Hear more of our conversation with Nanjala Nyabola, continued from Ep. 113: A conversation with Nanjala Nyabola. In this podcast mash-up with Cornell University’s Migrations: A World on the Move podcast. Their episode shares previously unaired parts of our conversation with Nanjala and Migrations postdoctoral fellow Eleanor Paynter.
Nyabola’s work and writing spans themes of migration, politics, and personal experience in her new book Travelling While Black. Listen to the episode to hear her read excerpts from select essays.
Listen to the episode below!
Books from the Episode
Prison Notebooks by Antonio Gramsci
Other Links and Articles
Vaccine Nationalism Is Patently Unjust by Nanjala Nyabola
Previous Episodes We Mentioned
Rachel Beatty Riedl
Welcome to Ufahamu Africa, a podcast about life and politics on the continent. I’m Rachel Beatty Riedl, your host. This week, we are sharing more of our conversation with Nanjala Nyabola – an author, journalist, and political analyst in Nairobi, Kenya.
We spoke to her earlier this year for episode 113 about race and racism across borders in a mash-up episode with Cornell University’s Migrations initiative and their new podcast, Migrations: A World on the Move. Without further ado, this is their version of the interview, featuring previously unaired clips of our conversation with Nanjala.
Even if I am a privileged, you know, middle-class writer from Kenya, when their immigration restrictions come, I am just an African. There is none of this kind of “privilege your way out” of some of these complexities.
Welcome to Migrations: A World on the Move, a series brought to you by Cornell University’s Migrations Initiative. I’m Eleanor Paynter, postdoctoral associate in Migrations, and your host for this podcast that seeks to understand our world through the interconnected movements that shape it. We recently completed our first season and are excited to bring you a bonus episode.
In this episode, we speak with Kenyan author, activist and human rights advocate Nanjala Nyabola, who joined us from Nairobi to speak about her new book “Traveling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move,” out with Hurst Publishers. In “Traveling While Black,” Nanjala responds to the question: “What does it feel like to move through a world designed to limit and exclude you?” She speaks both from her own experience crossing borders as a Black African woman who has traveled widely, and from her study of critical issues as a human rights lawyer and political analyst and through work on the ground in countries around the globe. She also looks critically at how borders reify divisions between communities, how we come to define otherness, and what that means about how we do and don’t respond to people on the move. As she writes, “the experience of traveling while Black, either as a voyager as a migrant or as a refugee, is united by this narrow thread of a soul rubbed raw from the disorientation of leaving what is familiar behind. Someone traveling for leisure can, depending on their budget, pay their way out of some of the discomfort that a hostile receiving community might project. Migrants and refugees have no such choice. The fact of human mobility isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so it remains on us to articulate a shift towards responding to people on the move with empathy.”
We hosted this conversation as part of a virtual event in April with colleagues at another fantastic podcast with Ufahamu Africa. And so after listening to this episode, be sure to check out more of our conversation with Nanjala there. We’ll link to it, along with over 100 other great episodes about life and politics on the African continent. You’ll hear Ufahamu Africa hosts on this episode, too: Dr. Rachel Beatty Riedl is Director of the Einaudi Center for International Studies and Professor of Government here at Cornell, and Ufahamu Africa founder and co-host Dr. Kim Yi Dionne is associate professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside, and a contributing editor of the Monkey Cage politics blog at the Washington Post. It’s such a pleasure to share the mic with Rachel and Kim. And what an honor to speak with Nanjala Nyabola about her work, and about some of the many ways in which border and migration issues intersect with racism, and necessitate transnational conversations around justice and rights.
Our conversation takes up movement across national borders and reflections on home, thinking especially about connections between mobility, rights, and racial justice. “Traveling While Black” is Nanjala’s most recent book, and illustrates the breadth and depth of her work which moves from the personal to the global, and across issues of gender, migrant rights, racism, solidarity, and writing itself. Here’s our conversation with Nanjala Nyabola, beginning with a reading from the book.
“I went to Palermo, the capital of Sicily where hundreds of young Africans arrived each week, because I wanted to understand the difference between young people who leave and those like me who remain. The vast majority of what is written about the ongoing crisis is written with the idea that African migration is a problem for Europe to solve. This is partially true, in the sense that European countries have created the impetus for much of this migration. And their tacit support for African autocracies in places like the Gambia, financing of armed conflicts in places like Libya, and toxic economic policies in countries like Nigeria. But that is a moral emergency, not a practical one. In practical terms, the 1.015 million migrants who made the European crossing in 2017 are only an intimidating number if you ignore the fact that a similar number of Syrian refugees currently live in Lebanon alone. The idea of a Mediterranean crisis as a European crisis has never quite saturated with me, given that the vast majority of those who are losing their life or African or Middle Eastern.
I went to Palermo because I wanted to recenter, even for myself, African voices in the conversation about why so many Africans are dying anonymous deaths on the high seas. I wanted to know if the experience of a violent crossing and staring down the prospect of an untimely underwater death had changed their perspective of their home countries, and of the reasons why they left. I wanted to know if living in Europe had changed their minds about leaving Africa. I was not really afraid of Palermo until I got out of the airport. After the first 20 or 30, an airport is just an airport, except maybe the really small, unusual ones where things can get out of control quickly if you drop your attention. But once you leave the airport, the reality of the place and the enormity of the decision you have taken can hit you like a ton of bricks.
