Features

Dirty word called Diaspora

EDEM DJOKOTOE
‘THE Diaspora’ is always a difficult subject to discuss. It gets a lot harder when a country’s citizens living abroad make headlines for the wrong reasons, giving their detractors something to talk about.
Almost two years ago to this day, two Zambian men were arrested in the United States and charged with armed robbery.
According to press reports, the two, Kenneth Chipemba, 37, of Springboro and Kabinga Kwambana, 22 of Cincinnati hit the Golden Corral Restaurant before closing time, tied up the staff and tried to make off with the day’s takings before they were arrested.
News of the incident went viral, triggering an avalanche of comments on social network sites and local online newspapers that carried the report. Some of the comments were downright xenophobic, suggesting that the suspects were not Zambian but Congolese or West Africans with fake Zambian passports because these are “easy to acquire”, implying that Zambians are incapable of the kind of felony the two were arrested for!
Others were blatantly tribal in their comments, claiming that the ethnicity of the two suspects is inherently criminal.
For some reason, they chose to forget that passports are issued to people on the basis of their nationality, not their ethnicity.
I wish I could address the dubious logic of some of these sentiments, but for my purposes, I would rather focus on the argument that those who leave their shores to live abroad have failed to make it in their countries of origin and should be viewed more as liabilities to the national cause than as assets.
To a large extent, the figures vindicate those who advance this argument. For instance, there are over four million Ghanaians living abroad, mostly in Europe and North America.
This is almost 20 percent of Ghana’s 25 million people and exceeds the combined populations of Lesotho and Swaziland.
Whether or not the country can afford such a haemorrhage of human resources, educated and trained at great cost, has been a subject of intensive debate for years.
But recent figures seem to suggest that there is some gain to the brain drain. According to the World Bank, remittances from these so-called liabilities from developing countries living and working abroad should reach US$500 billion by the end of this year, from US$405 billion in 2013.
Nigerians abroad invested a total of US$21 billion into the national economy last year, making the largest remitters on the continent, which is no surprise, considering that they come from Africa’s most populous country. By February this year, remittances from Kenyans abroad had gone up by 11.6 percent.
In Ghana’s case, Ghanaians abroad are the third largest income earner for the country, contributing more to the country’s economy in liquid cash than its “development partners”.
It is facts like these that prompted me to publish my first article on The Diaspora on February 26, 2010 in the newspaper column I used to write back then. I called it Voices From The Deep and it reads in part:
“If there’s one word that keeps cropping up in discourses about Africans abroad, it is ‘Diaspora’.
“And listening to World Bank experts use it especially in reference to the Ghanaian economy, you’d think they were talking about a place in the sky from where manna drops to feed the poor and the wretched of the earth… “Of course, if you are the finance minister, you are inclined to agree with them. And who would blame you? After all, the figures show that your compatriots living and working abroad contributed no less than US$6 billion to the national economy in a single financial year at a time when the world was buckling under the weight of a global recession.
“Now as a Ghanaian citizen living and working abroad, I should be joining the cheerleaders as they wax lyrical about The Diaspora. But I am not – and I will tell you why.
Personally, I think ‘Diaspora’ is a dirty word. And I’ve got history on my side to prove it. “For starters, you might want to join me on an excursion to the Museum of the African Diaspora. Actually, this imposing structure of glass and concrete, which covers about 6,096 square metres of prime real estate, is not in Africa but in San Francisco in sunny California. “But the thousands who visit every year don’t go for the architecture. Those of African descent are particularly drawn to the Heritage Centre to learn more about their origins and to listen to ‘the slave narratives’.
These are sagas along the lines of Alex Haley’s 1976 book Roots, which traced his family’s genealogy to a small village in Senegambia, following his ancestor, Kunta Kinte’s painful journey to the US aboard a slave ship.
“The slave narratives are meant to add flesh and bones to the interlude of history the curators of the museum and the scholars and sponsors behind it erroneously call The Original African Diaspora. I say ‘erroneously’ because the slave trade was not a Diaspora by any stretch of the imagination. If you don’t believe me, trace the origin of the word to establish what it meant then. ‘Diaspora’ is an ancient Greek word which literally meant ‘a scattering of seeds’.
“The first documented reference to the word appeared in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible – what we know as the Old Testament. It was used to refer to the ‘dispersion’ of the people of Israel by the Babylonians and by the Romans from their homeland – in line with God’s holy ordnance: ‘Thou shalt be a dispersion in all kingdoms of the earth’. Dispersion, according to the Septuagint, was their punishment for turning to idolatry.
“But if Genes is 15 and Deuteronomy 1 are anything to go by, God promised the people of Israel they would eventually return to their homeland in Palestine during their final redemption. Details of the dimensions of the territory they would reoccupy can be found in Ezekiel Chapter 47, but let me steer clear of the controversy about a Jewish homeland in Palestine because it is not particularly relevant to this discussion.
“I made the references to show that contrary to popular discourse, there is a world of difference between the divine plan behind the dispersion of the people of Israel and the violent and forcible removal of about 12 million Africans from their homeland and their shipment as slaves to America, Brazil and the Caribbean.
“And that is part of the reason why I maintain that Diaspora is a dirty word. Of course, when you look in a standard English dictionary, you won’t find a four-letter word, but sanitised definitions of the concept: ‘any movement of a population sharing a common nationality and/ or ethnicity.’
Either that or Diaspora comes across as ‘a permanently displaced and relocated collective’. “Now as a Ghanaian citizen who lives and works in Zambia, I do not see myself as ‘permanently displaced’ or part of a ‘relocated collective’.
Like many other people who live and work outside their countries of origin, I travel back home regularly, maintain strong ties with family and friends there and keep abreast of the happenings thereabouts. “In short, I don’t exist in some anonymous void called ‘The Diaspora’ – I live in a country with its own geopolitical reality and its own peoples. And there are people like me of every shade and hue living and working in countries other than their own who simply adjust to the wavelength of their environment and get on with their lives.
“Unlike me, there are many out there who do not feel slighted by the reference that they are ‘in the Diaspora’. A friend of mine thinks I am being too prickly about it, making a big deal out of something trivial and unimportant. Perhaps if I explained my point of view, you would understand why I don’t think the issue is trivial and unimportant.
“Africans and Asians who live in the so-called Diaspora somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere are basically economic refugees… However, for some reason, people of English descent who live abroad are ‘settlers’ or ‘expatriates’. Unlike you and me, they don’t inhabit that purgatory called ‘The Diaspora’.
“I have never heard the descendants of the English convicts who were shipped to Australia at the turn of the 18th century being referred to in historical records and contemporary discourses as ‘The English Diaspora’…Why should the meaning of words change depending on who they are used to describe?
That is my question.
The author is a Lusaka-based media consultant

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