When I was in high school, one of my uncles asked me if I had a boyfriend. It was a typical question that many of our parents or relatives ask at this rather awkward period of our lives. The conversation remained a playful exchange until my uncle got really stern and told me this: “Before you get into a relationship with someone, make sure they have an ID.” At the time I thought that remark to be rather odd, and didn’t know what to make of it. I dismissed it with the thought that maybe he was under the influence or maybe it was just a recommendation that adults give based on their personal bias such as “make sure they are God-fearing.”
I never thought much about national identification cards until it was time to get my own. I had never heard of any odd stories around securing this document, the legal evidence of initiation into adulthood. My cousins and older friends before me had had a fairly easy time, so I never imagined that it would be an experience that would change my life forever, or one that I would be writing about five years later.
On the morning I went to apply for my ID, my mother, a very organized person, had prepared a folder containing the documents that were required by law. We went to the chief’s office – a walking distance – chatting and laughing as she teased me about what “adulthood” meant. We got there and there were a few young people, so I went in, oblivious of what would happen. My mom seemed a bit nervous but I was very excited. I was thinking of all the things I would be able to do; drive, travel alone, go out dancing, drink… She gave me the documents and I went into the application room, not knowing that I would come out a different person.
My father had died in 2007, seven years before I applied for my ID. I was aware that one of the requirements for the application process was copies of your parents’ identification cards and my birth certificate. The folder had a copy of my mom’s ID and my birth certificate. My father’s ID was not there because he didn’t have one.
When the chief asked me about my father’s documents and his ethnicity, I didn’t know what to say, because I was unprepared for any kind of interrogation. Actually, I didn’t even think that I was going to interact with the chief in any way. I had expected to be given forms, fill them, have my biometrics taken and go home in time for lunch, with my interim ID in hand. I called my mom into the room and had to witness her saying that my father never got an ID after decades of applying, because he was a Nubian and somewhere along the way, he gave up. In that moment I was being exposed to this kind of alternate existence that had not been a part of my reality but would affect how I saw everything from then on. For so many years, my mother had hoped that by the time I was applying for this document, that things would have changed and that I wouldn’t have to go through the humiliation that she witnessed my father go through for so long. She tried to explain the situation to the chief, but he dismissed her by saying “all foreign tribes must be vetted…huyu itabidi vetting.” (She will have to be vetted). The walk home was silent and heavy. My mother was teary and I was quiet.
Nubians were brought to Kenya from Sudan in the early 1890s to serve as soldiers in the British army under the Kings African Rifles, first during the building of the Uganda railway and second, in the First and Second World Wars. The British denied the Nubians the freedom to return back to Sudan after demobilization, and then categorized them as aliens, a label that has since been perpetuated by consecutive post-independence governments. Because they weren’t allowed to go back to Sudan, the British allocated the land that covers present-day Kibera to the community to settle on, but their status as “aliens” has meant that there can never be any legal documentation to show that the land in Kibra is, to my generation, Nubian ancestral land. This, in turn means that the state can and has refused to legitimize the rights of Nubians, keeping them in a permanent state of stagnation, which benefits powerful elites.
My father was Nubian. This label didn’t mean much to me in the sense that I never thought that being Nubian would shape my lived experience in any significant way. I just thought I was just a child, a person, a Kenyan. Outside of my grandmother’s house, this Nubian identity was basically an inconsequential part of who I was. Growing up I just found it strange, fascinating and finally tiring when people would ask me if Nubians were Kenyans, having never heard people asking Kikuyus or Kambas whether they were Kenyans. With my limited view of the world I just thought it was a game of popularity, like how we had the popular guys in school, who everyone knew, and the ones who were not so popular, but were still part of the school and still enjoyed the structural providences. So, Nubians, like the Mbeere and the Pemba, were just few in number and perhaps not well known, and my assumption was, even though these groups of people lacked social capital and recognition, they very much enjoyed all the rights that all other Kenyans enjoyed.