Suddenly, when I leave the airport, and I need to take a taxi, I remember that I don’t speak a word of Italian. All of the stories that I’ve heard about racism and intimidation of people who look like me tip from the back of my mind to the front, crowding out much of the rational thoughts, but I know quickly what needs to happen next. One foot in front of the other, get to the Airbnb, get something to eat, sleep off the anxiety.
Palermo is not what I expected. I thought it would be beautiful. And it is. The architecture is as breathtaking and as richly diverse as Sicily [inaudible]. The vibe isn’t at all what I had been prepared for. Instead of a city ossified in anger and hatred, I find a community struggling to understand and honestly engage with its position in a complex historical moment, where Sicilians are living with the reality of decisions taken 1000s of kilometers away in Rome or Brussels. There is no single narrative about how Palermo feels about migration. But the city is built on a legacy of migration and economic marginalization, one that it faces every day. No one seems surprised to see me there, a couple of curious glances, but for the most part, I am ignored. On the whole, I don’t sense any of the overt hostility that I have detected in many other cities in Europe. I get more reactions in New York’s Upper East Side than I’m getting on Palermo’s white streets.”
Thank you so much for this reading and for sharing your work with us today. And thinking about how, in this case, thinking about the Mediterranean migration crisis, which you immediately complicate as a label, how that term crisis can really erase individual experiences and homogenize experiences, in fact, on both sides, so in a sense of homogenizing the experiences of Africans, as if there’s just one African experience for those crossing. And on the other side, also, erasing some of the complexities that exist in the reception of migrants and attitudes towards foreigners. And so I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you navigate that. And also then in how it helps us think about what it takes to really tell a complex story.
Thank you for that question [inaudible] that I finished. And it was one of the first ways I had experimented with this, putting myself in the story. You know, I’m not a trained journalist. But I have been practicing in the journalism space for a number of years. And one of the first things that editors is telling you is “take the ‘I’ out of the story,” “take the ‘I’ out of the story.” And but then, when I was thinking about this migration narrative, the one that exists, I had done professional work on it, I had written reports, research reports for people on migration, and I had done all this stuff, that I still felt like there was something that wasn’t really coming together, which was number one, what you said that this stuff is really complicated, but not complicated in the way that policymakers want it to be complicated. What makes it complicated is that it’s human beings, and it’s human nature and human behavior, human perceptions of the other. And so I felt like the best way to get at the heart of those complexities was to put the “I” in the story. So going from being myself as an African woman, going to a place that I had never been before where the reputation that had been communicated was one of you know, expect a hostile reception, expect XYZ. And where had been, whereas I had been to other parts of Europe, and I’d been to other parts of North America, I really had–that’s all I had, like I had a story in my head about how I was going to be treated and how I was going to be received. But at the same time, I couldn’t separate myself from the story of the arriving boats. And so, to be able to see that and to see yourself reflected—which is what I talked about in the essay—yourself reflected in the people who are arriving in such a difficult and such a scary and risky context.
So the section where I talk about, I was—I stood on that pier for probably a good four or five hours. And I’m the only black person there who isn’t arriving on the boat. And sort of the, the sense of how do I, how do I keep myself in a place of abstraction while trying to do this professional work, but also recognizing that a lot of what’s happening here is not based on objective metrics or whatever, but is actually based on just how people think and/or feel. And so that’s, that was the intellectual challenge, I guess, of writing this essay because I wanted to move beyond abstract ideas of policy and abstract ideas of crisis and, and all of these things, and to actually get to the what’s the human side of the story? Well, how are the people interacting with the story?
And I took a lot of inspiration from the work of bell hooks, who writes a lot about herself in the stuff that she does. And talking from a… she’s writing about love as a political practice. She’s talking about her family and how she experiences family. And I think it’s a very feminist approach to bring human beings back to how we think about ideas. I think the idea of taking the self and, and out of… is not we… the shorthand, the temptation is to think about that as a way of being objective, but I think that there’s some things that maybe being subjective isn’t the worst thing in the world. And especially when it comes to communicating fear and anxiety and confusion. And, and, you know… like…
There was this moment where, when the people started coming out on the boat, and they’re walking down this… steps, these metal steps, and I’m standing next to this in the press cordon, and you’re just hearing this chunk, thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk. And, people who are coming off of these boats are just crushed. You know, just completely crushed. I mean, they’ve been walking across the desert for I don’t know, how many years? How do you communicate the urgency of that moment, without putting the self in the narrative, without putting a human being in the narrative? Like, I could write you a report and tell you: 230 people arrived on the Tuna 1. And this, they faced these health conditions, and they did dah-dah-dah… But there is nothing that will ever capture the emotionally jarring experience of that thunk-thunk-thunk of people who are just, you know, coming out of this really deep trauma, and then entering into this uncertainty of what their next couple of months will look like.
So, this essay is really one of the ones that moves, I hope, fluidly—I think so, as a writer—between academic practice and academic knowledge, and trying to communicate that—in a very human way—that, is trying to tell people that this crisis, this idea of political crisis, sometimes makes it hard for us to process the human dimensions of the choices that are being taken, and that the policymaking decisions are, are—there are people at the other end of that, and whether they are, as you said, the people in Palermo, who I spend a lot of time in the essay showing how complex that I, the people, the personhood, the community in Palermo is, you know, in dealing with all of these issues, the people who are on the boats, and then the people who like myself, who will receive the secondary impact, you know, of heightened migration policies, even if I am a privileged, you know, middle class writer from Kenya. When the immigration restrictions come, I am just an African, there is none of this kind of “privilege your way out” of some of these complexities.
