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Reflections

Democracy Unleashed

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My friend “Derrick” has reason to be very concerned, scared even. He is a single father to three mixed race children of mixed ethnicity. And he is a Luo living in Pangani, a working-class suburb of Nairobi that borders some of the most expensive real estate in Africa. It should not matter that he is Luo or that he lives in Pangani – his home for over 6 years. But it does.

We have been friends since childhood and have a lot more history than I do with most of my blood relations. We chat on Whatsapp almost every day. We talk about anything and everything. Single parenting can get very lonely. Tonight, it is more than lonely.

Thursday 19:54 WhatsApp

[Derrick] “Have you heard anything?”

The elections are in two weeks and he is surrounded by Kikuyus, members of an ethnic group supporting a party other than that predominantly supported by many of his community. He is concerned.

Violence is not new to Derrick. He was once confronted and accused of kidnapping by a rowdy mob of young men and matatu touts in downtown Nairobi. His offense was walking with three very young, clearly mixed race boys – his sons.

I have not heard anything. We chat about politics a little then go onto more pressing stuff. Teenage boys, what to do about slipping school grades, an idea for a show, the hustle of dating. We sign off.

Sunday 20:19 Whatsapp

[Derrick] “What do you know that I may need to know?”

[Me] “???” “Like?”

[Derrick] “I feel like a sitting duck, I told u…” (sic)

Violence is not new to Derrick. He was once confronted and accused of kidnapping by a rowdy mob of young men and matatu touts in downtown Nairobi. His offense was walking with three very young, clearly mixed race boys – his sons. The mob screamed at him, shoving and kicking him. They called him Deya [after the infamous Kenyan self-styled “miracle babies” pastor]. It took the intervention of his three terrified boys who, when dragged a little distance away from him as he was held down, confirmed that he is indeed their dad, despite their “light skin”, more chiseled facial features and the fact that one of his boys carries a Kikuyu name.

If you are mixed, whether ethnic or race, you are impure, belong to no one and, therefore a justifiable target for attack by everyone.

In 2008, he had “shipped” his wife and children to the City of Peace, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Their twin income could afford them the trip then. She was alive then. Today, he is a single father of three, scared in the run up to what should be a peaceful election. Already, the threats have begun.

I ask my sources. They reassure me. There will be no chaos. Government has put in place, measures to ensure a swift crackdown if there are pockets of violence. The intelligence service is on the case. Be easy. We are safe. I pass the message to him.

Monday 16:32

[Derrick] “Chic, is there anything you know that you are not telling me?”

[Me] “No. Honestly.”

[Derrick] “If there was, would you tell me?”

I don’t know what to say. I have never thought he would even think that I would ever put him or the kids in danger. We are blood. Aren’t we?

It is this kind of suspicion and mistrust that the systematic promotion of tribalism in Kenya does. It pervades even the most innocent of friendships and corrupts them. It forces people to relate with each other with suspicion, then uses that same suspicion to justify the need to promote and preserve itself.

Do we ever ask, or care, about the effect of making 11-year olds, 15-year olds, choose a parent or disown another based on tribe? Who are we raising when young children are routinely separated from their families, friends and environment “until the election is over”?

The problem in the case of a parent with mixed ethnicity/race children is that they belong always to the “enemy”, the “weaker side”. When narrating the story of the Rwandan genocide, the highlight is very often on the millions of Tutsis killed by their Hutu neighbours. What is not often addressed is the number of Rwandans of mixed ethnicity who were killed by their relatives because they belonged to “the other side”. Derrick knows that his children are easy targets. And that his friends or neighbours could sell him out if chaos erupted. His question is not without context.

I have a riddle for you.

What is the difference between a tribal based campaign, apartheid’s so-called justification or the Nazi superior race argument? The answer is none.

The Nazis believed that they were entitled to expand territorially, that they were under threat from “inferior” races and they were divinely appointed. Proponents of apartheid believed in the superiority of their race, their divine right, the threat by the inferior races and the need for purity. The tribe argument… well, you can see the trend now.

If you are mixed, whether ethnic or race, you are impure, belong to no one and, therefore a justifiable target for attack by everyone. This is a problem particularly in urban Kenya where, increasingly, many children are born of mixed ethnicity and those who are not, very often do not know enough of their own mother tongue to be identified by language.

Tribalism. Nazism. Racism. They all play the same tune. The lyrics are simple. We are superior. They are inferior.

