By Sulayman Bah
Helplessness and desolation is the underlining tone at the mention of often tragic stories of Gambians daring the Mediterranean Sea for destination Europe –locally referred to Back Way.
It’s a menace digging through society, and worryingly, it’s showing no sign of dying off too soon despite a change of leadership in the country.
Families are rendered forlorn without figure-heads, children orphaned, and mothers childless and friends robbed of acquaintances.
Undertakers of this gloomy venture, it’s understood, usually take the trip without knowledge of loved ones, endeavoring to call back home only after reaching first port-of-call Libya. The announcement that comes with such calls is the unwelcomed news to families by Back Way goers requesting to be reimbursed with money to pay up either captors or “people smuggling boats”.
It’s not uncommon to hear story agonies of the perilous journey. Of this conundrum, the worst affected sphere is the sporting sector. League teams have suffered demotion after all their players took the unpopular route. There have been instances of teams being unable to play a single game in the country’s lower division after all its player made the exodus.
The worst to be pinched by this has been Banjul United, who lost practically an entire 25-man squad. The club’s production line suffered leading to a can of dismal runs and eventually relegation to the second division.
They’ve since made the jump back to the big times but that hasn’t stopped their players still wishing to leave.
‘I think we have to face the reality. The youth are leaving the country through the Back-Way as we call it. It cuts across the sub-region. Youths have ambition of going to Europe and because of the difficulties in acquiring a visa, majority resort to this. And now those who are playing football have decided to join the trend,’ Lamin Kabba Bajo Gambia Football Federation’s president, says.
He continues: ‘And it’s a fact some of the clubs have been affected. It’s a cut-crossing issue. For football, our league is not attractive. We have an amateur league and this is everybody’s business: from the football federation to the government. Clubs need to have required financial standings to be able to maintain players.’
Unacceptable players’ wages
The longing for a better living in the face of growing poverty has been a major catalyst for the exodus. The salary or appearance fee of an average player is way short of D12, 000 in 12 months. And this is viewed as luxury of some sort for players contracted to institutional clubs, giving majority footballers are not on their respective teams’ pay scales. Consequently, many are forced to take the route down under.
‘We are aware we have only four institutional clubs in the league. Most of the players if not all of them are on salaries. So, it boils down to the economic capacity of the clubs including lack of sponsorship.’
Bajo though insists, even if the league were of a better standing, curiosity to explore and be next Drogba would still prompt players to want to travel.
‘Every player would want to be like the Samuel Eto’os, the Didier Drogbas. So no matter how attractive a league in Africa might be, it’s an African phenomenon that, we must go (and) play in Europe. This also concerns Caf and in Gambia, it’s a sad case. Unfortunately, there’s no immediate plan to remedy the situation. But the fact of the matter too is we will urge some of them to be little patient. A good player, you market yourself.’
Touch of good in a story of losses
Good coming out of a large scale of human obliteration is hard to come by and yet is the irony with the Back Way.
Without risking the journey, fast-rising athletes like Lamin Ceesay – a cross country runner –wouldn’t have emerged or reached the heights they’ve hit. Ceesay left Gambia, a country devoid of standard sporting facilities to touch down in Italy via the boat. Taking sport as an escape route, Lamin hasn’t looked back since raking up regional medals in a raft of races he’d gotten to compete in.
His namesake Lamin Jawo could be mentioned in a similar bracket. Jawo, dared the waves without the slightest idea of what to expect. Today he reminisces his journey with a blend of sadness and a feel of satisfaction having realised his dream of playing football professionally.
‘I thank God to have made it after all the hardship and suffering. So, all I can say is “Alhamdulillah”. But it was the worst experience of my life and I’ll never forget about it,’ Jawo, now playing in the Italian second division, says.