Kondele neighbourhood in Kisumu is famous and infamous. It is a place torn between its cultural richness and vibrancy, as well the lurking darkness of violence. You can almost feel it. “Kondele inachomeka” (Kondele is burning) are two words that have been communicated in texts and calls amongst the residents of Kisumu more than any other during election cycles. These words have ominous foreshadowing of blood loss, violence, death and destruction. And news of riots in Kondele with accompanying images of tyres burning and riot police chasing demonstrating youths, always delivered in a matter of fact way, has been one of Kisumu’s greatest infamies.
I have received quite a number of “Kondele inachomeka” messages on my phone. I have become accustomed to the weight of meaning in these messages. When I receive these messages, I know to prepare. I know it will take me longer to travel between Kisumu central business district and my house on the other side of town. I also know that people travelling between Kisumu and Kakamega will not make it home on time. I also know that “Kondele inachomeka” triggers panic in the hearts of my non-Luo colleagues. Their relatives will call worried about their safety. Especially those who come from communities with political leaders who are in opposition to Raila Odinga or involved in some political tussle with him. And sadly, a few moments after “Kondele inachomeka” text messages, “Urgent request for blood donation” texts with images of victims of violence, fresh like a scene of a massacre, would follow. This will be a confirmation of the expected – that demonstrations have descended into chaos, and Kenya Police have excelled at the sport they are best at, that is quelling demonstrations with brutal and deadly force. As expected, Kondele and its youth will bear the brunt of this political contest.
Kondele is also a place of ironies. One of the biggest ironies is that the regional blood bank is located within two hundred meters from the heart of Kondele. It is almost a perfect design. That one area of Kenya that has experienced most bloodshed during political contests between opposition and government sits within a few hundred of meters from a regional blood transfusion center. Makes a lot sense. People will lose a lot of blood; why not lose it within the vicinity of a transfusion center? On tragic days, such as during the post-election violence of 2007, the regional transfusion center would completely run out of blood. Most of it had been soaked up by the red dust of Kondele where young men lay in pain, bleeding in the hot afternoon sun from bullet wounds from Kenya Police. Some lucky ones made it to the hospital where they lay down, in pools of their own blood on floors of then Nyanza Provincial Referral Hospital. Kondele had quickly transformed into a war zone akin to Baghdad or Mogadishu with disturbing statistics. Some reports showed that during the 2007 post-election violence, as many as 40 people were getting shot dead in a day.
But before post-election violence, there was Kimwa Grand Club. As the name suggests, it was indeed grand. It was a one-stop shop for entertainment, food and accommodation at the heart of Kondele. Kimwa was loved when politics was good. And loathed when politics was bad. And politics being the thread that holds the fabrics of the Kenyan society together, would also sneak into Kimwa, into people’s drinking tables, into their drinks and soon into their conversations. Kimwa was a happy place most of the time. One only needed to visit it on a good night to appreciate the spirit of Kondele, of Kisumu.
Kimwa defined this spirit, absorbed it and embodied it. Apart from Kimwa Grand Club, there were really no landmarks commensurate to the behemoth name of Kondele. Club Dona across the road from Kimwa tried but couldn’t keep up. Hotel Cassanova down the road had long lost its glory. There was nothing really comparable, beyond the roads that split the Kondele into two. Sometimes it looked like the chaos present where the Kibos road met the Kisumu-Kakamega road defined life in Kisumu during elections. Everyone in a car, matatu, boda boda or on foot wanted to move forward, but there was nowhere to go as people got in each other’s way on the small, congested and neglected tarmac roads. Vehicles traveling towards Mamboleo, or Kibos or Kisumu CBD would negotiate for space through high-pitched horns and curses from their drivers. If you were sitting at the top of Kimwa’s balcony, one would watch the full display of this negotiation in daily life. When the night would fall, some of these men and women would end up at Kimwa, to close their day in dance and merriment of sorts. It is like Kimwa would lure them in the evening with their pockets full, and expel them the next morning with their pockets empty, to go look for more.