I tell Derrick to send his children away for the election period and go spend the week in a safer neighbourhood. It is more prudent to separate him from them. He, their own father, is a liability because of his physical features. Sound familiar? Trevor Noah, the famous South African comedian, often had to walk across the street from his own father, and pretend that his mother was his nanny just so they would not get into trouble for having birthed him during the apartheid era.

Do we ever ask, or care, about the effect of making 11-year olds, 15-year olds, choose a parent or disown another based on tribe? Who are we raising when young children are routinely separated from their families, friends and environment “until the election is over”?

Or do we not care? Does it not matter?

The tribal card is deliberately played up by political manipulators at election time, to shore up their feudal egos with no regard to the consequences. When one national leader calls for the expulsion of “foreigners” -people not of a particular tribe- from an area; when another, also a national leader speaks exclusively in a language understood only by the ethnic group from which he comes; they are deliberately playing up the tribal sentiments and creating well calculated tension. Their “tribesmen” are not “their people”. They are their vassals – available for use, abuse and if need be, disposal, as they watch and pronounce utterances from their gilded castles behind armies of bodyguards deployed to ensure their own safety.

Tribalism. Nazism. Racism. They all play the same tune. The lyrics are simple. We are superior. They are inferior.

“They are the villains. We are the victims.” [Insert historical distortions here. Remember when “they” stoned our president? Remember how “they” stole our presidency?]

“It is God’s Will. He chose us to lead.” [Insert scoff here. Only a god who does not know the pain of birth, or the sacrifice of rearing an offspring can afford to play favourites.]

They will overrun us if we do not put in place measures to save ourselves from them.” [Insert appropriate call to arms under the guise of “safeguarding democracy”. Remember 2008? No Raila, no rail! Uthamaki ni witu! And suchlike. Be sure to dish out money “ya kutoa panga kwa nyumba” (to bring the machete out of the house)]

And the chorus?

Altogether now regardless of political divide,

“It’s us or them. There is no room for both. Our time has come. God is on our side.”

There is no room for logic then. It is all about survival. No one remembers that we have coexisted for eons, or that tribe as a negative, is a construct by those who were once a common enemy to both.

Once the lords get what they want, they will remind their vassals that the vassals once lived together in harmony. That violence solves nothing. That Kenya is a peace-loving island in a sea of unrest.

The political overlords are happy. Their troops are ready. And those who are hesitant either flee to safer areas or arm themselves in anticipation that they may have to “retaliate in self defence”.

Once the lords get what they want, they will remind their vassals that the vassals once lived together in harmony. That violence solves nothing. That Kenya is a peace-loving island in a sea of unrest. They will point to Somalia and South Sudan as they wave from large wooden dais draped in blood-red coloured carpets. The vassals must now live cheek by jowl. Forgive. Forget. Bible and Koran quoted in equal measure as piety replaces provocative pronouncements. Live and let live to both rapists and raped. Murderers and the families of those murdered. The children, the “future generations” in whose name the “aluta” must “continua”, the children watch and learn that elections mean separation, hate, rape and death.

At a mid-morning meeting in May 2017, a 23 year old journalist scoffed at me when I asked her where she was going to vote.

“Me? Vote? You are so funny!” she said, laughing in bemusement.

“Why?” I asked.

She laughed again, a little sadder, shaking her head.

“In 2008, I had just finished Standard 8. One night when the violence broke out in our area, the farmer next door brought a tractor and trailer to our house at night. Mum told us to lie down on the floor of the trailer. They put planks of wood supported by building blocks on top of us then piled the trailer high with hay. We slept there the whole night. The next morning, our neighbour set off with the truck. Along the way, he kept getting stopped. The guys were asking the farmer, “What is in the trailer?’ as they stabbed the hay with spears and pangas. “Nyasi ya ng’ombe tu [only some hay for the cows]”, he would reply. One group of young men threatened to set the hay on fire, convinced he was smuggling people. He responded angrily in the local language and they walked away, voices fading out of earshot. When he finally brought us to a safe town he waited until night and pulled us from under the hay by our feet then told my mum to run. We never went back home. Till today, I have never even gone back to visit. I never went to my high school of choice. Even though my elder sister had finished her school there. It is in an area where we would have been killed if 2008 happened again. I will never, ever, ever, vote. To vote is to choose sides and no matter which side you choose, someone has to die or be displaced or be raped.”

