There’s something uncomfortable about looking at pictures of your parents at a time when they made each other happy. – Aminatta Forna
Our parents are an example of two things:
What marriage should be like;
What marriage should not be like.
I met the husband I never married when I was sixteen. He became the biological father of my child a few years later and he was proud to call me his wife. We never had a wedding albeit living together … in theory – as he often travelled meaning we did not really spend much time together. And by the time we reunited, we had spent so much time apart that we felt like strangers. We had become accustomed to making separate decisions in separate countries and over time, our worldviews evolved in divergent directions. As I had become a mother at a very young age, I started, as many women might, feeling a little empty. My child was growing older and being a mother could not define my whole identity. What happened to all the things my younger self-thought I would one day do?
My parents, who are card-holding members of the Baby Boomer generation, modeled to me as a child, that in a marriage, one stays put until death do us apart. You may hurt and drain yourself, but in the end, you will have done the honourable thing by staying wedded.
Later in life, parents resting in their graves, married to death, you look back at old photos and realise they were once possibly happy. They had good times. They kissed, loved and laughed. Then I mirror that against my own relationship that did not stand the test of time.
Old photos with your former partner, only tell one little part of the whole story – the part that is most hopeful and happy.
Happy … that little word people have written hundreds of books about because we are socialised to seek happiness all our lives. These popular notions do not really capture the full spectrum of the human experience but they continue to prevail over the choices we make and do not make.
I did not choose to be born to a Kenyan father and a Russian mother. Yet, they informed a large part of the insecurity I both consciously and subconsciously developed around love and marriage. They informed the choices I made and they informed the choices I did not make.
As a woman in her 30s reflecting on my parents’ complex marriage, I have developed a curiosity about what really built their union; why did they stay together, despite the unforgiving conflicts?
I do not have any easy answers but in the process of dissecting the complexities, I came to realise how daring my parents were. They ventured outside the bonds of their culture, and, merged to find solace in each other, creating new identities in worlds that were distinct from the worlds they were born into.
My father was an intellectual, who studiously worked toward a success he had defined in his mind. He was among the privileged Kenyan Baby Boomers, from his hometown, Kuria, and from the country in general, to travel abroad for higher education circa 1965. Not only did he travel overseas, he travelled into the tensions of the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war.
I have tried to recreate the past in my mind. What was life like for a young black African man in my mother’s hometown, the southern city of Krasnodar, close to the Black Sea – the warmer part of the country. If only I was older during his final days, we might have had these conversations, and I would be better informed. There were times, as a child, I felt he wanted to tell me more but he did not know how too. We would sit and stare at each other. He would murmur something incomprehensible to my young mind about his regrets. Years later, I hold vague memories of what might have transpired. He wanted to speak of the hardships of his past. He wanted to talk of the racial hardships in the USSR. The Soviets, who had been isolated from the rest of the world found African people completely alien and projected all manner of negative stereotypes. In my view, it was not an overt kind of racism with a historical context common in the West. It stemmed from a profiling of the unknown given that exposure to black people was nearly none existent. The name-calling took place mainly amongst the men, who over a few drinks could become fast friends. This is not to say grave and violent incidents did not occur, more so among the less educated or jobless. Being the studious man he was, he persevered through it all and gained the respect of the Soviets, going on to earn a PhD in Agricultural Engineering.
I also heard he handled quite a number of substantive projects and began to earn money that distinguished him from the rest of his peers. In time this made him something of an outlier and an exotic catch for the Russian ladies. Many women of the time harboured dreams of any ticket out of the USSR. They were told of a tropical location with succulent mangoes and sunny days throughout the year. The commonly viable escape was the West and Africa in its remoteness, held a certain allure for the adventurous.
The alcoholic addiction that afflicted the troubled Soviet men further made the foreign men a more appealing option regardless of race. The strong Soviet women kept the homes going and the broken men found solace in war songs and vodka shots. The contrast in modest behaviour and disciplined lifestyles displayed by African men made them objects of curiosity for many women. They were hard-working and appeared to have clear visions for their future. They all dreamt of the big things they would do back home. Mixed-race children like I came to be known as ‘mulatos’. But it was not that simple. While my grandmother was against the idea of mixing blood and polluting the purity of their race, the Baby Boomers dared to be different. Not all had the courage to do so, as my mother did. Several women would end up aborting their mixed-race babies. My mother bore my sister in 1980, and as normally happens, the family grew fond of the baby. Although my sister recalls having a happy early childhood there, it was deemed not the most suitable option to raise a mixed-race child in the Krasnodar Krai.
