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Reflections

Confessions of a Jubilee Supporter

8 min read.

I don’t yet know how to make peace with the fact that I had a hand in legitimising probably the worst administration this country has had the misfortune of enduring. I will never deserve that peace.

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Confessions of a Jubilee Supporter
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On the night in August 2017 when the results of Uhuru Kenyatta’s electoral win was announced, my neighbours broke out in celebration. Red flags waved outside windows. Vuvuzelas punctuated the loud night. My father and I went to the main road to watch the spectacle. Men, women, children, it seemed even dogs and cars… everyone sang and cheered along the road. A river of bodies winding along the road chanting their gratitude to whichever deity was listening.

In the preceding weeks, I had sensed a lot of tension among my friends and various social circles. But I had told myself that it was inevitable that the incumbent would win.

“Nothing can happen. Uhuru has the numbers anyway. There’s no way he’s not winning this election,” would be my unyielding refrain in those charged political discussions.

The chorus continued like the unbroken chime of a clock.

Tyranny of numbers.

Tano tena.

Wembe ni ule ule.

We went to sleep with smiles on our faces. Happy that “our man”, a designed Jesus from Gatundu had won and would continue with the “great” work he was doing.

But on the “other” side of the political divide, things were not so peaceful. There was anger and disappointment. At first, I was dismissive about it. It felt like the same old song by the supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga. How could they have been robbed when they didn’t have – at the bare bones of it – the tribal numbers?

It was practically common sense that in Kenya’s political landscape, all you need to win a presidential election is solid votes from Rift Valley, Central and half of Nairobi. And those places bled and swore red by Jubilee. Tuko Pamoja. So how could opposition supporters think that their election was “stolen”?

“Accept and move on,” came the rhetoric from “our side”.

But accept and move on to what? And the honest truth is, I was completely aware of the sins of Jubilee, and yet I had supported them and celebrated their victory. I cannot even begin to explain the disconnect here, which makes it all rather unforgivable. Why was I so quick to forgive Jubilee? Was it because I had accepted their mendacity and moved on, and now expected others to do the same? Was it because I am Kikuyu? Because I from middle class Nairobi and the status quo suits me better?

But those who refused to accept these election results endured gunfire, teargas, armed raids from the security forces, and even death, and continued to say no. Some of the victims were not even actively involved in demonstrations. Yet those on “our side” still defended Uhuruto. When I began to speak out against police brutality – the innocent victims had begun to tug at my heart – those on the “other side” called me foolish for imagining that the only crime here was police brutality. They were right – when I compiled Jubilee’s biggest transgressions before 2017, I might as well have worn a neon sign marked, “Dunce”.

In 2013, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto arose like sainted phoenixes from the ashy aftermath of the post-election violence that rocked the country five years earlier. “We won” against the white man’s broad sweep of justice. “Our boys” made it out alive.

Their vision seemed clear enough. Umoja, Uchumi, Uwazi. Unity, Economy, Transparency. The President himself was a billionaire; one of the richest men in the country. There was no need to worry about corruption.

“He’s already rich. He won’t steal,” I heard it said many times. And I agreed. It seemed logical.

After 2013, Jubilee has come under fire for various issues plaguing Kenyans. In 2014, the Public Procurement Administrative Review Board nipped the laptop in 2014 project in the bud after it was discovered that the tender to supply the laptops wasn’t awarded fairly.

In 2015, the National Land Commission found that land belonging to Lang’ata Road Primary School was invaded on by the Weston Hotel, which the deputy president owns a stake in.

That same August, the Auditor General, Edward Ouko found that Sh100 million of taxpayers’ money was used by deputy president William Ruto to charter a private jet.

In October 2016, investigations found that the Health Ministry had misappropriated Sh5.2 billion. Not forgetting Chickengate, where a British national (who has jailed and has since been released) paid bribes of up to Sh50 million to Kenya National Examination Council and Interim Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission.

And of course, the catastrophe that was Eurobond. In September 2016, Standard Media reported that the Auditor General was unable to account for Sh215 billion which the government said had already been allocated to ministries.

The list goes on and on.

Jubilee’s continued its signature insistence of fixing dire issues with cosmetic solutions. The First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta, organised an annual marathon to deal with maternal health care in the country. So far, reports indicate the project hasn’t been a success.

In 2016, Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission chairman Philip Kinisu spoke to Reuters about the issue.“The state budget is now approaching Sh2 trillion, a third of it is being wasted through corruption,” he said.

The Elephant itself has a very helpful guide pinpointing each and every major corruption scandal from 2013 to 2018.

By election time, we were monikered Uthamakistan, due to our relentlessness in calling Uhuru the chosen one. We lined up on that cold August morning believing that somehow the plunder would stop if we gave the “dynamic duo” a second term. Party primaries a few weeks prior had been chaotic, but we told ourselves that the “bad eggs” had been eliminated – it would get better.

It didn’t. Just after the announcement of the victory, Raila’s camp went to court to contest the victory. The ruling declared Uhuru’s win invalid. We were ordered back to the ballot on October 26th. The opposition wasn’t having it. They wanted complete electoral reform.

We rose up again less vocally this time, “Kwani you want a constitutional crisis?”

The most moderate of the uthamakistanis made a hollow concession that yes, the electoral process had been a mess. “Accept and move on,” they still said, before quickly adding, “but we understand where you’re coming from. IEBC really handled that poorly.”

After the October election, an eerie calm settled over the city. Things were either about to get a lot worse or marginally worse. They got worse. For a while, it became scary just to go out.

One Friday afternoon while I was at work, protests broke out in Kawangware 56, which is on my route home. A friend who was the same route called me to warn me off.

“Don’t use that route. Go to town or Westlands. There is chaos huku.”

