African Migration and the Diaspora

I was crying as I watched a news report about a young African man with a college degree who was part of a group of migrants that had drowned when their boat sank while they were trying to reach Europe from Africa. His sister was saying that he had been to Europe before so she did not understand why he had not applied for a visa and gone to Europe the legal way. The reality is that getting visas to Europe is hard for young Africans and as European countries grapple with their own financial woes they do not want African migrants to add to their burden. The word ‘migrant’ has been carefully chosen by the media because to call these people refugees would bestow a certain legal status and sympathy upon them. Actually, the people risking their lives and their savings on flimsy boats trying to get to Europe are refugees. They are not refugees of war but economic refugees. When you can no longer make a living and find food to eat, you might as well be in a war.

African migration to Europe comes in waves. During the Zimbabwe liberation struggle, many countries opened their doors to Black Zimbabweans due to the situation at home. My family is from Mutare, the border town on the east of Zimbabwe where during the 60s and 70s young people would cross over into Mozambique to join the armed struggle or go abroad to study. My mother’s sister left in such a manner and was provided a British passport then she went to the UK where she studied nursing and lived in London for decades, married a fellow Zimbabwe and had three children. Their younger brother, my uncle, left when he was still in high school in the 70s so he too finished his education in the UK. The winds of change were blowing over Africa as the independence movement moved down the continent. The UK and Europe were full of Africans who had left home for political reasons and to flee wars. By 1980 Zimbabwe had its independence so my aunt and uncle, as well as many other Africans, started returning home to make a life in a free Zimbabwe. They gave up their British passports because dual-citizenship was deemed illegal and since it was an optimistic time, they lent their education and experience to rebuild their country. While the University of Zimbabwe was known for its high academic standards, it was the country’s only university at the time so many people failed to get in and ended up going abroad for their studies which meant there were still people leaving. Zimbabwe certainly did well for the first decade, the country had strong infrastructure and donors poured money into the country. Gradually the promise of African self-rule failed to deliver what its people had hoped for and political stability was no longer enough to keep Africans in Africa. The newly independent African governments failed to invest in infrastructure and were known for corruption. The majority of buildings in African cities are pre-independence which is why cities like Lagos are overcrowded because they were planned for much small populations decades ago. Economies started failing all over Africa due to mismanagement and some countries like Rwanda actually had wars. By 2000 Zimbabwe got embroiled in the land redistribution issue followed by the highest hyperinflation since the Weimar Republic. People started leaving the country again. Zimbabweans are known for their education but even trained professionals would just leave to do menial jobs in South Africa. It was not unheard of to go to a restaurant in South Africa and be told by your server that they were a doctor or a nurse from Zimbabwe.

The first time I went to Europe in winter was for a high school trip and I had never felt such cold so I vowed that I would never leave Africa. Fast forward to the 90s when I went to London to do a one-year degree at King’s College and I was very conscious to leave right after exams then I returned for graduation day because I had met too many Africans who were trapped living abroad. I did not want to spend decades in England like my aunt and uncle. Later on when I opted to go and study business in the US, I thought I would do a similar short stint of two yours then come back home but by 2000 everyone told me that coming back to Zimbabwe was not a good idea as the economy spiraled out of control so I ended up living in the Diaspora for 10 years. Coming back to Africa as an employed professional was no easy task but by the early 2000s there was wave of young African professionals moving back to to the continent, bringing their skills with them. The business press like ‘The Economist’ and ‘Bloomberg Businessweek’ wrote optimist features about Africa with titles like ‘ Africa Rising’. I was networking my way around the African business community in the US until I found a job which relocated me to South Africa in 2008. While the South African economy was good and living there was a blessing because it was close to home, Zimbabwe reached its lowest point in 2009 and abandoned the Zimbabwean dollar altogether in favor of the US dollar. I was fortunate to work as an expatriate in Nigeria for two years for AMSCO, a UN project then I felt confident enough to return to Zimbabwe in at the end of 2013. I was hired for about 3 months at a local bank that went under without ever paying me a cent in 2014. After that, in spite of my best efforts, I never found a job in Zimbabwe in over 3 years because there is 90% unemployment. I have an entrepreneurial spirit so I tried every sort of business: catering, making furniture, selling clothes, making clothes and trading but the Zimbabwean economy has taken a downturn again. A new Zimbabwean currency was introduced in 2016, cash is short and people have started leaving again. Everyone has seen this play out before and few people have the patience to go through tough economic times again. The problems are all over Africa. I visit Nigeria a lot and they are complaining about their economy. When I lived in Nigeria it was all champagne and good times but now my friends are struggling to make ends meet or travel like they used to. As comfortable as some of us returnees were after repatriation, and many of us thought we would never go back to live abroad where we have to do our own housework, the challenges are pushing many Africans to start looking elsewhere.

Like Nigerians who live in every corner of the globe, Zimbabweans are everywhere. I have traveled all over Africa and I found my people everywhere including Madagascar, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Namibia and Tanzania. Zimbabweans have become traders and they are brave enough to go to Dar es Salaam by bus or drive to Windhoek. The European embassies in Harare have got an unwritten rule not to issue out visas so Europe is not an option for most Zimbabweans. I am aggressive and experienced enough that when I need a visa to Europe I know what to do even the most difficult embassies like the Spanish. I visit Europe at least one or twice a year and I have noticed that most Africans settle in the country of their colonial masters. On a recent visit to Portugal I met many people from Angola and Cape Verde in Portugal. There are so many Zimbabweans in London when I go there is it like a homecoming and I have even have family there. Nigerians are braver in their choices of destinations and when I went to the Canton Fair last October I found a large Nigerian community living in Guangzhou. Language is usually a determinant of where people choose the live but many Africans are prepared to move to country where they have to learn the language first. Zimbabweans value education and parents are willing to sacrifice anything to give their children opportunities. Nowadays there is a cottage industry of independent college scouts in Zimbabwe who get paid as much as 40% of the year’s tuition for placing students in obscure and often unaccredited universities all over the world. When you listen to local radio in Zimbabwe you often hear them advertise unknown colleges in Australia, India, China and other unusual destinations. The Zimbabwean government is giving warnings to vet the school carefully because some students have ended up stranded in a foreign land or they came back with worthless diplomas after their parents have invested so much. The Chinese give out free scholarships to Zimbabwean students as long as they cover their own tuition and I met a young girl who was applying for a visa when I was applying for mine last year. She told me that during the orientation they were told that they were not allowed to date the local Chinese men once they got to China. A couple of months later I got a message from her saying she had been thrown out of school because they found out that she was HIV positive and she was stranded in Hong Kong alone.

Migration is not easy. I dug deep to tell the story of what motivated my moves in my new book ‘A Modern African Nomad’ on Amazon, so please read it and give me your opinion.