“I will never, ever, ever, vote. To vote is to choose sides and no matter which side you choose, someone has to die or be displaced or be raped.”

Unsurprisingly, millennials, young people who experienced the horrific events of 2008 as teenagers, are increasingly choosing not to vote. They are referred to as “lazy, spoilt, selfish”. It is easier than hearing their stories and healing their wounds.

A week after the election, a colleague, “Owino”, resident of Kangemi, calls me on Whatsapp in the middle of the night. I pick the call. He does not say a thing. He just holds the phone to his window. I hear the screams that tear into the night and rip my heart. Then he hangs up and texts that he is fine. It is “his guys” “peacefully demonstrating” tonight. It’s “the other guys” in trouble. “Our guys”.

The overlords sleep on, undisturbed. Tomorrow, they will call for more peace. More demonstrations. But tonight, well, tonight, democracy expresses itself in bludgeoned babies and gang rapes.

“F@#k Government!!” translates to “Drag young men and women from their homes, sodomize, rape and assault them!”.

“Let peace prevail” is buried in the pieces of shattered skulls and torn flesh in children too young to spell the word “democracy”.

Democracy. The will of the people, By the people, To the People, For The People.

Democracy. I win. You lose.

Democracy. Majority rules. Or is it, muscle rules.

Democracy. Power by the powerful. “Pole sana” to the weak.

Democracy. A struggle in which the common people function more like pawns rather than any kind of sovereign authority.[i]

Democracy: a concept attributed to Greek era men with arms or power jostling for position.

Maybe, to paraphrase Hadeel Ibrahim of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, when she spoke at the Women Advancing Africa Conference in Dar Es Salaam, maybe we need to dream a new dream. A dream where everyone wins. A dream where a few men with power and arms do not “democratize” the rest.

Maybe, to paraphrase Hadeel Ibrahim of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, when she spoke at the Women Advancing Africa Conference in Dar Es Salaam, maybe we need to dream a new dream. A dream where everyone wins. A dream where a few men with power and arms do not “democratize” the rest.

Maybe it is time for us to emancipate ourselves from Greek history. Maybe it is time to create a new form of leadership called Inclusivity. Where every voice counts and leadership is more than democratic.

Until then, democracy will be raped into more men and women, shot into more children and crushed into more babies’ skulls.

Wikipedia referencing [i]Bailkey, 1967, pp. 1211-1236

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Renee Ngamau is a Capital FM presenter and a Life and Business Strategist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Reflections

The Enemy Within

Death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, reminding you of your mortality.

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The Enemy Within
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So, this is what happens when a doctor tells you that you have cancer. The first response is disbelief (how can this be true?), followed by anger (I don’t deserve this, I never hurt anyone), and then a deep sense of grief and loss (what will I miss when I die, and how will my loved ones cope without me?)

They say cancer is the result of pent-up anger and resentment. Apparently, years of holding on to these emotions make your cells misbehave and become toxic. Cancer cells end up eating up healthy cells, leaving the body so full of poison that it collapses from lack of vitality. The jury is still out on whether lifestyle choices generate cancer in the body because people who lead healthy lives seem to be as prone to cancer as those who don’t. Nonetheless, when you find out you have cancer, your first reaction is to blame yourself. It is sort of like being told you have HIV. (Was I responsible for this? Was I reckless? Should I have used a condom?)

Friends and relatives will tell you that breast cancer is beatable, that they know so many women who had breast cancer and lived healthy lives years after treatment. What they don’t tell you is that all the literature points to a short life expectancy after the discovery of cancer. The chances of recurrence are high, even with chemotherapy, mastectomy or radiation, the traditional methods to “cure” breast cancer. I have read studies where women who had chemotherapy had an equal chance of recurrence as those who didn’t. So, death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, constantly reminding you of your mortality.

Most people are so afraid of cancer that they can’t even say the word. The receptionist at an oncologist’s office actually asked me what kind of “C” I had – never used the word cancer. Yet she deals with cancer patients every day.  Another oncologist I consulted couldn’t even make eye contact with me and rushed me through a diagnosis I couldn’t understand, perhaps believing that my cancer was contagious?

The thing is that cancer is not like any other disease that can be cured through surgery or drugs. It requires months of treatment and constant monitoring. It’s not like having malaria or a broken bone. It is like having an enemy residing in your body, hostile, predatory, waiting to pounce at any moment.

