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The Writer and the Global Frontier

Looking back, it is sometimes difficult to believe that I have already spent four months abroad. How time blurs, in retrospect. When I left Lagos, almost a month late, for my originally scheduled six-month term as a writer-in-residence at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany, the months ahead had seemed like years. I had been somewhat loath to make that journey. Lagos has been my home for ten years, and perhaps I had become too immersed in its robust rituals to contemplate a relatively long spell abroad with favour. I have also never been particularly enamoured of solitude, because I carry enough of that in me. I have always preferred my sort of abstraction in the midst of the lively throng of Lagos, which is why I always prefer to live besides the roar of the road or the watering holes where men convoke to recharge themselves with the tumult of easy fellowship.

But I also knew why I had to make that journey. The grind of Lagos and the pressure of editing a weekly newsmagazine were energetically conspiring against my root profession as a writer. I was serving two exacting Caesars, and it was as if they both wanted my head on different platters. The experience of Solitude would liberate me for some time and allow me to concentrate on completing my second poetry collection and on actually writing a novel that I had mentally been grappling with. All through the previous year, I had achieved nothing more than some scattered lines, and it was evident to me that my writing career at that point needed the sort of ‘salvation’ that Solitude promised. Even if I achieved only one of my objectives, I reckoned, the experience would have been worth it.

Once I arrived at the Akademie and surveyed the setting -a residential, informal faculty of arts adjoining a castle, with miles of woodland as neighbours, and quite some distance from the heart of old old Stuttgart- I knew I would have to strive towards achieving both objectives. The pall of silence demanded a creative answer. Of course, there were other options, but I preferred not to recognise them beyond their worth. The excellent personnel encouraged creativity without demanding it, and continually prompted the fellows towards a higher awareness of their creative possibilities. I had arrived in the dead of winter, and the snow pondered me unkindly with tremors. But in all I consider my months in Solitude as perhaps the most important period in my writing career so far. I completed the novel and the poetry collection, of course, but I also did more than that. I had the time, and the atmosphere, for a lot of significant soul-searching. In Solitude, I rediscovered myself.

But it was outside Solitude that I rediscovered the world, the burgeoning world of economic exiles, and contextualised it with the benefit of personal experience. My first major journey outside Stuttgart was to America, where I was scheduled to give a reading at Harvard University alongside Obi Nwakanma and Akin Adesokan, two Nigerian writers currently living in America. Before the journey to Harvard, I chose to spend some time in Alexandria, Virginia, with a Nigerian friend who has lived in America for fourteen years. I had spent four weeks travelling through America in 1999 as a participant in the International Visitors Programme. I understood a bit more about “the home of the brave and the land of the free” during this recent visit.

The high-rise block of apartments where my friend lives presents a picture of what America is becoming. The Latino presence is so strong that the English language seems endangered in that vicinity. There are actually a couple of fellows who live there whose knowledge of the language consists only of a mumble of English syllables. Around the corner, there are Latino shops and cafes selling everything from recordings of salsa music to a meal of chicken frijitas that I could as well have set out for America and ended up in Mexico. It struck me that the movement my friend’s neighbours had made was only a gravitation towards a larger economic space, not a cultural immersion. They had actually travelled and arrived with their villages and hometowns in their battered suitcases. And whatever obeisance they paid to America’s grand idea of itself was only a matter of survival.

“When are you going to learn Spanish?” I said to my friend. “Very soon, you can’t live here without it, and your little daughter is probably going to grow up with a knowledge of Spanish and none of Igbo language.”

“Does it matter? Spanish is almost becoming an official language in the States. Besides, according to the latest statistics, the Latino population has just about caught up with the black population.”

We spent some time analysing what it would mean to have the black population displaced by Latinos as the major minority group in America, knowing that political and economic concessions are often powered by demographic details. However, considering the history and signposts of the black presence in America, the arithmetic may not be that simple in this case.

“Many of the Latinos do not believe in abortion, and the African-Americans seem to have become very white in the way they go about marriage. So, what do you expect? But there are a number of Africans here, only they hardly speak anything else but English.”

“We don’t have the advantage of a common language like the Latinos seem to do. But I think Africans coming abroad now are more inclined to speak their native languages or Pidgin English than ever before. There are more of them, and they are no longer apologetic.”

“What does it matter anyway? A lot of us will never live fully in Africa again. Many people in my daughter’s generation will probably grow up with only the idea of Africa.”

Only the idea of Africa. The idea filled my head on my way to Harvard. I was reminded of some of the people I had met in Stuttgart who had expressly told me that they would never return home: a Nigerian student who arrived a year ago; an Eritrean who has been living abroad for ten years; a Cameroonian who has been away for seven years; and a Turkish photographer who is also a student. The new exodus obviously goes beyond Africans leaving their homes for better economic opportunities abroad. The current seems to ripple through all the countries of the world where living standards are poor, and very many people in those countries are therefore scouting determinedly for ways of going abroad as economic exiles.

