I graduated high school 16 years ago and I have been having nightmares about that period ever since.
My nightmares all take the same form: I am a student at Maseno School and for one reason or another I have gotten in trouble. My punishment—in the form of caning or even a full-on gang-beating by all the teachers at the staff room —is impending. Sometimes I am able to wake myself up before the beating starts; most times I can’t and I have to suffer through it again.
Either way I always wake up panicking and I often have trouble falling back asleep, because these nightmares trigger something deeper than my fear of getting beaten. They trigger a deep-seated rage I haven’t yet found an outlet for.
Unable to fall back asleep, I often fantasize about getting revenge against all those who beat and humiliated me. Most times it is something as banal as slashing the tires of a teacher who caned me often. Other times I imagine writing letters detailing these tortures and sending them to the current employers of the prefects who beat us up. I imagine them getting fired and their lives spiraling out of control.
In writing about my time at Maseno, I have become aware of my desire to mark only the kind of torture that was remarkable, and therefore say nothing about the banal aspects of torture, such as the environment it produces, one in which fear is everywhere all the time; and one in which one never knows what it is precisely that will get one in trouble, because it could be anything. That fear is as damaging as torture itself, and remains with one just as long.
Getting caned—slapped—punched—beaten down with a hockey stick, or gang-beaten—deprived of food and sleep—made to kneel for hours—frog-marched for long distances—I find myself wanting to use the term ‘torture’ though I am aware others will find it disagreeable, too spectacular. Liwe liwalo.
My experience of corporal punishment, like that of most Kenyans, goes further back than high school. I went to Arya Nursery School where there were fewer black than Asian students, and where black students were the only ones who got caned.
All our teachers were black.
Even at that young age the message was clear: we, black students, were lesser than. Corporal punishment in Kenya has always had a racialized history.
After nursery school I went on to M.M. Shah Primary School, where corporal punishment was mostly classed. Those whipped for not doing homework were those who didn’t do the homework because they could not afford the textbooks. Those caned for being late were often those who walked long distances to school, as opposed to those of us who were driven to school. Those woken with blows for falling asleep during lessons were often also the kids who had to work late into the night after school to help put food on the table for their families.
I think the punishments at high school have stayed with me because nowhere was punishment as developed a social institution as it was at Maseno. To understand torture at Maseno at the time, one has to have an understanding of the prestigious boys boarding school: its logics; its architectonics (prefects stayed in their own cubicles), its ecology (the green, fertile compound teeming with all manner of trees); its creeds (Maseno’s motto is ‘Perseverance Shall Win Through’); and its ideologies (the exceptionalism that said we were better than all other schools). Together these factors turned punishment into a robust social institution.
Punishment had its own logics, which produced its rituals of truth. Although punishment had its stated goals, it simply became institutional practice—it was the defining role for prefects and all those in power. It was simply what those in power did, no why or wherefore.
Additionally, punishment was a seemingly indispensable pedagogic tool for teachers. Its methodologies, from making students kneel for hours on gravel, on concrete, or outside on hot days; to ‘frog-marching’ students; to waking students up in the middle of the night for impromptu contraband inspections; to pulling students out of bed for overnight gang-beatings; all these were supposed to be rehabilitative for all manner of offenses, from tardiness to struggling with classwork, from falling asleep during lessons to failing to rise for the early morning wake up call.
Maseno’s architectonics allowed punishment its own infrastructure. The Old Mackay building functioned both as a prefects’ study area and also a torture chamber; and prefects’ cubicles were the zones where overnight beatings took place.
Lastly, punishment had its own ideology. We were told that to survive Maseno one needed to be ‘hardcore’. We wore our abuse as a badge: we were Maseno, meaning we were harder than you. We could take more beatings than you, and we were therefore readier for the world out there and its beatings. Our school motto—‘Perseverance Shall Win Through’—was often marshaled to put out any dissenting feeling about torture. What this ideology belies is a sordid belief about fighting for freedom both inside the school and in the world out there: there is no use for it. What students need, ostensibly, is to be prepared for the unfreedom of the world out there.
We had a school exchange with Alliance High School and we found out that their wake up call wasn’t until 6:30am, a whole hour an a half after ours. We ridiculed them for sleeping in, for being ‘soft’ —that right there was the punishment ideology hard at work, because we believed success could only come through hardship, in this case through sleep deprivation.
Like every institution, Maseno was invested in the production of bodies—the right kind of body. The school administration often chose boys with bigger bodies to be prefects. They also believed that students from rural areas made better prefects than those from urban areas because they were supposedly more compliant to higher authority.
But nowhere was the practice of power as the production of bodies more evident as in the food regime instituted at Maseno.
