Why do Africans flee even peaceful homelands? Some politically incorrect reflections

If the continent is to keep most of its people at home, it needs to build more lights.

Ghana went home without a win and failed to qualify for the knockout stage of the World Cup in Brazil, but it seems 200 of its citizens are determined to stay behind and score something.

Though Ghana prides itself as one of Africa’s most peaceful and open societies, this week the government in Accra was embarrassed when 200 of its World Cup fans asked for asylum in Brazil.

The fans claimed they were Muslims fleeing religious conflict, according to Brazilian police. Anyone who knows Ghana today would immediately figure that that is not true.

The Ghanaians sought asylum in Caxias do Sul, more than 1,600 km (1,000 miles) away from the venues where the Ghanaian team played - the north-eastern cities of Natal and Fortaleza and in the capital, Brasilia.

Brazil police said another 1,000 Ghanaians are expected to request refugee status after the tournament ends on Sunday.

The likelihood that the Ghanaians were not persecuted became more apparent, when it emerged that the asylum seekers part of the official group of 650 fans sent to Brazil to support the national team – comprising mostly supporters of the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC).

Yet a different version of this Ghanaians-in-Brazil story happens daily as an ever increasing number of citizens from all corners of the continent make perilous journeys on overcrowded boats to European shores—-and perish in their hundreds.

However, to understand why so many Africans flee their homes and lands, one needs to look beyond persecution, conflict, and classic poverty. True, hundreds of thousands – from the north of Africa to the south -have left their homelands because of conflicts and repression, but increasingly they are not the only ones.

Last month about 30 bodies were found in a migrant boat that was stopped between Sicily and the North African coast, bringing to nearly 700 the estimated number of Africans who have died in dangerous crossings on the high seas over the last year alone. 

And in one week alone during the month, more than 1,600 migrants were rescued by Italian authorities, raising the total number of migrants for the year at that point to above 60,000. The number is expected to soar past the record 63,000 set in 2011 during the Arab Spring uprisings.

A lot the people who make these desperate journeys are looking for something better in life, and they must be admired for willing to die for their dreams. However, by the time you get a ticket to go and cheer the national team at a World Cup far away in Latin America, it means you are already part of a relatively small privileged group. As the saying goes in many parts of Africa, you are in “the eating group”. When you then go on from there to seek political asylum, you are afraid of something deeper that is broken, and that membership of the ruling party cannot give you sufficient sense of security about.

The police chief of Caxias do Sul gave us some insight about what really is happening with the Ghanaians: “This region - Serra Gaucha - is known as an area of full employment. It has became a magnet for foreign workers,” Noerci da Silva Melo told the news agency Agencia Brasil said.

“You go through the streets and you can see many Haitians and Senegalese selling pirate CDs and watches. The area is overcrowded now,” Melo said.

However, there must be more to this issue. Indeed, there is, and a lot of it is inconvenient, blasphemous, and politically incorrect, but it must be confronted.

•AFRICA IS DARK, IT NEEDS MORE LIGHT: Compared to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR), or South Sudan, Ghana is paradise. It is among Africa’s most democratic and open countries that, until a year ago, had rosy economic growth numbers. However, more Ghanaians still leave their country than do the people of nearly-wretched DRC, CAR, South Sudan or Nigeria.

Travelling around the small towns in the African countryside, or the capitals of the west that have many African immigrants, could offer us some explanations. In the small towns, most people will gather the under one or two street lights in the night. In London or Lisbon, in the evenings African immigrants gather in well-lit squares, chatting, playing music, and dancing.

Africa is the least lit continent, partly because we also have the least electricity. The general effect is that the nights are boring. Because it’s dark, people don’t travel far after dusk, and tend to go to bed early. That can take a toll even on people who have a small house and a job that affords them two meals a day. There comes a point when it makes more sense to stowaway, in the hope that you will get to New York and just sit and watch the lights of Times Square and the mass of humanity into the wee hours of the morning. Therefore, if Africa is to keep most of its people at home, it needs more lights.

•THERE IS TOO MUCH OF THE ‘NATIVE’ AROUND: In my many years of travel in the west, I have always taken time out to watch those African music groups play in city squares. They have incredible energy, and sometimes talent, that is a joy to behold. But that is the least reason why they fascinate me. There is something else. It is their diversity, drawn as they tend to be from Africans who hail from different parts of the continent, and frequently from the Caribbean, the occasional Asian, and “white folks” as the African Americans would say. There is something attractive in Caxias do Sul’s police chief Melo’s statement that, “You go through the streets and you can see many Haitians and Senegalese selling pirate CDs and watches”. That is a scene out of Paris or Rome.

Why does any of that matter? Ethnic and clan dynamics rule life too much in Africa. Many Africans leverage their tribal connections to move forward, yes, but I think it is also suffocating them. I sense that life surrounded by your ethnic mates, their music, and prejudices, is beginning to overwhelm many Africans. Getting a life these days probably means getting as far away from the tribe as is possible for some of them.

•WE HAVE LOST TOO MANY THINGS IN POLITICAL FIRES: If you are an African who is over 40 and didn’t go to an elite private school, or weren’t born in an expensive private hospital, there is a part of your childhood that is gone. The school you studied at and hospital where you were born have decayed. The lively small town where your parents worked is dead. The road to your aunt’s village has been eaten up by a bush. Your relative fell ill, was taken to a nearby government hospital, and when you went to see her she was lying on a metal bed without a mattress, and hadn’t been examined by a doctor for two days. They eventually did see her…after you bribed the nurse and the doctor.

At your old university student life is so desperate, if it is in one of the countries that have had conflict, the female students line up along the university streets to sell sex to business people who come in from the city.

Even if these things don’t affect you directly, and you encounter them as an outside or a more privileged member of a particular African society, it still unsettles you. It can be very hard to be optimistic about the future. It takes courage to believe that things will be better for your children. Many Africans don’t have the courage. They take off. Fortunately for the continent, an increasing number do, and they are staying to fight the fight.



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