Catholic Father, Evans Juma Oduor was the presiding priest of Nyabondo Parish in Nyakach. At a funeral service, he called out president Uhuru Kenyatta and asked him to stop killing innocent Luo protestors. Following the disputed August 8 elections, that the Supreme Court of Kenya nullified on September 1st, Kisumu city has become the epic centre of a brutal police crackdown. It was these incidences that involved shooting of demonstrators and supporters of the NASA coalition led by Raila Odinga, that Father Oduor was referring to. In a bold move, he dared those who might have any case against him, to seek him out at his home address in Kisumu county. It was a bitter lament from the Catholic father against the killing of demonstrators, who were dissenting within their constitutional rights.
On October 22, two weeks after that amateur video of Father Oduor’s damning sermon, the Catholic priest was discovered near a sugar plantation in the Chiga market centre, in Muhoroni area of Kisumu county, unconscious with deep cuts on his forehead and hands. He was rushed to the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral hospital in Kisumu by good Samaritans where he died a few hours later. The burnt shell of his car was discovered 5 kms away suggesting a kidnapping. The death occurred 30 kms from his Nyabondo Convent residence. Before his death, he was the Metropolitan of Kisumu chaplain and a prominent figure at the Kisumu Archdiocese.
A priest who had called for a stop to ethnic profiled killings had been murdered. Not even a man of God was untouchable. The news did not even trend for a day before it was overtaken by the latest casualties coming out of Kisumu, a few days to the 26th October repeat Presidential elections. I had prepped pyschologically for the election week in October. With news of increased police presence in Kisumu, I worked the lines, reaching my nephews and nieces to ensure that they stayed out of harms’ way. We could not afford any innocent bystanders taking a bullet. Young people who just innocently happened to be going to the shop to buy some ice cream like Michael Okoth, the form four student at Vihiga high school. In a TV interview, his mother said the people who shot him, retrieved the bullet from his neck.
In two WhatsApp groups monitoring the political crisis in Kisumu, medical emergency numbers, safety tips and real time situational analysis kept arriving as new notifications. Volunteers were determined this time around, that civilian deaths would be reduced and those in the ‘hotspots’ forewarned. That Luo lives would matter. The estates of Kisumu had become the new battle ground with door to door operations.
“They are now shooting people in the estates”, came in a new message and attached a picture of an unidentified wounded civilian. I no longer shared stuff I received from sources in Kisumu, certainly not before I verified and certainly not with those who could not empathise. It was too exhausting trying to explain to people living in comfort zones that Kisumu was not only composed of demonstrators that they saw agitating on TV. Innocent civilians had been attacked in their own homes. Doors broken. Forced entry. Young men dragged out from under beds they were hiding. Babies clobbered. In my line of work, it was important to not let the emotion take precedence but it was always my duty to side with the oppressed. I knew these accounts were real but it was getting difficult for images of police brutality out of Kisumu to elicit the kind of public concern one would hope for. Somehow the narrative of ‘violent demonstrators, looters, criminals, stubborn Luos” had become ingrained in the public mind.
Indeed, stories shape perceptions.
That is the danger of the single story that gifted Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie made famous in a powerful Ted Talk series. Kenya has a fair share of single stories but when it comes to political violence and hooliganism, Kisumu is second to none. The lakeside city, the capital of Luo Nyanza is a designated ‘hotspot’. It is almost matter of fact. An old college friend Paul Okong’o shared a newspaper clipping from the Sunday Nation from 26th October 1969. The headline was ominous “ I’ll crush you, a furious Mzee tells KPU”. Above it: Dusk-to-dawn Kisumu Curfew: Odinga apologises.
26th October 2017, was the date of the repeat presidential elections and incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta’s birthday. His fierce rival was Raila Odinga who had called for an election boycott. The new generation in Kisumu would learn the country’s history by experience, a bitter one at that.
Ever since the tragic fall out between the founding fathers, Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Odinga, Kisumu has hogged the headlines as the capital of violent demonstrations. History continues to repeat itself 48 years later in a political stalemate between the sons of Jomo and Jaramogi and Kisumu continues to be defined by its past.
On 25th October 1969, President Jomo Kenyatta had arrived in Kisumu to open the Russia hospital today known as the New Nyanza General hospital. The construction of hospital was made possible by funds from Russia and had been spearheaded by Jomo’s former VP turned fiercest critic Jaramogi Oginga. 1969 was particular tense year for the Luo nation. In January 29th of that year, foreign Minister Argwings CMG Kodhek, a brilliant lawyer from Gem, Kenya’s first African barrister died. Kodhek made name in defence of Mau Mau freedom fighters in the colonial courts and died in a mysterious road accident on the road from Hurlingham in Nairobi that now bears his name. Echoes of a political assassination reverberated but the big one was yet to come. In July 1969, Trade unionist, leading political light and one of the founding father’s of the republic Tom Mboya was assassinated on Government Road (now Moi Avenue) in Nairobi, adjacent to a street that now also bears his name and statue. Both murders remained unresolved and the seeds of mistrust between the Kikuyu and Luo matured into a tree of ethnic-based political contest that has been watered by the blood of innocents almost half a century on.