Not only was the denial of food often used as a means of punishment, but prefects were served ‘top soup’ with every meal. Top soup was made from beef broth and tons of fat, and was believed to make prefects’ bodies larger, stronger, and therefore better tools for domination. Top soup was considered a privilege at an institution where the rest of us ate boiled everything.
With a name belying the homoeroticism in a space full of homosocial anxieties, top soup tied might to right (mwenye nguvu mpishe). How food was prepared—whether straight up boiled or sautéed, garnished or served with weevils—and what it contained in the way of nutrients was therefore very political. During my time in high school we were more likely to rebel over poor quality food—and we did rebel—than we were over a beating (even when it landed one of our colleagues in the hospital). And yet food itself was a regime of violence.
Punishment, then, was the production of bigger bodies for the domination of other bodies, and concomitantly the production of the very bodies to be dominated.
What the violation of torture did was produce our bodies as not-ours. Prefecture, as the form of power most prevalent in student life, was an embodied politic that deprived students of bodily autonomy.
Boys with big bodies (but who were not prefects) were often targets of the harshest punishments. Their growing bodies alone were threatening, and they had to be put in their place, often at the behest of being beaten by a group of teachers or prefects at once. They were routinely taken to the staff room so all teachers present could take turns in their torture.
We came to understand our maturing bodies as threats, and this threat as in need of management, because our growth always already constituted insubordination; simply for growing and existing, our bodies were produced as in need of discipline and punishment to succeed both at school and out there in the world.
I have been trying to come to terms with what ‘remains’ of the torture at Maseno. What was written—beaten, really—into the body remains in the mind, returning as frequent nightmares reliving beatings and humiliations. Yet what was written onto the body and into the mind was written also on the lay of the land, because gardening, farming, slashing grass and uprooting trees were often used as punishment tasks.
When I arrived at Maseno it was a verdant compound with many local tree species, abundant birdsong, and those cheeky little monkeys that stole your lunch if you turned away from your dish for too long. There were all manner of insects, too, most of which I had never come across before my time there, though my family lived a mere 26 kilometers away.
My relationship with that environment—as its custodian—shifted immensely as that environment became implicated in the punishment regime at Maseno. Most disturbing among these practices was assigning the cutting and uprooting of trees (with the rudimentary tools) as punishment, an arduous undertaking that would take a student such a prolonged period of time that those receiving this punishment often either woke up earlier or stayed up late after night prep to finish the work in the time allotted—adding sleep deprivation and disruption of studies to their ‘discipline’.
The transformation of that lush ecology into an arena for hard labor markedly shifted my feelings toward taking care of the environment, a feeling that remained with me a long time. I know that might sound silly to some, but I now firmly believe that taking care of one’s environment should never be used for punishment, neither at school nor in prison.
There were fewer trees at Maseno by the time I graduated (my memories might be unreliable here, but we certainly uprooted more trees than we planted at Maseno). It wasn’t just students who’d been tortured in my four years there; the land had been punished as well.
At Maseno prefects were called ‘cops’ and ‘karaos’ by other students. We understood the penal imaginary as governing our relation with power. The speeches at both prefects’ and teachers’ assemblies were inundated with threats. Prefects threatened to ‘clobber’ anyone showing ‘insubordination’. Teachers promised that any and all indiscipline ‘will be dealt with thoroughly’. This, of course, is familiar language: you only have to listen to government officials like Interior CS Fred Matiang’i to realize the language of punishment has become our language of governance.
The baraza that was supposed to be a forum for students to speak openly and directly with school administration about our concerns was discontinued after, at the very first convening, students raised issue with corporal punishment by both teachers and prefects. The school administration allowed no other convention afterwards. In my four years at Maseno we had one baraza, and it was a non-starter because those in power were not willing to divest from torturing students. They believed there was no pedagogy without punishment, no learning without subjection, and students could not be trusted to have ideas about how their education should proceed.
In writing this I have been trying not to get bogged down in the minutiae of it all. I know how this article will be read and circulated by some sections of the public. I can already hear all the ‘accept and move on’. I already know the derisive laughter, the kind we weaponized against those of us who, as early as primary school, had not learned how to not flinch and writhe and scream while getting caned. I know that I will be laughed at. I will be dismissed as weak, petty. I will be told there are more pressing issues.
Years ago when Mashada online forums were still a thing, former students would frequently confront former prefects about their torture, years after the fact, highlighting the toll that remains. The Internet allowed this follow through, which happens because torture has a long afterlife. Punishment in schools constructs durable things. It positions the student a certain way and creates ideologies about subjectivity and power, resilience and toxic masculinity, sex and sexuality, embodiment and sovereignty, subjection and governance. These are things we interact with every day.
These things remain.
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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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