“Ok, Generation Uhuru!” We are tired of waiting; we are tired of you insisting that you can still do this.
The current economic, pandemic and social mess we are in is an indictment of the Uhuru generation. In many ways, the current holders of the political and economic, and therefore social power have not delivered on their inherent promise as the generation to pursue the independence project to battle disease, poverty and ignorance.
We are in the midst of a pandemic.
To be fair to them, no one could have predicted just how much the world would change in the decades following independence. The very essence of society is shifting faster than the structures within can adapt—as it always has—and there are so many ideas in the public sphere but not one stands out.
Passion, and opportunity, marked a similar growth point in the Uhuru generation’s 20s and 30s. That generation grew up in a radically optimistic world, where the traumas of the Second World War and the liberation struggle that their parents were forced to participate in—either directly or indirectly—had led them to want to build a better world for their children, even as they themselves were trying to figure it out. In that space, the priorities of the preceding generation, acquisition by all means, dimmed as societies moved back into their own internal generational wars.
While our history of the 60s and 70s and 80s might appear grim, because of the assassinations and the many other political and economic blunders, they were, in reality, a time of widespread positive change. To be young then was to experiment with the world, with its TV and global culture, a new world where being black, for example, was a positive thing. Public provision of social goods and services was fairly accessible to all and that service which was not free was dirt cheap. Economic opportunities were in plenty.
But by the 80s, with the Uhuru generation now in their 20s and 30s, and more learned than those that held power at the time, and with the passion of youth, it was time for the start of its claim to determine the course of the country. They watched their counterparts—now closer than ever before—bring down empires. So they demanded more political space, before taking away the throne itself. This generational switch was negotiated between the pre-independence generation of the Mois and Kibakis, and the post-independence generation that started rising through the ranks in the 70s and 80s. Just like the political negotiations of the late ‘50s, men and women in their mid-20s and 30s got high-ranking jobs, the social status that came with them, and the support they needed.
While the post-independence generation was in its infancy, the generation in power was walking the tightrope of trying to keep it together while navigating a new world with a governing structure of sorts. They tried everything, from trying not to choose a side to trying to be on each side’s payroll. While understanding the need to play the global tug of war, they also tried to police the kids who were also experiencing this new world. Google miniskirt and hippie hair bans in 60s and 70s and see how far down a wormhole you will go of the things that they banned. In many African countries, young men with guns got rid of old men, before descending into their own wars, coups and counter-coups.
When they crossed into adulthood and became young parents suddenly aware about how the world works, Generation Uhuru began demanding, and taking over, the tools of power. They took over, for example, religious power by simply speaking directly to the people themselves, without going through the traditional, inherited structures. They did the same with political power, forcing Moi to co-opt them into political power and expand the political space for those who were left out or could not be convinced to join his negotiated reality. To not do so at the time would have been to declare a generational war.
To keep society running, Moi and his age-mates had to give in to the independence generation. They did this while also affirming their belief that the Uhuru generation would mess up; telling them that calling for many political platforms would lead to tribalism and a break-up the country they had built. In the ways in which each generation mythologises its wars with the succeeding ones, it might appear as if all Moi and his cronies did was harass them for being young and radical. But the independence generation liberalised the economy and politics in the ways they thought Kenya should work (and that the new global order demanded), and became rich and powerful while at it. Yes, people died, but in the larger scheme of things, Moi lost the generational war, and it was a good and inevitable thing.
Liberalising the economy and politics helped the independence generation directly, by opening up enough chances for them to get jobs now that they had mounting bills to pay, and to live in a society where they did not need to have gray hair to sit on the boards of government institutions. They had the qualifications because their parents had encouraged them to get the education that they themselves hadn’t received, to thrive in a world where education mattered.
But it was the liberalisation of telecoms—as in the rest of the world—that really did it for Generation Uhuru.
