I was beyond delighted when I got the invitation. For many years, I had heard, watched and read so much about Rwanda and I could not wait to be on the ground. For a nation that had come to be defined almost solely by one word, I could not wait to take the environment all in for myself and make my own conclusions about the immense progress it is reputed to have made. For all intents and purposes, Rwanda is mostly synonymous with the 1994 genocide and its president, Paul Kagame. The genocide remains one of the darkest blots on the map of world history, and Paul Kagame polarizes opinion more than most other world leaders as he almost single-handedly drives Rwanda into a beautiful future by his own methods. Rwanda is one of a few countries on earth that I really wanted to visit and the opportunity arrived. I would be attending the My African Union Continental Youth Forum hosted by the State of the Union Coalition, a network of civil society organizations working to mobilize support across the continent for the implementation of African Union instruments.
As I walked out of the Kigali International Airport, I was determined to make mental notes of everything. I noticed the thousand hills in the distance, I saw the orderly line of taxis on the street side, and I definitely marked the conspicuous absence of dirt on the roads. I had heard so much of the culture of conscious cleanliness in Kigali, but it only made sense when I saw it. I was really taken by the row of palm trees everywhere as our bus snaked through the streets; I was impressed by the construction of enormous buildings on every corner, clearly telling the ‘Africa Rising’ story; and I could certainly feel a sense of quiet order across the city. Yes, motorycles are a part of the public transportation infrastructure in the country but they rode in formation like nothing I’ve seen in any other African country. Kigali is so modern, yet very African.
The debates were poignant, the presentations were informative, and the camaraderie was tangible; more than 130 young leaders representing various pan-African networks were gathered in Kigali to set an agenda for the continent’s leaders at the next African Union (AU) summit to be held there in July 2016. There was such a strong sense of determination among the continent’s youth leaders to question the direction of the continent and to stress the importance of cooperation for development. Rwanda is already a model of what is possible – creating a policy of visa-on-arrival for all African citizens is unprecedented in the continent; Ghana is set to follow suit and Seychelles and Mauritius are equally very open to the continent, but there is something about Rwanda that delights the soul. As part of the program, I facilitated a three-hour simulation of the AU’s Assembly of Heads of State and Government on “Freedom of movement in Africa”, as a subset of a broader continental integration conversation. The energy in the room was incredible, and I left there knowing that while there is yet a lot of work to do before we can unlock true pan-African cooperation, the indicators are very encouraging.
I half-dreaded the visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. It was the one place that I really wanted to visit, but I was not sure that I was prepared for it. On arrival, visitors were ushered into a small room where a short documentary was playing; it told the story of some survivors and what they did to survive. The Memorial had become their home, being the final resting place of more than 250,000 people who were killed during those maddening 100 days in 1994. Nearly everyone had a relative interred there, so this would inevitably become home for those who wanted to reconnect with family at any time. As our tour group was being welcomed to the Memorial by a staff member, the lady right behind me burst into tears and was promptly escorted to a psychologist’s office. I knew that this would be no easy tour.
It was all I could do to keep from falling apart as I read the story of Rwanda’s colonization by the Belgians and their subsequent segregation of the country into Hutu and Tutsi based on the perceived intelligence and material possessions of one set of people, and things as pointless as number of cattle owned by specific individuals. I could not imagine how a seemingly harmless classification of people decades earlier led to such an indescribable tragedy of immense proportions. I read the stories of different players in the genocide: France and its many curious actions, the United States and its inability or unwillingness to mobilize troops to intervene, and how the United Nations dragged its feet until the country was reduced to skulls and bones. Kofi Annan claims that the genocide was the single greatest failing of his term as United Nations Secretary-General, but that does not even begin to explain the horrors that happened within those 100 days.
I read about the men who were forced to kill their own friends, neighbours and family members, and about the women who were raped, mutilated and then killed in front of their children. I read about the hundreds who were burned alive in church buildings and the thousands who were murdered inside a stadium where they had taken refuge. I could barely keep my feet together when I walked through the skulls and bones that were displayed behind a glass in one of the rooms, and I certainly gave in to emotions when I read the stories of the 15-month old babies who were smashed against walls and the 2-year old children who were clubbed to death. Some were stabbed in the eyes while others were flung from balconies in an attempt to wipe out their descendants from the face of the earth. The inhumanity of man against man was aptly captured in one building, and tears welled up uncontrollably in my eyes.
