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Reflections

Of Chapati, Identity and Migrant Politics in Europe

8 min read.

The common narrative is that imperialism, colonialism and Western staples have influenced the non-Western world. But the Global South too is impacting the West, one plate at a time.

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Of Chapati, Identity and Migrant Politics in Europe
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In the mid-90s, my mother paid a visit to an aunt who had emigrated to Scandinavia and settled in Stockholm, Sweden, for over two decades. Of the many memories she held on to from that trip abroad, her most notable was the culture shock she suffered at a lunch that my aunt’s neighbour had hosted in honour of the guest from Africa.

Swedish staples were laid out: cinnamon buns, pancakes, pea soup, mashed potatoes, pickled cucumbers, cheese and lots of bread. After sampling foods that did not appeal to her palate, my mother turned to my aunt and whispered in Dholuo, a touch of concern in her voice, “Gikelo chiemo saa adi?” What time are they bringing out the food?

We are what we eat and food is a social identifier; being thousands of kilometres from home, my mother was simply looking for the familiar in a foreign place. The food choices that one makes are a significant indicator of one’s cultural identity in a foreign country. When significant numbers of Kenyans started seeking economic and educational opportunities in the West in the early 80s and 90s, the essential items that they would request to receive from home were largely food items.

Some of the most popular choices were maize flour, chapatis, Farmer’s Choice sausages, local flavours such as the Royco brand of food seasoning and indigenous green vegetables. Things have of course drastically changed. Foods from Asian, Mediterranean and African cultures that were once considered exotic are now readily available in the supermarkets of many European capitals.

Nothing says home like the taste of food. In fact, finding authentic African food becomes a way of finding one’s grounding and establishing social solidarity. When I moved from Kenya to a Dutch suburb just outside Amsterdam, one of the first things I went out in search of was our food.

Family members would call from home and ask with great concern whether I was able to find food. On one occasion, I turned on the video on my cell phone to show them the boiled corn I was chomping on that I had bought in an African market in Amsterdam; they were duly reassured.

The villager in Europe

My first Kenyan contacts in the Netherlands spent a great deal of time pointing out to me where in Amsterdam I could get “our food”. I was shown the Kenyan-owned restaurant where I could get a taste of home. I discovered the Biljmermeer neighbourhood in Zuidoost, the South-East of Amsterdam, known for its African presence drawn from Suriname, the former Dutch colony in South America, and the significant constituency of West African immigrants.

I was pointed to the Moroccan neighbourhoods in Nieuw-West for authentic shawarma, and for rotis and chapatis, to the Asian supermarkets dotting the Amstelveen suburbs that cater to a growing South-Asian expatriate community.

As a conscious pan-Africanist raising young children in a European capital, my food choices have become something of a political statement. I am reminded of assassinated Burkinabé revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara’s enduring statement:

“Where is imperialism? Look at your plates when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn and millet — that is imperialism’’.

The common narrative is how, largely through imperialism, colonialism and the now dominant neo-liberal agricultural policies, and Western staples, particularly wheat, have influenced the non-Western world. What is not talked about enough is how the Global South is impacting the West, one plate at a time.

In a sense, Europe’s multicultural dynamics are best illustrated by the food on your plate. Besides the politics of identity that has set me off in search of flavourful sweet potatoes, cassava, indigenous vegetables, plantains and tilapia in pop-up African markets in Amsterdam, food has also become a big pointer of my multicultural influences. As an East African, my food choices are heavily influenced by South Asian and Middle-Eastern cuisines.

I remember the first Asian supermarket I spotted in the upmarket Amstelveen suburb of Amsterdam. When I walked in, I struck an immediate rapport with the storekeeper, establishing his country of origin, greeting him in Hindi and asking about the varieties of dhaal, dengu, beans, basmati rice, spices and, of course, chapati available. When I crossed over to a Middle-Eastern grocery store, I switched to an Arabic salutation to express the joy of finding familiar foods. An Ethiopian woman I met at a pop-up market remarked about Kenyan love of Indian food and my response turned into a historical lesson on the centuries of exchange between the East Coast of Africa and the Indian sub-continent via the Indian Ocean.

