The Sad Tale of African Immigrants in Europe

Article excerpt

The natural instinct of every animal is to look for wherever the grass is greener. Europe, in modern history, emptied as much as a third of its population to other climes when the going got tough. It therefore remains incomprehensible to many African immigrants in Europe, why the continent that has benefitted so much from migration, remains the most hostile to it. One African immigrant, from Uganda, has taken his harrowing life experience in the Netherlands to the big screen, and the movie has received rave reviews. Femi Akomolafe reports from Amsterdam.

THE HISTORY OF HUMANITY IS also the story of migration. In the final analysis, we are all migrants. Central to my Yoruba people's philosophy on human migration are two proverbs. One is: "Omi ni eniyan" (human beings are like water, which flows wherever it can find its level). The second is "Ibi ti aye ba gbeni de, la npe layede" (it is where our destination is that we call home). It is probably the knowledge in these proverbs that inspired many Africans to migrate to Europe to seek the proverbial greener pastures. In the real world, that is what they should be. The natural instinct of every animal is to look for wherever the grass is greener. Europe, in modern history, emptied as much as a third of its population to other climes when the going got tough.

It therefore remains incomprehensible to many African immigrants in Europe, why the continent that has benefitted so much from migration, remains the most hostile to it. Millions of Africans have moved and settled in Europe. Some of them have managed to build lives that are far better than what they left behind. But for the majority, it has been tales of harrowing disappointments. For many of these profoundly disappointed Africans, it is always a case of: "Had I known". Many of them had well-paid jobs in their countries, and some even had middle-class lifestyles and expectations. But human ambitions being what they are, they wanted more.

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Images from the Western media are beamed into Africans' living rooms, with commentators constantly harping on about "rich" Western countries with out-of-this-world GNP, GDP and other statistics that paint pictures of a paradisiacal West.

The same media portrays Africa as a hopeless, war-torn, famine-overwhelmed, dictator-ridden continent that is forever begging to feed its lazy citizens.

Hollywood also lends a hand with movies that show the bold and the beautiful in the West who tool around town in Kilometre-long limousines, wining and dining and having a good time.

Images are shown of people putting plastic cards into walls from which money gushes out. Ah, white people are magicians!

There are also the new missionaries on the block, those kind-hearted NGO folk who drive around in big four-wheel SUVs, holding conferences and talking themselves silly on how to end poverty in Africa. African diasporans who come back home on holidays and spend money like it is going out of fashion also do not help matters.

So these are the images Africans at home are bombarded with. And who does not like better things? Determined to get his share of the wealth of Europe, the African quits his job and sells any properties he has accumulated over his toiling years. Some sell the family jewels, houses and even farms. Occasionally, loans are contracted to embark on the journey to a supposed El Dorado.

Arriving in Europe, the immigrant is thrown into a severe culture shock from which he hardly ever recovers. The illusion that Europeans are nice and welcoming is the first to go. In many parts of Africa, especially in the villages, total strangers are mostly welcomed with huge smiles and a desire to help. The immigrant's first contact with Europe is with stony-faced immigration officers with the countenance of a wolfhound and the friendliness of the Gestapo.

The confounded immigrant wonders what has happened to all those Europeans he saw in Africa, with smiles pasted on their faces as they trampled around looking for places to develop?

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When he is finally admitted into the country after a bruising encounter at the port of entry, the senses of the poor immigrant are further assaulted when he finds out that he needs more than his expensive visa to even begin to settle down.

First, the small question of accommodation needs to be settled, and it becomes a major production when he is asked to produce a residence permit without which he cannot get legal accommodation.

The bewildered immigrant who had a spacious apartment in his native land is forced to make do with sleeping in other people's living rooms or "box" rooms in which a single bed hardly fits. Money in the pocket also happens to dry up fast, especially when it is not being replenished.

