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Can the DJ of Dakar stop people emigrating?

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Fed up with the lack of opportunities at home, the majority of young people in Senegal dream of emigrating, even though the route to Europe is fraught with danger. Will new courses to teach them skills - such as DJ-ing - be enough to stop them leaving, asks Nicola Kelly.

"We Senegalese, we are the black Chinese," Amadou tells me, flicking his waist-length dreadlocks over his shoulder and tugging his baseball cap firmly down. "You give us one dollar, we make two!"

Behind us, the dull thud of the bass reverberates and the slap of hands marks the beginning of another day at the Maison des Cultures Urbaines in the northern suburbs of Dakar.

Senegal, one of the starting points for many migrants on the now well-trodden and ever more life-threatening journey through Libya to Europe, has been hit hard by the outward flow of its bright young things. A recent poll by the Oxford Migration Observatory found that three quarters of Senegalese aged 19 to 25 said they wanted to emigrate in the next five years.

Aware of the situation, local municipalities have stepped up funding for initiatives like this, a DJ school for aspiring musicians. Here they teach technical skills, help young people with their CVs and train them in interview technique.

DJ GG Base is a well-known figure around these parts. He gestures to me to come forward as he takes to the decks, nudging his novice assistant aside to show him how it's done. The students huddle around. Smartphones are pulled out of pockets, videos recorded.

One of the group, Ismaila, elbows me and jabs his thumb in the direction of his master, head shaking in disbelief. I take this to mean the demo is exemplary.

After posing for photos with the untouchably cool maestro DJ, I am initiated into the group with an official title: La Petite Tigresse - The Little Tigress. A plastic chair is pulled up for me and a cup of instant coffee laced with four sugar lumps thrust into my hand. We discuss their training, aspirations and their lives in Senegal.


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"You have iPhones, Apple Macs, fancy DJ decks. One of you has a shiny car outside. Life here can't be so bad!" I protest.

"Yes," they admit, "but most of our brothers, cousins and friends have left us behind to travel to Europe. We want to play in the big clubs. We want a future and that is just not possible in Senegal."

And it's this that the centres have been set up to do - to give young people like Amadou and Ismaila a chance to reach their potential. Many of their peers are bored, disaffected, even - and that is leading some into trouble. They nod in unison when I ask them if programmes such as this help to keep them off the streets.

"We have a growing problem of jihad here in the suburbs. If we don't occupy the youth, the youth will occupy themselves," Amadou says, voice gravelly, assured; tone frank.

Later that evening, I take a stroll along the beach with Amadou. As night falls, this tiny strip on the waterfront is converted into a beach gym. Lithe young men shuttle back and forth between pebbles marking their distance. Some repeat push-ups until they can stand it no longer - drops of sweat glistening on their foreheads as they sprint backwards up mounds of sand, then pose proudly at the top.

They beckon me over and I tell them their use of the sand is very resourceful. They are lifeguards, waiters and security guards. "I want to go to Europe to work in construction," Oumar says wistfully, eyes fixed on the horizon, face determined. "When I have money, I will return home to Senegal and build a house for my family."

The sole woman in the group - their "sista" - pipes up to ask where I am from. When I say I'm from London, their expressions switch from mild curiosity to sheer delight. They talk quickly in Wolof for a moment, then switch back to French and tell me stories of their friends who have made the journey to Europe.

"I want to go too, but when I have a family I will move back to Senegal to live among our traditions, to teach my children our language," Sorna says decisively, her eyes flashing, enlivened by the idea. The men murmur in agreement.

I ask what it would take to keep them here in Dakar. "We need more than words," Amadou says. "We need a framework, a way to find good jobs and learn new skills. Only then will people like us decide not to get in those boats and cross that sea."

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