Those who can mass outside foreign embassies in their countries to brave the horrors of getting a visa do so. Others brave the horror of the perilous crossing across the Sahara Desert for increasingly improbable entries into Spain. Both are driven by the horror of remaining in their homeland where the government preys on its citizens as it runs homicidal errands dressed as “economic adjustment programmes” by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Many leave with the idea that they will someday return, heralded by their success. Some die on the way. According to a recent BBC documentary, many of those who attempt the crossing into Spain are emptied into the high seawater; many more are stranded on the route to Morocco. Many of those who reach their destinations will return finally only as corpses. Some will never return at all. For the generation born abroad, the prospect of return may be even bleaker.

My contemplation found some sort of validation in an encounter I had on my way from Boston to New York after the reading. As Akin had uncannily deciphered, the driver of the Greyhound bus taking me to New York was an Igbo man. We did not have much chance for a conversation until I alighted in New York. I bid him farewell in Igbo as I hurried to make the bus connection to Washington. Initially seeming not to understand me, he soon hurried after me, and right there in the middle of that bustling bus station we had a lively conversation -in Igbo.

“So you’re indeed Igbo?” he asked me.

“I am, from Anambra State -Nnewi.”

“I’m from Imo. You live in New York?”

“No, I came from Germany. I’m on my way to Washington. I’ll go back from there.”

“You live in Germany?”

“No, in Nigeria. I’m only on a short programme in Germany.”

“Nigeria! How’s that country now?”

“Well, we have democracy now, but things are still muddled up. You haven’t been to Nigeria recently?”

“Nigeria! No, but I’m planning to go soon.”

“When was the last time you went home?”

“Not since I came here.”

“When did you come here?”

“1975.”

“Twenty-six years ago?”

“My brother, you know the way it is. First, I gave myself five years, then another five years. It’s a long story. And that’s the problem I have now. Some people are even telling me I need to go with somebody who will introduce me in the village.”

“They must be pulling your legs. Certainly, if you go to your village, there’ll be people whom you will know, and those who will know you. Or, look me up when you get to Lagos.” I scribbled my address for him.

“Thank you very much. I will surely make it soon.”

“So, why are you going now? Did anything happen?”

“Too much has happened already. I don’t even know my family situation anymore. Sometimes, the thought worries me, accuses me. I want to go this time, see how things are, visit all those who have been bereaved, then I’ll come back.”

As I left him, I felt almost certain that he would not make that journey. He had a strong pull homeward, it seemed to me, because he had left Nigeria as an adult -to get a university education, which he never did- but he had kept it off too long. If he ever did go, it would be only as some sort of exorcism of his personal demons, something to make his mind easier. This fellow was no longer in exile. He was at home, sort of -in America. For people like him, the question of returning no longer arises. Not because he no longer romanticises about it, but the will he now needs to travel from the romance of the here and now to the romance of the there and then is far greater than the tempo of remembering and forgetting from a distance. And with many more Nigerians pouring into America with tales of political and economic misfortunes back home, it is easy for him to suffer further discouragement.

My next international visit was to Amsterdam. I had gone primarily to see Uche Nduka, a Nigerian writer who has been abroad for seven years and currently makes his home both in Amsterdam and in Bremen, Germany.

“You’ve actually become robust, Uche,” I noted as we embraced at the Centraal, “and you indeed look like someone who’s been abroad for a long time. There’s a certain sheen Africans seem to have when they stay abroad for a long time. I guess it’s the weather. And your dreadlocks …”

“It’s a hairstyle, like any other.”

After depositing my bag in his room in an attic, we set out for Amsterdam’s famous red light district. I had supposed that it is just a street or two for hookers such as Ayilara Street in Lagos or 42nd Street in New York. I was wrong. It is a whole area around some of Amsterdam’s ubiquitous canals where a lot of semi-nude girls, hundreds of them, pose behind lit glass cubicles and twinkle at potential clients. Quite a prostitution factory. The processing plant is in Amsterdam, but the raw materials are imports from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and the poor countries of the world. Uche spoke of a local mafia that sometimes functions to import these girls -and to extort them. It was clear to me that, besides the ‘protectors’ that ring that area, even a more sinister mafia known as ‘government’ in their home countries functions to transform many of these girls into economic desperadoes. Behind those glass cubicles, I could read the history of the modern world -the consequence of colonial experiments and plots, of corrupt and neo-colonial governments, and of the scaling of international borders by poverty.