While African food is still limited to African hubs, with the occasional sighting of an Ethiopian or Eritrean restaurant, Asian-inspired cuisine is widespread. I can find chapatis in many places in Amsterdam and this points to how the humble chapati and pishori or basmati rice are perhaps the herald of the Asian century. Every European city now has a sampling of Asian fine dining restaurants, from Japanese, to Chinese, Indian, Korean, Indonesian and Thai cuisine.

Chapo lives matter

It is almost impossible to talk about culinary influences without encountering imperialism and resistance and the chapati movement serves as a great illustration of culinary globalisation. I have been thinking about the rapid rise of the chapati and the socio-political history of this popular South-Asian flat bread.

About a century ago, way before the arrival of British imperialism in Kenya, a curious incident occurred in India in 1857. Mark Thornhill, a British magistrate serving in the town of Muttra, now Mathura, discovered after some investigations that chapatis were travelling up to 300 kilometres across India. This bizarre distribution of chapatis set off the panic buttons in the British ranks.

The rapid movement of chapatis from hand to hand, village to village had all the markings of a conspiracy and a rebellion. Police runners would bake and hand over the chapatis to their colleagues who in turn would keep the chain going. The chapatis were unmarked and those who accepted the offering would make more batches and pass them along, sometimes moving them up to 300 kilometres in one night.

The chapati moved from village to village with the sort of efficiency that would today be described as viral. It did not help matters that the police were the conduits of this underground chapati railroad and a deep sense of unease spread across the British ranks. A revolt did eventually break out later that year and the movement of chapati was seen as part of the campaign of mobilisation.

While a century ago the chapati served as a symbol of agitation, and was the inspiration for a mutiny against British occupation, in the East African colony where the South-Asian labourers brought in to construct a railway from Mombasa in Kenya to Uganda had stayed on and built an influential minority community, the chapati would a century later emerge as a social leveller in Kenya.

In my formative years in the 70s and 80s, chapati was an exotic dish and a status food. Maize, the Kenyan staple, had been demoted to common fare and those wives who demonstrated the ability to make chapatis improved their social standing. Chapatis were a delicacy, only served during important feasts like Christmas and at highbrow weddings. In Nairobi today, the chapati is about the easiest food to find and consistent in its production across the board.

From the highbrow restaurants to the simple street food stalls, the chapati is the one common denominator. In a cash-strapped economy, chapati flour offers more value for money because of its versatility. It is easy to store, transport and can be consumed with a variety of accompaniments or on its own. Ugali, the dominant by-product of maize flour, lacks that kind of culinary diversity. Chapati is adaptable where ugali is not.

The great corn game

From the 1880s to the dawn of independence in the 60s, maize was the status food introduced by the British as a cheap food source for African farm labourers. With urbanisation and the introduction of wage labour and, later, mechanised mills, maize overtook millet and sorghum as the preferred food of the emerging elite who found it finer and more aspirational. It was considered sweeter, and it also doubled up as a cash crop.

In my home county of Siaya, celebrated historian E.S. Atieno Odhiambo argues in his book Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African landscape, that the introduction of maize into the texture of Siaya life was a mode of westernisation. Maize meal was known as kuon ongere, the white man’s ugali, eaten by those who had acquired a Western education. In the last 20 years or so, the chapati movement has grown. Presently, it is Kenya’s preferred fast food, more readily available than fried potato chips, and it has overtaken bread as a breakfast staple.

Chapati is made with wheat flour, and if we follow the logic of Yuval Noah Harari’s persuasive argument, in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that the wheat plant manipulated and domesticated Homo Sapiens to its advantage to become the global staple leading to the westernisation of our diet, we could say that Asia is manipulating the global palate. South-East Asian nations are now the world’s largest wheat-importing regions and consequently we are witnessing an Asianisation of our diets, the most telling sign yet that the future is Asian. 

The story of the chapati’s movement across Africa and Europe is also the story of the power of multiculturalism and how the Asian and African diasporas use food to assert their identities and influence the foreign cultures they integrate into. The Japanese took sushi global. Chinese takeaway is a popular cultural marker of the North American fast food culture.

What we cook and eat is more than symbolism. My desire to preserve my culture is manifested through my food choices and culinary practices and this is a trait common to all migrants who find themselves negotiating minority positions in dominant cultures.

Asia and Europe have a long history of trade and the modern Silk Road continues to assert its influence on European culture. The largest supermarket chain in the Netherlands, Albert Heijn, sells a range of products aimed at marking Ramadhan in a country where a far right populist figure and leader of the third largest political party, PVV, Geert Wilders is infamous for his anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiments.

