Life on the Move

February 10, 2011

A friend of mine asked me to write her a bit about my thoughts about immigration, for a paper she’s working on. She knew that I’ve lived in a few countries in Africa for more or less time, and wanted to know more about it, and how I thought people might feel about moving to Europe.

I ended up writing more than I had planned, so instead of leaving it to rot in a private message, I thought I’d publish it to get some feedback from others. Comments and criticisms are welcome.

What do I think about migration: I think it can offer many new opportunities, as well as many risks for the migrant. The people who migrate (to live) are the ones who have least to lose, or the most to gain.

The less they have in their own country, the more likely they are to migrate. At the bottom of the luck pyramid, people are most likely to migrate to escape war, and then in roughly decreasing order, famine, poverty, physical aggression (violence) or oppression (e.g. sexual, sexuality, race, nationality or freedom).

In the middle, diplomats and aid workers migrate because it’s required by their work; volunteers migrate to meet their calling and improve their skills and employability.

At the top of the pyramid, consultants migrate because they get paid fantastic sums, far more than most of us could hope to earn, to offer their unique expertise.

In many countries, immigrants are unpopular or even persecuted, as people feel they are taking advantage of better healthcare without paying taxes, or stealing their jobs. Denmark has a large immigrant community who don’t mix with the Danes, and they are very unpopular in a country that extremely tolerant and liberal in every other way imaginable.

Why did I live in other countries: so far because of work, but I also chose a job which offers me this opportunity regularly and I take it at every opportunity, simply because I love travel, new experiences, meeting new people and learning about new cultures.

Did I have any difficulties? A few:

I was mugged twice in Ghana and robbed once in Italy;

I’m not allowed to walk around at night in Kenya, so I have to travel everywhere by taxi;

it’s expensive living abroad (I got a supplement from my work which helped a bit);

food poisoning is a risk (I just ignore it and be prepared to be sick occasionally);

malaria is a risk in Africa (I always have to take antimalarial drugs, which are expensive);

it doesn’t affect me, but Africans have an acquired semi-immunity to malaria, which they lose if they spend too long living abroad, and is impossible to get back, so if they move back to Africa tey tend to get very sick;

hot humid weather is uncomfortable for me (air conditioning and fans help);

I miss my family, especially my brother’s kids, and my friends and colleagues when I’m abroad, especially for a long time (I return to the UK every so often);

it can be difficult to build a new social life, especially if you’re not staying for long (learning the language helps);

people treat you like an outsider and they can be aggressive towards you if you have more money than them, or if they think you’re taking their jobs (learning the language helps, and learning to ignore beggars and brush off insults);

moving money is expensive (travellers’ cheques, bank charges) (not much you can do about this one, except change as much as you can in one go);

cash machines won’t take your card or they swallow it, cutting off your supply of ready cash (you might have to courier in a new card or return to your own country to collect a replacement);

What’s it like to live in Africa:

Services are very basic to nonexistant. There is usually no hot water for showers unless you stay in a hotel. If there is some, it’s not reliable. You can’t buy soap or beer or wine or any vegetables except local produce in the towns and villages. Electricity is unreliable, sometimes only a few hours per day, so fridges don’t work well. There’s no TV or radio in rural areas.

Fixed line phones don’t really exist, nor do mobile contracts. Everyone is on pay as you go, and you can buy credit everywhere (almost every shop sells it, from butchers to bars), even if there’s no signal. Sometimes you have to go to one spot in the village where there’s signal to make or receive a call.

Everyone wants to talk to you. Kids point at you because you’re white. Some of them have never seen a white person before. People don’t like being photographed. Education tends to be rough, violent, rote learning, in schools with no glass in the windows and wooden benches that are falling apart. Kids have creativity and imagination beaten out of them. I think this is the biggest tragedy of the continent.

In the capitals you see rich people living and working in high-rise flats and office buildings, and just outside, on the street, will be people walking through the traffic (usually gridlocked), selling apples, maps, toys, phone credit, fried plantain chips, meat pies, football shirts, newspapers, anything you can imagine, or just begging from car to car. Taxis have no seatbelts and most are over 10 years old, second-hand from Europe or Japan, and have chipped or smashed windscreens.

Public transport is virtually nonexistent apart from minibuses that usually carry up to 30 people, cheaply and dangerously, from 6am to 7pm. All have taxis and some countries have motorcycle taxis. Taxis are absurdly cheap, usually a few dollars for a 10 minute ride. US dollars are universal currency (good for emergencies) although the exchange rate is terrible. Bicycles are fairly common, as are carts pulled by donkeys.

Government is usually corrupt and useless. You can’t usually get anything from a government office without paying a bribe. You also can’t expect your local representative to do anything for you or your village, town or state, unless it builds their prestige. Government officials pay themselves very highly, often as much as in Europe, and drive the most expensive cars, although most of their electorate survive on a few dollars a day.

Police earn virtually nothing, and you can only expect trouble from them. They’ll stop your car as an excuse for a bribe. They won’t lift a finger over a crime unless there’s a bribe or someone important was robbed or hurt. Hospitals are few, insanitary (never let them inject you unless you bring your own needles), paid for (although not expensive), overcrowded and disorganised. There is no fire service.

Sewage often flows through open gutters on the street, into the nearest river or the sea, when they have running sewage at all. Most villages have no running water, only hand pumps on a well of uncertain quality. Some people walk for hours every day to fetch water.

Generally do you think that an african coming here would find a great difference in attitudes, civilization level etc?

Capital cities tend to have a lot of wealth and infrastructure compared to the rest of the country. I guess that someone coming from a village would be shocked and awed at the level of civilisation that we have, and someone coming from a city would probably take it in their stride.

People think that the UK had very good, efficient government, but Italy for example doesn’t, so maybe an immigrant would not be surprised. Perhaps an immigrant from Asia might even find that some European countries function less efficiently than their own.

Many African countries have restricted freedom of speech. In most it’s illegal to criticise the monarchy, if there is one; in Uganda it’s illegal to be homosexual; in Zimbabwe and Rwanda people are very careful what they say. Two journalists in Rwanda were recently sent to prison for saying that “some Rwandans were unhappy with the country’s rulers.” Many immigrants would be shocked at the level of honesty and criticism of officials in our press.

Regarding attitudes, I’m not so sure. People in Africa seem to be very religious, and shocked at how secular we are. I’m regularly asked which church I go to. People dress very brightly in Africa, particularly women, and they might find our clothing dull. Men in Africa tend to dress smarly, wearing three-piece suits in 40’C heat, and they might find our slack office dress insulting.

Most Africans are probably used to people being very friendly, open and having plenty of time for everyone, and they might find a highly efficient, ordered and controlled society like Denmark or Germany to be oppressive, boring or just unfriendly. People also tend to get married young, and have more children than we do, and several people have been surprised that I’m not married with kids by age 30.

I hope that’s an interesting and not too biased or untruthful report.