Left Behind by Migrant Husbands, Women Break the Rules and Go to Work
KOUTIA, Senegal — Years had passed since her husband had crossed the sea to look for work in Europe. Left behind, Khadijah Diagouraga trudged to the couple’s peanut fields alone every day, struggling to earn enough to provide for an extended family of 13.
When the town’s water pump broke and her faucet went dry, she tied a donkey to a cart to haul water from a nearby well, cursing her absent husband the whole way. Her action shocked this small, conservative village in rural Senegal. Guiding animals was men’s work, village leaders said.
“It’s not a sight I ever wanted to see,” said Baba Diallo, 70, sitting in the shade of a dried cornstalk canopy, shaking his head as if to rid himself of the memory.
Across West Africa, villages have been emptied of husbands and sons in their prime who set out for Europe to look for work and never returned. Women, realizing they might never see the money their men promised to send home, have gradually taken on what are seen as men’s roles, earning money and running large households of in-laws and other extended family members.
“There are a couple men who look down on me,” Ms. Diagouraga said. “I ignore them. What matters to me is hard work.”
Senegal is among the countries most affected by the phenomenon of missing men. Senegalese were among the top 10 nationalities to land in Italy during a spike in migration in the middle of the decade. Although migration to Europe has dropped sharply as nationalism has led some European countries to impose tighter controls, West African communities are still reeling, with many of their men gone now for years.
Some will never return, perishing while crossing the desert or drowning at sea. In Koutia and the few surrounding villages, at least 130 people have died in recent years on the journey, local officials said.
Many of Senegal’s migrants come from sun-bleached flatlands near Koutia in the east that rely almost entirely on peanuts and a handful of other crops for income, even as a yearslong drought shows no sign of letting up.
Many working-age men here have given up. The village chief of Koutia estimates that in little more than one generation, 200 men from the 95 households have migrated to Europe. Many were the family’s chief earners.
The lure of Europe is on display in Senegal’s villages. Amid the clusters of shabby mud-brick homes are houses made of cement, some two stories tall, painted and surrounded by cement walls. All were paid for with money sent home by migrants.
Ms. Diagouraga and her husband used to pass those homes as they walked to their peanut fields. They saw the satellite dishes on rooftops and neighbors clutching iPhones. Then there was the shiny, tiled mosque with towering minaret, which the village chief bragged had been built with money pooled from local migrants. A few villagers could even afford cars.
Ms. Diagouraga’s husband, Mohamed Diawara, had bought a small automated mill to grind millet and corn to sell. But fuel for the device was expensive, and it was constantly breaking down. Farming was tough, too. Each harvest seemed smaller than the one before. Mr. Diawara had only one donkey to help him till the soil, while his neighbors had sophisticated plows.
Mr. Diawara had been saving to buy a new part for his mill, but told his wife he wanted to use the money instead to pay smugglers to take him to Italy.
She knew it was dangerous; three men from Koutia had died trying that same year. Stay and we’ll make it work, Ms. Diagouraga pleaded.
But we’ve been living hand-to-mouth all these years, he told her.
“He has a man’s heart,” Ms. Diagouraga said. “It was hard telling him not to go.”
Mr. Diawara left one morning five years ago, just as the call to prayer sounded. She pressed into his arms a blue-and-white blanket she had embroidered for him and spent the whole day crying.
Five months passed with no word.
“I wasn’t sure if he was alive,” Ms. Diagouraga said. “Maybe he lost his phone? I had heard stories of migrants being robbed. Maybe he died in prison? Or at sea?”
She was busy cooking the day he finally called. He was in Italy, he said, and had been through hell to get there. He didn’t give her details; the important thing was that he had made it.
She thanked him for risking his life to help his family. It was four more months until he called again.
Communication between the couple became brief and infrequent. Finally, he sent money — the equivalent of $20. An entire year passed before he sent cash again.
Work in Europe is far from guaranteed for many migrants. Mr. Diawara said in a telephone interview that he was sharing a room with four other men and sometimes went days without eating. His salary working day jobs on a cleaning crew was too little. He couldn’t afford to go home.
Ms. Diagouraga knew life was hard for him. But she was now supporting not only her own two children, but his family too: several nieces and nephews and Mr. Diawara’s ailing mother.
Left to her thoughts, Ms. Diagouraga sometimes got angry at her husband. What if he was cheating on her in Italy? She put the thought out of her mind. Sleeping alone in their double bed with its yellow bedspread and wooden headboard, she missed intimacy.
She had thought about leaving her husband. But she loved him. And how could she leave a man who was only trying to do better for his family?
Women in nearby villages in similar situations had divorced migrant husbands to find companions closer to home. In Magali, Ida Traoré, 32, became pregnant with twins while her husband was living in France.
Her father-in-law called France to tell his son, Abdoulaye Diarsso, that his wife was having an affair. Mr. Diarsso immediately phoned her, to apologize. He had been away 13 years, after all.
“She has sexual urges,” Mr. Diarsso said during his first visit with his wife since he’d left. “It’s difficult to accept, but if I ignore this, I’m not being honest.”
Some women are still subject to the rules of older men who step in while their sons are abroad. In the village of Niaouli Tanoun, where six men have left for Europe, their wives complained that one aging father-in-law had barred them from walking around freely, let alone earning money.
But elsewhere, women have united and prevailed. In Magali, wives of migrants garden together, sharing harvests and lending one another money. They are led by Safy Diakhaby, 28, whose husband left for Europe when she became pregnant 11 years ago.
She had urged him to go. He has sent home enough cash to build a concrete home, but not enough to support the 21 people in her compound.
She hired a crew of men to work the fields, and knowing that they might be reluctant to listen to a woman, she cooks lunch as an incentive. She stores peanuts to sell when the crop is out of season and scarce. She shares her bounty with other struggling women.
“If we don’t help each other, we all suffer,” Ms. Diakhaby said.
But many migrants’ wives have resorted to handouts, which is just what many male elders say they prefer. Habsatou Diallo lives down a winding dirt path in Koutia not far from Ms. Diagouraga. Her husband left for Europe six years ago without saying goodbye. She hasn’t heard from him since.
The clay oven Ms. Diallo had used to bake bread to sell at the market fell apart without him to maintain it. She has no money anyway to buy flour. She depends on her father-in-law for handouts.
Ms. Diagouraga considered begging herself one day when she went to wash her clothes and realized she was out of laundry soap. She couldn’t afford more — let alone school fees for her children.
“Who could I even ask for help?” she said. “I was angry at everything. I thought it was best I just do things for myself.”
She decided to work harder. She hooked up the donkey to plow, and to haul water from the well. She started to earn a bit of cash from her harvest and set up a shop selling tea and sandwiches.
She heard hushed comments from onlookers. She saw them staring. Women should rely on charity, some of the men said. Others said she wasn’t strong enough. Some said they felt sorry for her.
Ms. Diagouraga recently fell ill and had to buy medicine with the money intended for tea-shop supplies. One afternoon when her 5-year-old daughter bounded in from school with a tuition bill, Ms. Diagouraga just stared at it. The bill was for less than a dollar, but still more than she could afford.
“I’ll go talk to your teacher and tell him to be patient,” she said.
And then she got to work, soaking beans for dinner and sweating as she ran behind a donkey, urging it to hoist pails of water from a deep well.
Some of the village’s few remaining young men were sprawled nearby in the shade. They lifted their heads to watch her on that baking afternoon.
“I pray God will help her see the fruits of her labor,” said Hamidou Diawara, 19.
They had been there for hours doing nothing, Mr. Diawara said, daydreaming about sailing to Europe.
Jaime Yaya Barry contributed reporting.
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