It seems a positive frame of mind is critical in recovering from cancer. I got calls from women who told me they bounced right back into their lives after months of treatment as if nothing had happened, that I mustn’t believe all the literature, that I should get all the treatments done and go back to living a normal life. They didn’t explain to me why they have been working from home since their treatment started and since their so-called “recovery”. Others are more honest about their experiences. A South African women called to tell me that her experience with chemotherapy had damaged her heart, and she is on life-long medication that makes her urinate every few minutes, which means she can no longer work in an office. Instead of destroying the cancer, the chemo destroyed healthy cells in her heart. She is cancer-free but now disabled in other ways. Another friend told me her aunt died not from the cancer, but from the chemo.

What the doctors and the optimists don’t tell you is that both chemotherapy and radiation have debilitating impacts on your body. They literally are poisons injected into your body to kill another poison. Sort of like a vaccine but not quite because they do not boost your immunity. Both chemotherapy and radiation therapies involve weeks of hospital visits that cost an arm and leg. Nausea, burns on your body, fatigue are common side effects.

A friend from Boston who has studied alternative ways of healing from cancer (including not getting any treatment at all) tells me that each woman with breast cancer has to make an individual choice about what kind of treatment she should get. Doctors trained in Western medicine will be quick to put you on chemotherapy and the other treatments without giving you other options. Desperate and eager to cling onto life, the patient with cancer readily accepts any treatment, not realising that not only is it a very long process, but very costly as well. Mental preparation and psychological support are also necessary before embarking on the long and arduous journey called cancer treatment. People become life-long patients; some recover well, others not so well. Some women opt for no treatment, preferring to lead a good quality of life before the disease ravages the body.

I am looking at alternative methods of healing, including Pranic healing that works on your energy fields and chakras. So far it seems to be helping me, but only time will tell if I will be a success story. I have certainly started eating more, and those dizzy spells in the morning seem to be getting rarer.

The biopsy results are not yet out, so I am still not sure what the oncologist will prescribe, but in Kenya, the modus operandi seems to follow the same script: mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy or radiation and some kind of hormone treatment. Am I ready to go there? Not sure. Women who lose their breasts speak of feeling like an amputee; the loss of an organ that defines their femininity impacts their identity and self-esteem. Others are more casual about losing their breasts, (“It’s just fat,” one woman told me). `

The other thing about cancer is that when you have it, you think of nothing else. Everything is a blur. Someone wants to make small talk, and all you want to do is look the other way or scream. (Can’t you see I have cancer? Do you really want to discuss the weather?) You think about your life in vivid film shots. Your past suddenly comes into sharp focus, both the happy and sad days. You begin questioning the meaning of life in ways you never did before. Cancer prepares you for death the way a fatal car accident doesn’t. Is sudden death preferable to dying slowly because you can’t see it coming? Not sure.

But let me not be the purveyor of doom and gloom. The reason I am writing this article is that I have learned wonderful things about myself and other people. One of the things I have learned is that people can be kind and generous when they know you are in pain. People I don’t even know and have never met have sent me good wishes, prayers and even money for my treatment. Friends and family have sent food and offered accommodation. An Indian friend called to say that if I opted to go to India for treatment, I could stay in his home for as long as I needed. These generous and kind offers have literally brought tears to my eyes.

What I also learned is that my life’s work has not been a waste, and that my readers love and admire me for my writing. I didn’t realise I had inspired so many people, not just in Kenya but around the world, through words I have penned. That is a really important things for me to know and hold onto right now – to realise that I had a gift that I used well, and which helped others. And to know that when I go, my writing will live on.

I also learned that life is very, very short. So, we must not postpone the things we need to do. If your job makes you unhappy, quit. If a relationship is toxic, leave it. If people around you are making you feel bad about yourself, walk away. Surround yourself with people who love and cherish you. Love is very important for human survival, so distribute it freely. Be kind and generous. This thing called life is temporary, so enjoy every moment and live it as if every day is your last.

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Reflections

Someone’s Grandmother Just Died!

It is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed.

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Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I watched the televised service at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh attended by the royals and various Scottish dignitaries, as well as the many hundreds who came out to pay their respects or to be a part of this historical event.

As I watched the outpouring of public emotion, I couldn’t help but wonder what emotions the queen’s death would invoke in those whose lives have been blighted because of the British colonial policies that killed millions and left a legacy of misery and disenfranchisement in countries far too many to name.  

