When Nouhoum Sangaré left his wife, three children and village in southern Mali for the capital Bamako 240km away, he expected to find stable work and a comfortable life, and eventually have his family join him.
He found a different and unglamorous reality. He goes from small job to small job, barely making ends meet. He often comes home after a day’s work with 100 CFA francs (22 US cents).
“It’s not easy,” Sangaré told IRIN, “because I have to share the crumbs I earn with my parents and my family in the village.”
Sangaré is one of a growing number of young rural Malians who are leaving their homes to find work in the city.
Mali’s capital, Bamako, is the fastest growing city in Africa and the sixth-fastest growing city in the world, according to data compiled by the Mayor’s Association, a global network of city officials.
Urban areas are booming throughout West Africa. In Mali’s western neighbour Mauritania, more than 60 percent of the traditionally nomadic people there are estimated to have moved to towns and cities.
Analysts say most do not find what they are looking for and in some cases end up worse off.
No national study has been conducted to gauge the magnitude of migration within Mali; but in the western region of Kayes - one of the hardest hit by migration - a non-governmental organisation (NGO) found that 40 percent of its population had left the region in the period 1993-2002 to move either to Bamako, elsewhere in West or North Africa, or to try to get to Europe.
Sangaré, 26, blames decline in his village for his decision to flee. “The fields don’t produce any more. The fruits rot because we don’t have the means to turn them into other products [for example, juice] or to take them into town,” where there is more of a market for them, he said.
“After the rainy season we have nothing to do but rub shoulders with poverty every day.”
Observers say the majority of the young men and women who move to Bamako and other urban areas do not fare much better there than they did in the countryside, because in the city they have to start from scratch and pay for things they used to just pull out of the ground.
“At first they are busy trying to find work. They do whatever work they can find - labourer, factory worker, hawker - and if they don’t find anything to provide for their immediate needs, they get into theft and robbery,” Drissa Guindo, national director of youth at the Ministry of Youth and Sport, told IRIN.
“It’s really only a handful that succeed.”
Sangaré has tried everything from selling sunglasses to building work, and shoe-shining. He is now a rickshaw driver by day and a security guard by night. He says his children are no better off since his move to the city: he gave his daughter up for adoption to his aunt, and none of his children are in school.
“In the village, we worry more about what we will feed our children than their education,” he said. “I’d like to put them in school, but our financial situation makes that impossible.” He hopes in two years to make enough money to enrol his youngest son.
Sanogo, unable to find work in Bamako, is now planning to go abroad. It is a choice that 70 percent of young migrants make after internal movement fails to produce results, the NGO Mali-Folkecenter said.
The situation is worse for young girls, who are increasingly migrating because of poverty and in search money for a dowry. They find work as cooks, maids, nannies and in small businesses.
According to the Association d’aide aux aides ménagères, an agency that places girls looking for work with families, many girls are exploited because they are young, easily manipulated, unaware of their rights and afraid to expose their employers. In the worst of conditions, the association says, they work more than 15 hours a day, are beaten, badly fed, poorly paid and treated like quasi slaves.
“If we don’t go to work in a town to prepare our future as wives, who will? It’s the only way we can afford clothes, shoes and cooking utensils to take back to our village,” said 15-year-old servant Amina Coulibaly. “Our mothers and sisters did the same.”
“We have to give rural youth the means to stay in their communities,” said Soumana Satao, director-general of the government’s Agency for the Promotion of Youth Employment. “Otherwise, we will not be able to stop this rural exodus.”