So, yeah, that was, that was the thinking behind that particular essay. And, and I hope, I wrote it as an invitation for people who might have read the stories in the paper might have seen, you know, a little three-minute segment in the news, but might not have felt empowered to be part of the conversation, because the policymakers had been writing about it in such abstract terms. And I’d written this as an invitation to say, “Well, actually, it’s a human thing. It’s human beings that are doing this to other human beings, and you do—you are empowered to be part of this conversation and to demand a much more humane story, because it’s part of it.”
Thanks so much, I really especially appreciate what you’re saying about how putting the self in the narrative is a part of a way of really accessing and reflecting on but, but then also engaging with the, the urgency of the moment. So being really present there, and then also being able to write about it in a way that really conveys that urgency and its complexity to others. And I think that essay is such a good example of that, kind of spread throughout the book and throughout your work.
So your book moves really beautifully between reflections on—as we’ve heard—your own presence and experience in places and also reflections on how representations have a place outside of it, how they circulate beyond, and really affect broader understandings of those places. And you’re thinking in particular about—at several points in the book—about how certain images affect in, in particular Western ideas of places that are often exoticized or othered in some way. And I wanted to stick with this idea about images and complexity to think about questions of representation.
So you write about the power of images to convey the complexity of the situation and provoke empathy. But you also caution against what’s become a kind of saturation in the media of images of suffering. And I think the Mediterranean migration crisis is a really significant example of how that’s operating. So you mentioned in the book, the widely circulated photo of toddler Alan Kurdi, a Syrian toddler was found on a Turkish beach, and I’m sure many in our audience can picture this, this photo because it circulated so widely and provoked an immediate responses, compassion, people raised a lot of money, and there was a lot of push for humanitarian support for migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean. But that quickly waned. And in the meantime, that image has become an icon that sort of uses the image of a child to represent what we’ve just discussed is a really complex set of circumstances.
You also mentioned in the book, the famous photo of a vulture and a starving child, in what is now South Sudan. And you write, in talking about these images, that—I’m quoting from the book—“photographing crisis should be about more than just consuming the death of the other.”
So I wanted to invite you to expand on that discussion, how do you think about the need to represent and convey what is happening? And you’ve talked about this in terms of your own personal positioning, but maybe thinking more broadly about the role of the media, journalists, also scholars and others? How do we navigate this line between needing to represent crisis and the risk of perpetuating really problematic narratives?
Yeah, um, I think if I was just to summarize that particular essay into a single sentence, it would be: “I don’t know.” And really, so what it is, is it takes you through what some of the considerations, and sort of tries to leave you at a position where, maybe you’re in a better position to make an evaluation than you were before you read it, even if it doesn’t necessarily give you a conclusive answer. Because the truth is, it is complicated. And we do… what I point out is that images work, right? They—Alan Kurdi, as you mentioned, like, got people open up their purses, and created this sense of movement, it created this sense of reaction. But then what comes after that? What comes after people are scared, and after people are confused, and people are shocked, and people are angry? And I don’t think that we spend enough time thinking about what comes after that.
And really, what comes after that is that people become desensitized. You can only publish so many images of starving children, of dying children, before people start to think about starving children and dying children as abstractions, rather than human beings who are at the other end of a human-made crisis. I think that we have become especially insensitive towards representations of death with African people. I think I mean, I consume a lot of media and I consume a lot of international media especially. And people point out, have pointed out, for example, with the coronavirus crisis, that we saw a lot of images of the Ebola deaths, when Ebola… in 2014, when the Ebola crisis was taking them to the Mano River Basin, in western, in West Africa. We didn’t see a lot of images of death when the coronavirus was at its worst in Europe.
And then you know, as a human being, you’re like, “Well, I don’t want to see more dead people.” Like, “I’m actually okay with there being less dead people of all racial backgrounds, of all backgrounds. I don’t want to be bombarded by images of that.” But then there’s, so there’s like these two parallel tracks are happening. One is, is there an inequality issue embedded in the way that we make and distribute images, especially of African people, and especially of African children? But beyond that, universally, has our story-telling about crisis and about conflict become overly dependent on horrific imagery, in order to compress, you know, these really long narratives into bite-sized chunks that then have knock-on effects? Those are the two threads that I think run through this conversation.
And I think one way of thinking about it very easily is, “Well, what would this feel like if I was on the other end of the lens?” I noticed, one of the first things I noticed when I moved to the UK a couple of years ago was that the broadcasting standards in the UK are such that you cannot put the image of a child on television without the consent of that parent. So you’d often be watching the news and you’d see the blurred images of children. You know, if there was an interview about a child, it would often be blurred even if it was just a general story. But you never saw similar standards being applied when it was African children who are being filmed running away from bombs and things like that. And what we saw with that starving child, you know, I was looking into the story of the, of the starving child and vulture is the trauma that came from that photograph had an impact on the family of the child and also on the photographer. Because it becomes this… baggage, you know that, that all of them carried and couldn’t carry because it brought with it certain expectations about what the photographer should have done, what the photographer was supposed to have done in order to help that child. And then with the parents, that was the story that we didn’t, we didn’t abandon our child, we put the child down, because we’re going to queue up and we didn’t want the child to be harmed. But the narrative of African parents and abandoning the children in you know, in crisis start, is so portable, that people grab, grab onto that as, “Oh, my gosh, this is such a bad drought, it’s driving parents to abandon their children,” because that’s, that evokes much more reaction than what actually happened, which is we just put the child down so that we wouldn’t have to get into that scrum.
