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As many as 500 people on their way from Africa to Europe drowned last month when their ships sank in the Mediterranean. It's a reminder of how dangerous the crossing between the two continents is. Many of the people who risk that journey are young men from West Africa. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton went to eastern Senegal to learn why they're willing to do it.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: It's at busy bus stations like this one in Tambacounda, the main city in eastern Senegal, that young men through villages like Missirah, Kothiary, Makacoulibantang and Sitacourou leave as would-be migrants. They go first to Bamako, across the border in neighboring Mali, and then further on to Libya, their ultimate destination Europe, hoping to seek fame and fortune. But many of these odysseys end in despair and even tragedy.
It's hard to put your finger on statistics for the number of young undocumented men leaving eastern Senegal for Europe. Local media reported that this region alone accounted for an alarming number of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea last year. Hubert Ndeye is a senior official in the regional government.
HUBERT NDEYE: (Through interpreter) Reports say as many as 50 local men drowned in the Mediterranean at the height of the migration sea crossings a year ago.
QUIST-ARCTON: Ndeye says the Tambacounda area has always been a regional crossroads and source of migrants.
NDEYE: (Through interpreter) But that has dramatically increased recently.
QUIST-ARCTON: Undeterred, young men are still heading out. Unemployment around here is high. Official figures put the rate at more than 36 percent in 2013 in a region that is predominantly poor rural farming country. The government is encouraging young people to farm to help counter poverty.
Take the case of Bourang Ba. He was a young farmer in Sitacourou, a sleepy village of scattered thatched-roof dwellings where cattle chomp on hay in courtyards. The father of two set out for Europe, leaving behind his son, daughter and young wife, Nialina. Bourang Ba never came home. He drowned in the Mediterranean on route to Europe last year.
Two of Ba's half-brothers had already migrated to Spain, sending money home for the family. Their father, Wassa Ba, is 66 with a wheezy asthmatic cough.
WASSA BA: (Coughing, foreign language spoken).
QUIST-ARCTON: "Bourang Ba wanted to do his bit and provide for his relatives, too," says the father, sobbing, "so he left without telling me." Like Sitacourou, many villages around here appear alarmingly devoid of young and working-age men. Remittances from migrants abroad have helped improve the lives of many families.
Speaking from a thatched wooden patio, Wassa Ba stretched out his arm and proudly pointed towards an adjacent bungalow. The concrete structure was built with money from his sons overseas, he says.
W. BA: (Speaking foreign language).
QUIST-ARCTON: Time and again, you hear stories repeated of a sun, a husband, a brother dying while trying to reach Europe by the back door. Again, local government official Hubert Ndeye.
NDEYE: (Through interpreter) It's not just the case of these youths taking off. It's about honor among the young who see siblings or other family members overseas building beautiful villas in their villages. And often it's the mothers and fathers who push their children to leave so they can do the same.
QUIST-ARCTON: Senegalese commentator Tidiane Sy says pride and family pressure help fuel migration.
TIDIANE SY: If you talk to the young men, many of them, there's something that they say here - beugue tekki. Tekki means to become, I want to be someone, I want to succeed, getting recognition. It's being respected. It's really being among those who count.
QUIST-ARCTON: But Sy says it's a complex mix.
SY: The struggle - daily struggle to survive - it's a real bad feeling. You come back home. Your mother - either you can't support her, you can't support your kids, you can't support your wives. When you can't do it, it looks like you're a second-class citizen. In society, you don't get the respect you deserve.
QUIST-ARCTON: For Bourang Ba's widow, Nialina, it means she's on her own looking after their two children Sona, a 4-year-old girl, and toddler Bourang, named for his father. Nialina Ba is probably in her late teens or early 20s and is painfully shy. Her face looks drawn for such a young woman.
NIALINA BA: (Foreign language spoken).
QUIST-ARCTON: It's hard to get her to say much, but a tiny gesture says it all. She opens the zipper of a large suitcase in the small hut she shares with her children and pulls out the one enlarged laminated photograph she has of her husband. Tears well up in her eyes.
W. BA: (Foreign language spoken).
QUIST-ARCTON: A short walk away at her father-in-law's compound, we're saying goodbye. I ask Wassa Ba if after his son Bourang died trying to get to Europe he'd stop any other of his children from leaving.
W. BA: (Foreign language spoken).
QUIST-ARCTON: To my surprise, this ailing father looks me in the eye and tells me that as we speak, two more of his sons are preparing to head to Europe without legal documents, hoping for a better life. With your blessing, I ask. Absolutely, he replies, adding that any youngster who comes to tell him I am going will have his support. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Sitacourou village, eastern Senegal.