I did not know what vetting was or what it entailed in this case, and frankly, I had never heard of it. The chief had given us a piece of paper, on it, a list of documents that I was to produce to prove I was Kenyan enough for an ID. The list absurdly demanded that I bring; copies of my grandparents’ (dad’s parents) identification cards, my father’s death certificate, primary school and high school transcripts, my immunization card, and most surprising of all, a copy of the ID of our building’s caretaker, accompanied by a signed note saying that he knew me and that I was resident in the building I claimed to live in, for an extended period of time. There was also mention of appearing before a ‘council of elders’ and paying a fee to a magistrate.
By then, I had figured out that what I was being subjected to was not standard procedure, but an act of institutionalized discrimination. I had been asking my friends about their experiences, and they all seemed to have flawless experiences. Most of them praised the government for “making the process easy.” On the other hand, my Nubian cousins weren’t even trying to get IDs. They already knew that hurdles were too great.
To the government, it was clear that Nubians were not human, because to be human is to belong. “At the age of 18, your life as a Kenyan stops” one Nubian youth from Kibra lamented. “It is only when you apply for an ID card that you realize you have been living a lie. This country does not want you, and the years you have spent here are all a farce.” Without an ID, one cannot register their sim card, therefore access to M-Pesa or any other form of mobile banking is impossible. One cannot vote, cannot access government buildings, cannot obtain a passport, cannot apply for jobs, higher education or even acquire a driver’s license. It is so absurd, to the extent that without an ID, one cannot legally die, which is what happened to my father. He does not have a death certificate because he did not have an ID. The state neither recognized his life nor his death. In the eyes of the state he never existed. To me, this is what statelessness truly means. The right to live and the right to die and the right to belong are taken away, without being granted in the first place.
Proving my humanity
Nubian youth today go to great lengths to get a chance to even apply for their identification cards. Many lie about belonging to other tribes, mostly the “popular ones,” many save up in order to afford to bribe officials in the many different offices they will likely have to go through. All this because the Kenyan state gets to play a game of the politics of exclusion and inclusion, who is “in” and who is “out”, but these acts have real implications to real people whose lives begin to be defined, first, by statelessness before they can claim to be anything else.
I have a great uncle, who by several untruths, social connections and stubbornness, was able to obtain an ID many years ago. His single ID caters to every official need that people in the family may have. Any dealings with the Kenyan government and he’s your guy. People depend on his vote to speak for many. Many M-Pesa transactions go through him. He takes people’s children to school; his bank account is basically communal. So this uncle’s details are the ones outlined on my father’s burial permit. The one legal document that bears my father’s names is his burial permit, written in my living uncle’s name, with my uncle’s ID number.
Back to my application for an ID. On the day that I returned to the chief’s office, I wasn’t hopeful. I wasn’t excited. I was dreading the humiliation of having to prove the only nationality I knew, in front of many people. I went with all the documents that had been demanded for the vetting process, except the death certificate which didn’t exist, and my grandparents’ IDs which also didn’t exist. Standing there, being talked down upon and ridiculed, all I could think of, strangely, was the caretaker. I had spent the week chasing him all over the estate. Once I explained the reason why I needed his help, he became too busy, an act he put up in order to get a bribe out of my mother and I. Being a heavy drinker, he always asked for “pesa ya kachupa”. I always said I didn’t have the money. Then he would get angry and tell me to look for him the next day. This went on for a couple of days until he finally gave me his ID which I photocopied and the next day he wrote a brief note, signed it and I attached it to the copy of the ID. The day I was going back to the chief, I met him at the gate, sober, telling me that he knew the chief. I didn’t know what that meant, but I saw my mum giving him a 200/- shilling note. Standing in front of the chief, I now knew what he meant. He could unravel this whole process just by his word of mouth. I felt so small and dispensable, like my life was hanging in the hands of these men who had more citizenship than me.
