Kisumo! The place of sumo! The land of opportunity where, when in need, you go to seek for and collect food from friends and family. And traders.
Nestled at the ‘head of the lake’ (Wi-nam), Kisumo – corrupted to ‘Kisumu’ – today ignites directly opposing sentiments from Kenyans. To the mono-eyed and incorrigibly ignorant hater having his vision and thinking hazed by jingoist alignment to tribe or political nonsense, Kisumo is the place of destruction, synonymous with vain protest prolificacy.
Kisumo, in their eyes and minds is a barren, rowdy and unsafe spot in Nyanza otherwise synonymously called Kondele and is full of stones. What foolish cheek! For Kisumo is not K’Ondele, Luo for Ondele’s home. Yet, yet, the discerning, attentive, open-minded and liberal adventurer will quickly find that Kisumo is as the songstress Suzanna Owiyo and the crooner Daniel Owino Misiani articulately storied in their hits, Kisumu 100 and Bim En Bim 2 respectively –vast, productive, hopeful, fun, industrious, compassionate, peaceful and therapeutic.
Kenya has an unfortunate schizophrenic perception of Kisumo, with the political/tribal view always defensively reacting to Kisumo from a default violent containment mode, while the Kisumo insiders counteract, sometimes offensively and usually from an unequal position and thus leading to unhelpful destruction. This was well depicted by the unfortunate occurrences that transpired on the night of Friday, August11th and half day of Saturday August12th. On that dark Friday, the IEBC declared their election results, giving the incumbent president Uhuru, a suspiciously strange 54% win over his challenger at 44%. Within minutes of the ill-fated declaration, smoke and wails and gunshots engulfed Kisumo as police and ‘police’ battled protestors and ‘looters’ on the streets and estates and bedrooms.
20 hours later the fear-inducing drone of the police helicopter that had patrolled Kisumo’s skies day and night had died off. The rat-a-tat of a dreadful variety of guns had mowed the lives of several defenseless Kisumo dwellers, government-issue boots had finished with kicking doors open and kicking teeth in, reinforced truncheons and crude jembe handles had splattered streams of blood and smashed away skulls, and teargas aplenty had turned Kisumo into a gas chamber, chocking and itching babies to endless and sickening wails and repelling birds off the skies. It was terrible. Terrible. Terrible!
Presently, Kisumo residents had crawled from what remained of their desecrated homes and tiptoed into the gloomy open – hungry, angry, scared, numbed and in moaning. Kisumo’s trembling lips counted its lost lives, soiled dignity and abused possessions and, slowly at first, began to stammer to the rest of the country the shocking siege that it has suffered. Video evidence, survivor tales, government denials, images of destruction and dumbfounded disbelief articulated a weird story of a government that had staged a coup against its people. When much later they had finally found their tongues, some Kisumo residents joked that had the incorrigible Al-Shabaab experienced what Kisumo went through on these two black August days, terrorism would be a forgotten problem in Kenya.
What followed as reactions to this occurrence was of itself shocking. In short, the social media was awash with three narratives – those of the Kisumophobics who celebrated the ‘straightening out’ of the ‘loudmouthed and stupid’ Luos of Kisumo, those of a government and police respectively denying any knowledge and involvement in the Kisumo drama, and those of the Kisumomanics simultaneously pleading for and demanding justice. In the wake of all these was born the #LuoLivesMatter hashtag, that to this day continues to be propagated as a counter-narrative to the unjust‘straightening out’ narrative. The government denial particularly seemed to cement the now normalized perception of the officialmarginalization of Kisumo. And if the government is not for us, Kisumo seemed to say, then who other than us shall be for ourselves? Quickly following the #LuoLivesMatter campaign therefore was the kneejerk cobbling up of the Nyanza Professional and Business Forum, in the hope that Luos could somehow do for themselves what the government has abdicated.
But does Kisumo need straightening out? However much the regurgitation of this silly tale, Kisumo is infact‘straight’ already and is a lovelier and opportunity-filled place than most Kenyans refuse to imagine.
Sometimes in 2016, a huge national conference on reproductive health and maternal and newborn child health was held at the Acacia Hotel in Kisumo. It brought together over 2,000 health practitioners from all over the country. Sure enough, many of them, just like the hordes of Kisumophobics, had never been to Kisumo. (When you live in Kisumo and interact with many Kenyans, they always ‘regret’ that they have never ever gone past Nakuru or Kericho, and that they have this ‘unexplainable’ fear of landing in Kisumo lest ‘something bad’ happens to them.) Anyway, the participants did arrive in Kisumu, mostly by night bus and early morning flight. They all, in their Kisumophobic character, limited their movements to their rooms and hotel dining halls. On the first day of the conference, all participants were particularly punctual for the sessions.
During the first break however, they got their first shock. Standing at the 2nd floor terrace of Acacia Hotel, the participants got an amazing birds-eye view of parts of Kisumo, stretching to the big lake and Riat hills. The beauty of Kisumo wowed them of course, but strangely, they were surprised by the level of the development they saw. “Is this the Kisumo I always hear about,” they marveled! Whereas it was pleasant to watch their surprise, it was annoying to behold and listen to their expectation of ruin and wanton destruction of the place. But that was not all. In the evening, the participants got to see Kisumo, to walk Kisumo, to drink Kisumo and to dance Kisumo. Needless to say, for the next three days, organizers had to plead with participants to not only come to the sessions early, but to also stay awake and concentrate.