We set up our ‘newsroom’ at a cafe run by a woman from Dominican Republic, and we set ourselves the task of coming up with a short contemporary history of the red light district in five days. That cafe was where we held our editorial board meetings -listening to the music of Ruan Rodriguez and sipping a cold beer. Among our book-length findings, these two register here. There is some sort of incomplete segmentation there. In the section for African girls, many of them prefer only sexual liaisons with white men. It is not so much a question of money as the fact that these girls seem to consider sex with white men as not ‘problematic’ either to their present or their future but only some form of overseas labour to earn enough money to send home and to possibly prepare for an eventual return. A matching logic may be the way in which many Africans married to white women do not consider it a ‘proper’ marriage but just a matter of convenience to regularise their stay abroad. Beyond the economics of exile, there is also its relational politics.

With about forty percent non-Dutch residents, Amsterdam is often described as a city of foreigners. It is also the city of easy friendships. Nevertheless, the clustering evident in many other countries abroad is also discernible. Many of the Africans live in “council flats” at Biljmeer Meer, a relatively unsafe area where the elevators hardly work and the garbage disposal is often uncertain. But it was the place we went to for the best meal I had on that trip -a bowl of pounded yam and brimming egusi soup that gave us ample energy to commence an animated disputation on modern Nigerian literature in English, especially on the present situation with perhaps up to a hundred Nigerian writers living abroad. That restaurant in Biljmeer Meer evoked the image of several cities in America where the rapid proliferation of African shops ensures that African immigrants probably eat better African meals than those back home. Both the clustering and the phenomenon of African shops function to tone the loneliness and misery of exile. These are approximate homelands. In the days of empire, the white imperialists had clustered in the “Government Reserved Areas” in the colonies. Today, there is still that sort of clustering by white expatriate workers in Africa, but usually in the choice areas -not in the Biljmeer Meers of this world.

In the days we spent in Bremen, after Amsterdam, I began to take stock of the number of seemingly white children with a discernible African or black paternity. Bremen was where I met quite a number of Nigerians married to white women -for the purpose of obtaining residence permits. It was also where I heard the story that a group of German women actually came together recently to canvass the idea that it would be preferable for them to pay some sort of Africa Development Tax than have Africans flooding into their countries. This is, of course, a very problematic proposal. Apart from the administration problems that it poses, the truth is that Europe needs migrant labour. The other side of the social welfare system is that some Europeans actually prefer not to work. In a country like Holland with a fraying economy, the government is said to be rethinking its social welfare system and even creating jobs that only put more people at work without increasing productivity. There is an unfolding story in Amsterdam with respect to how the government has managed the pension funds. The calculation was that as more people continued to work, the rising taxes on personal income would provide pension payments for retired workers. But it is not working out that way. Not only is the idea of family fraying and thus depleting the labour force, there is also the fond reliance on welfare payments. In the interim, while the government grapples with a nationalistic solution, migrant labour is a significant contribution. It will continue to be, considering both the diligence of that labour force and the fact that some of those being driven abroad by the situation back home are among their country’s best brains.

Even the idea of keeping Africans out of Europe is a dream already overpowered by circumstance. Something tells me that we are living at the dawn of a new history. We are witnessing one of the largest mass movements in history, with the growth in number of a new generation of Nigerian-Americans or Eritrean-Germans and other such hyphenations -both as a consequence of dual citizenship and as a matter of experience. Many have come to stay, and many will keep on staying while forever planning an eventual return. And many more will come, not so much because they love their country less but because they would rather live relatively well outside it than live niggardly within it. It does not matter how much more nightmarish the process of getting a visa gets, or how much more unfair airfares from Africa become, or how much more xenophobic and racist the host countries and their citizens become. Many more will find a way across the borders because to remain at home is to waste and perish, apparently. I remember my visit to San Diego, California in 1999 -on the International Visitors Programme. From across America’s border with Mexico, we could see the gloomy squalor of Tijuana. According to our guide, there seemed no stopping the illegal border-crossings from Tijuana, whereas there were few such crossings around America’s border with Canada. In the battle to maintain the integrity of the Tijuana border, some of the illegal immigrants had been shot down. And some members of America’s border patrol too. It is a sad story.

The only way to keep the borders safe may well be to ensure an acceptable minimum living standard across borders. A species of competition may produce some ripples, such as the way many more western companies are being sited in poorer countries so as to achieve a competitive edge by exploiting cheaper labour, but this may even turn out to be more provocative -with the yawning disparity in salary structures. Of course, there is the consideration that the rest of the world does not owe Africa and other poor regions a solution to their problems. There is even no denying that much of Africa’s contemporary poverty is self-induced. Africa’s politicians and rulers have mostly been a great curse to the continent. But there is the root argument that many African countries are stultified colonial experiments, and there is of course the domineering spirit of international capitalism, which only understands the language of market advantage -western advantage in this case. But poverty is not just a statistical subtraction; it is about people and the burden of being. Many of the economic exiles are not fleeing abroad so much to collect a national or regional ‘debt’ as the fact that they are driven by poverty -and they will go to wherever there are, or there seems to be, better conditions.

