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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 May 2006, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
Senegal's well-trodden migrant path
This week, the European Union decided to send planes, boats, and rapid reaction teams to try to stop the latest mass influx of illegal migrants from Africa, this time from Senegal via the Canary Islands.

Dakar skyline
The capital city, Dakar, is located on Senegal's Atlantic coast

The BBC's Nick Thorpe, a student in Dakar 25 years ago, remembers a friend who also tried to reach Europe by sea.

I lived in those days with my sister Mish in Rue Raffanel in Dakar, a crumbling, former French colonial part of the city, with low, single storey rooms around central courtyards.

Ours had a mango tree, and a mouse.

Our neighbours were mainly Ghanaian.

The women sold their bodies. For very little.

There was often a queue of men we bumped into in the darkness at the entrance to the courtyard off the street when we came home late.

And the men sold grass - marijuana - by the handful, or the armful, wrapped in newspaper. The weak local variety, or the stronger, more hallucinogenic weeds, from further afield: Ghana, and the Gambia.

Local lingo

Senegal was one of the better-off West African countries and Dakar was a magnet for the poor from a wide region.

Map of Senegal

Young boys slept on cardboard outside the shops of the Lebanese traders, in the hope of running an errand for them when the stores opened.

I went to the university when it was not on strike, or occupied by soldiers.

And my sister taught English.

We learnt enough Wolof (a language spoken in Senegal, the Gambia, and Mauritania) to make people laugh and lower their prices in the local market.

A stall holder once tried to guess where I came from.

He gave up in the end.

When I mentioned England - Angleterre - he looked perplexed. He had heard of it once, he said. Was it not somewhere in France?

Boat search

I cannot remember how we first met Patrick.

He was the oldest child in his family, around 20 - my age then - and impatient to leave Africa to seek his fortune.

He told me once his dream was to buy his younger brother a car.

He was unemployed. For more than a year he had gone down every day to the docks in Dakar, to search for a ship on which to stow away.

There were two problems, he explained.

The first was to get past the guards on the shore. The second to find a safe place to hide for the one to two week journey to Europe.

Destination Dunkirk

One evening he burst into my room, full of excitement. "Nick, Nick, I've found a boat!"

It was a Chinese cargo ship, bound from Dakar to Naples.

I wrote my address in England on the back of a one pound note and promised to help him if he got that far

He was sure he had found a way past the tough harbour security and he was leaving the next day.

"What are you taking?" I asked.

He was so excited he had made no plans for provisions.

We loaded him with dried food - mainly biscuits - and drinking water.

I remember my mother, who was visiting us from England at the time, even gave him the little packets of powdered milk she had been given for her coffee on the aeroplane.

He had no passport, no identity documents, no money and just one change of clothes.

If he made it to Naples, his plan was to try to cross Europe on foot, to reach a distant cousin in Dunkirk, on the north coast of France.

I wrote my address in England on the back of a one pound note and promised to help him if he got that far.

False start

We went down to the headland next day, watched his ship plough resolutely out into the vast swell of the Atlantic and wished him Godspeed.

A view of boats similar to those used by African migrants travelling to Europe
There has been a flood of wooden fishing boats carrying migrants from Africa

Ten days or so later there was a timid knock on the door.

A desolate Patrick stood there, head bowed.

Close to tears, he told us his story.

He had made it onto the Chinese ship but the problem was, many other would-be travellers who hung around the docks like him had heard of the same route on this particular boat.

There were 10 of them squeezed into the engine room and 12 hours out of Dakar, the crew found them.

They were lucky. Dakar was full of tales of stowaways being thrown to the sharks.

A Greek captain was prosecuted at about that time for ordering stowaways to be thrown overboard, rather than face trouble with the port authorities at home when he arrived.

Few crewmen ever risked their jobs to tell such tales.

The Chinese captain turned his ship around, back to Dakar, and put Patrick and the others ashore.

After a week in a police cell the authorities let him out.

Modern migrants

The Senegalese national dish is called "djebudjen", rice with fish.

A crowd looks at Senegalese men onboard a boat 23 May 2006 at the fishing port of Get Ndar
In 2006 some 7,000 migrants have reached the Canary Islands so far

Something even people as poor as Patrick could sometimes afford, it is a plate of steaming rice, topped with a little fish sauce, so spiced it blew away the roof of your mouth.

And the best place to buy fresh fish was on the shore, where the fishermen skilfully rode their elegant, curved wooden boats on the Atlantic breakers, far up the beach.

There are pictures of those boats in the news this week, intercepted 1,500 km north of Senegal, loaded to the gunnels with would-be migrants by the coastguards off the Canary Islands.

One newspaper report notes that when their outboard motors fail, they are at the mercy of the currents, dragging them out to their doom, from thirst or starvation in the mid-Atlantic.

When I last saw Patrick he was planning to travel overland to Europe, across the Sahara desert.

In my Herald Tribune, that is already known as "the former route".

I never heard from him again.

I hope at least he managed to trade that pound note, somewhere, sometime, on his endless journeys out of Africa, for something to eat or drink.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 27 May, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Senegal
26 May 06 |  Country profiles
Senegal 'seizes 1,500 migrants'
23 May 06 |  Europe
Spain intercepts 200 immigrants
12 Mar 06 |  Africa

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