Jobsearching also helps to drain the pocket further. Looking for a job poses its own perilous challenges as the African immigrant is told that he needs a work permit. He then discovers that there are heavy fines to be paid by European employers for hiring illegal immigrants. Before long, the monthlong visa has expired, suddenly making the immigrant an "illegal", with all the attendant perils. The only solution is illegal jobs that pay starvation wages. In addition, the immigrant is constantly on the lookout for the immigration police who could pounce unannounced at any time. As though he is not facing enough trouble, the immigrant is also bombarded with requests for support from the family he left behind in Africa.

Most immigrants do not want to alarm their families about the true state of affairs, so they concoct long tales to allay the anxiety of their people.

Illusions dashed, it does not take long before frustration sets in. The immigrant starts doubting his own sanity. Forlorn, unloved in a very hostile environment, he must struggle against all odds and an array of overwhelming forces ranged against him.

Going back home is not an attractive option as he, like many, has burnt his bridges when he embarked on the journey. Losing face also remains a big problem in Africa, How do you explain that you are a failure?

For many, there is also the question of paying back the loan contracted to embark on the journey. Desperate to make ends meet, the immigrant is forced to do jobs that do not even begin to challenge his education or intelligence.

The Ugandan-born photojournalism Ssuuna Golooba, is such an immigrant. He came to the Netherlands in 2002 and was confronted with the reality of living as an illegal immigrant. After four frustrating years sleeping rough and cleaning houses and toilets, he decided to return to his country. The question of what he was going to do back home necessitated his decision to tell his story in a documentary film. The idea was to make some DVD copies to take back and sell, hopefully helping to rebuild his life in his native land. Luckily, the producers, Jongens van de Wit Productions in Amsterdam, saw greater potential in his story. The result of their collaboration is an international cross-media project, Surprising Europe, consisting of a nine-part TV series, a documentary and an interactive website.

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The first pillar of the project, the documentary, Surprising Europe: The life and times of Ssuuna Golooba, premiered in The Hague, the Dutch capital on 27 March 2011. Ssuunas is a typical immigrant's story to which many African migrants in Europe can relate. Unsatisfied with a successful photo-journalism career at a newspaper office in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, Ssuuna borrowed money to embark on his journey to a supposed El Dorado.

He came to the Netherlands and soon enough had the blinkers about a welcoming and prosperous Europe removed from his eyes. A few months after he landed, he ran out of money and started sleeping rough.

The film dallies back and forth as it tries to show the complexities and subtleties of an immigrant life. We see Ssuuna working as a general factotum--as paper-boy and, when he can get it, as a cleaner.

Naturally, the bitty and dirty jobs are not sufficient to pay for the rent, food and clothes. The lack of legal residence papers precludes him rising above his sorry state.

In the meantime, pressures from family back home are incessant and unremitting. A sister sends a shopping list longer than her arms. The mother would also like the son to remember her as she has, for having one of her children abroad, become the toast of the village. Every distressed person in the village solicits her assistance.

Despite all these travails, the film shows many Africans plainly admitting that since life for them is always dicey, they would gladly gamble on their chances in Europe. At a premiere in Ssuuna's native Uganda, many were simply fatalistic. There are serious but hilarious moments in the film, like a scene where people go to church to pray for visas and the priest fervently casts off anti-travel spirits.

Surprising Europe is a moving story about one African immigrant's struggle to juggle permutations in order to stay afloat in a bewildering and hostile environment. Migration is a multi-faceted and very complex socio-political problem that cannot be addressed in just one movie, but the failure to at least show some of the reasons why Europe remains alluring to African immigrants is one of the film's weak points.

At the post-screening question and answer session, the director honestly admitted that theirs was a mission impossible as they could not hope to compete with the big Western media outlets which continue to beam propaganda into Africa. Ssuuna himself also readily admitted that he was not on any evangelical mission to dissuade people from travelling. His mission, he said, was a journalistic one to give people information; what they did with the information was left to their discretion. That was the reason he chose as his motto: "Be informed."

After seeing the film, those that take their chances and come to Europe will no longer be able to say, "Had I known ..." Only the most credulous will watch Surprising Europe and still harbour illusions of a rich, welcoming Europe. BNA

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