“What is happening?” I asked, panic rising.

Street gangs from opposing camps had split the area in two, he said, and woe to you if you were caught on the wrong side.“Ukiwa hii side unaulizwa kama ulipiga kura. Na kama ulipiga wanakuchapa. Alafu ukienda terminus wanaangalia kama una rangi kwa kidole na kama hauna wanakuchapa.” (If you’re on this side, they ask you if you voted, and if you did they beat you up. And if you’re on the other side of the bus terminus, if they don’t see you voted by the ink on your finger, they beat you up.)

My friend told me he escaped any chaos because he had no ink and he is multilingual. No accent to betray him. No “special” features. Others didn’t fare so well.

Reports say that at least 10 people had died in Kawangware that day. Social media was inundated with messages demanding the local leaders to go cool the storming hotbed of violence. The last thing the country needed was more bloodshed. The violence lasted four days with the real number of victims remaining a mystery.

After 2017, I woke up and smelled the dead roses. However late, it happened. There wasn’t a particularly triggering event. But a subconscious harboring of anger and resentment that simply overflowed. I don’t yet know how to make peace with the fact that I had a hand in legitimising probably the worst administration this country has had the misfortune of enduring. I will never deserve that peace.

Shamefully, I recalled a correspondence I had with a friend during the 2017 election, when I exposed myself as a Jubilee supporter.

“Why are you voting for Uhuru?” he asked me.

I shrugged, and said the rote answers, “Let him finish his work. It’s difficult to beat the incumbent anyway. Raila isn’t a better option. Better the devil you know. ODM is so disorganised. There is no way they can lead this country to prosperity. At least Jubilee have done some development.”

“But he has had the most corruption scandals since Moi.”

“It’s not him, it’s the people around him.”

“But China…”

“Our debts to China won’t be repaid now. They’ll be repaid later.”

“But inflation…”

“That’s just the usual progression of an economy.”

“High cost of living, squandering government money, lower job security…”

Aii kwani you want to vote for Raila?”

Then one day, the cognitive dissonance became impossible to bear. It all slammed into me like a truck with no brakes. How could I keep up this charade? How was I still capable of defending him? The administration had been rogue all along.

Last December, a video surfaced on Twitter in December 2018 tagged “Business Community Speaks”. A woman spoke to the camera, her voice betraying the anger and frustration most Kenyans felt.

Tuna amka tunaskia mafuta imepandishwa,” she lamented, “Na tuli amka asubuhi kuchaguana… Nina mtoto mdogo nilimwacha kwa nyumbandio nikachague president… mwenye anaweza kututetea. Na saa hii hawajuisisi tunaelekea wapi.” (I heard this morning that fuel has become more expensive, yet we woke up early to vote. I left my baby in the house that day to vote for the president, someone who can defend us. But now, I don’t know what’s going to happen to us).

Thus far, a lot of the government’s actions have brought swift abandonment from their more resolute supporters. And the issues have been there all along, and they continue to intensify – hunger, extrajudicial killings, a failing healthcare system, a coal project in complete disregard to the environment, increased reports of femicide, and most recently, punishing whistleblowers. And we cannot call it corruption any more, as if the looting is an unfortunate outcome of an otherwise benign system – the plunder is the entire point. It is state capture.

I have no clue how any of this will be solved.

I wonder about an electoral boycott in 2022. Algeria has gone radical and conducted massive demonstrations forcing their president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to abandon his plans to run for a fifth term. Their transition won’t be easy. A caretaker government has been appointed to oversee the country until the next presidential election. Algerians want a clean slate. The military may have helped push for the resignation of their former leader but what role will they play in ensuring the protesters get what they were fighting for? It is still uncertain.

Sudan also held protests for months to oust Bashir and ensure a transition of power conducted by civilians rather than the military.

So, what if not voting is the answer? What if, instead of going to queue to vote for fresh faces that make the same non-deliveries, Kenyans just didn’t show up to vote?

I ran this idea by a friend but he disagreed.

“Political parties are the ones with power. If you want to make change, you’d be better off showing up in droves to vote for the person you chose. You can vet the candidates during the primaries. And then make sure the best candidate is representing you.”

The idea of boycotts isn’t new. They have been used by civilians to show displeasure at the practices of those in power. Understandably, this may also have the added effect of enabling the status quo. Let’s call it a last resort; a drastic measure to be taken when there are no viable candidates to rally behind. Then again, the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 was seminal event in the Civil Rights Movement in the US. The Anti-Apartheid Movement which led to boycotts of South Africa helped abolish apartheid in 1994.

The Kenyan constitution currently doesn’t have any provisions for extremely low voter turnout. But if people refused to show up, it would send an undeniable message. Thy will is not being done. There would be no added leverage of legitimacy. At the very least, it would establish a kind of controlled anarchy that would display an unwillingness to be taken for fools. While this may not provide an instant avenue to rebuilding a structure that is more acceptable to Kenyans, it may lay the groundwork to foster desired change.

With no visible grassroots organisation, an intrinsic fear for our lives and our livelihoods, perhaps the best solution at the moment, is not a nationwide gathering but a disappearance, one that won’t have consequences on jobs and lives. On that day of the vote, nobody goes.

There seems to be an unspoken truth that Kenyans are waiting for a “trigger”. The sayings punda amechoka (The donkey is exhausted) and Kenyans are tired keep being thrown around, to the point of becoming clichés. There is a simmering belief that at the right moment, the people will rise up and disenfranchise the hold Jubilee has over the people.

Still, going by the Huduma Number exercise, Kenyans are not keen on defying the government and they queued for hours to comply with the government directives. If a simple act of civil disobedience can’t be agreed upon, how can a revolution based on unified rebellion ever work?

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Gloria Mari is a writer and a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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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