The New Times (Kigali)

16 November 2012

Rwanda: 'johnny Come Lately' On the African Diaspora

Photo: Business Daily.
Counting foreign currency.

column

In the winter of 2003, I found myself hurdled up in a 4 bed shared flat in Streatham, south London.

The temperature on the outside was -13 degrees Celsius. It had never occurred to me that there was a need to dress up for bed. I had to learn pretty fast. It wasn't just pyjamas but body tights and woollen shocks.

For some reason, the reality of living in Europe was punning out very differently from my earlier imagination.

Images of playing in the snow where quickly being replaced with curling up in bed underneath two blankets and a duvet!

My impressions of the UK were primarily from the movies but for some reason, I don't remember ever seeing a scene in any movie with a bunch of Jamaicans, Nigerians and Somalis waiting at a bus stop opposite Streatham Hill station for the number 57 to Kingston upon Thames!

An old English saying asserts that 'the proof of the pudding is in the eating' and boy did I get my fair share!

Suffice it to say that with each passing year spent in Europe, I appreciated the motherland more! To this date I can't still fathom why some would sell all they own just for a shot at setting foot in the 'promised land' that many Africans see Europe to be.

I blame it on misinformation. It was Alexander pope, that prodigious English poet that rightly pointed out that 'a little learning is a dangerous thing'. Better to live in bliss without knowing the first thing about space than to take a weekend class in astronomy and assume you know everything about the moon, the planets and the stars.

In August 2011, a series titled 'surprising Europe' premiered on Al-Jazeera Television.

The show's purpose is to capture real life stories of Africans living in Europe and the different challenges they face on a daily basis. It is as informative as it is humbling. I recommend it as pre-requisite preparation for anyone intending to immigrate to Europe from Africa.

There are tales of capsized boats off the Moroccan coast, forced prostitution, drug dealing and racial abuse. Parental Advisory; it's not for the faint hearted!

Watching 'surprising Europe' made me wonder where this fascination came from. Every year thousands of Africans are leaving our motherland to cross oceans and make a new life elsewhere despite the apparent perils of making the journey.

Our ancestors had to initially be bound and dragged out of Africa. How then did this change to us now risking our lives to make the same trip?

A look at history reveals that this is not a recent phenomenon. While it is true that the Arab slave trade and later the transatlantic slave trade accounted for the biggest exodus from the African continent before the end of the nineteenth century, there was some voluntary immigration as well.

As early as the 1860's Africans were making their way across the Atlantic to seek employment.

Reports show that men of African origin were engaging in the whaling business in Massachusetts at the time. By 1921, they dominated whaling in New England to the extent that laws had to be introduced banning further African immigrants from coming to North America to engage in the whaling business.

Even more surprising is that amongst our ancestors are men who took to the high seas as part of expeditionary forces to conquer new territory.

An African named Juan Garrido crossed the Atlantic in the 1500s and participated in many invasions on the South American continent before settling in Mexico City. He is acknowledged as the man who introduced the cultivation of wheat to South America.

Today people of African descent make up forty five percent of Brazil's population. Such is the reach of the African Diaspora. From Australia to Alaska, you are certain to find an African. Across the world outside the African continent you can find 180-200 million people who can trace their ancestry in less than three generations directly to Africa.

While people like Barack Obama and Kofi Annan may be prominent on the global political scene, Africans in the Diaspora tend to contribute more at lower ranks in both public and private sectors. In the areas like the military, health services as nurses and care workers and in transport and construction as maintenance engineers.

The monkey on every African's back seems to be the continued portrayal by western media of our brothers and sisters as scroungers who depend on state welfare to get by. It may be true that some African political refugees get to Europe and North America and resort to collecting welfare food stamps.

Most times, however, it's a result of not being able to get the jobs they are qualified for and not having access to the resources to start their private businesses. Living off welfare is usually an act of desperation not opportunism.

For the most part, Africans in the Diaspora are very enterprising. Figures from a World Bank 2010 report estimate that up to USD 40billion is sent back to Africa annually from the Diaspora. It is a fair guess to assume that this money did not come from welfare handouts.

International businesses such Dahabshiil Bank and money transfer have been born out of the transfer of funds between Africa and its kin around the world. These are the stories to be celebrated but the international media prefers to focus on the famines and coups.

It is acknowledged that Africa is the cradle of humanity and by extension ancient civilisation. The next chapter in that story should be the recognition of the new face of Africa.

A good place to start would be to toast the African Diaspora across the world.

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