A version of this piece was first published on the International Migration Institute blog on April 7, 2017, and can be accessed here.
In 2009, I travelled to Ethiopia with a group of nine other young people of Ethiopian descent from across North America. We were part of a loose collective of interdisciplinary artists and community activists that came together through a series of ad hoc online exchanges over the course of several years. The idea was simple and very exciting – what if we all came together in Ethiopia and participated in the large cultural festival that was scheduled to take place in the south of the country? It would be an opportunity for cultural exchange, creative collaboration, and transnational community building. The initial group on the email chain was quite large, however eventually ten of us committed to making the trip and started our respective fundraising campaigns to finance our travel expenses.
As our departure date approached, we received word that the festival in Ethiopia had been cancelled under the orders of the Ethiopian Government. The political climate in Ethiopia was very tense at the time due to upcoming elections, and any sort of large gathering was looked upon with suspicion as a legacy of the protests that followed the highly contested 2005 elections. After a series of thoughtful discussions, we decided we would still make the trip to southern Ethiopia and find other ways to make the experience meaningful and impactful. We met up in Addis Ababa, and spent some time connecting with local artists and community organisers in the city. While there were domestic flights available to our final destination in the south of the country, we decided that we wanted to see and experience the countryside, opting instead to take what was then a twelve-hour drive. It was a beautiful and enjoyable ride, which we spent sharing stories, getting to know each other, and meeting locals along the way. As one of the photographers in the group, I also spent much of my time taking pictures from the window and documenting the trip as we went.
Over the next week, we travelled through the region, meeting with local community organisers, and learning as much as we could about the people and cultures of the south. As we reflected on our experiences, we began to ask ourselves whether we should make more of an effort to give back as much as we were receiving from the communities we were visiting. After some discussion and consultation, we decided to pool our money to buy uniforms and school supplies for children in an under-resourced school in one of the towns. We travelled to the school to meet the students and presented the donation to the principal. The gifts were very much appreciated, and it felt good to have the ability to contribute despite, as young people, our own limited financial resources.
Uncertain obligations and commitments
Later that day, a debate emerged amongst our group about whether we should try to support the school on an ongoing basis after we returned to our respective hometowns across North America. A few people felt we had a moral obligation to do so, however there was strong resistance to the idea of making a commitment we might/would not be able to sustain, and some of the group questioned whether we were best placed to engage in such efforts at all, given how far removed we were from the community. Most of us were either born or primarily raised in North America, and we had a genuine interest in fostering a deeper relationship with Ethiopia as the country of our parents’ origin. However, what lingered for me from this discussion was a collective uncertainty about the terms and conditions of this relationship, and whether it was acceptable to explore and encounter the country without also giving something back.
Many of the questions that emerged in our discussion are ones that I returned to in my doctoral studies many years later. Read the rest of this entry »
September 25, 2015
Jyotsana Saha and I were pleased to contribute a chapter in this wonderful book. Our portion is entitled “Points of Origin: A Visual and Narrative Journey”, and includes a collection of images and poems that explore diasporic identity.
Diasporas Reimagined is an edited collection designed to showcase the breadth as well as cohesion of research on diasporas linked to the Leverhulme-funded Oxford Diasporas Programme. Featuring contributions from 45 authors, this collection is free to download as a PDF, either as a complete collection or as individual essays. Hard copies will so be available.
Drawing on a range of disciplines, including social anthropology, sociology, human geography, politics, international relations, development studies and history, Diasporas Reimagined depicts a world increasingly interconnected through migration, where sediments of previous encounters coexist in places, practices and personal and collective identities.
Put together,it aims to provoke new ways of thinking, both about diasporas and about some of the foundational concepts of social science.
The editorial team which includes Alan Gamlen (Victoria University, NZ), Giulia Liberatore (University of Oxford), Hélène Neveu Kringelbach (UCL) and me (University of Birmingham) started as institutionally Oxford-based and is now scattered around.
April 8, 2015
[This post was originally written for the ‘Sociology of Citizenship’ series posted on the Oxford Department of International Development blog as well as the Oxford/Cambridge Politics in Spires blog]
Diasporas and other transnational communities have become particularly useful case studies for scholars interested in stretching and challenging mainstream conceptions of citizenship. It is now widely accepted that for many people around the world, physical location and formal legal citizenship may not be the most salient forms of social, political or economic affiliation. As the process of globalization continues to expand, more and more people find themselves in one place, while their lives are structured and oriented by connections to one or several other places. Some of these ‘places’ are other nation states, such as an ancestral country of origin. However, many such ‘places’ exist extraterritorially as abstract yet powerful expressions of identity, community, and belonging.