Among the Africans, the Kenyans were deemed reliable and quite a number of them proudly brought their dainty Russian brides home. My father was fluent in Russian. So fluent that if someone spoke to him on phone, not having seen his face, they would assume that he was white and possibly blue or hazel eyed. I know he was also a charmer, for I recall him fondling my mother in front of other guests at parties, who themselves were too conservative to do the same with their partners. He was a man defined by his zeal, swinging between extremes of utter joy and frightful bitterness, as if he embodied two different people.
His public displays of affection toward my mother embarrassed me. Compared to the restraint of his peers, he seemed inappropriate. I questioned the authenticity as well. I would normally walk away from the scene thinking of it as a short-lived façade. By the third day of the week, they would be throwing unpleasant curses at each other. This was my normal, outside the fixed smiles in the family photos.
My mother was also an educated woman with a Masters degree in Economics and a beautiful cursive handwriting that I worked hard to emulate. The quality of the education, for all men and women alike, was high; the one thing the country did not compromise amid the chaos leading to the fall of the USSR was educational standards. While the men were burdened by the trauma of the cumulative conflicts of the time and the patriotic duty as the state’s soldiers, who put their lives forward for their country – willingly – many at a steep price, the women ended up filling the ranks as the brains of their institutions. It was common to have a significant number of women in varied fields from accounting to aeronautics. The first Russian woman in the world to fly to space in the 1960s was Valentina Vladimirovna – coincidentally, my mother was also a Vladimirovna.
There is a subtext to this inclusivity. The legal equality of women and men in Russia came circa 1917 under Lenin, who believed that women had a crucial and economic role to play in the communist revolution and need not be tied down to domestic roles. For about a decade (before much was reversed) not only was abortion legalized, but marriage was separated from the church and children born out of wedlock enjoyed equal rights. It always positively baffles me that the likes of my mother were born into Women’s Rights and still prioritized domesticated roles and motherhood above other pursuits of self.
My father, on the other hand, had been away from home for about 15 years. Through his hard work, the young family moved to Kenya around 1985, to start a new and supposedly free life under the sun. There were high expectations placed on my father, having been a pioneer of high education and interracial marriage in his community. He felt obliged to come back with a family, look settled and successful, with several not-so-well-off relatives waiting for the ‘benefits’ of his achievements. As Yvonne Owuor wrote in Dust, they would, “show up in every inconvenient season with a long story, one thin dead chicken – stolen – and hands outstretched to receive alms,” from him.
To his community, he was a new man. He returned wearing his one of a kind velvet suits, reading Russian books and playing vinyl records from our very large collection. I clearly remember Donna Summer among them. Mother blended into the Kenyan workforce and even joined a Kuria women’s chama. Her outward calmness, elegance and dedication to being a homemaker, disguised her actual bravery. She had rebelled against a system; left her homeland, found ways to sink roots in a new land and raise a family. She spent occasional nights missing Mother Russia- when she’d sit in the verandah after dinner, the glass door shut, looking out into the darkness in deep thought, having a cigarette whose puffs took her back home – the only times I saw her smoke. I would watch her silently from a corner of the sitting room, out of her line sight trying to read her pensive mood.
Like the round leaf and a lily flower that floats on the surface of the water in a pond, my parents sustained each other. A symbiotic relationship, picturesque on the surface and turbid below. So they floated, one upon the other, content in regiment, solid in growth only to be fragmented in loss.
Is that what marriage really is? A deep-rooted binding institution, further complicated by our heritage, nurturing, beliefs; something that I misunderstood while I fixated on my parents’ photos? How could I trust this institution?
So a few years into my own, so-to-say, customary marriage, the union finally came to an end. It was not a one-day affair. It was a steady decline; an airplane preparing for landing in bad weather accompanied by a series of drastic actions, and regret that it could not have gone any other way. It was not a smooth landing.
I began rebuilding the parts of me I had shattered. He too left to pick up the parked parts of his life before my existence. I was the interlude that gave it an ideal neither of us could live up to. I once thought leaving was strength until I realised the strength was in the staying. I did not have the courage my mother had to stay. Neither can I be certain that she should have.