I think that the short answer for me is the easy answer to us. Because I think leaving the complicated questions unasked and interrogated is what is leaving us in this situation whereby we sense that there’s an injustice, and there’s an inequality, embedded in image-making and image transmission, when we’re talking about conflict and research here. But you know, even if you think about Instagram, and you have these Instagrammers who come to Africa and take pictures of sunsets and acacia trees, and you know, black children, and put them all over their… that same thread of inequalities embedded in there and how, what we believe African personhood should be represented—or other personhood should be represented, because this happens in Asia as well—in photography.
And what I hope is that people will at least, we can move towards asking some of these complicated questions. And especially, you know, the reason why this book is written the way that it is not just within the Academy, and not just within professional circles, but all of us. Because I think people are sensing that there’s an injustice in there, and maybe this essay nudges us to start to articulate the question more publicly, and it becomes a more consistent part of the way we think about image-making as part of our storytelling. That was a long answer, sorry.
That was great. Thank you so much. I want to stay with the subject of crisis, but shift more to thinking a little bit about political dynamic and policy questions. Especially because, you know, one of the one of the ways that people are talking about the implications of this crisis is the effects that it’s having—border crises not only in the Mediterranean, but elsewhere in the world—the effects that these crises are having on the asylum regime and on people’s ability to claim asylum, and to obtain protection. So, and this is something that you address in a different chapter, you have a chapter on the end of asylum. And I think these are really, especially urgent—and you note this as well—in connection with deportations and returns of asylum seekers and refugees to conflict zones, and also in the context of climate change and the different forms of displacement and mobility that are linked to it.
So as national border policies around the world, and especially in the global north, effectively draw the right to claim asylum into question, what chance do you think there is for revisiting the 1951 Refugee Convention? Or, if we’re really seeing the end of asylum, what do you think a post asylum world might look like?
One of my favorite, favorite quotes probably of all time, but certainly for this era has always been Antonio Gramsci’s: “The old world is dying, the new one is not yet born, and now is the time for demons.”
I think that their current refugee and asylum context that we live in, was born out of—I mean, not I think, it is—it’s born out of the Second World War, and the realization that withholding the right to asylum, withholding the opportunity for asylum led 1000s, hundreds of 1000s of people to their untimely death, because they were deported and they were sent back and they were unable to claim safety. And so there’s a, there’s a guilt that comes from that that then fuels the idea of a right to seek asylum, not necessarily a right to be granted asylum.
So over the next couple of years, as Europe is no longer the only place in the world that is framing the notions of asylum, you know, there are… other countries start to become part of the global international order and more vocal about it, suddenly, the goalposts start to move. And it is no longer convenient for European countries or North American countries to have these more open-ended asylum policies, because there’s a parallel energy of increasing conflicts, you know, during the Cold War, proxy wars, all of that stuff. But then also that there are new threats that the old order didn’t contend with: climate change, and the spike in natural disasters that are triggered by climate change.
We have a generation that’s growing up that doesn’t necessarily understand how bad the Second World War was, and how much death and destruction was, was wrecked sort of all over the world. We talk a lot about the Holocaust, probably not enough. But then we also think about all of the secondary conflicts that were happening all over the world. And, and so this generation is living in a time whereby their elders have not done a great job of communicating the urgency, why we have these rules of asylum and why we have this need for asylum. But they’re facing unprecedented threats that will require asylum. And this is a new world that’s not yet born, that we hope that the new world will be a policy, an open-door policy to asylum that will reflect the complexity of the world that is coming that it will not just be war, it will also be climate change, it will also be natural disasters, it will also be internal displacement, all of these new things that the old world kind of wasn’t able to accommodate.
But in the interregnum, in the period in between this birth of this, the death of the old and the birth of the new, things are going to get complicated, things are going to get difficult and a lot of people are going to get hurt. And this is what I talk about as the “end of asylum,” that the countries that have the most power to grant asylum are going out of their way to withdraw it. Whether you’re talking about the deaths in the Mediterranean Sea, or the detentions at the Mexico-US border, or the high sea interceptions in the South Pacific with Australia, regional sort of hegemons, India: you know, returning Rohingya refugees, withdrawing citizenship to millions of people in Assam, Kenya: building a wall with Somalia, Morocco: building a wall with the Western Sahara… like the way in which this whole thing is playing out, the signal has been sent from the most powerful country in the world that it’s okay to arbitrarily withdraw or curtail the right to asylum, and now everybody’s trying to do it.
And I don’t think people realize how fundamental the right to asylum or the right to seek asylum is to the global order that we live in today. And that is what that essay says: that this thing is so deeply woven into the way in which we think about statehood and state power, the ability to open up our borders to people who think… who seek safety, that idea of our states as being a benevolent thing, is actually part of the reason why we agree to the social contract, why we agree to live into this international order. Because we believe that, “yes, states can be bad, but look at this benevolent thing that we do when we open our borders to people who are suffering.”
Once that belief starts to erode, then what’s the point of living in this social order? Is it just for suffering’s sake? Is it just to endure surveillance and policing and all of these things? I just don’t think that policymakers realize how fundamental that belief is to the structure.
And so what I’m drawing attention to is that that once the right to asylum goes, once this curtailment is, is complete once it becomes possible—and it is increasingly becoming possible for governments to say let them die, let them die, rather than let them in—everything else will start to unravel. And we’re already seeing it. We’re already seeing it in the inabilities, how people ignore international condemnation for human rights atrocities, how nation states ignore invitations to seek peace, for conflicts, for mediation. We’re already seeing it in this region, for example, with governments refusing to subject themselves to regional or international mediation because they don’t believe that the system works in their favor anymore. We are already seeing it in the refusal—WHO, the United States walking away from an international organization in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a crisis. It’s going to have a knock-on effect.