In 2005, Taiye Selasi authored a short piece for The Lip Magazine titled ‘Bye-Bye Babar (or: What is an Afropolitan?)’. In it, the British-born, American-raised, writer of Nigerian and Ghanaian origin, formulated a definition and vivid depiction of an ‘Afropolitan’, one that has become the reference point for many enthusiasts and critics alike:
They (read: we) are Afropolitans. […] There is at least one place on The African Continent to which we tie our sense of self: be it a nation-state (Ethiopia), a city (Ibadan), or an auntie’s kitchen. Then there’s the G8 city or two (or three) that we know like the backs of our hands, and the various institutions that know us for our famed focus. We are Afropolitans: not citizens, but Africans of the world.
Borrowing from cosmopolitan discourse, Selasi describes a class of people who have deep and meaningful – yet fluid, connections to Africa, while identifying more so as citizens of the world than any particular nation state. Through this compelling portrait, Selasi has become, perhaps unwittingly, a political entrepreneur of sorts. She has helped to establish, albeit flexible, ideological borders around a constellation of ideas, people, and places, which act as a point of reference and engenders a sense of belonging for a large group of people. Many social critics, including Binyavanga Wainaina, Emma Dabiri, and Brian Bwesigye have taken issue with Selasi and the broader Afropolitan discourse – arguing that it reflects an elitist representation of African diasporas, which depoliticizes social relations and commodifies African cultures. Others, such as blogger Minna Salami (self-branded as ‘MsAfropolitan’), and scholars Achille Mbembe and Chielozona Eze, have engaged with these critiques, yet argue there is still social, political and analytical value in the concept of Afropolitanism. Read the rest of this entry »
December 4, 2014
[Reposted on UrbanCusp Magazine]
Yesterday, I hugged Dr. Cornel West, I shook Professor Angela Davis’ hand, and spent the evening chatting with Rodnell Collins, the nephew of Malcolm X. What’s more, all of this happened in Oxford, a museum of colonial dreams and bastion of White elitist culture. Yesterday was also the 50th anniversary of the date when Malcolm X addressed the Oxford Union, less than three months before he was assassinated. And yesterday, a Staten Island grand jury chose not to indict the police officer who held Eric Garner in the choke hold that would claim his life. A lot happened yesterday.
On December 3rd, 1964 Malcolm X was invited to The Oxford Union, the most prestigious student debating organization in the UK, to argue in the affirmative that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”. Fifty years later I sat in the same place, across from Angela Davis and with a group of other students, listening to the audio of this historic speech. Seated in my row was an elegant elderly woman of colour who, as it turns out, was involved in organizing the original debate in 1964. As she looked around, I heard her remark to my friend (another woman of colour) that when Malcolm spoke here, there was nothing but a “sea of white faces”. I turned to look at the crowd, and was also encouraged by the spatter of colour across the room. But as we listened to Malcolm’s speech, his words quickly reminded me of how incremental this change was in the grand scheme of things and given the current state of affairs.
I don’t encourage any act of murder nor do I glorify in anyone’s death, but I do think that when the white public uses it’s press to magnify the fact that there are lives of white hostages at stake, they don’t say “hostages,” every paper says “white hostages.” They give me the impression that they attach more importance to a white hostage and a white death, than they do the death of a human being, despite the colour of his skin. I feel forced to make that point clear, that I’m not for any indiscriminate killing, nor does the death of so many people go by me without creating some kind of emotion. But I think that white people are making the mistake, and if they read their own newspapers they will have to agree that they, in clear cut language, make a distinction between the type of dying according to the colour of the skin.
November 13, 2014
Image courtesy of Reuters
It’s been 30 years since this ridiculous excuse for a song was released. What have we learned in that time? Apparently nothing. Sometimes, if I’m in a particularly forgiving mood, I can come to a place where I understand the social and political context that would make someone in 1984 believe that releasing this song could be anything more than criminal noise pollution. But it’s really hard to forgive when you’re never allowed to forget! Every year I am thrown into an existential fit when I find myself in a car or shopping centre and this song begins to play. As the nausea sets in, I look around and wonder…is anyone else listening to this? Can you hear what they are saying? Is the DJ a robot? Is this real life?!
…There’s a world outside your window, and it’s a world of dread and…
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