Thanks to Yahya Jammeh, Gambia’s economy is in a parlous state. There is sky-high unemployment and the men are fleeing in droves. In their tens of thousands, they are rushing to Europe. Their destination: Italy, Spain, Britain, France, Belgium, Hungary or Turkey, et cetera. And their mission? Searching for a better life. They also defy all manner of restrictions erected on their paths by the host countries; and in thousands the unfortunate ones are perishing, yet they are undeterred. And what this means for many women in Gambia – who have proven more resilient when faced with a desperate situation than men – is that they are finding it hard to find a partner.
Awa and Kaddy are both in their 20s. They are both single and live in the shanty settlement of Joka in the North Bank Region of Gambia. They have been friends since childhood and usually go out together to fetch water from a community tap situated near the community centre.
“When we are together, we chat about one of our favourite topics – the lack of men in this village,” Awa says shyly. “The boys have all travelled to Europe through the ‘Back Way’. The few boys that they’ve left behind are all resident in the city. In this village, you only find older men and younger male kids.”
Scores of other villages in the region share the same fate. There are fewer men in most of these villages.
“A lot of my peers in this village are still not married and this is true of other villages,” Awa adds. “There was a time when parents are forcing their girl-child to get married but this is not the case anymore. There are no men and the parents are aware of this. In fact most of them footed the bills for their boys to go to Europe.”
It is becoming traditional, now, for men to leave for Europe through the ‘Back Way’. The women are often left behind for years, or even for decades. Some of the married women are left to come to terms with their own misfortune – the misfortune of being a “celibate wife.”
While there are more men in the urban settlements of Gambia, the balance shifts dramatically when one travels to the provinces.
According to social commentator Amat Cham, there is partly due to the visible rural-urban drift. “But one should not lose sight of the fact there are a lot of men in the urban areas of Gambia who are not Gambian men. Most of these men are from Senegal, Nigeria and other countries,” he says.
Cham says this means that there is an acute shortage of men ripe for marriage in Gambia. “It is not only the unmarried men who have gone through the ‘Back Way’,” he explains. “There are a lot married men too. They have left their wives and kids to embark on the journey.”
Most of these men will not be returning anytime soon and these women would have grown old by the time their husbands return.
“There are a lot of protocols that need to be observed before one is granted asylum in Europe.
“Most Gambian immigrants are economic immigrants and it is going to take most of them a minimum of 10 years before they settle and return.
“The women will have to endure a very long wait especially the married ones. A large number of them will have dated out before the boys return home,” he adds.
Thousands of Gambian men have entered Europe in recent years. Many of them have been living in asylum seeking camps for years with papers. And according to the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide, the Gambian government’s inability to restore economic stability – including rectifying high unemployment among youth – has resulted in increased emigration.
Sunkaru Jatta is looking long and hard at the issue of irregular migration in Gambia and its attendant consequences. He says the issue is resulting in a lot of young girls in Gambia passing their prime without getting married.
“The smartest girls are alone. The really beautiful girls are alone – if they are smart,” the 45-year-old Banjul-based sociologist explains.
“But some of the young [educated] girls are somehow better off in finding a partner.
“The issue is these girls want to find partners who are equal to them and are better off financially.
“I think the chief reason why the men are travelling through the Back Way is high level of unemployment.
“They are desperate to travel abroad and shop for better economic opportunity.
“The women will their have to wait for their return,” he adds.
For fear of reprisal, we are not revealing real names. The name of the village visited is not also revealed.
Written By Bala Musa