And I wrote this essay, because I think that people will wake up one morning, most of us will wake up one morning, and we’ll look around, and the world will look different in the next couple of years. And we might not understand why the world looks different, why suddenly, what’s happening with vaccine nationalism right now is more the rule than the exception. It’s happening in more domains than we thought. And I think that this is where it started. Because we pulled on this one thread that is so woven into everything else, and nobody said anything about it, and nobody did anything about it. And now, it’s suddenly everywhere. That, whether it’s vaccines, or conflict, or climate change, or food security, or whatever. So that was… that’s the, that’s the red flag. That’s the alarm that that essay is trying to raise that this is a big deal. What’s happening right now, it’s a pretty big deal.
I’m so glad that you brought up vaccine nationalism, because I wanted to… I wanted to bring attention to the people in the audience to an essay that you wrote in The Nation, titled “Vaccine Nationalism Is Patently Unjust.” And, you know, the way you’re talking about an unprecedented threat, right, the way you’re talking about justice, I see that reflected in this essay that you’ve written.
And I wonder, you know… especially when you’re thinking about the switch from being benevolent about Europeans seeking asylum. So losing that eroding that belief in benevolence when it’s people of a different color, who are now coming, right? So I wonder if you could talk about vaccine nationalism as antithetical to justice, but also, if you might connect to this essay that you wrote in March for The Nation to your book? And can we talk about this, this vaccine nationalism as racial injustice?
Yeah, you know, the interesting thing is, at least from where I sit, I know that sometimes when people read the work, they might not see the connections. But for me, the connection was almost immediate, that this was an example of what I had been raising in this essay about the end of asylum: that this practice grafted onto a different context, this practice of injustice, selective inclusion of, you know, my exclusion on the basis of tenuous factors, is replicated in the vaccine nationalism practice. That this inward looking at high walls, high fences is exactly what’s happening with the migration conversation.
So for me, the reason—one of the main reasons why this particular subject has just captured my attention was that, I mean, I’ve said this to people privately, I’ve said it on social media, there is no reason to believe that the system that will say “Let them die on the high seas, let them die on cages in cages on the Mexican border, let them die in this extra-territorial processing centers,” will then turn around and say, “Oh, but let’s be nice about the vaccines.” There’s no reason to believe that a system that will allow death at that scale will then find its benevolence when it comes to a pandemic.
And so, for me, that was… that injustice, that connection was almost like a one-to-one correlation. And that was what brought about the urgency, because I think we’re going through sort of cycles of moral, international moral crises. And we’re, we keep making these policy arguments. And we keep making these abstract economic arguments, when really what we are facing is a moral crisis, and a crisis of justice, and a crisis of global justice.
I think, especially when I put up that article, I got a lot of African people from different parts of Africa saying, “Well, you know, our governments should have done this. And our governments should do that.” And I’m, I’m always like, you look, nobody is as quick to criticize African governments, and what they do wrong as I am. I’m first in line and I will write essays about it. This is not one of those situations. This is a situation whereby the vaccine pipelines, the production pipelines are being compromised by the hyper-nationalism of two countries, especially the United States and the United Kingdom.
Every single study, every single policy, every single research has said it makes more sense to vaccinate health workers everywhere first, right? And then start thinking about universal vaccination programs. Right now, the United States is sitting on… the population of the United States, I think is just over 230 million. So that includes everybody, children, right. And the United States is sitting on 1.3 billion doses of vaccines. And even the Biden administration sort of coming in at the end of the Trump administration looks at a policy that had gone into making these vaccines and said, “Yeah, this is… we’re hoarding. This is selfish. We are the ones who have created this artificial shortage.”
And so, and same thing with the United Kingdom, and with what’s happening with AstraZeneca vaccine in Europe. And so, yeah, it is fundamentally a justice issue, because a lot of African countries—certainly not all—but there are a lot of countries African countries that have said “We are willing to pay, we’re willing to pay a fair price to get these vaccines,” but there is nothing to pay for. Because the supplies have been compromised by this nationalism. There is nothing to buy, there is nothing to secure. And whatever there is to secure we’re being charged more for it. An example that I gave in the essay that European countries are paying $2.15 for the AstraZeneca vaccine, African countries are paying $5.20. Like… it’s such a one-to-one correlation, that the global injustice that we’ve allowed to take root when we think about who deserves to live or die in the process of seeking asylum is replicated in how we’re thinking about who deserves to live or die when it comes to curing vital medications.
We’ve seen it before. I make this point a lot in my writing about COVID. I’m old enough, I lived through the worst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Kenya. Ten percent of our population, one in every ten Kenyans was HIV positive. I’ve buried family members, or many family members to HIV/AIDS. There is no reason to believe that it won’t happen again. There is no reason to believe that it won’t happen again, because it happened 30 years ago, that there was medicine and people needed the medicine, and governments chose to protect the IP and the manufacturing profits over protecting human life.
