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Reflections

The Making of a Fatherless Nation

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It is time for a national discourse on the value of fatherhood.

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The Making of a Fatherless Nation
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The Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) office is located off Juja road in Nairobi’s Eastlands. It is situated in a single-storeyed building planted right at the edge of Mathare Valley. The building stands out in contrast to the sea of tightly packed shanty dwellings with rusty brown tin roofs dissected into two parts by the congested Mau Mau road running through the bottom of the valley. Dark grey smoke rises from the valley depths and one catches a glimpse of the murky waters of the Mathare river flowing parallel to the busy throughway. Visitors are primed to see ruins and depravation, but residents speak of its beauty. A Rastafarian man named Jah Driver told me to think of Mathare as a chocolate city, and in a phrase, that captured the essence of Mathare’s complex sensory qualities.

On this Saturday morning, I had joined a group of resident ecological justice activists behind the Mathare Green Movement for a reflection session at the MSJC office. The group comprised of young men in their 20s. The discussion revolved around the colonial roots of Kenya’s environmental segregation policy that rendered low income neighbourhoods like Mathare deprived of tree cover.

In an attempt to share context using my personal experience living in rural Kenya, I started talking about the role of my father in grounding my environmental consciousness. I then picked on one member of the group to share his experience of the same. “ I don’t have a father,” he retorted. His delivery was deadpan. “Never knew him, never met him”. His tone forced me to quickly check my assumptions and I asked around room, “How many of you have fathers living at home? We are in a safe space, just put up your hands.” Hesitantly, starting with a single hand, a third of the room of about 30 people raised their hands, as if ashamed of the privilege of knowing a father. It was a sobering moment.

Wangui Kimari, the participatory action research coordinator for MJSC, described Mathare to me as a “ghetto of women”. The centrality of the mother in Mathare is undisputable, in fact single mothers have sustained Mathare for over eight decades of its existence. It is the mothers who run Mathare, and their sons sing praises to the resilience of their mothers. In the quest for social justice and dignity, Mathare’s mothers continue to lead from the front, determined to keep their boys alive in a social system that normalizes extrajudicial executions of young men in the poorer sections of Nairobi.

There is no shortage of men in Mathare, but rarely do we ever hear any reference to the fathers of Mathare, or any collective of men that is organized around the principle aim of fathering in the manner that distinguishes the mothers of Mathare.

Having a father present through most of my early years was a privilege I took for granted. Not only that – my biological father was a father to many others. Even though he passed on when I was a teenager, he had done enough to shape my outlook. He was a committed to his family, career and life journey, living with absolute purpose in his role as a caregiver and provider. I do not remember a single conversation about what it meant to be a man, or what I had to do to prove I was a man. He just led, kept his word and lived up to his obligations the best he could. During my father’s funeral in 1989, fathering stood out as the true measure of his success – towering above his career accomplishments and material possessions. It is the greatest inheritance he left behind for his six children.

Nearly three decades since his passing, I still have a mental picture of the functions of fatherhood – and it is everything my father embodied. I had assumed this was the norm until I started meeting adults who had never known what it was to have a father who was present; this was by no means limited to neighbourhoods like Mathare. Many, from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, only had the one mama called the baby’s daddy, the sperm donor, or at best their mother’s husband. In 1999, I embarked on a career as a newspaper columnist for the Saturday magazine of the Daily Nation, penning a column titled “Mantalk”, that focused on the subject of evolving African masculinities. I maintained the column for a decade and the topic of responsible fatherhood kept recurring, juxtaposed against the rising prominence of single mother households. I was fixated on the nuclear family as an ideal and it informed many of my biases. The men who did not show up for their children, I dismissed as spineless for failing to grasp the importance of fatherhood. The mothers who insisted on living without a father in their children’s lives were misguided, I concluded.

Even after getting acquainted with scores of people who only knew of absent, emotionally removed, or abusive fathers, I still blamed the victim for allowing themselves to be defined by their past. This was the late 1990s, as powerful external agencies pushed neoliberalism and corporatisation of the local economy across Kenya. During this period, we also witnessed a frontal assault on patriarchy by the third wave of feminism that celebrated individualism and sought to dismantle gender role stereotypes. Men felt under attack, caricatured as beneficiaries of a power structure in society that granted them control over women. The debates on shifting gender roles became a fixture of popular culture and trickled down to the individual level.

