The Mystery of the African Diaspora

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Flipping through the papers at the turn of the year, my eye was caught by a full page spread about the Second Ugandan Diaspora Social Networking Gala held at a leading 5-star hotel in Kampala on the 30th December 2012. It was obviously a well attended affair organised by Ugandans from the diaspora, who had come home from the global north, like migratory birds, to soak up some equatorial sunshine and to enjoy the festive Season.

I could see from the photographs that the organizers had pulled all the stops to put on a big show of music, dance and prize giving.  However other than the names and faces, some of which I knew or recognized, I did not see anything that gave the function a uniquely Ugandan flavour. Even the cultural troupe that was entertaining the guests was wearing a mish-mash of costumes made up of sundry materials; they could have easily have been from the imaginary Kingdom of Zamunda.

This got me thinking about the concept of a diaspora. What is it? Should we celebrate it or mourn it? Is it inevitable or avoidable? Why do we always here talk about the African diaspora but never about the Northern European diaspora? What is the attitude of the Motherland to the diaspora and how does the diaspora view the Motherland? Does each have a solution for the other? If so, are the solutions complimentary or mutually exclusive?

Before delving too far into my thoughts, I must make a declaration of interests. I was born in England, where my parents had fled into exile following the violent abrogation of the Independence Constitution in 1966. Although my parents returned to Uganda after 7 years of living in the diaspora, I went back to England for part of my education and then lived and worked there for the first five years of my legal career. During that time I experienced diaspora living first hand. I also have brothers, sisters, a sister-in-law, a brother-in-law, nephews and nieces, uncles, aunts and cousins who live or have, at some point in their lives, lived in the diaspora.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary the word “Diaspora” means, amongst other things, “the movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland or a people settled far from their ancestral homelands“.  The example given of the latter meaning is “African diaspora”. The English word has its origin in the Greek word “diasperein” meaning “to scatter”. It was first used in reference to the scattering of a people in respect of the Jews that were driven from the ancient Kingdom of Judah and taken into captivity in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. It is still used to describe Jews who live outside Palestine or modern day Israel.

Over the centuries, the African diaspora was scattered by migration, slave trade, war or conflict, political persecution, economic hardship or the search for a better life. The African diaspora is very widespread across the globe. People readily recognize the diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean as well as in Europe. But there are also small lesser known pockets of people of African descent settled in unexpected places such as: the Afro-Iraqis or the Zanj, who live in Iraq; the Siddi, who live in India; or the Jarawa, who live on the Andaman Islands.

The African diaspora continues to grow, perhaps reflecting the fact that Africa is not yet completely politically and economically stable. Some people are displaced by war and end up creating new diaspora communities like the Lost Boys of Southern Sudan.Others are migrating by all means, conventional and highly unconventional, to try and get to what they perceive to be greener pastures in Europe, North America, the Gulf States and the Far East. The more extreme end of migration entails harrowing tales of trekking across the Sahara and being crammed into little boats across the Mediterranean Sea. Others stow away on aeroplanes, often with fatal consequences. Africans have fallen prey to people traffickers, whose levels of cruelty and exploitation, the 17th Century slave traders would still recognize and, presumably, approve of.

Young Africans try cross over into Europe by boats (Photo: AFP)

There is a lot to celebrate about the African diaspora. Largely born out of one form of hardship or another, the African diaspora has made and indelible mark in all walks of social, cultural, economic and political life. With achievements ranging from famous inventors, top sportsmen, leading authors, actors, sportsmen, generals and even a president of the United States, the African diaspora in the United States is probably the most notable. But other communities in the Americas and the Caribbean have excelled in the arts and sports – can you imagine what the world would be like without reggae, samba or the Rio Carnival?

It’s hard to write about the African diaspora without mentioning remittances. UN agencies estimate that Africa’s 33 million immigrants to the global North remit about US $ 40 billion per year, which is about US $1,177.00 per immigrant. Looking at the same figures one can put it another way. Basically the immigrants, who constitute of 3.7% of Africa’s total population, contribute 27% of Africa’s export income, which accounts for 5% of Africa’s GDP. Few would disagree that this is a good thing, certainly fewer in countries like Eritrea and Eritrea, where remittances constitute 37.9% and 22.8% of GDP, respectively. However these statistics may gloss over and perhaps even romanticize the suffering of many in the diaspora.

In Africa, we generally tend to celebrate the diaspora. Members of the diaspora are feted as heroes and saviours when they come home. Exposed to a bigger and wider world, some members of the diaspora look down on their brothers and sisters who they left at home. Africans in the diaspora often celebrate their being diaspora. On the other hand, Psalm 137 tells us that the Jews of old, spoke of weeping by the rivers of Babylon and refusing to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. Members of the modern African diaspora set that Psalm to music.

We need to make an assessment of the true cost of the African diaspora in terms of brain and basic human resource drain. Do the remittances adequately compensate the Motherland for the actual losses? What about the loss of culture and contact with the motherland suffered by the older communities? Our brothers and sisters in many of these now minority communities across the world are underprivileged, over represented in prison populations and generally looked down upon. How can we reconnect? Would a renewed Garveyian effort at reconnection and repatriation lead to the skills transfer necessary to fire up the modernization of Africa’s economy?

Is the diaspora idyll actually serving to destroy what is left of African culture? Is the diaspora an easy escape? Why are young men and women more willing to risk their lives and organ thieves on treks through the desert than on the streets of their native capitals facing down the guns of the rapacious rulers whose kleptomanic regimes make their lives hell? Perhaps by offering up a seemingly easier way out the diaspora has allowed Africans to indulge in escapism rather than face up to the true cause of the challenges back home.

I think that the diaspora is many things. It is both an inspiration and a cause for great disappointment. It cannot save the Motherland and nor can the Motherland rescue it. They attract and repel each other – opposites yet very much alike. Should we mourn it a little more or celebrate it a little less?  A child of pain, it is the cause of hope.

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