So again, just raising the alarm, and inviting people to think deeply about what the global justice conversation is. We can, of course, it would be great African countries should have deepened their manufacturing capacity. Of course they should have, and hopefully they will. But this is—that argument to me is the equivalent of fiddling while the Titanic sinks. Like, we can have that debate, and we should have that debate. But right now, in this emergency, if we don’t think about this as a global justice issue, we are facing a very difficult future, not just in Africa, right? Thinking about variants, thinking about what’s happening in Brazil, thinking about what’s happening in India, thinking about what’s happening in Tanzania. Viruses don’t respect nationalism. And so to get governments and policymakers to get out of that nationalistic mindset, I think is one of the most urgent global justice issues that we need to contend with right now. And for many of us, self included, it is really a life-or-death issue. Like it’s really like we’re being told that there is no plan until 2023. Just hang tight. That’s patently unjust.
Rachel Beatty Riedl
I wanted to ask you a bit following on this, about the ideas of belonging, in particular, because one of our research priorities, one of the themes that we’ve been taking out throughout our Migrations Initiative is at the intersection of mobility and racial justice around the right to stay at home, right, and the ability to not be displaced and dispossessed which can be linked to untenable conditions at home and generate forced migration, whether due to political conflict or forces of, of continuing imperialism, environmental degradation, resource scarcity, or, or individual and personal familial circumstances.
So generally, with the exception of kind of elite cosmopolitans, most migrants opt to leave their home when staying put becomes untenable. And I’m wondering if when we think about migrations across space, from rural to urban migrations, as people come to the city to find opportunities or to urban migrations in other countries, in the way in which the impetus behind border crossings and leaving one’s home country can be this kind of dispossession or displacement.
And you discussed it in your book, the frustration surrounding visas and access to that mobility: governments create often arbitrary categories to limit access and create state-sanctioned expulsions to push certain types of people out even once they have arrived. So how do you think about these broader connections between belonging, home, and mobility within these kind of edifices of institutional and systemic controls, the idea of the place where you belong and the idea of being able to belong where you are?
Yeah, again, that’s a really great question. And it’s part of the reason why I have so many essays. You know, when I wrote a book about travel, I think a lot of people pick it up with the expectation that it’s going to be an exploration of leaving. But there are a number of essays that are about home, and about how complicated home can be, and how disorienting home can be. And it really to underscore that idea that belonging has to be about more than just identity, it has to be more than just, “I was born here, and therefore I belong here.” Because for millions of people around the world, that is just simply not true.
I love—I’ve used it in, I think, so many of my writings—Warsan Shire’s quote about sometimes “home is the mouth of a shark.” Sometimes home is conflicts, sometimes home is climate disasters, sometimes home is gendered violence, sometimes home is structural violence. And sometimes home is just a complete lack of opportunity. And, and our ideas of belonging have to be open to that, because that mobility that comes from that is part of the human story.
But there’s also an interesting energy that I think—and maybe, I feel like I didn’t have enough space to capture this in the book—which is I think about how… how much power is loaded into who gets to move just because they can, and who can only get to move when it is a crisis.
And I think about how Dominic Cummings—who is one of the chief advisors of the current Tory administration, and is, in many ways, the architect of the hostile immigration policies that the UK is putting into place—his wife is the granddaughter of the last governor of Kenya. So his grandfather-in-law, left the UK came to Kenya, no visa, no stamp, no nothing, wreaked a tremendous amount of havoc, let’s be real. And then his grandson in law is saying Kenyans can’t come.
So there’s also this historical, you know, consequences that I would love, I would have loved to have a little bit more time to get into, and I try to get into with the idea of the ID card in Kenya and how the ID card in Kenya is constructed. But there is something there that I think is also worth thinking about deeper, which is how there is—post colonialism, this life after colonization, and this lack of reparations, and this lack of restitution that came from the decolonial process is also part of this conversation.
But to go back to your question, I think that… we… state-building. Arundhati Roy has a great book that came out last year called AZADI, and it’s about state formation in India. And I really highly recommend it because I think she articulates some of the ideas that I sort of get at, didn’t really get into as much as I would have wanted.
But I think that state building is a fundamentally violent process, because it involves reorganizing our sense of place, our sense of belonging, our sense of communities to conform with this constructed political entity: the state, the government. And there’s always people who are at the margins of state building, any country that you go to, there are always people who are at the margins of state building, who are going to feel the weight of that process and the violence of that process deeper than others.
And what I’m alluding to in this idea of visas is how the process of state building, one particular face of that violence is always going to be felt at the border. Because the border is where the states have the most power to make their strength felt. Right? Even in a country like Kenya, which cannot provide water—forget for the whole country—for its citizens in Nairobi, cannot provide clean drinking water 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the 4 million people who live in the capital city of Nairobi, but has money to pay for biometrics at the border, and for offense with Somalia. And for you know, all of these things because the border is where the declaration of statehood can be its most unambiguous. And that is why a lot of states in the process of state formation project so much money, power, time, effort, military capacity, everything to policing their borders. There’s an insecurity there, that’s being addressed, and it’s being projected on to individuals.
And again, this is one of those essays where I thought to myself, perhaps the most effective way of telling the story is by putting myself in the story. That when you talk about it the way that I just did, I think a lot of people just kind of blank out, you know? And again, this book is written with the idea of being an invitation for ordinary people who maybe are not in policy circles, who maybe are not specialists, were not experts to start to think about these things in a very quotidian weight and to feel like even if I’m not an expert on migration, I somehow feel more empowered to think critically about human mobility.
And so to say, you know, this, look here is this abstract idea of what state building is, and the border as a site for state formation, for states to project their power. And this is what it looks like, in human terms. This is what it looks like. And you know, when people are rounded up and put in detention centers, and, you know, are told that “you don’t belong, you can’t come in, you can’t go out.”