My generation, the Xers born between the mid-60s and early 80s had morphed into the first generation of men to be confused about their roles in society. We had been socialised into pre-colonial African culture and religiously assigned gender roles, but many of us found ourselves at odds with the emerging feminist consciousness. Women’s autonomy and participation in the workplace had upset the gender status quo, challenging the patriarchial logics of control and separation by men. The main misunderstanding stemmed from the inability see the patriarchy system as distinct from individuals living within it, and so the issues collapsed into conversations about individual choices and solutions.

The cultural marital obligations gradually succumbed to modern Western ideals of romanticism. Short-lived marriage unions characterised by displays of opulence followed by divorce became common. But the structural issues at play – obscure to many – was that the tough economic conditions post-Structural Adjustment Programmes, meant a significant portion of working-class and even professional men could no longer secure positions of authority based purely on their ability to meet the financial obligations of the family. The perceived crisis of masculinity was blamed on radical feminism driven by the proliferation of women empowerment programmes. In hindsight, it was also the failure of neo-liberalism to deliver jobs for a growing population, mismanagement of the political economy locally and the global financial crisis that all converged to have adverse effects on the family unit, and this exaggerated social constraints.

A culture of checking out and abandoning responsibility became normalised, showing up in the rise of deadbeat fathers. They were no societal consequences for absent fathers in urban individualised spaces. This phenomenon graduated into a full-blown lad culture that continues to arrest grown men into extended adolescence, refusing to live up to the obligations of fatherhood.

Today, we often hear about the frustrations of ‘the boy child’ as a reaction to the empowerment of ‘the girl child’, but little about the crisis of fatherlessness. Worldwide statistics state that the absence of fathers has a profound effect on the psychological development of boys. The question of fatherhood has received extensive attention in North America and Western Europe. Three American presidents – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama – recognised fatherhood as a serious social problem and addressed it as a matter of policy.

The memoir Dreams of My Father by former US President Barack Obama tackles the search for acceptance and identity that many men seek today. The young Obama traveled from Chicago to his biological father’s village in Nyangoma, Kogelo in search of answers. He would find resolution standing over his father’s grave in tears, overwhelmed by the intensity of the moment. He writes about finally realising who he was at that moment, and how his entire life trajectory, his struggles and birthright, were connected a small plot of earth where his father hailed from. In finding closure, he found emotional release, and vowed to break the cycle of his own past to become a better man.

Obama’s legacy of a post-racial society as America’s first black president failed. Nonetheless, Obama’s most underrated legacy as president has been as father-in-chief. His own experience informed his choices and his exceptionalism is measured in the public devotion and commitment to raising his two daughters in the White House. Obama was not afraid to speak about the issues driving Black America’s alarming fatherhood crisis and became a model father figure embraced by the world.

According to the US Census Bureau, children who grow up without fathers are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime, nine times more likely to drop out of school and 20 times more likely to be jailed. They are likely to run away from home, become teenage parents, suffer abuse, drop out of school, use drugs or get divorced. This correlation of absent fathers and youth delinquency does not necessarily imply causation – indeed, racism and structural inequality could explain both family breakdown and the glaring social problems of crime, drug abuse and the like.

Even though these are statistics from the US, that reality lives with us in Kenya. The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) report in 2014 stated that nearly half (45 per cent) of all children in Kenya do not live with both biological parents. The death of father accounts for only 5.3 per cent of households; 22 per cent of children in Kenya live with their mothers while their fathers are alive and live elsewhere.

A widely quoted pan-African study in 2012 by Canadian sociologists Prof Shelly Clark of McGill University and Dana Hamplova from Prague’s Charles University and Institute of Sociology reported a 60 per cent probability of a single motherhood for a Kenyan woman by the age of 45. The factors attributed to birth outside marriage and the break up of the marriage union. Kenya has one of the highest levels of children living without their fathers in the home in Africa. The evidence of this on the incidence of crime, poverty drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and school drop-outs is less clearcut than in the US – a recent World Bank working paper actually showed that poverty was falling fastest in Africa in female-headed households. But this perception certainly provoked conversation on the same – I chronicled all this in the Mantalk column and the discussions it stirred up, both in the newspaper pages and in the wider society.