Having made peace with the paradox of choice, I went through a period of exploring life stories – memoirs and autobiographies. Among them was Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed where she explored what I would call a traditional childhood, girlhood and transition to womanhood in the context of her Kikuyu upbringing.
Roles were defined, expectations were clear – no surprises. Family and marriage were a communal affair necessitated by the need to organise life, retain values and manage the community’s resources. You could not wake up one morning and decide to unlove someone. Neither could you voluntarily neglect your role.
Her parents were of a time when polygamy was a norm. Co-wives were friends and the children played together, calling all the wives ‘mother’. Wangari writes that she did not sense any discrimination and if her parents had any problems they were kept out of it; she never saw them argue. Perhaps it was not acceptable for a wife to be confrontational with her husband. Nonetheless, roles and expectations were not ambiguous. It was not about the individual, it was about the community. Marriage was an expectation and families in the same homestead often married from the same community, expectedly grooming certain young men and women for marriage. This generally meant you married someone with shared communal values. You learnt to love and respect each other. We cannot ascertain that this would always be the case, but longevity of marriage was in some way guaranteed.
Wangari herself, who pursued her higher education in America, never witnessed the traditional longevity of her marriage. Her husband called it quits. She said her husband claimed that she was, “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control.” But rather than defend these reasons (of which I suspect were traits she was, in fact, proud of) she beautifully captured the fragility of contemporary marriages when examined objectively.
“When we go through profound experiences, they change us. We risk our relationships with friends and family. They may not like the decisions we have taken or may feel threatened by our decisions. They may wonder what happened to the person they once knew. There may not be enough space in a relationship for aspirations and beliefs or mutual interests and aims to unfold. For a couple, this is particularly so because most people marry young and are bound to grow and change in their perceptions and appreciation of life.”
Regardless of this opinion, she wanted to keep her marriage for social reasons but did not wish to give up any of her aspirations for a more traditional role. Her marriage was officially annulled in 1979 but her bigger picture still stood as, “I was still the chairman of the National Council for Women of Kenya and I was still developing the Green Belt Movement.”
Influenced by the American school of thought, she needed to accomplish what she felt was her mission in life. “I also took America back to Kenya with me … There is a persistence, a seriousness, and a vision to America: it seems to know where it is going and it will go in that direction, whether you like it or not.” Wangari held onto her aspirations, my mother held onto her family- both strong choices for women who came from family-oriented communities. Wangari showed her strength overtly, my mother held it silently.
So I say to myself, let bygones be bygones as I examine contemporary marriages in search of role models to follow. In this new age, many of my millennial peers have had the opportunity to study abroad, subscribe to western notions of love and romance and have bought into the idea of one’s individual aspirations as the epitome of the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment. Those I looked at for hope in marriage have not survived the institution. Some are living in the same home-like ghosts, at the brink of sanity. Others settled for companionship and neglected the institutional commitment of marriage. Others, like myself, have developed a phobic awareness of the responsibilities of marriage, and have acceded to the idea that it is bound to fail.
Marriage comes down to choice: the choices mama made, the choices Wangari made, the choices I am making. Their choice to leave or stay, evolved into my choice to marry or not, on the backdrop of my reflections and attitude toward their marriages. In as much as I judged their choices harshly in my younger years, I now look at them with empathy – an empathy that does not seek to explore that path. An empathy that looks at my modern life as an advantage in the freedom we think we hold and in how we navigate our lives. An empathy that elevates the value of companionship in our chaotic urban lives and dismisses the idea that marriage is crucial for its attainment – for after all, their stories show the loneliness their marriages hid and the irony of committing to a life partner but craving freedom. So much for the myth of Happily Ever After.
In retrospect, I feel I have found a new (but detached) appreciation for the institutional and dutiful nature of marriage in a world where choice has become narcissistic. Everything depends on the individual. Your happiness depends on you. Your misery depends on you. It is your fault for attracting a flawed partner. We continue to await the unattainable, The One. These are the egoistic ideals we ruin our communities chasing. We forget that by the very act of holding an identity card, we represent civil principles, we forget that marriage is supposed to give us certain rights in how birth, death and resources are organized, besides the traditional legitimacy within our community.
I take comfort in my choice to refrain from binding myself to the institution only to let it down. A comfort bred in the art of singlehood, while subconsciously in the search for that which I know I will never find – the Happily Ever After. Something my mother already knew when she chose to stay.
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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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