These new flavours from Asia and now Africa challenge dominant narratives in subtle ways. From the street corners of the colonies, they are now to be found on the high streets of Europe. Asia’s population and material prosperity has gained traction in Europe and its cuisine is no longer the stereotypical cheap fast food but is now part of an expanding repertoire of fine dining.

Europe as a globalized pantry

The influx of African foods in the Netherlands, for example, is directly linked to its growing African diaspora. It greatly surprises my mother, living in Kenya and worried that I may be subsisting on bread, ham and cheese, that I eat pretty much the same food I would eat in Kenya.

It might be logistically harder to source coarse maize flour than it is to find chapatis but I no longer have to have a contact in the airlines in order to get a taste of home abroad. The proliferation of other foods in Europe shows the varied pathways of culinary globalisation and the inevitability of change brought about by migration.

In some pockets of Europe, the growing influence of minority food cultures has become a political issue. In 2016, Denmark’s Ministry of Cultural Affairs carried out a poll seeking to identify core Danish values. One revealing pointer from this survey was the prominence of eating consumption in the responses, elevated as a symbol of Danish identity and interpreted as part of a culture war and a stance over migration.

In the Netherlands, the influence of the former Dutch colonies — notably Indonesia and Suriname — on the national cuisine is well established. Nasi Goreng, a rice-based meal introduced by Indo-Dutch people, fries with satay or peanut sauce, Suriname sandwiches locally known as Surinaamse broodjes, now count as national dishes.

Spices from the Dutch East Indies penetrated local cuisines and the Dutch embraced these new flavours from abroad in much the same way that the British love curry and favourite English food choices are South-Asian in character.

With the changing food supply chains in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the questions of food politics and identity are emerging more prominently. There is a growing sentiment of European food nationalism, where eating local is associated with patriotism. European consumers, particularly those from the South, are increasingly interested in where their food comes from in order to support local farmers and preserve their cultures from foreign influences.

Since food is a cultural identifier, Europe’s politics of identity and belonging is bound to continue playing out on your dinner table. The revolution you might be looking for might just start on your plate.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Oyunga Pala is Kenyan writer and curator who lives in Amsterdam.

Reflections

The Enemy Within

Death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, reminding you of your mortality.

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The Enemy Within
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So, this is what happens when a doctor tells you that you have cancer. The first response is disbelief (how can this be true?), followed by anger (I don’t deserve this, I never hurt anyone), and then a deep sense of grief and loss (what will I miss when I die, and how will my loved ones cope without me?)

They say cancer is the result of pent-up anger and resentment. Apparently, years of holding on to these emotions make your cells misbehave and become toxic. Cancer cells end up eating up healthy cells, leaving the body so full of poison that it collapses from lack of vitality. The jury is still out on whether lifestyle choices generate cancer in the body because people who lead healthy lives seem to be as prone to cancer as those who don’t. Nonetheless, when you find out you have cancer, your first reaction is to blame yourself. It is sort of like being told you have HIV. (Was I responsible for this? Was I reckless? Should I have used a condom?)

Friends and relatives will tell you that breast cancer is beatable, that they know so many women who had breast cancer and lived healthy lives years after treatment. What they don’t tell you is that all the literature points to a short life expectancy after the discovery of cancer. The chances of recurrence are high, even with chemotherapy, mastectomy or radiation, the traditional methods to “cure” breast cancer. I have read studies where women who had chemotherapy had an equal chance of recurrence as those who didn’t. So, death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, constantly reminding you of your mortality.

Most people are so afraid of cancer that they can’t even say the word. The receptionist at an oncologist’s office actually asked me what kind of “C” I had – never used the word cancer. Yet she deals with cancer patients every day.  Another oncologist I consulted couldn’t even make eye contact with me and rushed me through a diagnosis I couldn’t understand, perhaps believing that my cancer was contagious?

The thing is that cancer is not like any other disease that can be cured through surgery or drugs. It requires months of treatment and constant monitoring. It’s not like having malaria or a broken bone. It is like having an enemy residing in your body, hostile, predatory, waiting to pounce at any moment.