At first I was saddened by the news. But then came the reactions of global figures the world over, with some proclaiming outright that Queen Elizabeth had been a guiding light, a symbol of hope and stability in the world. One broadcaster went so far as to say “She was everybody’s grandmother.” My problem was that she wasn’t mine.

My grandmother, born in 1923, was just three years old when the Queen was born, my 81-year-old mother told me when I called to get her reaction to the news that the Queen had died. “She would’ve been 99 years old today if she had she lived,” my mom said. I could hear the emotion in her voice as she remembered her mother. My grandmother died in 1983; she was 59 years old. I was then just 18 years old.  I said, “Mom with all the things we know about the racist systems that have kept Black and Brown people oppressed, I really don’t know how I want to feel about the death of the British Queen.” Never one to mince her words, my mom replied, “She was a human being, and we, well you know, we mourn the loss of any life.”

Yes. She may have been a grandmother to many but to me she was a symbol of institutionalized racism in its clearest form. Images of British dynasty have been present in the education of every American who has gone through the public school system since the Second World War during which the United States allied with Britain in their quest for global power and dominance. Yet here was the evil of the Crown being portrayed in the media—as it’s always been portrayed—as providence, something divine. As I listened to a special broadcast by the popular British talk show host James Corden talking to an American audience about the Queen’s passing, his tone struck me as odd: “She will be missed, she was everybody’s grandmother,” he said, going on to tell us how well she had served the country and the world.

As I was listening to Corden and wondering why I was so irritated by his outpouring of emotion, it dawned on me that racism moves from generation to generation, falling back on the old practices of how to colonize a nation:  You teach them to love you more than they love themselves. Racism survives because the symbols of racism never die. We carry the symbols in our hearts and in our minds and once we have identified with them, we seek to justify their existence. While I could empathise with those that felt a special connection to the Crown, what I realized and felt most immediately, was the insensitivity I received as an African American who bears the scars of the legacy of slavery that has made the British Empire one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world today.

The next day I watched the funeral procession move through the streets of Edinburgh, the commentators conveying the solemn mood of the people who came out to pay tribute to their Queen.  All the while I couldn’t see past the 1989 image of Princess Diana hugging a child suffering from HIV/AIDS. On her first unaccompanied trip overseas, Princess Diana spontaneously broke with protocol and showed compassion towards a suffering Black child with all the world watching, at a time when the stigma of HIV/AIDS was as bad as the disease, and  Blacks were being impacted the most and no one else seemed to care. Diana’s humanity helped solidify her reputation as the “People’s Princess” and it radically changed the way AIDS sufferers were perceived.

While the news played on I thought about two recent exchanges I had had in Amsterdam, just outside my front door.  The first exchange took place in a cafe.

I was sitting at the bar having a coffee. Another Black male of Surinamese origin was sitting a couple of tables away. It was midmorning and we were the only ones there. In an attempt to start a conversation, as men do, he asked my opinion on the war in Ukraine. I told him I thought it was crazy, all too unreal. The white Dutchman behind the counter leaned over and candidly shared, “I don’t give a shit about the war in Ukraine.”  I didn’t speak again and left the bar so abruptly the young brother asked, “You leaving?”  I was in no mood to have that conversation so early in the day, having experienced the backlash of the “Black Lives Matter” protest with the counter-narrative that All Lives Matter; I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to just hold one’s peace and walk away. (It literally is your peace.)

Shortly after that incident, a couple of days later, I had another encounter that made me realize that we simply can’t afford not to care. I had wandered into a tool shop  on the corner of my street that looks more like a men’s gift shop inside than a hardware store selling nails, drills and plywood. Behind me walked in a man who apparently knew what he wanted because we reached the cash register at the same time, he with a power drill in his hand. I moved aside to let him be the first in line, not sure if I was done.

The Dutchman behind the counter seemed not to have noticed that the man with the drill wasn’t Dutch and didn’t speak the language. But to his credit, he did know what he wanted: the drill and a bag in which to put the canisters of spray paint he had already placed on the counter. Being familiar with Eastern Europeans, I assumed the man was Polish and asked “Polske?” “No! Ukraine!” he said, then, smiling, added, “Close.”

Hij wil een tas.” He wants a bag, I said to the clerk; bags are not automatically handed out after a purchase these days.  The clerk then understood and reached under the counter. I was pleased I could help and the Ukrainian was happy as well. To my surprise, as I placed my items on the counter, the Ukrainian tapped my shoulder and offered a fist bump.