And many will go with the feeling that they cannot afford to return “until the situation back home improves”, so they will tolerate or stare back at whatever confronts them. In Bremen, I was told a story by someone just back from a visit to Korea about how an employer pays his African employees by throwing their salaries on the ground.

“And what do they do?” I asked.

“They pick the money, and clean off the dust.”

He it was too who told me that he appreciated Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart better when he reread it after years of living in Germany. It is a new generation, not so much in age as in experience. Once upon a time, there was a generation of Africans that went abroad, mostly to get an education and return home thereafter. Many did. Then there came my generation. We had grown up nurtured on a diet of American movies in which actors like Lorne Greene and John Wayne made America seem like a new-age paradise. Many of my high school classmates who left for America in the eighties never got a college education. Some even spent some time in jail. Some of those that did come home spewed Americanisms like oral testimonials. This new generation is powered mostly by economic considerations, not apologetic acculturation. Where they have to speak the local language to get along, as in most countries in Europe, they learn it with determination -but only as a bridge towards their goal, mainly.

The logical expectation is what this mass movement will affect – or afflict. The last time Africans moved out in vast numbers, they changed the history of America. They arrived as slaves, but they were the ones who taught America freedom and equality. Of course, the Americans like to claim that the Pilgrim Fathers brought with them those ideas because they had been victims of persecution. Freedom and equality for themselves and their kind, perhaps. If not, where did the momentum for the transatlantic slave trade come from? Or why were the Indians corralled into homelands? It took the persistent rebellion of African slaves to re-examine the economics of slavery and rewrite the history of America. The oft-cited ‘American motto’ of freedom and equality was truly written by the blood of African slaves. It took that for America to accept that all men are created equal. And a civil war was required as part of the mental adjustment process. Even today America is still learning. That up to a hundred white cabdrivers could be indicted for refusing black fares is testimonial enough. And this was not something that happened deep in the labyrinth of history. This happened only like yesterday, in my time in America this twenty first century.

How will this new exodus help the native countries of the migrants? I am told that some blacks abroad even prey on one another. And that some do not even help themselves -such as some of the junkies we saw outside the coffee shops in Amsterdam, or the Nigerian drug peddlers in Germany or those who arrive expecting or plotting instant riches. My experience has been different. I have benefited significantly from Nigerians and other Africans abroad. But beyond personal relations, the expectation is that the new generation abroad should function as co-heralds of a new order at home. They have a stake in the building of the sort of country in which they would rather live or be associated with. This is the greater challenge to the growing migrant population abroad. Hopefully, the growth of town and country unions will do more than cater for the interests of the immigrants themselves but actually begin to build homeward bridges. It can happen in several ways, from Western Union cash transfers to nationality websites or representations, from political projects to economic corridors. In today’s international labour economics, Africa is the great loser -with the mind-boggling number of intellectuals that it is losing in a mental drain that is seriously impoverishing the human resources of the continent. Having travelled from the heart of a question to the margins of an answer, what do they have to say to the motherland -and what do they have to say about it? What do they have to say to the western intellectuals who study Africans almost like insects, as they strive to invent more reasons for the world to give up on the continent?

The odds are great, but it is conceivable that this mass movement could ultimately affect colour relations by creating a ‘global’ colour or ancestry that will add ‘tan’ or the idea of it to the colour vocabulary. Genetic nomadism may well be the logical consequence of the economic nomadism being prompted by the globalisation of poverty among the world’s poorer peoples, and the poverty of globalisation among the richer sorts. Although the world may never become ‘colourless’, it may become so much more ‘colourful’ that the idea of colour may pale much more than is the reality today. The idea of it, in the sense of deeply addressing the vestiges of racial suspicions and tension. But even with the upsurge in nationality hyphenations, the personal and institutional politics of colour purity is still strong. A species of ethnic nationalism continues to feed on this. And the idea of colour is not unlikely to remain connected to root aspects of race history and relations, because so much has happened between the races -and so much continues to happen. Only this seems clear enough: the world is at a new human frontier, and those who only conceive of the global village from the point of view of technology and communications have better take a thoughtful look outside their windows.

For me as a writer, the good thing is that after my travels, I returned to Solitude and I set to work on my new narrative on this new frontier. It is, in the main, the new story of Nigeria, of Africa, of the world.

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Originally appeared on nigeriansinamerica.com

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