It seems a positive frame of mind is critical in recovering from cancer. I got calls from women who told me they bounced right back into their lives after months of treatment as if nothing had happened, that I mustn’t believe all the literature, that I should get all the treatments done and go back to living a normal life. They didn’t explain to me why they have been working from home since their treatment started and since their so-called “recovery”. Others are more honest about their experiences. A South African women called to tell me that her experience with chemotherapy had damaged her heart, and she is on life-long medication that makes her urinate every few minutes, which means she can no longer work in an office. Instead of destroying the cancer, the chemo destroyed healthy cells in her heart. She is cancer-free but now disabled in other ways. Another friend told me her aunt died not from the cancer, but from the chemo.

What the doctors and the optimists don’t tell you is that both chemotherapy and radiation have debilitating impacts on your body. They literally are poisons injected into your body to kill another poison. Sort of like a vaccine but not quite because they do not boost your immunity. Both chemotherapy and radiation therapies involve weeks of hospital visits that cost an arm and leg. Nausea, burns on your body, fatigue are common side effects.

A friend from Boston who has studied alternative ways of healing from cancer (including not getting any treatment at all) tells me that each woman with breast cancer has to make an individual choice about what kind of treatment she should get. Doctors trained in Western medicine will be quick to put you on chemotherapy and the other treatments without giving you other options. Desperate and eager to cling onto life, the patient with cancer readily accepts any treatment, not realising that not only is it a very long process, but very costly as well. Mental preparation and psychological support are also necessary before embarking on the long and arduous journey called cancer treatment. People become life-long patients; some recover well, others not so well. Some women opt for no treatment, preferring to lead a good quality of life before the disease ravages the body.

I am looking at alternative methods of healing, including Pranic healing that works on your energy fields and chakras. So far it seems to be helping me, but only time will tell if I will be a success story. I have certainly started eating more, and those dizzy spells in the morning seem to be getting rarer.

The biopsy results are not yet out, so I am still not sure what the oncologist will prescribe, but in Kenya, the modus operandi seems to follow the same script: mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy or radiation and some kind of hormone treatment. Am I ready to go there? Not sure. Women who lose their breasts speak of feeling like an amputee; the loss of an organ that defines their femininity impacts their identity and self-esteem. Others are more casual about losing their breasts, (“It’s just fat,” one woman told me). `

The other thing about cancer is that when you have it, you think of nothing else. Everything is a blur. Someone wants to make small talk, and all you want to do is look the other way or scream. (Can’t you see I have cancer? Do you really want to discuss the weather?) You think about your life in vivid film shots. Your past suddenly comes into sharp focus, both the happy and sad days. You begin questioning the meaning of life in ways you never did before. Cancer prepares you for death the way a fatal car accident doesn’t. Is sudden death preferable to dying slowly because you can’t see it coming? Not sure.

But let me not be the purveyor of doom and gloom. The reason I am writing this article is that I have learned wonderful things about myself and other people. One of the things I have learned is that people can be kind and generous when they know you are in pain. People I don’t even know and have never met have sent me good wishes, prayers and even money for my treatment. Friends and family have sent food and offered accommodation. An Indian friend called to say that if I opted to go to India for treatment, I could stay in his home for as long as I needed. These generous and kind offers have literally brought tears to my eyes.

What I also learned is that my life’s work has not been a waste, and that my readers love and admire me for my writing. I didn’t realise I had inspired so many people, not just in Kenya but around the world, through words I have penned. That is a really important things for me to know and hold onto right now – to realise that I had a gift that I used well, and which helped others. And to know that when I go, my writing will live on.

I also learned that life is very, very short. So, we must not postpone the things we need to do. If your job makes you unhappy, quit. If a relationship is toxic, leave it. If people around you are making you feel bad about yourself, walk away. Surround yourself with people who love and cherish you. Love is very important for human survival, so distribute it freely. Be kind and generous. This thing called life is temporary, so enjoy every moment and live it as if every day is your last.

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Reflections

Someone’s Grandmother Just Died!

It is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed.

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Someone's Grandmother Just Died!
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Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I watched the televised service at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh attended by the royals and various Scottish dignitaries, as well as the many hundreds who came out to pay their respects or to be a part of this historical event.

As I watched the outpouring of public emotion, I couldn’t help but wonder what emotions the queen’s death would invoke in those whose lives have been blighted because of the British colonial policies that killed millions and left a legacy of misery and disenfranchisement in countries far too many to name.  