I say all this to say of the human condition that people appreciate what they understand.  And sadly enough, we rarely think about injustice until it is visited upon us.

Whose permission do we now need to talk about racism and the policies that still impact us today? Africa and the African diaspora’s historical issues are and always have been about racism and this is why members of this group, my group, will always hold a contrarian view when the West attempts to compel us to join them in their moment of grief.  My grandmother died in 1983, at the young age of 59, in a small southern town next to a river; there was no horse and carriage, no media. The British Empire once covered the whole world, a dominance that was achieved through suppression and oppression. Many atrocities were committed and entire communities decimated under the authority of the Queen.  I was raised never to speak ill of the dead because they aren’t here to defend themselves but I will submit this:  it is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed.  Where is the same fervour and energy for those issues that matter to us? 

When we as Black people keep the peace, we empower the presence of the historical lie that we are inferior and thus require control. When we remain silent we allow the systems of the institutions and the prejudices that block our collective growth to thrive. Why should we care about the death of the Queen when the Queen has stood for the oppression of our people? Why should we be guilt-tripped into silence, into not speaking out about the dead, into not pursuing our freedom? When will our emergency, the issues that impact Black and Brown people, become a top concern for the White world? When will I be able speak without fear of being branded just another angry black man, angry for what I don’t have that others do?

Sad as the Queen’s death is to those that survive her, honouring her service is a symbolic gesture that must be contextualized because, for many, and not just in the UK but all over the world, the English monarchy is a symbol of oppression. I recently listened to a podcast in which a Black podcaster scolded an guest who said this of the Queen: “She is the symbol of colonialism and racism for many; however much we want to romanticize the Queen of England’s long reign on the throne as a stabilizing force on earth, she has also allowed many human rights violations on her watch”. The podcaster’s response was a classic putdown, “Why do Black people have to always bring up racism? Someone’s grandmother just died!”

Racism endures because when we identify with its symbols, we will do anything and everything in our power to justify and defend them.

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Reflections

So What is an African Immigrant Today?

Anti-migration policies against Africans and a general climate of persecution against foreigners in Europe and North America are sending African migrants to new destinations such as China, Turkey, the Middle East and even South America.

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I was 24 when I fled Rwanda for the UK in 2007. A successful political reporter, I had just been made head of the flagship investigative pull-out magazine The Insight, whose work was gaining the admiration of many inside Rwanda. I also ran a weekly column, The Municipal Watchdog, writing about topical social issues, and was filing for Reuters, Al Jazeera, Xhinua, as well as the Associated Press. This was my life, and I loved every bit of it.

Meanwhile, some 4,000 miles away in the UK, and in my case Glasgow, a city that had now become home, a dangerous and sustained campaign against people like myself was taking shape. Britain was in the tenth year of a Labour government, and while the party had transformed the country’s economic fortunes, a particular kind of malaise was beginning to set in. Desperate for power, opposition party politicians (mainly Conservatives and UKIP) as well as sections of the media were starting to whip up public anger over two issues: immigration and welfare. Debates around immigration were getting nastier, often with racist undertones. The BBC broadcast The Poles are Coming, a 50-minute television documentary and part of the White Season Series in which filmmaker Timothy Samuels set out to interrogate the growing narrative against immigration.

“You don’t have to go far these days to find a little slice of Poland or Eastern Europe in your town,” he says, before adding, “But for some in Peterborough it’s all too much.” The film cuts to a crowded doctor’s surgery and school before a visibly irate middle-aged British man retorts that Peterborough is “completely and utterly swamped”. Seconds later, a town councillor chips in to say that the country has had enough of immigration.

I remember watching the documentary in my one-bedroom flat in Glasgow, and feeling scared. There is a tendency to think that asylum ends the day you become resettled. While this is somewhat accurate, it is far from the truth. The loneliness, the worry about all the things left behind, family and friends, keeps one wondering. Nothing is ever certain. It also depends on one’s specific threat. I know of people, myself included, who continue to look over their shoulder years after we were granted protection – because the truth is, you can never be sure. The question that kept coming back to me was, if this is how Eastern Europeans are treated, the majority of them white with blue eyes and so able to blend in, what chance is there for us Africans?