It was against this tense backdrop three months later in October 1969, that President Jomo Kenyatta would arrive in Kisumu to officially open “Russia’, and confrontations seemed inevitable between Kenyatta and Jaramogi who had formed the Kenya People’s Union (KPU) in opposition to the ruling party KANU. The crowds on the ground were hostile to the President’s presence as an unwanted guest as Kisumu had graduated into an opposition capital. Both men assumed uncompromising hardline positions and harsh words were exchanged (matter of historical public record) which only agitated a home crowd in Kisumu still in mourning. Tensions escalated as a section of the crowd engaged in stone throwing. The presidential security guard reacted and made a serious error of judgement by firing directly into the crowds ostensibly for the President’s safety. The motorcade sped away from the grounds leaving a trail of dead bodies. 11 civilians reportedly died that morning of October 25th 1969. Tens of others were injured in the ensuing crackdown.
Kenya People’s Union was banned three days later, its leaders arrested and detained and Kenya became a defacto one-party state. Jomo Kenyatta never returned to Kisumu for the rest of his reign. This tragic episode marked the beginning and since then Kisumu has experienced waves of brutal police crackdown and paid a heavy price for political dissent and protest.
In February 1990, after the brutal murder of popular foreign minister Robert Ouko, demonstrations in Kisumu were met with live fire. In March 1992, my friend the historian, Paul Okong’o would remind me of the Kisumu Boys incident, when police chased demonstrators into the Kisumu Boys high and opened fire despite the fact that the school was in session. This was at the height of the political struggle for multi party pluralism. In 2005, during the Banana campaign in the struggle for a new constitutional dispensation, demonstrating civilians were shot at by police. In 2007, after the disputed Presidential election, large number of civilian casualties in Kisumu experienced live fire during a police crackdown. In 2016, in a protest against the Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission deaths were reported.
Throughout the struggle for multiparty rule, the 2nd liberation, constitutionalism and cycles of election disputes, state-sanctioned violence has become the byword for dealing with the ‘Luo problem” in Kisumu and Nyanza by extension.
During the August 8th election, Kisumu once again bore the brunt of a disputed election contest. Police brutality was visited upon residents of the Kondele and Nyalenda neighbourhoods. This time though, the police operation had taken a new dimension. Particular neighbourhoods like Nyalenda, Obunga, Car Wash and Kondele were targeted and rogue police elements breached homes supposedly in a containment operation gone awry. The face of this tragic episode was a 6-month-old baby, Samantha Pendo who was critically injured and died after a door to door operation in Nyalenda that targeted her parents.
The residents of Kisumu have barely dried their tears and the violence appears to have returned to their streets and homes in October 2017. What has now become the norm is a criminalization of dissent in a country that has accepted shooting of demonstrators particularly of the Luo ethnic extraction in Western Kenya, endorsing a policing culture that rarely shows restraint.
The militarized police presence has become a constant feature of Kisumu recent election disputes and witness accounts continually talk of a rogue elements in uniform engaged in ethnic profiling. The simple story that has now played into the national psyche is that violence breeds violence and the blame resides on the lawless civilian who threw the first stone and provoked the wrath of the police. The pain of victims is ridiculed by a mocking public that has no context of the reality. What is happening in Kisumu is not a Luo issue. It is a human rights abuse issue.
The forgotten story in this no holds barred political contest is that a few hundred agitated demonstrators do not represent the whole of Kisumu.
The ghost of political contest that holds Kisumu hostage has to be exorcised. There are hundreds of thousands of ordinary Kisumu residents of all ethnic extractions who have nowhere to run, because the only the home, they know is Kisumo.
Whenever I talk to my young nephews and nieces, born and raised in Kisumu, I struggle to find the optimism in the midst of the doom and gloom forecast. But I am reminded by something my late father Henry Odhiambo said during a rare conversation about the history of Luo oppression, “ You cannot live in my past. That is not your story. Make your own story”. I surely hope the same for Kisumu’s young lives.
The stories we tell about our experiences matter. The stories we tell about Kisumu matter. The same stories that have been used to undermine, condemn and silence entire communities of people can also be used to empower, dignify existence and restore life. After all, we are the stories that we tell ourselves.
By Oyunga Pala
Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan Newspaper columnist.
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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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