Waly Diabira pats the cover on his bed in the cramped fifth-floor room he shares with two men in a red-brick dormitory building for immigrants near Paris' Left Bank. In 1950, his father, Mamadou Diabira, left their tiny village in Mali and caught a steamboat to Europe, where he worked as a street cleaner in Paris for about 25 years. Waly, a 32-year-old building cleaner, only got to know his father when he sneaked into France at 18. The migrant tradition has continued into the next generation, fueled by the same force that kept his father rooted in France for decades — the need to send money home.
In visits to migrants' hometowns, the impact on their families and communities is clear.
Waly's village of Ambadedi has sent thousands of migrants to Paris since his father Mamadou first headed there. Set atop the steep northern bank of the Senegal River, the village at first glance looks like countless others in West Africa. Goats and donkeys meander down the dirt lanes, and women scrub clothes in the river.
But Ambadedi has cherished luxuries that are absent from other remote parts of Mali. There is a generator that lights up most of the houses every night. A water tower feeds water to several collection points. And television antennas bristle from the rooftops of two-story concrete houses — a far cry from the mud hut in which old Mamadou was raised. Villagers have even started dreaming about building a bridge across the river to connect Ambadedi to the nearest highway, says Sekou Drame, Mamadou's brother-in-law, as he escorts a Time reporter back to the wooden pirogue that will ferry him across the river's muddy flow. "It depends on God," he says. "And our families in France."
In Paris, Waly is planning to return home in January to see his 2-year-old daughter for the first time, and to spend time with his wife. But he won't stay long. "Frankly, people would die there if we didn't work here," he says. Come spring, he will be back in Paris, cleaning offices, and changing the way the world spreads its wealth around.
[Excerpted from a TIME magazine article, by Vivenne Walt]