Kondele is notoriously cosmopolitan. The most famous shops in this place have historically been owned by people not native to the region. There is always a “Kwa Karanja” with the best nyama choma, or a “Kwa Njoroge” selling all types of goods. These places could be destroyed and razed to the ground in one week of political madness. The following week, when normalcy would return, they would be up, rebuilt with the same hands that destroyed them.“Kwa Karanja” is like the local phoenix that rises from the ashes to remind people that life must move on, in the peculiar Kenyan way.
Then there was Kimwa. To think that a random Kenyan, Miriti Mbui from Meru, could come to Kisumu and set up Kimwa Grand, a successful club worthy of hosting international superstars, is indeed a testament of the Kenyan dream. This was proof that one could make it anywhere. To also think that this same man would lose everything in 24 hours of madness; that the same people that danced to the stars at Kimwa, would set upon her and dismantle her block by block, before setting her on fire, is also a testament that the Kenyan dream rests on political quicksand. It could sink at any moment.
My fascination with Kondele began in the mid 1990s. I was traveling with my mother in a matatu towards Kisumu when a man as old as my mother, without any warning, vomited all over the floor of the matatu. My natural conclusion was that the man was sick and needed help. The matatu tout and driver held a contrary opinion. When this man was done vomiting, the conductor informed him in an ominous voice that he would drive to Kondele where the man would be taught a lesson. When he stopped in Kondele, the tout left and came back with a gang of young men who took great pride is slapping this man around. I remember him pleading for mercy, saying he had malaria. No one cared. Out of nowhere, a bucket full of water arrived. The bewildered man got on his knees and washed that spot of the matatu, picking pieces of vomit from the floor. He also paid 100 shillings for “wasting people’s time”. I did not understand why the tout and his driver felt that Kondele would the best place for this man to get a taste of street justice. But then again, there are places like Kondele all over Kenya. Places where the violent services of men can be outsourced cheaply, for a drink, and the men dispensing these crude forms of justice neither have remorse nor subject themselves to any law.
While I was at Kenyatta University, this place was Githurai 45. When university students would refuse to bow to the forces of extortion through arbitrary doubling of fares from Nairobi CBD to Kenyatta University, the matatus would take a detour into Githurai 45, and drive to some shady, nondescript place. The vehicle would stop, the driver would switch off the car and the tout would approach a band of young men. After a few exchanges, the tout would walk back with the young men in tow. One could tell that these men were adept in the act of exerting fear into the hearts of men and women. And just like bloodhounds, their sense of smell for fear was so sharp that when they walked to the matatu, they knew that the job was already completed. Everyone would rush to pay the exorbitant fares.
After this extortion ritual had been finalised, the touts would taunt us, “Mbona hamukulipa mapema”, (Why didn’t you pay before) as if blaming us for not allowing ourselves to be extorted promptly. How could we not know that there was a parallel world out there that had grown and thrived in the rich medium of corruption? Thriving as a result of the government’s penchant for disappearing without official leave of absence? This is the world that had created the angry youth gangs of Kondele, the Mungiki, Chinkororo, among others. They knew that with the absence of government involvement in social welfare, political players would use these gangs to leverage their anger and disenfranchisement for political gain, as a cheap source violence against their opposition. Or destroy them when it felt threatened.
I first visited Kimwa in the year 2000, while waiting to join campus as I worked at the law firm of my late cousin, Grace Awino. The corridors of justice were littered with stories of past night parties at Kimwa. I was very curious and wanted to visit this club and feel its spirit, which as I had been told, was reflective of the spirit of Kisumu. It was rich, dark, powerful and very expressive, just like Kondele, I was told. During my visit, we mostly spent time at the basement, which was a full-blown discotheque. The first floor was an open-air club where older people enjoyed live benga and rhumba from famous bands. The entrance was manned by muscled men acting as bouncers. These were young men who spent long days in backyard gyms building muscles for lack of anything else to do. Employment in Kisumu was hard to come by. Most of industries had withered slowly before shutting down. The remnants of Kenya Breweries depot and Kisumu Cotton Mills (Kicomi) stood in shame as reminders of what a mixture of mismanagement, corruption and being on the cold side of Kenyan politics could accomplish. Men and women who had lost their jobs in these places would wake up when the sun was over Lake Victoria, wear their threadbare shirts and shoes with paper thin soles, and head to jua kali, a stone throw from these once vibrant industries. They would engage in political and philosophical talk before splitting whatever little they had made through menial work or small deals. At sunset, they would take a final look at Kicomi and the Breweries, before walking slowly towards their residences in the shanties on the fringes of Kisumu’s CBD. Kimwa kept some of these young men out of trouble. It provided a place where young men and women from slums surrounding Kondele could earn a living as cleaners, waitresses or bouncers.