Just as their parents had, the independence generation encouraged its children to go to school so that they could get jobs in this brave new world it had created. Like the generations before, the independence generation forgot that it would need to give up the things it had fought for in order to nurture a generation that would understand what this world now needed. As it aged, its pointed criticisms of everything millennials were doing led it to miss a critical learning curve that would have allowed it to know when it was time to go. It still tried to police everything based on the lessons it had learnt from its predecessor, and to maintain the power structures it had inherited and built upon.
With one foot firmly in one century and the other in a new one, Generation Uhuru failed to recognise its own obsolescence and mortality. Even with their successors —the millennials- popping kids and carving out their own paths and demanding a kinder world, the independence generation joined its global peers in trying to make the millennials feel that what they had done back in the 80s and 90s was enough for the world. That there was enough, for example, for them to continue stealing and holding onto the reins of power. To continue, for example, defining how millennials should determine their own course, or even understand how the world actually works. To insist to them that what was good or bad in 1980 was still good or bad, even when it was evidently stupid.
What the independence generation failed to realise is that while it had arrived at a critical moment where it was still living in the same world as its successors, they were both experiencing two very different existential crises.
In 2010, an aunt of mine called my mother incessantly to tell her I was a devil worshipper because of the memes I shared on Facebook. She lives in the States, which makes the entire thing even more hilarious when I think about it now. But all I had to do then was unfriend her, and she was as good as dead to me. Not emotionally, at least not in the way the independence generation understands the word, but because I could simply go to her profile and unfriend her. It would save me uncomfortable conversations, with me trying to placate my parents’ generation’s sensibilities, even when I didn’t need to. It is for the same reason that I do not talk with them about my atheism, my radical world view, my refusal to vote, my work, my hair, or my life choices . . . all of which appears alien to them. And I don’t need their approval any more. I do not even feel the need, at this point in this story, to assure you that I love them. That goes without saying.
A few months ago, my father asked me to cosign a loan with him. The bank had told him that he was too old to get one, and he needed someone younger, a lot younger (he is in his 70s) to partner with him. He asked this while I was sitting with him together with one of my siblings, and for a second, we both went quiet. I wasn’t sure which question to answer first, because he had actually asked two questions, one of them unspoken. The first was whether I could. I couldn’t. I’ve been listed with a credit reference bureau for years because of my erratic payment of my student loans. I’ve wanted to pay them for years, but the immediacy of doing so has faded over time, because I’ve never used the degree for the obtention of which I had taken the loans; and if the loans were an investment in a better future, then it was an absolute waste of time.
The second question was harder to answer though, because I wanted to navigate his sensibilities about it. It was the question of why a man with a near-perfect credit record stretching back more than five decades could not get a loan by himself. There were many ways to explain this, but I chose the one he would understand best. The refusal of his generation to give up power progressively had mixed things up, as its ideas were coming up against a world that was on a different path. While I only used the example of the 2016 interest rate cap because he would understand it (he is a Kiambu voter; it is the Kiambu MP who sponsored the law), I could have pushed the timeline back by a decade and found a link to that decision, a point in time where his generation, implicitly or complicitly, had built a world where a social safety net like a cap on the interest rate would eventually hurt them. Had he pointed out that it is not his specific generation that is in power today—he was born in the ’40s —my rebuttal would have been simple; it is, because he voted for Uhuru Kenyatta in 2002, and every time since. He consented to what Uhuru Kenyatta’s generation, his younger siblings, would do even before they did it.
2016 would not be the first time our elite class has tried to tame runaway interest on credit to protect their interests. But this time the tables turned on them because, while they had the power to pass the law, they are at the tail end of the working-age population, and it was always going to hurt them first. And then it would become a cycle because the generation that holds power could not pay their employees, who were mostly millennials, and would have to fire them and still try to grow old in a world where their successors were now old enough, qualified enough, and still young and radical enough to do something about it. A similar scenario played out a few years ago when the desire by the Uhuru generation to take care of their parents by giving them money, ruined rural economies in Kenya because old people no longer needed to work and those who were young enough to take on the jobs wanted to do other things.