Kwibuka! It is the Kinyarwanda word for ‘remember’. This is the slogan for Rwanda’s annual commemoration of the genocide and the word most on display throughout the country. Every street corner has a signage reading ‘Kwibuka’, and it gave increased meaning to everything I saw in the country. Women quietly swept the streets all day as cars drove by, and everyone quietly went about their business, barely saying any words to anyone; it was as though the country was in a state of perpetual reflection. As I walked the streets of Kigali and looked in the faces of people 30 years or older, I could not help thinking to myself, “How did you survive? Did you have to kill anyone to be here?” I looked at the ground beneath my feet and wondered to myself if people were killed on the very spot at which I stood.
I surmised to myself that the conscious beautification of Rwanda must be a psychological attempt to clean up the mess of the past. I appreciated the sprout of life on every flower and delighted in the greenery of the palm trees. I gazed lovingly at the undulating hills and street corners, and willingly overpaid for some artwork at the craft shop. I gained new respect for my Rwandese friends and everyone who warmly welcomed me to their country. This part of history will never be forgotten; the world must never erase the memories of those who paid the ultimate price for man’s stupidity. Kwibuka! I will never forget my week in Rwanda.
Everybody loves gold. It sparkles, glitters, beautifies everything around it, adorns the lives of its users, and most importantly enhances the economic and social stratifications of the world; gold separates the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’. Ever since gold was discovered in the world about 7000 years ago, it has attracted the fascination of man, and it became associated with wealth sometime around 2600BC. In fact, the ancient King Tushratta of Egypt boasted of Egypt’s gold some millennia ago, saying “gold was more plentiful than dirt”. With its vast mineral deposits, no other continent on earth can rival Africa’s wealth, and no other mineral adorns the continent like gold. Actually, South Africa contains about 50% of the world’s gold reserves, with the Witwatersrand holding the world’s largest gold reef deposits.
However, a fact appreciated by all gold admirers and users is the huge expense involved in accessing quality gold. Not only do miners have to work under extremely hazardous conditions deep into the earth’s crust, they have to endure temperatures increasing at a rate of approximately 250c per kilometre. It doesn’t take rocket science to realize that ventilation is a huge luxury at 12,800 feet below the earth’s surface, silica dust which is a by-product of mining also leads to silicosis, a very lethal lung infection, and mine collapses could obliterate hundreds of lives within minutes. Suffice to say that gold mining, or any mineral mining for that matter, doesn’t come easy.
With full recognition of the difficulties of gold mining, and the requirement of digging beneath a ton of rubble, rocks, horrible mining conditions, poor infrastructure and what not, why should a young African think that they can walk away from an established gold field to attempt breaking new grounds elsewhere? What gives them the confidence to think that it’s acceptable to ignore the opinions and persuasions of experienced miners and follow their instincts to seek raw gold in wasted lands? Better still, why do young Africans in the diaspora believe so heartedly that ignoring the better judgement of their parents and friends, leaving the reputable gold mines of Europe and America to return to Africa’s perceived fallow unproductive barrenness, enduring the least expedient working conditions in search of raw gold is a smart move?
With the unending parade of ‘Africa Rising’ movements across the world, young Africans are being persuaded from all corners to return to Africa and be a part of the continent’s renaissance. Multinational companies have deployed their recruitment executives to scout the top colleges in the world for the smartest and brightest African talent and employ them in their African offices. The United States government and several top business schools in the world have launched initiatives to attract and train young dynamic Africans who will return to their countries and effect real change. Myriad African diaspora organizations are also organizing conferences on an almost daily basis to persuade the young, educated and gainfully employed ones to consider returning to Africa, and the media cannot do any more to emphasize the fact that six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa, and this might be the time to focus the world’s attention there.
So, with the bombardment of information, encouragement, persuasion, and the tugging from all directions, the million-dollar question is “Should young Africans return to the continent to work?” The fastest irrational ill-considered retort will be “Why should they return to Africa?” But after deep thoughtful consideration, the best answer remains “Why should they return to Africa?” And until each individual young African in the diaspora finds a satisfactory answer to that question, they had better remain, as the military say, “as you were!” Before making any hurried decisions about staying abroad or returning ‘home’, the first piece of advice is “Do not sentimentalize returning to Africa as though there were some special prize for returnees. Do what is conceivably best for you in the interim and in the future”.
