Face To Face With Ibiza's Looky Looky Men

Navigating a nine-day Atlantic crossing to Europe is one thing, but for Ibiza’s “looky looky men”, integration and acceptance is an even fiercer challenge.
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Navigating a nine-day Atlantic crossing to Europe is one thing, but for Ibiza’s “looky looky men”, integration and acceptance is an even fiercer challenge.

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Ibiza has served as a magnet for lost souls since the late 1960s. Yet few can have felt as voiceless, remote and alienated as the so-called boatpeople from Senegal, the streetwise survivors who have fashioned an incongruous home alongside the glamorous residents of the White Isle.

On the sands of Salinas, Ibiza’s hippest playa, the contrast between the fatigued émigrés hawking sunglasses and the off-duty models gleefully carrying ice buckets down to the sun-loungers is particularly stark. The jetset do not wish to be seen dead in replica shades. The minority who purchase seem to do so purely as a means to avoid eye contact with the traders for the rest of the day.

Alex, from the north of Senegal, speaks broken English with a versed London accent and a stutter. His earnest efforts to communicate belie both his desire to adapt and his suppressed sense of inferiority.

“I did not go to school in Senegal but I have learned English, Italian, Spanish and German from speaking to people here,” he says, which is not bad going for someone who had never set foot out of his home country two years ago.

He is determined to make the most of it too, having endured nine freezing nights crossing choppy Atlantic waters to reach Europe last spring. “One of us drowned on that trip. He went crazy, did not think he was at sea anymore and jumped in the water. Mort.”

The 108 who survived the voyage aboard the lothio (a plantain-shaped vessel 25 yards in length) offloaded in the Canary Islands. With no documentation to facilitate repatriation, the passengers were permitted to remain in Spain. Through little rhyme or reason, Alex found his way to Ibiza. Again, he was confronted with a sink or swim scenario. This time it was the challenge of making money without a national insurance number or the right to employment.

“I do not want to be selling sunglasses,” he admits. “I want to get a languages diploma and do something else, but it will be difficult because I am not Spanish. I am black and I have no papers. Still, I must not be stressed. If you are stressed people will not buy from you. You have to stay happy.”

It is impossible to be oblivious to the importance of marketing yourself on Salinas*. Soak up too much sun and you can kid yourself into thinking that even the nudists at the far end of the bay are wearing designer labels. Alex understands this preoccupation with presentation and endeavours to stand out from the crowd. His flat-peaked baseball cap is fixed at dead-on 90 degrees and the jewellery in his ears – rough imitation diamonds – match his raw but ambitious essence.

Alex’s bravado seems to be bringing some sales, but for the older Senegalese who have been in Ibiza longer – and particularly those with children back home – it is harder to front up all day, every day.

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Oman, 26, has lived in Ibiza (and Seville in the winter) since his teens and has a daughter in Senegal who has “only ever seen me on the internet.” He misses her deeply but makes sure a minimum of 150 euros is wired home every month. This represents the only source of income for his parents and siblings too, all of whom still live in central Senegal.

Oman’s* responsibilities as the sole breadwinner in his family have made him competitive. Scanning the beach, he counts twenty of his compatriots and suggests that there are “too many people selling the same stuff for anyone to make any money. We are not friends, we are all here to try to make money for our families.”

The financial pressures can make for tensions. Oman, who stands at 6’2”, lives with seven other Senegalese in one of the many claustrophobic tower block flats in San Antonio, Ibiza’s commercial, concrete hub. The eight tenants are required to pay 1,200 euros in total rent to the same “boss” who supplies their sunglasses from Greece at six euros a time. “They are fakes, of course. Nice fakes, but still fakes,” says Oman, who speaks politely but with the frustration of a man too old and intelligent to be flogging cheap goods for a four euro profit. His heart is not in it and he wants to go back to Senegal, as do most of his compatriots in Ibiza. If he had his time again, you suspect he would never have risked his life to set sail for Europe.

Dismissed as laughing-stock looky looky men by British ravers and maligned as “mafia” by wary Ibizans, it is rarely recognised that these young people, mostly men in their twenties, represent the brave and lucky ones who survived the emigration from the west coast of Africa. Despite advances with GPS and mobile phone technology, many continue to perish off the shores of Mauritania and Western Sahara every year. This after paying upwards of 500 euros to make the journey, a fortune in relative terms.

Guillermo Cardoma, the bar manager of Sa Trinxa* on Salinas for fifteen years, has no sympathy. “People don’t like them. They disturb the customers every three minutes trying to sell things. They have broken the atmosphere of Salinas. This is supposed to be an area for tranquillo, for relaxing, but they are like a mafia.”

Guillermo* asserts that “they all sell drugs,” before moderating this claim and suggesting that it is always possible to “find one of them who knows someone who sells drugs.” In truth, you could say this about many people on the island.

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Nevertheless, Cardoma is not alone in dishing out condemnation. There are a handful of “stupid people” amongst the 200-odd community living in San Antonio who do things they shouldn’t do, concedes Momo*, a veteran Senegalese sunglass-seller who has been living in Ibiza and Tenerife for eight years. He points out that crime is particularly prevalent near the well-known Egg Roundabout in San An. The police patrol times are memorised by the troublemakers and so the cops are easy to swerve.

“The illegal immigrants are not popular here,” says Rafael Serrano, an artist from Madrid who lived in a tower block adjacent to the Egg last year, before rattling off three eyewitness accounts of crimes involving theft and prostitution.

The majority of the Senegalese – along with a tiny supplement of Gambians and other sub-Saharans – who have made it as far as Ibiza are not actually classed by the authorities as illegal immigrants. There are restrictions on the types of work they are allowed to do and the benefits they can claim but they have leave to remain in Spain. Amending these restrictions on employment would likely enhance the dynamic, encouraging greater integration and less criminality.

Curro, an eloquent Café del Mar* barman from Fuerteventura, argues the African community in Spain deserve to be given more opportunities for what they have risked on their dangerous lothio voyages. “You cannot blame anyone for wanting to better themselves, for wanting to give their families more chances. They have risked their lives for something better from life. A better life is something which everyone should want. If I was in their situation I would probably do the same.”

“In the Canaries, my father is a doctor and my mother works for the Red Cross,” Curro adds. “I am well aware of what the people go through on the lothios and anyone who endures what they have endured deserves sympathy, lots of it.”

Fact file: Senegal to Ibiza (via the Canary Islands)

  • Lothios (single-motor longboats) carrying 100 + Senegalese set off from St Louis in the north, the capital Dakar, and Casamance in the south.
  • The ships use GPS to navigate their way towards Tenerife and the other Canary Islands.
  • If the national identities of the passengers cannot be established within a set timeframe, the individuals are given leave to remain in Spain, and are flown to the mainland. There are restrictions on rights to work and rights to benefits.
  • The journey can take between one to two weeks to complete and is highly dangerous.
  • Tickets cost approximately 500 euros.
  • Senegalese community in Ibiza estimated at 500 (200 in San Antonio)**