So I think that the visa regime in the last 30 years, starting in 1990, end of the Cold War, is becoming such a nightmare of all of these issues of projecting state power, of violence and racism and all of these issues. And we’re entering it—we’re sleepwalking into a disaster. We’re sleepwalking into a disaster where racism will become so normalized and bureaucratized. And if we don’t call it what it is, right now… look at what has happened. I give the example of the UK Border regime, or at the Canadian border regime, whereby one hundred percent of all Canadian student applicants from Mozambique were rejected in 2019. One hundred percent of all Somali—the average rejection rate for Canadian visas around the world is 29 percent. I think in Africa, it’s 61 percent. So there is a routinized rejection of African people in this visa application process. And it gets couched in these bureaucratic terms.
And so we don’t use we don’t use the R word. We don’t call it what it is, which is: there’s a racism, there’s a racist logic that is creep— that is present, not even creeping into this global visa regime. And hopefully, what that essay is done is it’s invited people to start to think about things in this way: is, the next time you are at the border. It’s not just about, you know, they made me get a yellow fever vaccination. But did they humiliate you? Did they make you declare your grandmother’s assets, while you were asking to go there for a two-week conference, a four-day conference? Did they make you yell, how much money you have in the bag in an open room filled with strangers, before they let you in for that conference? Because that’s what happens to us. Did that they make you get a letter from your husband or your father, to show that you are a woman of good character before you went to Bali on that girl’s trip? Those are the kinds of things that I’m hoping people will start to think about a little bit more critically, and to situate into this global context of racial justice and racial injustice.
Rachel Beatty Riedl
Thank you for that. I think, since we’re, we’re past the hour mark, we should, we should allow our patient attendees to ask their questions. And I’d like to, I’d like to go ahead and read one on behalf of Tyler. So thanking you for being here. And for taking the time they write: “in several parts in your book, you talk about the contention between working as a black woman in development, invisibility, racism, etc., and the issues within the development sector: the vaccination injustices, also the impact it had on the arrivees in Palermo and the girls in Haiti to see you there awaiting their arrival. What does solidarity, advocacy, and support look like from those of us in the diaspora? Social media allows insight on the possibilities of global black solidarity. How can we assure these online solidarities have offline possibilities? What’s—what may be standing in the way?”
That’s a great question. And I’m not going to say that I what I’m giving is, is like the comprehensive 360 answer. But this is just one piece that I think is really important. I think it’s important for us to learn about each other. And I think it’s important for people to be in conversation with it, with each other outside of the narratives that are serving specific geopolitical functions. So the Haiti example for me was a good example because I write about the views that I contended with. But everything that I knew about Haiti, by the time I went to Haiti, was something that was given to me by media, and not even Haitian media, but European media. I mean, look what’s happening right now. There’s a crisis in Haiti. And we are… Haiti’s suddenly everywhere in the news, but what was Haiti before this crisis happened? What was actually happening before that?
Most people don’t know. What everybody knows is that there are people in the streets in Haiti protesting. And so I think it’s important for us to learn each other, and to pick up as much as we can about each other’s context, so that we are not necessarily trying to speak in place of the other and we’re not trying to speak over each other, and we’re not trying to, to take up room that would, you know, be better occupied by someone else that we’re actually working in dialogue with each other.
Rachel Beatty Riedl
There’s, there’s, there are a couple more questions in the Q&A. And one is from an anonymous attendee. And I think when I read their question, folks will understand why they’re anonymous. And they wrote, “Since the status of immigrants is so liminal in the United States, there’s so much reluctance to speak out. I must confess, I’ve hesitated to speak out and fear that my visa won’t be renewed. The smoke and mirrors around the process make it hard to tell whether that fear was reasonable or paranoid. In your view, how can we organize and advocate for our rights when we face varying degrees of uncertainty and threat?”
What a question. Um, I’ll tell you what: that anxiety is part of the reason why I wrote this book. It’s an anxiety that I had throughout the process of writing this book, because some of the ideas that emerged in this book, if you read them, you’ll see, came when I was… when I was a migrant, and I was a foreigner. So there are essays based on my time in the US, there are essays that I wrote, when I was in Italy, there are essays that I wrote when I was in the United Kingdom, even in Haiti. And the arbitrariness of it all, is not something that I think has a simple answer.
Well, maybe not a simple answer, but a direct answer would be, can there be, can we build critical mass? I love what organizations like BAJI, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration are doing.. CC, CCR, the Center for Constitutional Rights. This is just in the US context. Because what they’re trying to do is to get this local immigrants, the lines going to the people who do have that local privilege, who do have that measure of security that citizenship brings—which is by no means guaranteed, like we’re seeing the United Kingdom is a great example of whereby they’re starting to erode even the right to citizenship. Now they’re starting to deny you saw the Shamima Begum case. she’s a British citizen, joined ISIS, and they’ve revoked her citizenship, even though she was born in the United Kingdom, she grew up in the United Kingdom, but because she’s Brown, they have revoked her citizenship rights.
So, citizenship is increasingly under threat. And so I think that building those immigrant-citizen alliances, educating people who are at home, slightly more at home than immigrants, I think, is a starting point for trying to have that conversation become more part of the popular imagination. I think what the DACA immigrants did was incredibly brave. But I don’t think that that could have happened, if there wasn’t a significant number of citizens saying, “I will speak up, I will stand with you.” So how do we build those alliances, I think is going to be a key part of doing this.