The refusal of the independence generation to give up the reins of power, or even actually acknowledge that their watch is ended, means that we actually can’t afford, and nor do we have the emotional or physical space to take care of them when they age. And more importantly for them and for us right now, we can’t afford it.
For millennials, the 2010s were a fast-paced journey that will define this next decade in ways we do not yet realise. Now parents to a younger generation looking to us for direction, elder siblings to a Generation Z that is walking out into a broken world, and with an ageing generation of parents that we now realise doesn’t actually know or have the capacity to deal with what we need, there is a glitch in the matrix.
In the last decade and a half, we the millennial generation have built a new world by our sheer numbers and we are constantly aware of what is good or bad for us. While our joining Facebook, for example, was mainly due to the fear of missing out that is probably experienced by every generation, our use of it has made us acutely aware of just how creaky the world the independence generation built actually is. Since they can no longer afford to pay us, because their priorities are not ours, nor their dreams nor language, we are now seeking for direction among ourselves. We are also realising that the words that drove them, such as “development” and “corruption” and even “economy” have a different meaning for us because they are impacting our pockets in real time. And they are words from a different time and context.
One good thing about how nature works is that while it abhors a vacuum, and will fill it to maintain the balance, it does so slowly such that it only makes sense in retrospect. Where we have allowed the independence generation to continue beating the “corruption” drum, for example, our sense of fatigue and individual economic awareness, have blunted the fangs of the war on corruption. It is not our war, because we do not even have the opportunity to join in. Our war is different. And it is one rooted in a context we are slowly understanding; that we are in fact the adults now, and we need to determine which war is ours and go into it without apologies to our parents.
For previous generations identity was still rooted within geographical borders, which could be claimed, fought over, and even cut off from the world. To us, identity is increasingly physically individual, such that we can actually run our entire lives, from the social to the economic, without ever having to breathe the same air with more people than we want to. And for a time, we were made to feel like we were doing this life thing wrong, that we do not read newspapers, that we spend too much time on our phones and laptops (which the independence generation gave us, in many ways) not connecting with actual blood-and-bone humans. But to us, a person in our physical space is no different from someone a world away, and literacy, the ability to read and write, is no longer novel or even attractive. It is part of our language, from love to fights to work to our very existence. We do not need to suffer uncomfortable spaces because we can afford, both economically and socially, to work with each other without actually wanting or needing to meet and shake hands. Even banks, brick-and-mortar businesses that thrived in Kenya under the independence generation, no longer need to actually exist in a physical space. Coronavirus will teach this generation hard lessons that they gleefully ignored.
And geographical borders no longer mean what they once did, because the world they built has made protecting them a dying idea especially with regards to their cultural significance. Not only can you take a virtual tour of practically any place in the world, but you can also learn about where people are thriving without it being a class thing. Anyone can Google whether there is (still) work and racism in the West or the UAE, or we know someone we can trust to do it. You can apply for a passport even while checking whether whatever little money you’ve saved can pay for a flight, all without moving from your bed. These things are no longer novel, they are part of our world, and they are not what is wrong with the world. The independence generation understands, for example, that to switch off the internet in Kenya today is far riskier to their idea of national security than stealing money or jailing and killing people. It would not even be those of us who have been on Twitter for a decade who would form the core of the ensuing revolt, but literally everyone because now everything depends on our ability to be online. The internet might as well be the fifth element at this point.
Many of the decisions the Kenyan elites have made in the last two decades and especially now—BBI included—are simply outdated for the country and trying to steal ideas from their forebears and also learn from the generation they have to hand over power to eventually isn’t working. So they are experimenting, grappling to balance between sticking to their decisions and their waning ability to keep up with young men and women who are on a completely different plane. They are understandably afraid of the fact that millennials are now not only old enough to vote and drink, but they are parents themselves and can actually decide things for themselves with none of the consequences parents threaten their kids with. And millennials are realising that none of what they have been told is true; what they say about tribes is actually about identity, and our generation’s tribes need new names that do not weaponise a history we haven’t lived.