The chief sent me home, and as I was walking back, I was trying to think of all my family members; maybe I have lawyer cousin that I didn’t know about? I needed a lawyer, and I knew legal fees were expensive. See, the chief said the documents were insufficient to prove anything. The caretaker’s note was there, my mum even managed to find my immunization card, all my transcripts up to my final year of high school were there, but he said that the documents that were missing were the most important. So he advised that I seek the services of a lawyer in which I would swear an affidavit that my father died not being a citizen of Kenya, and that I was aware of this and was ready and willing to take the ID using my mother’s details only. This was to me, a protest to my protest. Here I was, trying my best to prove that I belonged, holding on to everything I knew about myself, but being told that I am not who I know I am, my life being unraveled, in an embarrassing and truly heartbreaking manner.
When I was turning 10, a year before my father died, my mom threw a birthday party for me. Till this day, even in the pictures, I have tears in my eyes because my dad couldn’t make it. I wanted him there so bad. He was my dad. Here I was, at 18, being asked to erase his existence in order to exist myself. I couldn’t process it. I just couldn’t. I always want him to be with me, and my country was asking me to wish away someone that I was part of who I was because of the favor of belonging; of legally obtaining the Kenyan identity.
My mum wanted me to get the process done as soon as possible, because like any mother, she wanted to see my life moving. You don’t realize how hot Nairobi is during the dry months until you have to walk up and down Argwings Kodhek Road looking for an affordable lawyer. Luckily my mum remembered one of her friends from church who was a lawyer. She got his number from his wife; we called him up and were able to locate his office just before 3pm. We explained everything, and while he was baffled, he prepared the affidavit and I signed it soon after. I was soon back home but I was wondering if all those feelings were worth the trouble of trying to be a Kenyan.
I have heard stories of Nubians today only being allowed to apply for IDs on Tuesday and Thursday from 9am -1pm on each day, with only three government officials serving thousands of young and old Nubians. Other people from other tribes can apply on any day at any time that falls within the business hours. My father’s mother has been sick for decades. She had a growth in her abdomen that requires very specialized and expensive care. She doesn’t have an ID, therefore she can’t access insurance services. She knows she is in pain because she doesn’t possess any form of proof of citizenship. Hearing about this time that has been set aside for Nubians to apply for identification cards excites her, and she is happy at the prospect of more of her people being recognized as Kenyans and participating in society. She does not know that this process is just an extension of the injustice orchestrated by the oppressor, because the person who denies you your humanity cannot turn around and give it to you in small doses at their own convenience and by their rules. It is false and inhumane for a part of the population to be made to feel like their access to human rights is a favor and the little attention they are given, a privilege.
Where life stops
Like other Nubians, my uncle, the youngest of four sons, married outside of the Nubian tribe, hoping that this would mean that his children would have better chances of legal belonging. Creating a situation where people would rather marry outside of their tribe so that their children may have a chance of legally existing, is by design, ethnic and cultural genocide. My uncle was in a relationship with a woman from a different tribe, with whom he had a child and lived together. The girl was hiding her relationship from her family because of fear of their disapproval. Unfortunately, one way or another, her family found out and they forcefully removed her from my uncle’s home and took her, and the child, back home. Their reasons were that they had heard that Nubians are lazy; they sit around all day, without jobs and at the risk of deportation because they are not Kenyans.
A couple of years ago, another of my uncles, a father of three sons, was suddenly left by the mother of his children. She was frustrated by his lack of a steady income. She left him with the children, and we received word that she was married elsewhere. He would die two years after, because of lack of access to proper healthcare. He died still waiting for his ID application to be approved so that he could apply for insurance.
My uncles’ stories are testimonies of real life consequences of the evils of the state. This lack of legal identification affects more than just the one individual seeking the document. Many Nubian people are not able to provide for their families. They are left feeling that they are not doing right by their spouses, their children, and themselves. The situations that Nubians find themselves in are locked in by helplessness and despair. It is not my uncles’ faults that they are not able to even have the opportunity to have steady sources of income. When I see Nubian men, young and old, seating around their houses, playing draughts, I see men whose ability to affirm themselves has been taken away. So they carry their politics in their bodies. They talk to exist, to pass the time and fill the void of uncertainty. They talk, therefore they are. When I see my uncles, I don’t see ‘lazy, unmotivated’ people, which is a dominant narrative about the Nubian people. This stereotype is, behind the scenes, advanced by the difficulties faced in obtaining identification. When you don’t legally exist, legally love, legally die, when you don’t legally belong anywhere, it is easy for narratives about you to be formed and advanced by the people who belong. They have the voice, you don’t.