Now let’s consider some special cases:
- If you’re a first-generation immigrant and ‘your hustle is paying dividends’, why would you leave? In this age, multi-national companies routinely have employees posted to various locations across the world, and chances are you may be posted closer home while retaining your employment with your company, because of your African heritage. You do not have to abandon your lucrative job in order to jump on the bandwagon of going to ‘save Africa’.
- If you’re a first-generation immigrant educated abroad and you can’t find a job abroad – your options aren’t so simple. If you are determined to succeed in America or Europe, in spite of the harsh economic realities, you might want to stick it out there for a while, but keep an active job search in Africa. If both options work out, the choice is yours. However, if you’re tired of hustling abroad with its mental, physical and emotional stress, find your way back home quickly. Your foreign certificate might put you a few steps ahead of the home-based competition.
- If you’re a second-generation immigrant, with parents and family members who are comfortably settled abroad, but a few ‘Africa Rising’ conferences have shifted your focus, your options are not so straight-forward. You will be kicking against the pricks if you do not make proper calculations before getting on that Arik or Kenyan Airways flight. You might want to make a few scheduled visits to your home country to establish solid partnerships before moving your huge suitcases. If your exploratory visits do not prove encouraging, you had better reconsider.
- If you’re a first-generation immigrant with a family settled abroad, chances are you’re not really considering the big move. However, a decade or so abroad might have led you to consider introducing your children to African culture or planning a top-management level transition into a reputable organization. Most likely, you’ll be able to afford life ‘at home’, in spite of infrastructural challenges.
- If you’re a first-generation immigrant currently getting a bachelor’s or graduate degree, or recently graduated, you’re the one with the big question mark. The choice is really up to you. Most likely you went abroad in order to improve your chances of succeeding in the global market; have you achieved your goal? Do you have enough now to put you in good stead to make that big contribution to Africa or the world? Have you received an attractive internship or job offer from the organization of your dreams? Have you established a solid professional network with high-level contacts? Or have you finalized your business plan and lined up trustworthy partners for that entrepreneurial venture?
Let us not forget what this is all about: gold. Figuratively. We all want to be gainfully employed, either entrepreneurially or in professional careers; we all want to earn enough to be able to afford some of the conveniences of life, cater for our families, contribute to charitable causes, and save some for the next generation. Gold enables us to do just that, but choosing the right gold field to set up a mine requires wisdom. Not everybody is a gold explorer; some of us just like the bling. If you’re not built for the hustle, stay where you are and promote African causes with all your energy; that’s a contribution too. If you’re comfortable enough to support your family, provide inspiration for millions back home, establish job security, build a solid reputation and find peace, again stay where you are.
This is not an attempt to discourage young, able and willing Africans from returning to contribute to the continent’s undeniable resurgence. Even the blind can perceive that Africa is finally on the cusp of greatness, and this time the promise is real. The danger however is the development of a ‘mob mentality’, through which sensationalism overtakes logic. There is a tendency for young susceptible Africans in the diaspora to over-dramatize their desire to return ‘home’, walking away from hard-earned opportunities and missing out on openings for tremendous personal and professional development. A young African who returns to the continent ill-equipped is of lesser benefit to the continent’s growth than a home-based revolutionary whose perspective hasn’t been obscured by Western fascinations.
After all is said and done, the big question is “Why do some people endure all the hardship, the long hours beneath the earth’s surface, the extreme heat, the exposure to hazardous dusts and gases, the physical demands and mental stress, in search of gold dust?” It’s all about the promise. Not everyone is an explorer. Exploration requires mental strength, unmatched foresight, extreme determination and a solid strategy. Those who live in gold know exactly how to earn it. For them, it’s not enough to purchase a gold necklace; they have to build gold castles. Returning to Africa will not be easy for everyone, but it will be very rewarding for those who know how to explore. This is not a team sport; each individual must choose for themselves whether to forget the African gold, or to dig in for the long haul. After all, Africa is still rising!
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.