At first I was saddened by the news. But then came the reactions of global figures the world over, with some proclaiming outright that Queen Elizabeth had been a guiding light, a symbol of hope and stability in the world. One broadcaster went so far as to say “She was everybody’s grandmother.” My problem was that she wasn’t mine.

My grandmother, born in 1923, was just three years old when the Queen was born, my 81-year-old mother told me when I called to get her reaction to the news that the Queen had died. “She would’ve been 99 years old today if she had she lived,” my mom said. I could hear the emotion in her voice as she remembered her mother. My grandmother died in 1983; she was 59 years old. I was then just 18 years old.  I said, “Mom with all the things we know about the racist systems that have kept Black and Brown people oppressed, I really don’t know how I want to feel about the death of the British Queen.” Never one to mince her words, my mom replied, “She was a human being, and we, well you know, we mourn the loss of any life.”

Yes. She may have been a grandmother to many but to me she was a symbol of institutionalized racism in its clearest form. Images of British dynasty have been present in the education of every American who has gone through the public school system since the Second World War during which the United States allied with Britain in their quest for global power and dominance. Yet here was the evil of the Crown being portrayed in the media—as it’s always been portrayed—as providence, something divine. As I listened to a special broadcast by the popular British talk show host James Corden talking to an American audience about the Queen’s passing, his tone struck me as odd: “She will be missed, she was everybody’s grandmother,” he said, going on to tell us how well she had served the country and the world.

As I was listening to Corden and wondering why I was so irritated by his outpouring of emotion, it dawned on me that racism moves from generation to generation, falling back on the old practices of how to colonize a nation:  You teach them to love you more than they love themselves. Racism survives because the symbols of racism never die. We carry the symbols in our hearts and in our minds and once we have identified with them, we seek to justify their existence. While I could empathise with those that felt a special connection to the Crown, what I realized and felt most immediately, was the insensitivity I received as an African American who bears the scars of the legacy of slavery that has made the British Empire one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world today.

The next day I watched the funeral procession move through the streets of Edinburgh, the commentators conveying the solemn mood of the people who came out to pay tribute to their Queen.  All the while I couldn’t see past the 1989 image of Princess Diana hugging a child suffering from HIV/AIDS. On her first unaccompanied trip overseas, Princess Diana spontaneously broke with protocol and showed compassion towards a suffering Black child with all the world watching, at a time when the stigma of HIV/AIDS was as bad as the disease, and  Blacks were being impacted the most and no one else seemed to care. Diana’s humanity helped solidify her reputation as the “People’s Princess” and it radically changed the way AIDS sufferers were perceived.

While the news played on I thought about two recent exchanges I had had in Amsterdam, just outside my front door.  The first exchange took place in a cafe.

I was sitting at the bar having a coffee. Another Black male of Surinamese origin was sitting a couple of tables away. It was midmorning and we were the only ones there. In an attempt to start a conversation, as men do, he asked my opinion on the war in Ukraine. I told him I thought it was crazy, all too unreal. The white Dutchman behind the counter leaned over and candidly shared, “I don’t give a shit about the war in Ukraine.”  I didn’t speak again and left the bar so abruptly the young brother asked, “You leaving?”  I was in no mood to have that conversation so early in the day, having experienced the backlash of the “Black Lives Matter” protest with the counter-narrative that All Lives Matter; I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to just hold one’s peace and walk away. (It literally is your peace.)

Shortly after that incident, a couple of days later, I had another encounter that made me realize that we simply can’t afford not to care. I had wandered into a tool shop  on the corner of my street that looks more like a men’s gift shop inside than a hardware store selling nails, drills and plywood. Behind me walked in a man who apparently knew what he wanted because we reached the cash register at the same time, he with a power drill in his hand. I moved aside to let him be the first in line, not sure if I was done.

The Dutchman behind the counter seemed not to have noticed that the man with the drill wasn’t Dutch and didn’t speak the language. But to his credit, he did know what he wanted: the drill and a bag in which to put the canisters of spray paint he had already placed on the counter. Being familiar with Eastern Europeans, I assumed the man was Polish and asked “Polske?” “No! Ukraine!” he said, then, smiling, added, “Close.”

Hij wil een tas.” He wants a bag, I said to the clerk; bags are not automatically handed out after a purchase these days.  The clerk then understood and reached under the counter. I was pleased I could help and the Ukrainian was happy as well. To my surprise, as I placed my items on the counter, the Ukrainian tapped my shoulder and offered a fist bump.

