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? …