
THIAM: (Through interpreter) I was afraid for the children and the women. I was trying to save them. When all the children and the women were rescued, that's when I started being afraid for myself.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).
SHAPIRO: Many of the houses on this street were destroyed. A younger man named Amsatu Fal (ph) has rebuilt some of the walls in his family's house by tying fishing rope around plastic panels from the U.N. camp shelters.
AMSATU FAL: (Through interpreter) I did all this myself because the sea made the walls fall down.
SHAPIRO: Most of his family has abandoned this neighborhood for the camp, but he stays here, at the edge of the water. He is a fisherman who sold his fishing boat a year ago. He's decided there's no future for him in Senegal.
FAL: (Through interpreter) Going to Spain is the only way for me to solve all my family's problems. I tried many times, but every time my spiritual leader said, no, it's not time.
SHAPIRO: He has a bag packed ready for when the time is right. He shows it to us. And it's actually a bucket with a tight lid.
In this bucket with a lid, there is basically one T-shirt, waterproof top and pants and then religious beads. And that's it. You start a new life, and that's all you carry.
His 6-year-old daughter Ndaye (ph) nuzzles up against his legs.
Your daughter has been close to you this whole time. You clearly love her very much. Will it be difficult for you to go to Spain and not see her for a long time?
FAL: (Through interpreter) Yeah. I named her after my mom. It's true I love her very much. The problem is I'd rather travel and send money back home instead of staying here and seeing the misery here.
SHAPIRO: When you imagine your life in Spain, what do you think it will be?
FAL: (Through interpreter) My dream is to work hard and give money to my kids and my mom so she can at least have food for a month because ever since I was born, I've never seen my mom have money for a full month.
SHAPIRO: He's 37 years old. I ask if he still has money for the journey from the fishing boat that he sold a year ago. And he says, no, no, I won't have to pay. Because I'm a fisherman, I understand the sea. I have useful skills for a journey like this.
So will you be the captain of the boat?
FAL: (Through interpreter) Usually I'm the captain of the boat, so I might be the captain.
SHAPIRO: This is a great responsibility of so many people's lives in your hands.
FAL: (Through interpreter) Yeah. I'll treat them all like myself. We have the same needs. If I am successful, everyone is successful. But if not, we all fail.
SHAPIRO: When he sold his boat a year ago, he explained to his children that he was going away, maybe for a very long time. By now he thinks they've forgotten. But he doesn't forget it for a minute. He says when his spiritual advisor tells him to go, he will leave the drowning city of Saint-Louis. He looks out at the crashing waves and says, it could even be tonight.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)
SHAPIRO: Over the coming weeks, our journey leads us to Morocco and on to Spain to see how these dreams of a better life compare to the reality of global migration in an age of xenophobic politics.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) Everybody who leaves and goes to Europe on a boat - there's a moment when they wish they hadn't.
(SOUNDBITE OF JON HOPKINS' "LOVE FLOWS OVER US IN PRISMATIC WAVES")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.