I say all this to say of the human condition that people appreciate what they understand.  And sadly enough, we rarely think about injustice until it is visited upon us.

Whose permission do we now need to talk about racism and the policies that still impact us today? Africa and the African diaspora’s historical issues are and always have been about racism and this is why members of this group, my group, will always hold a contrarian view when the West attempts to compel us to join them in their moment of grief.  My grandmother died in 1983, at the young age of 59, in a small southern town next to a river; there was no horse and carriage, no media. The British Empire once covered the whole world, a dominance that was achieved through suppression and oppression. Many atrocities were committed and entire communities decimated under the authority of the Queen.  I was raised never to speak ill of the dead because they aren’t here to defend themselves but I will submit this:  it is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed.  Where is the same fervour and energy for those issues that matter to us? 

When we as Black people keep the peace, we empower the presence of the historical lie that we are inferior and thus require control. When we remain silent we allow the systems of the institutions and the prejudices that block our collective growth to thrive. Why should we care about the death of the Queen when the Queen has stood for the oppression of our people? Why should we be guilt-tripped into silence, into not speaking out about the dead, into not pursuing our freedom? When will our emergency, the issues that impact Black and Brown people, become a top concern for the White world? When will I be able speak without fear of being branded just another angry black man, angry for what I don’t have that others do?

Sad as the Queen’s death is to those that survive her, honouring her service is a symbolic gesture that must be contextualized because, for many, and not just in the UK but all over the world, the English monarchy is a symbol of oppression. I recently listened to a podcast in which a Black podcaster scolded an guest who said this of the Queen: “She is the symbol of colonialism and racism for many; however much we want to romanticize the Queen of England’s long reign on the throne as a stabilizing force on earth, she has also allowed many human rights violations on her watch”. The podcaster’s response was a classic putdown, “Why do Black people have to always bring up racism? Someone’s grandmother just died!”

Racism endures because when we identify with its symbols, we will do anything and everything in our power to justify and defend them.

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Reflections

So What is an African Immigrant Today?

Anti-migration policies against Africans and a general climate of persecution against foreigners in Europe and North America are sending African migrants to new destinations such as China, Turkey, the Middle East and even South America.

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So What is an African Immigrant Today?
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I was 24 when I fled Rwanda for the UK in 2007. A successful political reporter, I had just been made head of the flagship investigative pull-out magazine The Insight, whose work was gaining the admiration of many inside Rwanda. I also ran a weekly column, The Municipal Watchdog, writing about topical social issues, and was filing for Reuters, Al Jazeera, Xhinua, as well as the Associated Press. This was my life, and I loved every bit of it.

Meanwhile, some 4,000 miles away in the UK, and in my case Glasgow, a city that had now become home, a dangerous and sustained campaign against people like myself was taking shape. Britain was in the tenth year of a Labour government, and while the party had transformed the country’s economic fortunes, a particular kind of malaise was beginning to set in. Desperate for power, opposition party politicians (mainly Conservatives and UKIP) as well as sections of the media were starting to whip up public anger over two issues: immigration and welfare. Debates around immigration were getting nastier, often with racist undertones. The BBC broadcast The Poles are Coming, a 50-minute television documentary and part of the White Season Series in which filmmaker Timothy Samuels set out to interrogate the growing narrative against immigration.

“You don’t have to go far these days to find a little slice of Poland or Eastern Europe in your town,” he says, before adding, “But for some in Peterborough it’s all too much.” The film cuts to a crowded doctor’s surgery and school before a visibly irate middle-aged British man retorts that Peterborough is “completely and utterly swamped”. Seconds later, a town councillor chips in to say that the country has had enough of immigration.

I remember watching the documentary in my one-bedroom flat in Glasgow, and feeling scared. There is a tendency to think that asylum ends the day you become resettled. While this is somewhat accurate, it is far from the truth. The loneliness, the worry about all the things left behind, family and friends, keeps one wondering. Nothing is ever certain. It also depends on one’s specific threat. I know of people, myself included, who continue to look over their shoulder years after we were granted protection – because the truth is, you can never be sure. The question that kept coming back to me was, if this is how Eastern Europeans are treated, the majority of them white with blue eyes and so able to blend in, what chance is there for us Africans?