Kimwa was also a cultural hub where Luo benga music was curated. Musicians such as Okach Biggy, Musa Juma and D.O. Misiani were common names on the roster of musicians playing at Kimwa. They were not only assured of a good crowd but of good earnings. During the day, one could see these musicians basking in the sun at Kondele like brightly colored iguanas, seeking the strength of sun before turning into entertainment powerhouses at night. At the height of Kimwa’s glory, Awilo Longomba, the 1997 Kora Awards winner in the “Best New Artist” category for his chart-buster, Dibala bala, visited Kisumu. No international artist of this repute since Franco in 1988 had visited Kisumu since. This was partly because despite Kisumu being a town where the local people were lovers of a good life, no investor had put up facilities that were capable of playing host to an artist of Awilo’s stature. So when Miriti Mbui, an ambitious entrepreneur would come and build an audacious club and hotel at the heart of Kondele, Kimwa and Kondele became a match made in heaven.
Awilo Longomba performed to a delirious crowd. He was wild. They were wilder. They asked for more and he gave them more. My late cousin, Grace, was in that crowd. She would later tell me of how ecstatic Kisumu was. How Kimwa had put the city on the map and that there were plans for bigger artists. Seven years later, Kimwa would be caught up in a violent political struggle between Raila and Mwai Kibaki. The youth in Kondele, and across Kisumu, felt that Kibaki’s government had carried out unforgivable injustices with the disputed presidential elections of 2007. They decided to rebel violently and attack everything that had any semblance to imagined or real enemies. Kimwa would be one of the casualties.
It was evident that the fate of Kondele and Kimwa were tied together like that of a mother to her child. Kondele gave birth to Kimwa, nurtured and made her whole, big and powerful. Kimwa opened Kondele to the world, made it more cosmopolitan and a true representation of Kenya. The day Kondele started burning, we were locked in the house, following the violence through news bulletins and text messages. The air outside was thick with burning tyres and screams punctuated with burst of gunfire from Kalashnikovs. We heard a knock at the door and saw a man standing there with his eyes wide with news. “Niko na TV kubwa, 60 inches yenye nauza aluf tano” (I have a big TV, 60 inches, I’m selling it for five thousand shillings). He said this hurriedly while glancing from side to side. We were talking to him through the window as the city was under curfew. When he sensed our hesitation, he took off and disappeared in the mixture of the afternoon sun and death. The smoke from Kimwa quickly engulfed the whole of Kondele. All its memories wafted slowly away to the sky, as looters carried whatever they could.
Thinking about it now, the anger against Kimwa must have been personal. In those preceding few weeks, thousands of youths had been killed in Kondele, yet Kimwa Grand stood there in its majesty, as if daring the angry youth to challenge it. Kibaki’s government was a dominating violent presence, yet Kimwa stood there, looking at these people who gave it life, offering no help. This indifference was too much to take. Kimwa must have also been symbolic of economic dominance and marginalisation of the Luo community stemming from the political fallout between Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga in the late 1960s. How can they be killing us, yet they want our money? They must have asked this as the body count in Kondele kept climbing. The violence and determination with which Kimwa was destroyed reflected how deep and painful political losses are. That people were willing to risk their lives to destroy such a magnificent property shows how Kenyan politics precipitates dark, deep-seated political grievances. When the spirit of Kimwa had been broken down by fire and stone, hundreds of youth could be seen with chisels and hammers, breaking through mortars, pulling out twisted metal like vultures scavenging on the meat from a dead buffalo. At the end of the post-election violence season, only memories were left where Kimwa once stood.
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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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