Souleymane isn’t the only one to have left Senegal.
A thousand miles away, somewhere in Scottish waters, Bara Dieng hoists a net laden with fish onto the deck of a Scapêche trawler. The vessel is equipped with state-of-the-art sonar technology, a far cry from the pirogues he navigated back home.
“I started fishing when I was 12 years old. I crossed five countries, travelling all the way to Ivory Coast by just looking at the stars at night. In Senegal, I wasn’t able to live off of fishing… So I went to Mauritania and took a pirogue to the Canary Islands with my cousin Omar. I worked in the Spanish fishing industry, and now I work in Morbihan [in Brittany],” he said.
Dieng shares an apartment with his uncle Adama and his cousin Omar Kane, both of whom are also fishermen. “France has become my second country. It’s where I work, but it’s also where I have come in search of a better life and to try to improve my family’s circumstances,” he said.
When on land, Dieng spends his time watching television, hosting friends or catching up on sleep before his next fishing expedition.
“Out at sea, there’s not a lot of time to rest because you’re working all the time. Sometimes we can spend two months without seeing each other, because we’re not working on the same boat,” he said of his cousin and uncle.
Because many follow this grueling schedule, the Senegalese community in Lorient is nearly invisible. One of the few signs of its presence is a small, colourful grocery store stocked with African products on the rue de Verdun…
“It’s physical work. When you’re lifting 40-50 kilo tubs, you don’t have time to ask for help, you just gut the fish. Everyone has to be at their post day and night. It’s a factory.”
Dieng prays in his apartment as the town’s bells ring in the background. A Mouride, a prominent denomination of Islam in Senegal, Dieng is from Joal-Fadiouth, like the majority of Senegalese fishermen.
Dieng has known Amadou ever since they were in Spain together. “I was working on factory boats in Vigo, we would spend two months at sea, near Ireland or Canada. I arrived in Lorient around the same time as Bara, after the crisis in 2008. We’re migrants; if things don’t work out, we’ll leave here too one day,” said Amadou.
“The crisis that hit Spain in 2008 pushed a number of them to leave the ports of Galicia, Asturias or Basque country to come to Brittany. They only left their home because of the decline of traditional fishing in Senegal,” said Sann, who is president of the Fishing and Development Collective.
Valérie Bartz, head of maritime affairs in the region, has also noticed the steadily growing number of Senegalese fishermen in the area.
“There are 500 Senegalese fishermen filling the demand for labour at various ports in Lorient, Saint-Brieuc, Guilvinec, Paimpol, Saint-Malo and Brest,” said Bartz. “And I’m not even counting those in Saint-Vaast, Cherbourg, Trouville, Boulogne-sur-Mer or Les Sables-d’Olonne.
Sometimes, family members – mostly brothers and cousins – try to join their relatives working in Brittany. Bartz often takes on the role of a social worker in these cases, helping them to fill out the paperwork required to work in the fishing industry.
“Even though they talk to me about how difficult it is to settle in France and to find work on a boat, they never tell me why they left home,” she said.