After all, I was already living in a high-rise building, with all sorts of neighbours, some of them active drug addicts or recovering addicts. But life goes on, and indeed it did. Despite the occasional noise, I got on well with my addict neighbours and was never subjected to insults or troubled in any way for the six months I lived in the flat.

A common misconception about those of us seeking refuge is the almost universal condemnation as to why we didn’t seek protection from the first safe country we entered. “France is a perfectly peaceful country, they could have stayed there,” I have heard people say of those crossing the Channel in dinghies. There are of course a myriad reasons why people may not avail themselves for protection in certain countries despite passing through them. People want to settle in countries where they have a local connection – friends, relatives, or because they speak the language.

I passed through Uganda, Kenya, and Holland before landing at Heathrow. In my asylum interview, I was asked why I did not seek protection in Uganda or Kenya. My answer was always the same: Rwanda continues to have very good relations with its neighbours, and in the case of Uganda, they share a border. The possibility of being harmed is increased the closer you are to the country you fled, and the better its relationship with one’s host country. Besides, there is no legal obligation for refugees to claim asylum in the safe countries they pass through. Declining to do so does not disqualify them from refugee status.

People want to settle in countries where they have a local connection – friends, relatives, or because they speak the language.

Most of these conjectures are built around a lack of understanding of the diversity of African migration. Anyone following debates on migration from Africa to the Global North might think that the burden is too much. But as studies have shown, this is not true. As The Elephant has previously reported, most African migration remains on the continent. Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, with countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt being some of the main destinations. Targeted anti-migration policies against Africans, implemented in part through stringent visa policies, and a general climate of persecution against foreigners in Europe and North America, have seen would-be African migrants head to new and more receptive destinations such as China, Turkey, the Middle East and, in some cases, South America.

From my own experience as a former asylum seeker, I know that migrants are not necessarily fleeing war or poverty. Those who saw me land at Heathrow on the morning of 22 July 2007 might have thought I was another African immigrant, escaping poverty and disease. But the truth is that, like the majority of the people who make it out of Africa into Europe and the Americas, I wasn’t. If anything, I was part of the African elite that is able to cut through the stringent visa requirements, can afford the pocket-busting airfares, and is able to take risks to come to countries where, whether they are seeking asylum or not, they are not exactly sure of the final outcome of their case. To the suffering Africans, this is often too much of an outlay, especially so when the country next door or the country a few countries north or south can welcome you and provide sanctuary for less than the cost of a UK visa. When it comes to migration into the Global North, Africans will only migrate if they have the ambitions and resources to make this happen.

Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, with countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt being some of the main destinations.

In the lead-up to the Brexit vote – which was heavily influenced by what those campaigning to leave the EU kept referring to as uncontrolled immigration – there were more Eastern Europeans in the UK than migrants from Africa or Asia combined. Yet the entire campaign was dominated by discussions about illegal immigration – deliberately painting the picture that the country was being swamped by foreigners, many of whom were already subjected to some of the most stringent visa requirements. Even Nigel Farage’s infamous Breaking Point poster, which was correctly reported to the police as inciting racial hatred, was deliberately punctuated with brown faces as if to emphasize the point that white migration is OK, non-white not as good.

I was having a discussion with one of my neighbours a few weeks ago – a son of Irish folk who migrated to Birmingham, England, in the 1950s. He has only been to Ireland twice in his life and while he considers himself Irish, he doesn’t think he is regarded as Irish. He speaks with a Birmingham accent and has lived in the South East of England for over 30 years now. I do not believe him to be racist but some of his views could be very easily construed as racist towards “these foreigners that can’t stop complaining”.

“Why is it only young men that are crossing the Channel?” he asked. “If the situation in their countries is so dire that they have to flee, why are they leaving behind their family? Would you leave your wife and children to be killed or even raped? I wouldn’t.” When I asked him what he would do if the only money he had left after selling most of his possessions was enough to transport one person out of a family of four, he replied: “I don’t know but I would have to think of something”. And when I pestered him to tell me what that something was, he responded: “I don’t know.”

And herein lies the folly of the dangerous migration rhetoric that has been carefully promoted by right-wing politicians with the help of an increasingly agenda-driven media. A son of an Irish couple, who left Ireland for a better life in Birmingham, and were most likely subjected to discrimination as IRA sympathisers during the Troubles, has grown up to Other those doing exactly what his parents did all those years ago. “We can’t let in everyone,” he says. Except we are not.

This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.

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