On How We Make It Harder for the Diaspora to Return to the Continent by Aissatou Diagne
I lay in the middle of my bed in the dark room of my dark apartment. The unrelenting summer heat of Dakar causing insomnia, I walked to my bathroom and wet my towel before slowly returning to bed and wrapping myself with the wet towel. I liked to think of this method as homemade air conditioning. I told myself that I was ingenious, resourceful, and strong. But even with the cooling wetness of the towel, I could not manage to sleep. I wondered why I had moved back to Senegal straight after graduating from college.
During the first few months of my return to my home country, people frequently asked me “So, how is it being back?” My general answer was usually something along the lines of “It’s hard but mostly good. I feel like this is where I should be.” But at that specific moment, drenched in that wet towel as my second week without electricity was drawing to an end, I began to feel tired with the exhaustion that comes from constantly being discouraged.
You see, the thing is I want to help. I want to contribute to the positive changes that are bound to take place in Senegal and Africa as a whole. While there has been steady economic growth over the last few years, there are still many things to be systematically improved. Oftentimes, the amount of work to be accomplished feels overwhelming. Times when I am trying to get anything administrative done – be it at the bank, the water company or the registration offices – and it takes them hours when I am confident that task takes 20 to 30 minutes. Times when I register to have electricity in my apartment and it takes weeks instead – with bribing of course – before the company worker shows up to just take the ID number of my meter. Yet, despite all these mini battles, I still feel like I can contribute my two cents to improve the situation.
Another aspect of my discouragement comes from the daily challenges. I have to exert additional amounts of energy that could be spent elsewhere to get things done simply because I am a woman. For instance, getting an apartment as a young, unmarried female was a big deal. Not for me, mind you, but for my landlord and most of my Senegalese family and friends. I am told that c’est pas notre culture –it’s not our culture. In fact, my apartment contract refers to me, the tenant, as “le chef de famille” which translated from French means the “head of the household” but in a male-only manner. The landlord wanted me to have someone else sign the lease in addition to giving him a copy of my work contract that shows my salary – requirements made on the spot because of my gender. He simply could not believe that I could live there without a man or pay for my rent regularly on my own. I shared my views on his discriminatory ways before putting my foot down. While conversations like this and repeatedly having to explain to everyone why I am not living with my parents since I am unmarried have been generally unpleasant, I hope that there is a day when I won’t have to explain myself for how I choose to live and with whom. And more importantly, that I am not a piece that goes from my father’s household to my husband’s.
One of my favorite authors, Andre Aciman, has a saying in one of my favorite books of his that goes: “If not later, then when?” He uses this somewhat ironically to point to the scarcity of time. If it is not now, it has to be later and if it not later, then it won’t happen. There is a sense of urgency in how things need to change for the better: fast fast, chop chop. To Aciman’s words, I will even add “If not us, then who?” As Africans and lovers of Africa, we need to take charge of the trajectory of our continent. As we are busy bribing each other to get things done in a timely manner, or minding how women should live at x place until a prince charming comes and sweeps her away to the magic land of marriage, thousands of our brothers and sisters are drowning in the Atlantic Ocean as they do not see any future at home. There is something unbearably wrong when a perfectly healthy and capable young man leaves their home country, a country that is not war torn, to face death in the ocean for the scant hope of acquiring a likely illegal job selling knock-off bags in the streets of Europe. Risking one’s own life against every indication of the possibility of success in a precarious journey says something unbearably painful about our continent.
There are a lot of scholarships that finance the education of promising young Africans abroad on the condition that they return to the continent for a certain number of years. This is a good method to address the dearth of highly educated local professionals on the continent. However, it is not enough because part of these programs need to include a strong guide that facilitates the return of Africans living abroad who are willing to come back and are deterred by the consequences of such a move. Because let’s face it, this is usually not a place where we can focus on our job and address the real issues without being tangled up in the middle of never ending family politics, patriarchal and homophobic societies and utterly ineffectual public services. The point should never be to force people to come back to work in their own home countries. When we do that, we are missing the point by not addressing some of the root causes of this ‘cultural exile’ because let’s face it, there is more to the brain drain than we are talking about. The point should be to empower people to make a bold move in their personal and professional lives and return to Africa and address some of the issues instead of feeling like they are treading water by just being back instead of actually making a positive change. Otherwise once they finish their “commitment”, they will leave. Nowhere should be a place you go to because you are forced to, certainly not Africa.
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