With about forty percent non-Dutch residents, Amsterdam is often described as a city of foreigners. It is also the city of easy friendships. Nevertheless, the clustering evident in many other countries abroad is also discernible. Many of the Africans live in “council flats” at Biljmeer Meer, a relatively unsafe area where the elevators hardly work and the garbage disposal is often uncertain. But it was the place we went to for the best meal I had on that trip -a bowl of pounded yam and brimming egusi soup that gave us ample energy to commence an animated disputation on modern Nigerian literature in English, especially on the present situation with perhaps up to a hundred Nigerian writers living abroad. That restaurant in Biljmeer Meer evoked the image of several cities in America where the rapid proliferation of African shops ensures that African immigrants probably eat better African meals than those back home. Both the clustering and the phenomenon of African shops function to tone the loneliness and misery of exile. These are approximate homelands. In the days of empire, the white imperialists had clustered in the “Government Reserved Areas” in the colonies. Today, there is still that sort of clustering by white expatriate workers in Africa, but usually in the choice areas -not in the Biljmeer Meers of this world.
In the days we spent in Bremen, after Amsterdam, I began to take stock of the number of seemingly white children with a discernible African or black paternity. Bremen was where I met quite a number of Nigerians married to white women -for the purpose of obtaining residence permits. It was also where I heard the story that a group of German women actually came together recently to canvass the idea that it would be preferable for them to pay some sort of Africa Development Tax than have Africans flooding into their countries. This is, of course, a very problematic proposal. Apart from the administration problems that it poses, the truth is that Europe needs migrant labour. The other side of the social welfare system is that some Europeans actually prefer not to work. In a country like Holland with a fraying economy, the government is said to be rethinking its social welfare system and even creating jobs that only put more people at work without increasing productivity. There is an unfolding story in Amsterdam with respect to how the government has managed the pension funds. The calculation was that as more people continued to work, the rising taxes on personal income would provide pension payments for retired workers. But it is not working out that way. Not only is the idea of family fraying and thus depleting the labour force, there is also the fond reliance on welfare payments. In the interim, while the government grapples with a nationalistic solution, migrant labour is a significant contribution. It will continue to be, considering both the diligence of that labour force and the fact that some of those being driven abroad by the situation back home are among their country’s best brains.
Even the idea of keeping Africans out of Europe is a dream already overpowered by circumstance. Something tells me that we are living at the dawn of a new history. We are witnessing one of the largest mass movements in history, with the growth in number of a new generation of Nigerian-Americans or Eritrean-Germans and other such hyphenations -both as a consequence of dual citizenship and as a matter of experience. Many have come to stay, and many will keep on staying while forever planning an eventual return. And many more will come, not so much because they love their country less but because they would rather live relatively well outside it than live niggardly within it. It does not matter how much more nightmarish the process of getting a visa gets, or how much more unfair airfares from Africa become, or how much more xenophobic and racist the host countries and their citizens become. Many more will find a way across the borders because to remain at home is to waste and perish, apparently. I remember my visit to San Diego, California in 1999 -on the International Visitors Programme. From across America’s border with Mexico, we could see the gloomy squalor of Tijuana. According to our guide, there seemed no stopping the illegal border-crossings from Tijuana, whereas there were few such crossings around America’s border with Canada. In the battle to maintain the integrity of the Tijuana border, some of the illegal immigrants had been shot down. And some members of America’s border patrol too. It is a sad story.
The only way to keep the borders safe may well be to ensure an acceptable minimum living standard across borders. A species of competition may produce some ripples, such as the way many more western companies are being sited in poorer countries so as to achieve a competitive edge by exploiting cheaper labour, but this may even turn out to be more provocative -with the yawning disparity in salary structures. Of course, there is the consideration that the rest of the world does not owe Africa and other poor regions a solution to their problems. There is even no denying that much of Africa’s contemporary poverty is self-induced. Africa’s politicians and rulers have mostly been a great curse to the continent. But there is the root argument that many African countries are stultified colonial experiments, and there is of course the domineering spirit of international capitalism, which only understands the language of market advantage -western advantage in this case. But poverty is not just a statistical subtraction; it is about people and the burden of being. Many of the economic exiles are not fleeing abroad so much to collect a national or regional ‘debt’ as the fact that they are driven by poverty -and they will go to wherever there are, or there seems to be, better conditions.
And many will go with the feeling that they cannot afford to return “until the situation back home improves”, so they will tolerate or stare back at whatever confronts them. In Bremen, I was told a story by someone just back from a visit to Korea about how an employer pays his African employees by throwing their salaries on the ground.
“And what do they do?” I asked.
“They pick the money, and clean off the dust.”
He it was too who told me that he appreciated Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart better when he reread it after years of living in Germany. It is a new generation, not so much in age as in experience. Once upon a time, there was a generation of Africans that went abroad, mostly to get an education and return home thereafter. Many did. Then there came my generation. We had grown up nurtured on a diet of American movies in which actors like Lorne Greene and John Wayne made America seem like a new-age paradise. Many of my high school classmates who left for America in the eighties never got a college education. Some even spent some time in jail. Some of those that did come home spewed Americanisms like oral testimonials. This new generation is powered mostly by economic considerations, not apologetic acculturation. Where they have to speak the local language to get along, as in most countries in Europe, they learn it with determination -but only as a bridge towards their goal, mainly.
The logical expectation is what this mass movement will affect – or afflict. The last time Africans moved out in vast numbers, they changed the history of America. They arrived as slaves, but they were the ones who taught America freedom and equality. Of course, the Americans like to claim that the Pilgrim Fathers brought with them those ideas because they had been victims of persecution. Freedom and equality for themselves and their kind, perhaps. If not, where did the momentum for the transatlantic slave trade come from? Or why were the Indians corralled into homelands? It took the persistent rebellion of African slaves to re-examine the economics of slavery and rewrite the history of America. The oft-cited ‘American motto’ of freedom and equality was truly written by the blood of African slaves. It took that for America to accept that all men are created equal. And a civil war was required as part of the mental adjustment process. Even today America is still learning. That up to a hundred white cabdrivers could be indicted for refusing black fares is testimonial enough. And this was not something that happened deep in the labyrinth of history. This happened only like yesterday, in my time in America this twenty first century.
How will this new exodus help the native countries of the migrants? I am told that some blacks abroad even prey on one another. And that some do not even help themselves -such as some of the junkies we saw outside the coffee shops in Amsterdam, or the Nigerian drug peddlers in Germany or those who arrive expecting or plotting instant riches. My experience has been different. I have benefited significantly from Nigerians and other Africans abroad. But beyond personal relations, the expectation is that the new generation abroad should function as co-heralds of a new order at home. They have a stake in the building of the sort of country in which they would rather live or be associated with. This is the greater challenge to the growing migrant population abroad. Hopefully, the growth of town and country unions will do more than cater for the interests of the immigrants themselves but actually begin to build homeward bridges. It can happen in several ways, from Western Union cash transfers to nationality websites or representations, from political projects to economic corridors. In today’s international labour economics, Africa is the great loser -with the mind-boggling number of intellectuals that it is losing in a mental drain that is seriously impoverishing the human resources of the continent. Having travelled from the heart of a question to the margins of an answer, what do they have to say to the motherland -and what do they have to say about it? What do they have to say to the western intellectuals who study Africans almost like insects, as they strive to invent more reasons for the world to give up on the continent?
The odds are great, but it is conceivable that this mass movement could ultimately affect colour relations by creating a ‘global’ colour or ancestry that will add ‘tan’ or the idea of it to the colour vocabulary. Genetic nomadism may well be the logical consequence of the economic nomadism being prompted by the globalisation of poverty among the world’s poorer peoples, and the poverty of globalisation among the richer sorts. Although the world may never become ‘colourless’, it may become so much more ‘colourful’ that the idea of colour may pale much more than is the reality today. The idea of it, in the sense of deeply addressing the vestiges of racial suspicions and tension. But even with the upsurge in nationality hyphenations, the personal and institutional politics of colour purity is still strong. A species of ethnic nationalism continues to feed on this. And the idea of colour is not unlikely to remain connected to root aspects of race history and relations, because so much has happened between the races -and so much continues to happen. Only this seems clear enough: the world is at a new human frontier, and those who only conceive of the global village from the point of view of technology and communications have better take a thoughtful look outside their windows.
For me as a writer, the good thing is that after my travels, I returned to Solitude and I set to work on my new narrative on this new frontier. It is, in the main, the new story of Nigeria, of Africa, of the world.
May 27, 2001