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In a time of mass migration

‘The migrant feels that she is a squatter in a world she does not own. The migrant story, which speaks to what is wrong with the world we already have, is used to make us feel afraid of the possibility of changing that world.’
In 1990 just before a World Cup football match between Italy and Argentina, Diego Maradona urged Neapolitans to support Argentina because “You shouldn’t forget that in Italy they do not consider you to be Italian. The country comes and asks for your support for just one day of the year, and for the other 364 they’ll call you Africans.” It was an amusing moment. In his ways, Maradona had put the finger on a particular skin colour hierarchy that is in evident operation as one moves from north Africa and up northward through western Europe.

There are several times more Africans in Italy and other Mediterranean countries than there were in 1990. More often than not, the aim is to get to countries that are further north. In recent years we have witnessed Africans arriving here through the most desperate ways, sometimes falling out of the skies onto properties around Heathrow Airport. Often the position that these arrivals occupy in the global socio-economic matrix is not too unlike that of anyone in an average de-industrialised town or city in the Midlands, but this is a whole constellation of ideas that is well outside the Overton window. Power has the capacity to shape the moment so as to make certain possibilities invisible. In this way, when the flag is invoked, people can rally into predictable groupings, and the migrant emerges as the figure to which every problem can be traced. Power prefers vertical relationships and abhors horizontal ones.

That using the migrant to stoke fears in people is a winning political manoeuvre is perhaps not surprising. After all the obstacles that the migrant figure faces are not new – the past holds a long and miserable record of these moments. Decolonisation gathers irreversible speed in Africa once the colonised start to question their rulers’ fidelity to the humanists and enlightenment values that they held up as the pinnacle in the progress of human thought. Humanism, in its progressive ways, wanted Africans to be universal like Europeans but racist practices kept denying Africans their place as members of the human family. The migrant faces identical hurdles. The migrant story, which largely speaks to what is wrong with the world we already have, is used to make us feel afraid of the possibility of changing that world.

The 21st world is a towering and baroque construction. At every corner, it has been shaped by the desire of one group of people or one gender, or one social group to control, in ways simultaneously delicate and savage, the Other rather than embrace their freedom. But a world created by such impulses can only be maintained by even more acts of violence on the Other, and sometimes on the self. Unsurprisingly, we get surprised after one tragedy or another and ask ourselves, is this who we really are? Is this what we have become?

Often we do not want to see. Sometimes the moment is shaped in a way that makes it a struggle to understand ourselves outside notions of domination. What is more, the more certain we are that we understand, the more likely we are to leave no doubt that we do not understand. Sometimes it is the regimes that we live in that make it impossible to embrace the exuberance of freedom. To those who own, the possibility of change is always a threat.

Freedom is an anxiety-inducing notion where it is selectively embraced. In the past, it has been the battle cry of the African nationalists who spearheaded the independence efforts on the continent. Today freedom is the cry of right-wing nationalists in North America, continental Europe and the UK. But freedom is also an idea that takes on the appearance of a pair of oversized trousers when it is spoken about from a place of bad faith. If one wants freedom for themselves, the only consistent and coherent position to take is to want freedom for others.

If while flying across any continent and gaze down, you see the world as it is, as it has always been. You do not see borders between countries unless they happen to be rivers or the like. When fish cross an imaginary line around our isles, they become our fish. When human beings do the same, they become migrants, are confined to refugee camps, wait to be vetted and informed whether they deserve to join the society. Most of those refugees do not make it past the bureaucratic test. Almost all of them would have had to cross several borders and the Mediterranean Sea before they are in a camp or detention centre. They arrive with high hopes that in Western Europe, enlightened Europe, they will finally be able to claim their human rights. They almost always discover that their human rights are not there to be claimed.

The migrant understands, sometimes consciously, that the world is organised in categories that are largely the legacy of the wealthier nations’ grand projects. The migrant knows that the wealthy possess the world in ways that their poor cousins never can; the migrant knows that she is a squatter in a world she does not own; the migrant knows that there are corners of the world where ugliness must manifest in order for beauty, luxury and wealth to manifest themselves in far away emporiums. The migrant knows how to follow a trail, even without knowing that traders of agricultural commodities sitting in London or New York can starve some people in Africa and also make themselves immensely wealthy overnight by speculating on grain commodities in sub-Saharan Africa, buying up almost everything and later selling at a price that puts food way beyond the reach of the average African.

Dear reader, I promise you will be rewarded for your forbearance. I am unable to promise is the magnitude of the reward since, as you surely know, literature has a tendency to reward in proportion to what you bring into it. Without your ear all this writing business is meaningless.

In Portrait of a Life, Amaal Said traces the story of her family through a relationship photo essay that takes us to Kenya, Denmark and the UK. In Inhumance Henrietta Rose-Innes turns her eye to the historical exchange of flora and fauna between the UK and the Cape region. An extract from a memoir, Rokel Dees, that Delia Jarrett-Macauley’s is working on gives us a glimpse into her upbringing in Leicester while in What Enid Blyton Did To Me Billy Kahora meditates on finding his bearings after settling in Bristol, having left Nairobi. Chika Unigwe’s flash fiction, Odili, invites you into the precarious existence of Nigerian man who works as a security guard at a supermarket in London. Olumide Popoola’s reimagines a Calais migrants’ lament in You Can’t Breathe Water.

Brian Chikwava

Brian Chikwava is a Zimbabwean writer and musician. He studied engineering at the University of Bristol and his short story Seventh Street Alchemy won the 2004 Caine Prize for African writing in English. His celebrated debut novel, Harare North, was published by Jonathan Cape in 2009. He was awarded a Charles Pick Fellowship in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, and lives in London.