Rachel Beatty Riedl
I wanted to also ask you, in thinking about those mechanisms of coordination, I wanted to come back to thinking about the ways in which migration itself is—and mobility—is something that upends coordination, right? It’s something that can create difficulties in making new ties, right? So when we’re thinking about rural to urban migration, or thinking about migration out of country, how do you think that those aspects… you know, how do people connect, and how does migration potentially reshape social fabric? So, you know, coming back to your own story about, you know, growing up in Nairobi and seeing Nairobi as your home, and knowing Nairobi, like the back of your hand, not feeling connected to the village of your father, right? How do migrations reshape the social fabric, and how can we think about that potential for advocacy and collective action, with those those types of mobility?
You know, one of the reasons—there’s two essays about Nairobi in this book, and one of the reasons why Nairobi has always been intellectually and personally fascinating for me, it’s not just because I’m from here. It’s because it represents an outgrowth, if you will, of the settler state, the settler colony. Because the settler colony really is about displacement. It’s about, so the circumstances that I point out about my family circumstances are about the settler colony, is about a system that said that, for example, only Black men were allowed to live in cities and white—and Black men were supposed to live in cities and serve white—and work in and enslaved in and whatever—families and their families had to stay in what we still colloquially call the reserves. And the reserves, meaning people use it right now in language, but they don’t realize that reserve literally meant labor reserve. And that the ID system the kipande system was a way of creating a pipeline of forced labor from the reserves to the urban center.
So Nairobi represents this very weird historical arc. And I similar cities would probably be Harare, probably be Johannesburg, whereby there is a generation, there are two or three generations of people whose presence in the specific town or city is a consequence of violent migration and violent upheaval and human mobility, who have crafted a sense of identity and belonging within this urban context, that challenges the norms of identity and belonging that belong, that happened elsewhere.
So when people ask me where I’m from, I say I’m from Nairobi, I know what they want me to say. They want me to talk about my ethnic identity, they want me to talk about where my family’s from, but being third generation Nairobian this is an identity that I claim for myself that confounds this nation–national discourse on ethnicity, and a lot of Nairobians will tell you the same thing, that this is the only place in Kenya, where you have a critical mass of people who are drawn from different ethnic backgrounds, and yet feel like they have more claim to belonging and to rights and etc, etc, than the “reserves.”
And I think, with rural urban migration more broadly without that violent context, because what makes that possible is the violence breaking-apart of the community, right? It is young men, especially being put in this forced labor pipeline and being brought to urban areas. In contemporary times, you don’t necessarily have that violent break, but you do have this energy of seeking opportunity, and seeking space. And I always find myself wondering, is there room—in this sense of being from Nairobi, being from Johannesburg, being from Algiers, as being from, you know, that the migrants, the settler colony city—is there room for this new, other way of belonging, where people bring that rural energy, sort of, notions of identity and belonging into that urban context?
And I think Nairobi is an example of–it is possible. And it is possible for it to be… like, it can be done. But migration necessarily brings with dislocation. and what’s happening with a lot of rural-urban migration to Kenya, same thing that’s happening with international migration, people seek out community, they look for the people that they know, they come at the invitation of someone from family, they come into live with someone, and so you end up with people in, concentrated in areas where they are acting as satellites of the broader ethnic group that we’ve left behind. And in a country where ethnic polarization can—and ethno-nationalism—is a political, it’s an issue, it’s a thing. What we’ve seen happen is the replication of some of these broader dynamics in a local scale, or whether you’re talking about post-election violence, and we’re talking about even gang violence and other types of localized violence.
So we did this report, I was one of the editorial team on the report for the International Organization for Migration on Africa’s migration story. And we had essays from all over the continent, from all over the world really looking at different aspects of migration. And one of the essays is about, specifically about rural and urban, rural-urban migration in Africa and health, and looking at how rural-urban migration actually serves African cities, actually enriches African cities. And I think it’s important to reframe… we’ve, we tend to look at rural-urban migration as strictly connected to the labor question. But I think it might also be interesting to reframe it as a question of, what does it do for our cities? How does it enrich the way our cities function? How does it enrich our cultural life in our, our social lives in our cities? I think that essay does a particularly good job of the essay. The question is freely available online, you can download it from the IOM Africa office, Africa Office website. But overall… look, I just think that people have always moved. And I think it’s important to keep making it possible for people to move, because I think it’s better for all of us, when people are able to go where home is not the mouth of a shark, and to create opportunities for them to build a new home.
Many thanks to Nanjala Nyabola for sharing her work and her words with us. Traveling While Black is out with Hurst Publishers and available widely. Thanks also to Dr. Kim Yi Dionne and Dr. Rachel Beatty Riedl for collaborating on this mash-up episode. You can hear more from our conversation with Nanjala in Episode 113 of Ufahamu Africa. And we’ll link to that on our episode page.
Stay tuned for more content in the coming months, including our second season, heading your way this fall. Thanks for listening to Migrations: A World on the Move, a podcast by Global Cornell’s Migrations Global Grand Challenge, a cross-disciplinary and multi-species initiative that studies how the movements of people, animals, microbes, resources, ideas, and more shape our world.
You can learn more about the initiative at migrations.cornell.edu, where you can also find relevant links from this episode. Follow us @GlobalCornell and with the #CornellMigrations. This podcast is hosted by Eleanor Paynter, Migrations Postdoc at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, and produced by Megan DeMint. Much of the podcast was produced at Cornell University on the traditional homelands of the Cayuga Nation. And we recognize Cayuga Nation’s sovereignty and the indigenous peoples who have lived and continue to live on this land. Our music is “Basically Really” by Steve Fawcett. Migrations: A World on the Move is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher.