It’s a very beautiful afternoon, and I’ve just had an extremely sumptuous lunch at the expansive dining hall of the newly-commissioned Qatar National Convention Centre. Besides the aesthetics of this gorgeous architectural masterpiece, I’m bowled over by the professionalism and courtesy of the staff here; everywhere I turn, someone is making a slight bow to say hello. At lunch, the waiters and waitresses offered me four or five varieties for a refill of my glass every 10 minutes. What a nice reception! But I think there was something peculiar about the waitress who served my table; she was dark-skinned, fairly tall and quite slender. I must have seen that oval-shaped head somewhere before…ah! I see the flat features of her forehead….her long fingers…her slim waistline…all I need is to hear her voice now… “Excuse me; do you mind if I ask, what country are you from?” “Kenya”. Yes, I knew it! I could easily place her somewhere in East Africa, and Kenya was my first guess. “Well done, thank you for the service; I’m Nigerian”.
Lunch is over, but I can’t halt the cascade of thoughts flowing through my mind now: “How did she come here to dry, boiling hot Qatar all the way from Kenya? How long has she been here? Is she married, and if so, did she leave a husband and children behind? How often does she go back home? Do her family members know exactly what she does? Is she well-paid? Is she responsible for her family’s survival? Does she miss home? Do her family members think she’s rich? Is she rich?” I can’t control my mind right now; I recall that while checking into the Retaj Al Rayyan hotel two days ago, I ran into a sweaty exhausted man in the elevator, dressed in the hotel’s outfit. “Busy day?”, I quipped. “Very”, he replied. “We have lots of guests coming in today”. I couldn’t miss the accent or the face, so I asked: “What country are you from?” “Kenya”, he replied. “Well done, I’m Nigerian”. Now, those are two Kenyans that I’ve met within 20 miles of each other. In New York or London, this will not be a big deal, actually such a lack of visible African presence would be a disaster, but this is Qatar where the entire population is a whooping 1.8 million people, made up of 20% Qatari citizens, 20% from other Arab nations, 20% Indian, 13% Nepali, 10% Filipino, 7% Pakistani and 5% Sri Lankan. The other 5% is composed of immigrants from several other countries most of whom are in Qatar on temporary contracts. My two Kenyan friends are clearly part of the 5%.
As the day wears on, my mind is fixed firmly on the subject of the diaspora; Qatar is one country that acutely typifies the concept of migration, much more than the United States of America. The country’s economy and social life are run almost exclusively by foreigners, perhaps with the exclusion of the local markets and a few restaurants. I repeatedly ask myself: “how did 250, 000 Indians migrate to Qatar over the last 10 odd years? What inspired 150, 000 Nepali citizens to choose such a vastly different environment from theirs? How did 125,000 Filipinos migrate in there?” But not once was I shocked that there were 4,000 South Africans in Qatar or 5,000 Nigerians in a country where temperatures often rise above 1100F; after all, I had been made to understand since I was a thumb-sucking toddler that there is no piece of land anywhere on planet Earth that doesn’t contain Nigerians, and if I ever found such a place, my best bet was to escape as quickly as possible.
I’m not so much concerned about the fact that Africans are perhaps the most adventurous migrants (not necessarily by numbers, because we can’t beat the Asians there), my concern is how and why people leave Africa. This could sound like a question with an intuitive answer, because the default position most people have is that people migrate in search of ‘greener pastures’, however it’s not always the case. There are Africans who have migrated to remote corners of the world as doctors, teachers, engineers, architects and other such skilled professionals, bringing their expertise to bear on the development needs of foreign countries. There are also those (the majority, perhaps) who have emigrated for education purposes; in the past, popular destinations were the UK and the US, but these days we can’t get enough of Indonesia, Tahiti and Uzbekistan. Sports men and women have abandoned their home countries in search of better training facilities; missionaries have braved the worst conditions in several countries to spread the gospel; music and fashion stars have found their most favourable markets to exist beyond the shores of Africa; and there are those who left their countries because they just had to leave, as a matter of survival, escaping from wars, famines, diseases, political violence, and assassination attempts.
When we run into each other at shopping malls, in our work places, at cultural events or at our various diaspora reunions, we share stories of past pain, present endurance (or pleasure) and future glory. We talk about our relatives and acquaintances back home; when last we travelled home, and when next we hope to; how considerably different life is on this side than on that side; and how our continent needs to develop quickly. Occasionally, we discuss how we can contribute to the development of our hometowns by building boreholes, endowing scholarships to school children or providing health facilities; the younger generation often discusses how they can influence the politics of their home countries and partner with non-profit organizations working ‘on the ground’. But a more pertinent question is “how are we perceived by the people back home?” The most common perception about Diaspora Africans is that they are tremendously rich; holding down fantastic jobs and eating very good food, whether or not they are schooling on financial aid or working three jobs by the side. Otherwise, why else would they call us on the phone to say “how is the enjoyment over there? Can you please send me a laptop next week?” Why else would they rent huge vans and load them up with several representatives from our tribes to welcome us at the airport when we visit home for just five days? Why do they always expect personalized gifts for every single extended family member along with their friends, if they didn’t perceive us as wealthy citizens who are enjoying all the good things of life?
There is also the segment of our populations that perceive Diaspora Africans to be proud and unpatriotic. In their enlightened minds, whoever leaves the country for a few months instantly undergoes a brain metamorphosis, forgets where they come from, picks up an accent, eats foreign food, refuses to bow when they greet elders, dates white girls and loses all their morals. We are perceived as unpatriotic to our home countries because we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a dash of green at the local pub or because we post “Never Forgotten” on our social media sites on the anniversary of 9/11; the mere fact that we’re ‘enjoying in America’, while our friends are protesting on the streets summarizes our love (or lack thereof) for our country. Back home, they read our Facebook posts with a mixture of disgust and hatred: disgust at our excited poses beside the Statue of Liberty and hatred for the beaming white girls beside us; disgust for our comments about how unbearable the snow is, and hatred for the layers of warm clothes we put on; disgust for our endorsement of several of Barack Obama’s policies and hatred for every gay person who is a beneficiary of America’s evolution.
For all the love and hatred directed towards Africans in the diaspora, the contributions made from across several thousand miles remains unmatched. While it may be unquantifiable in monetary terms, our continent benefits immensely from the inspiration and ideas generated from the diaspora; the mere knowledge that a family member ‘escaped’ the horrors of Africa and is presently working towards a PhD in the US serves as huge motivation for several others back home. The return of famed entrepreneurs to establish companies in their home countries always brings with it the finesse and distinction of established industry best practices, serving as an eye-opener into the ways of the world. How often do we celebrate the entrance of our foreign-trained professionals into the politics of our home countries? Do we not thump our fists in the air at the prospect of having someone who has observed better economies helping to reform our governments? How about the many young students who are beneficiaries of scholarship endowments and sponsorships to conferences and seminars abroad because of the pioneering work of someone in the diaspora? When Gabriel Bol Deng returned in 2008 to Ariang village in South Sudan for the first time after 20 years to build the first school in that village, he wasn’t being proud and unpatriotic. Knowing that he left as a 10-year old cow herder escaping a civil war and that he was returning as the well-educated founder and Executive Director of HOPE for Ariang Foundation, determined to give opportunities that he never had to little boys and girls in his home village, all he could think about was how South Sudan will one day become a peaceful, and stable economic powerhouse.
We are all migrants. Whether we live in the remotest corners of Bulawayo or on the topmost floor of the Empire State Building, our contributions to the world will not be marked by the number of countries we visit, but by the individual lives that we influence. Whether or not that Kenyan waitress enjoys every single day at her job, her heart constantly beats for the people she left back home, and how brightly her eyes shone when I introduced her to someone who could speak Swahili! Africans have come a long way; we have struggled to pick ourselves up and build from the bottom of the pyramid, but the next phase of our development is poised to be shaped by the diaspora. Gradually, our caravans are coming home and the festival drums will begin to beat again.