For these proud citizens of Kenya had never been to this our collective Kisumo and now had found it, discovered it. They had never interacted with the average Kisumo folk, dark skinned and mirthful, eager to welcome and please a visitor. They had not sat with Kisumo folk at Kakwacha or Lwang’ni hotels or at Kimani’s Juakali butchery to hog down platefuls of delectable Kisumo Fres Fis served with nyaluo vegetables and kuon bel and washed down with adila mayom! They had never visited the bubbling Chiro Mbero or Kibuye Market to haggle and purchase the freshest and plentiful offerings in the many mini-markets within it including Kisii corner and Nandi milk and green maize. They had never visited the breathtaking Kiboswa roadside market where the Rift Valley (Nandi), Western (Vihiga) and Nyanza (Kisumo) meet and exchange the sweetness of all. They had not gone up Riat hills and purchased and constructed on a ka-plot that gives –free of charge- the fulfilling and uninterrupted view of the lake all the way to Homa Bay and Kendu Bay. They had not trekked by K’Ondele and Nyalenda to engage the muscled and creative metal and woodcrafters who design and build the reliable Kisumo Windows and Frames, and regale you with stories of comedic pakruok and flatter. They have never taken time to roam with the multitude of people at the KisumoStage, where passion, compassion and business is conducted in the most primary and Kenyanlike entrepreneurial spirit.
No, they have not visited the MixaFarm by the banks of River Nyamasaria or the Peasant Shamba by the valleyed Nyahera to witness the prolific productivity of the land and the fruits of commendable hard work and labor of Kisumomanics, and eaten the most authentic organic products of Kisumo. They have not been to the rolling acres of Kibos and Miwani and Chemelil and Muhoroni to take in the busy and industrious production going on. The Kisumophobics have not been to the beaches of Kisumo, taken the boats rowed by clever locals who know the depths and pleasures of the lake as they know the backs of their hands.
They have not experienced the peaceful calm of Kisumo’s Milimani, or enjoyed the daily hustle and bustle of the estates. They have not witnessed and participated in the growing land and construction economy, the preparation and mustering of capital in anticipation of the development of the beachfront, the Kisumo Port and the coming, arrival and going of the SGR. They have not internalized the opportunities of watersports abounding here nor taken the opportunity to watch randy, burly hippos romantically kissing with their oversized lips, in and out of water. Have the Kisumophobics sat by the hills or shores or balconies and took in the breathtaking Kisumosunset, watched as Nam Lolwe and its silvery grey waters dance and become one with the fires and embers of the evening sun before they usher in a night so calm and warm and romantic?
The Kisumophobics have not taken a seat around the intellectual table of the hallowed Lakeview Bar and Hotel and sat in the company of true and pure Luo brains, of real and noble Professors and Doctors and Masters and Bachelors, and listened in awe as they contributed and applied their minds and genius to the philosophy, psychology, augmented reality, calculus, architecture, design, music, football, sex, agriculture, astronomy, dance and general knowledge of life!
No. They have not experienced a night out of imbibing in the triple distilled and hot liquids of Kisumo’s Beer Belt nor engaged Kisumo’s male and female comforters, merchants of exciting nocturnal delights! Have they danced to Luo Benga and Rhumba, let the music take over their bodies and the beats throb in their hearts and swell their souls? Have they ever surrendered to the Ohangla beats and felt their bodies seamlessly gel with the music and gyrate in uniform concomitance with their lovers on the dance floor, forget all the troubles in the world and get lifted far beyond the moon and stars by the sweet Johhny Junior, the legendary Okatch Biggy, the peerless Musa Juma, the scintillating Suzanna Owiyo? Have they found themselves singing along in tongues to Live-Band music at the inviting joints of Railways, Mamba, Kondele, Obunga, Nyalenda, Nyamasaria, Riat, Kisian and Ahero? Ahero Ka Dani where Aliya will liyo you?Have they been ‘sang’ in an impromptu praise song by Kisumo’s Nyatiti griots? Have they danced in nyadhi, that marker of ultimate pride and grace? Have they ever met, sat back and relaxed with Adhiambo Sianda? Has love ever been made to them: love so gentle and profound and unhurried and quixotic, love so divine and Luo in its execution, love so trusting and conjoining and accepting, love that transforms two bodies into one contented heart, mad love sourced from the purity and honesty and whiteness and genuineness of humanity, Kisumo love, love so explorative and adventurous that they finally knocked on heaven’s door and embraced and shed tears of ecstasy with God?
On October 25th 1969 at the opening of the ‘Russia’ hospital in Kisumo, political disagreements led to painful loss of lives and aPresident washing his hands off Kisumo. Half a century on, many more such mini-events have continued to occur, denying Kisumo its worthwhile place in the development and happiness of Kenya. The national psyche keeps getting conditioned towards a negative perception of this beautiful place. Half a century on, Kisumophobics, by unquestioningly swallowing such negative vibe, are denying themselves the opportunity to come over to this place of sumo and collect riches and happiness and friendships and love and hope and peace and family. In all truth, those who choose to listen to our alternative stories of Kisumo will never regret their welcome to Kisumo. Ever.
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The Enemy Within
Death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, reminding you of your mortality.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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