Academic journal article Journal of Third World Studies

"Diasporas," Mobility and the Social Imaginary: Getting Ahead in West Africa

Academic journal article Journal of Third World Studies

"Diasporas," Mobility and the Social Imaginary: Getting Ahead in West Africa

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The nature of African mobility has undergone significant shifts in the past five centuries, though still framed by global--more specifically western, capitalist--political economies. The era of Atlantic slave trade witnessed the circulation of African bodies and the creation of an African Diaspora. It was colonial rule that effectively ended slave trade and slavery in Africa, substituting a trade in commodities for the trade in people. Primary exports became the valuable output from colonial Africa, and African mobility was limited to colonial and regional migrant labor. Old African trading Diasporas such as the Hausa underwent a gradual decline with colonial boundaries and commercial competition from expatriate businesses. These expatriate businesses included those of the Lebanese, who migrated to West Africa in increasing numbers from the 1860s. There were episodic moments when large numbers of Africans became extremely mobile, for example those that served in colonial armies during the two World Wars and saw action in Europe and Asia. Their return to their home colonies energized nationalist sentiment and activity. A few colonized Africans went to Europe and North America for higher education and returned to lead these nationalist movements. Postcolonial Africa has occasioned a new era of African mobility characterized by economic migration, and refugee flows from conflicts and natural disasters. It cannot be disputed, then, that the last century has witnessed large scale voluntary mobility for Africans; and individual Africans, African governments and governments outside of Africa have mobilized to harness, define and limit these flows according to their strategic interests.

The Africa Diaspora- referring to the communities of African descent created through involuntary migration or the slave trade--and transnationalism have entwined to become key resources in the economic planning of African governments. Individual Africans see the Diaspora and trasnationalism as important strategies of survival and accumulation. Diasporic communities in the Americas represent magnets that attract contemporary Africans in search of brighter futures, who derive comfort from shared racial affinities. Increasing opportunities to forge simultaneous social networks in two countries or more--transnationalism--have encouraged Africans to explore non-traditional sites of migration, and today West Africans can be found in relatively new destinations such as Japan, Hong Kong, and Thailand. The jet age and the revolution in information technology bridge vast distances, shortening the emotional distance between abroad and home. In a major forthcoming work on the Gold Coast between the 17th and 19th centuries, historian Ray Kea asks what it felt like to live in 18th century Gold Coast with its context of an intensifying Atlantic slave trade, predatory native states such as Akwamu, Akyem and Asante, and a general sense of insecurity that pervaded even the lives of the socially privileged. (1) I ask what it has felt like to live in the last century in West Africa for non-African migrants who have made Africa their home, for example the Lebanese, and for West Africans who have seized the opportunity to be mobile within Africa and beyond. This is to explore the social imaginary made possible by the incredible mobility of the past century or so. Ghanaian youth are obsessed with finding "a connection" that would take them "abroad" to Europe or North America with the firm belief that they would "succeed" in life once they get there and return as "big men" and "big women." People dress up to go to the airport as a social event just to witness those returning from overseas and traveling abroad. They imagine themselves traveling and draw comfort from their proximity to the "been-tos" and the "going-tos." Television programs such as "Greetings from Abroad," which aired on Ghana Television about ten years ago, and the more recent "Back Home Again" feed the social imagination about opportunities outside Ghana and possibilities on return. …

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