The looming generational change will not be kind, or polite, or even decent. It was once supposed to be a “youth revolt”, a point in time where young Kenyans born after the 80s would rise up and protest. But we are now adults, with bills and kids, so a decision to go out into the streets is existential. Our revolt may not even be physical, because it does not need to happen there for it to matter for the generation. Revolutions are fundamentally about language, and we can speak a language using a single hashtag the same way Generation Uhuru built their revolts around gathering in a common physical space. At the time, the world allowed them not to have to gather in the bushes with guns, as their parents had, because they spoke a language that only they understood. We are at that point in time too, where they have sullied the joys of existing in a common physical space by threatening to kill, maim and jail, and actually doing so. We do not even need to take the risk of working together simply because we exist in the same spaces and speak our own language in so many spaces online, since to know what we are doing online, independently and together, you must be part of the generational in-group.
It is impossible to predict the 2020s, because to imagine what a generation will do when it realises its predecessor/parents are just normal people who don’t know as much as they claim to, is impossible. Will we vote for whoever we decide, and support them with the skills they so generously made sure that we obtained, in such significant ways that the power of money and land the independence generation has been so obsessed with stealing and acquiring will be blunted by the same sheer force of numbers and skills with which we have defined our lives so far. Or will we simply decide to relook at everything we know about business and life, and build our own structures if the independence generation insists on imagining that it has the time to wait and rectify its mistakes.
With millennials, the independence generation needs to know that it is no longer dealing with compliant children or young adults who still need them, or their approval, to exist. It is dealing with fully-fledged adults who are slowly realising they have everything they need to demand their space, and feel a glitch in the matrix so profound that we need to explain what’s happening to each other in a language and on platforms that we understand.
This looming generational change will not even be defined by the rules that Generation Uhuru has demanded the millennials live by because we no longer care much for those rules. We have stopped trying to separate how we live online and how we live offline, because both are part of who we are, and we have grown weary of being shamed for it, and coronavirus has affirmed our point of view. We’ve lived online long enough to see our younger siblings and kids join in, and it is scary to think of any subsequent generation trying to make sense of the world as it is now. This world needs us to claim our space, loudly and unashamedly, and to take it by force if necessary. The independence generation, both the elites and the others, doesn’t know what it’s doing anymore, as it tries to shout across the generational negotiating table in a language only it understands. Millennials are progressively realising that their inheritance is not negotiable, and the independence generation is not ready for what’s coming.
As the current “owners” of nearly all that matters to keep a society together—Generation Uhuru—has a choice, either to give up the reins of power in the same way they themselves demanded and got them, progressively and for each other, or they can watch the world they built burn, as we build city-states by our rules. Negotiating only works if each side gives the other all, or some, of what they want. So far, we have given them time. They have given us stasis and a society that is now dealing with a looming food crisis because of locusts among other things, a global pandemic, a place in time where it is cheaper to die than to be sick, and nothing of value in the future that we are staring at.
Our goal as millennials is to build a kinder world so that our younger siblings and our kids can build a better one. And we have to start from there, looking at everything as it is now, and bringing down anything that is unkind to us and others; because the Uhuru generation forgot the basics of a working society that they learnt from its parents. They wanted to build a new one, only tapping into the old ways when it suited them (such as weaponising ethnicity).
But they inherited the trauma properly, and have since tried to force-feed it—together with the fears such individual and collective traumas carry—to us. And now, as they feel the walls closing in on them, they would rather not ask for help from us but continue shuffling among themselves and those of their parents that are still alive, looking for solutions. What they should be doing is progressively handing over everything they fought for, bought, and stole, to the people who need them now.
We will build them retirement homes they can afford to die in, and for some, better prisons than the ones they inherited and never improved, so that we can focus on the job of bringing this world back to its senses. The alternatives to negotiating this transition are simple, not just in Kenya but the world over. I doubt that the post-World War II generation wants to be known as the generation that inherited a world traumatised by war, racism, pandemic and colonialism, and bequeathed that same inheritance after enjoying one of the most peaceful periods in recorded history.
But what do I know about how the world works? I am a millennial, after all. An eternal child.
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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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