On the day that I was to pick up my ID, I was nervous about being turned away. It had been a couple of weeks of back and forth. After the humiliating vetting process where one man on the council tried to get me to sing the national anthem in Kiswahili, I just knew if I had to go through one more hurdle, I’d weep and probably just give up on the process all together. As I was standing in line, I thought about how I was being forced to basically denounce my father in order to be a ‘real Kenyan’. I wondered if that was the price I had to pay, and if any of it was worth it.
When I got home, I showed off the new shiny plastic proof that I was a human being worthy of being seen and heard to my mum, my cousins and my aunties. They were very happy. Getting this little thing was such an achievement and they all congratulated me for “keeping steady”, “staying strong” and “doing all it takes.” An outsider listening in might have genuinely thought that I was participating in a vigorous Olympic activity. And isn’t that absurd? I was just trying to drive and drink and party, and perhaps vote. It’s absurd. Every time I look at my ID card I feel like I am looking at the absurdity of it all. I hate being in situations where I am asked to ‘show ID’. It’s traumatic because it’s a symbol of the humiliation and the pain, and it hurts even more thinking of all the young Nubians who do not have the loopholes that I had, like having a mother of different ethnicity, or having gone to a national school which somehow made my transcripts more credible.
My grandmother is very happy that I was able to get an ID. She says that I should thank God for my mother, that I should be happy that I can participate in society, legally marry and legally die. When I go to visit her in Kibra, I pass the mosque at the corner, the children playing in a small open field next to a pile of garbage, the old men seated outside seemingly staring at nothing, the young men playing draughts next to the women painting beautiful henna patterns on each other. Sometimes I am unable to figure out if the glint in my eyes is my tears, or the glare from the shiny new apartments being put up by private developers, shiny like my new ID. I am lost to the realities of this place, Kibra, where people exist but not really, where nobody in the real Kenya knows the young men seated outside playing draughts are waiting for casual labour here and there, and the old men are seated in silence because there is nothing left to say, they have been talking about the same things for generations. My grandmother’s house is no longer a place where I excitedly go eat ngurusa and spicy beef while listening to taarab and her long stories. Now, it is a place where “real” life stops and everything happens day to day, because there is no security in thinking of the future. The future is a luxury left for ‘real’ Kenyans.
I have lecturers who, when I talk about Nubians in class, will still ask me where “these people” are from. There are adult Kenyans that don’t know the existence of Nubians in Kenya. During the census, we are grouped as “other.” Sometimes with my generation, when I say I’m Nubian, it is taken as a celebration of “blackness” and “authentic Africanness” because the word does not resonate as an ethnicity but as a label used to celebrate dark skin, kinky hair and non-European features. With my mum’s side of the family, my Nubian-ness is seen as the latent threat that may erupt one day and deny me opportunities that would have been accessible to me had my mother fallen in love with a person from the “right” tribe. On my dad’s side, my Nubian-ness is the thing I rejected, so much that I denounced my father’s involvement in my life – his entire existence – and took an ID claiming to only be my mother’s tribe. For me, it is the arrow in my heart. It does not pierce, it will not come out. I can feel it there, a constant reminder of a feeling I want but don’t know how to get, a feeling that I have but can’t seem to get rid of. It is my baptism by fire, my lens through which the world began to make sense through pain and contradictions.
To belong, and claim identity, in the Nubian Kenyan context, is to have privilege. It means that because you belong, you have the luxury to dream, to hope, to love. It means that you can participate in conversations around higher education, politics, health care, insurance, life, death. It means that the justice process is accessible, it means that you can live naturally as a human being, able to fully participate in choice, building community and that the possibility of dignity is a reality that is available. My uncle’s main concern that I end up in a romantic relationship with a person who has a national identification card was his way of taking care of me. It was his way of saying that he wanted me to have a chance at hope, at dreaming, at living as a person free of the complexities and humiliation of alienation.
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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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