The trend in the public discourse is to blame the victims, the abandoned children and shame the single mothers who struggle to raise them by weighing them on a morality scale. Fatherhood is still not a social policy issue in Kenya. President Uhuru Kenyatta has taken no public positions on responsible fatherhood . We hear talk about teenage pregnancy and the crisis of single parent homes without putting the spotlight on a father who absconded his responsibility, and how this contributes to recurring social problems. No taskforce has been created to advocate responsible fatherhood and non- profit-organisations disproportionately dwell on women empowerment programmes. The advocacy vacuum has been filled by a growing number church-based men’s programs. The Man Enough programme founded by Nairobi pastor Simon Mbevi is one such programme tackling the contemporary masculinity crisis of identity through mentorship programmes grounded in Christian values. The Kenyan Anglican Men’s Association ( KAMA) is another attempt to spur male leadership in community life in keeping with a biblical mandate.

But the the spread of such programs is often undermined by the credibility of the church leadership, and on a particular view of divine fatherhood that complicates, rather than empowers, responsible earthly fatherhood – and that abets political dysfunction. Kenyan politics has traditionally enjoyed a marriage of convenience with religion. Hiding behind church mandate, savvy politicians exploit the reverence of the father figure in Kenya’s socio-religious psyche for political expendiency. Father is a title used to refer to God in Christian theology, hence God the Father.

In several Kenyan churches, the politician usurps the father figure characterization as the material provider. The colonial missionary fathers arrived as god-ordained and usurped the role of societal fathers. Christian missionaries exercised power over a community of converts and effectively curtailed the influence of existing traditional leadership structure in the Kenyan colony. Monotheists modelled god as the male parent, and therefore the father of the family becomes the divine representative on earth – and the right extends to the paternal ruler of the modern state.

The principle of the Father of the Nation thus exploits Christian metaphors of the All Mighty, All Knowing, God The Father, who rules over his underlings. The political positioning of heads of state as Fathers of a Nation is a tool of statecraft. Nations are founded by a confederation of leaders, but the state can only allow the glorification of the singular, visionary great leader.

Using this same religio-political maneuvering, the Kenyan presidency has made a case for the head of state to be revered as the exalted father of a nation. If Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta was the Father, then Uhuru Kenyatta becomes his begotten son Kamwana. President Moi was Baba wa Taifa ( Father of the Nation) and an entire generation grew up consuming his well-crafted veneer of holiness, and living in complete denial of the contradictions and excesses of his 24 year reign. Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s designation as “Baba” reverberates divine destiny with the biblical reference of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan during the 2017 presidential campaigns.

We are socialized to obey our fathers without question, and by the same token, we must obey our leaders who by the order of societal hierarchy become the father of fathers. The citizens must submit to God the father and his earthly representatives – our political fathers – and remain beholden to the sovereign leader in his human form.

In a majority Christian nation of Kenya, the Bible enjoys more social legitmacy than the constitution, and the political godfather who wields Scripture becomes part of the extended narrative of the heavenly revelation. After all, leaders are “chosen by God”. The function of faith, in this context, is not to question the deific authority, and this thinking reinforces the myth of the father (divine, political, and domestic).

In reality, the Fathers of our Nation are more often than not tragic hero figures consumed by hubris, drunk on power, and entrapped by personality flaws. The result is the persistent violence and brutalization of a nation of children who might dare to challenge their legitimacy. The State as the Father in Kenya has effectively been absent and abusive. The figure of fatherhood in our society has been defined by fragility of the masculine head, determined to retain symbolic political power and status at the expense of the family unit.

These tensions at the individual level play out on a national stage in form of leadership at a complete loss with the functions of fatherhood. They demand rights but shun the responsibilities that come with that right. The greed for power without accountability is behind the social, political and economic despondency that marks Kenyan life. Fatherhood is not respected but rather feared as a personifaction of oppression of innocents under their jurisdiction.

The children of this nation have therefore had to come to terms with the father as a fantasy figure surrounded by myth, and are fated to bear the generational burden of the sins committed by their fathers.

The late Myles Munroe, Bahamian evangelist and author, preached that fatherhood is the ultimate work of men. This is a truth that cuts across all spiritual traditions. Our nation can no longer ignore the social dynamite of fatherlessness, and the reconstruction of a broken society rests on the value men place on fathering.

It is time for a national discourse on the value of fatherhood.

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Oyunga Pala is Kenyan writer and curator who lives in Amsterdam.

Reflections

The Enemy Within

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reflections

Someone’s Grandmother Just Died!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reflections

So What is an African Immigrant Today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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