After all, I was already living in a high-rise building, with all sorts of neighbours, some of them active drug addicts or recovering addicts. But life goes on, and indeed it did. Despite the occasional noise, I got on well with my addict neighbours and was never subjected to insults or troubled in any way for the six months I lived in the flat.

A common misconception about those of us seeking refuge is the almost universal condemnation as to why we didn’t seek protection from the first safe country we entered. “France is a perfectly peaceful country, they could have stayed there,” I have heard people say of those crossing the Channel in dinghies. There are of course a myriad reasons why people may not avail themselves for protection in certain countries despite passing through them. People want to settle in countries where they have a local connection – friends, relatives, or because they speak the language.

I passed through Uganda, Kenya, and Holland before landing at Heathrow. In my asylum interview, I was asked why I did not seek protection in Uganda or Kenya. My answer was always the same: Rwanda continues to have very good relations with its neighbours, and in the case of Uganda, they share a border. The possibility of being harmed is increased the closer you are to the country you fled, and the better its relationship with one’s host country. Besides, there is no legal obligation for refugees to claim asylum in the safe countries they pass through. Declining to do so does not disqualify them from refugee status.

People want to settle in countries where they have a local connection – friends, relatives, or because they speak the language.

Most of these conjectures are built around a lack of understanding of the diversity of African migration. Anyone following debates on migration from Africa to the Global North might think that the burden is too much. But as studies have shown, this is not true. As The Elephant has previously reported, most African migration remains on the continent. Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, with countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt being some of the main destinations. Targeted anti-migration policies against Africans, implemented in part through stringent visa policies, and a general climate of persecution against foreigners in Europe and North America, have seen would-be African migrants head to new and more receptive destinations such as China, Turkey, the Middle East and, in some cases, South America.

From my own experience as a former asylum seeker, I know that migrants are not necessarily fleeing war or poverty. Those who saw me land at Heathrow on the morning of 22 July 2007 might have thought I was another African immigrant, escaping poverty and disease. But the truth is that, like the majority of the people who make it out of Africa into Europe and the Americas, I wasn’t. If anything, I was part of the African elite that is able to cut through the stringent visa requirements, can afford the pocket-busting airfares, and is able to take risks to come to countries where, whether they are seeking asylum or not, they are not exactly sure of the final outcome of their case. To the suffering Africans, this is often too much of an outlay, especially so when the country next door or the country a few countries north or south can welcome you and provide sanctuary for less than the cost of a UK visa. When it comes to migration into the Global North, Africans will only migrate if they have the ambitions and resources to make this happen.

Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, with countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt being some of the main destinations.

In the lead-up to the Brexit vote – which was heavily influenced by what those campaigning to leave the EU kept referring to as uncontrolled immigration – there were more Eastern Europeans in the UK than migrants from Africa or Asia combined. Yet the entire campaign was dominated by discussions about illegal immigration – deliberately painting the picture that the country was being swamped by foreigners, many of whom were already subjected to some of the most stringent visa requirements. Even Nigel Farage’s infamous Breaking Point poster, which was correctly reported to the police as inciting racial hatred, was deliberately punctuated with brown faces as if to emphasize the point that white migration is OK, non-white not as good.

I was having a discussion with one of my neighbours a few weeks ago – a son of Irish folk who migrated to Birmingham, England, in the 1950s. He has only been to Ireland twice in his life and while he considers himself Irish, he doesn’t think he is regarded as Irish. He speaks with a Birmingham accent and has lived in the South East of England for over 30 years now. I do not believe him to be racist but some of his views could be very easily construed as racist towards “these foreigners that can’t stop complaining”.

“Why is it only young men that are crossing the Channel?” he asked. “If the situation in their countries is so dire that they have to flee, why are they leaving behind their family? Would you leave your wife and children to be killed or even raped? I wouldn’t.” When I asked him what he would do if the only money he had left after selling most of his possessions was enough to transport one person out of a family of four, he replied: “I don’t know but I would have to think of something”. And when I pestered him to tell me what that something was, he responded: “I don’t know.”

And herein lies the folly of the dangerous migration rhetoric that has been carefully promoted by right-wing politicians with the help of an increasingly agenda-driven media. A son of an Irish couple, who left Ireland for a better life in Birmingham, and were most likely subjected to discrimination as IRA sympathisers during the Troubles, has grown up to Other those doing exactly what his parents did all those years ago. “We can’t let in everyone,” he says. Except we are not.

This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.

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