Digging beneath the surface of Zimbabwe’s “diaspora syndrome”
Posted by CM on November 11, 2007
The levels of unprofessionalism to which The Herald has sunk makes me tend to dismiss many of its opinion pieces as government propaganda. But an article by Stephen T. Maimbodei on October 2 about the whole recent phenomenon of a large Zimbabwean diaspora had many good points to cause all of us, at home and abroad, to think about our situation:
Zimbabwe is losing a valuable and highly skilled human resource base. It is difficult to ascertain how many Zimbabweans are in the Diaspora as economic migrants. What are their attitudes about home, especially those who left the country and applied for political asylum, wherever they are scattered the world over? Was it worth it? How does Zimbabwe, the real home, compare with their new homes? Maybe my musings about motherland and the search for a Zimbabwean identity will say something.
Those of us who … remember the “been-to” syndrome that was prevalent among people who had studied in Western countries, especially the UK and the US. In West Africa, it is called the “when-we’s” syndrome. In former Portuguese colonies, they are called assimilados.
The term “been-to” was coined because people would always hear persons who had been overseas saying, “When we were in London (or whichever Western place), we used to…In French-speaking Africa, it was Paris, and in Lusophone Africa, Lisbon. “Been-to” also referred to someone who had gone to a far-off land, a land with better opportunities in all spheres of life…It also meant that the person’s preferred language of communication was English, and not the vernaculars.
The pull … the search for “greener pastures” has meant that many of Africa’s sons and daughters are willing to be economic migrants in Western countries by any means possible. Almost every month, you hear and read tragic stories of young men from West Africa who risk their lives, trying to illegally enter Europe through Spain. The millions of dollars in foreign exchange they spend trying to be illegal immigrants is mind boggling.
This writer … realises that missionaries … to Africa colonised it, pillaged and plundered, and enabled the construction of the fantastic infrastructures that we all go for.
The irony is that the “when-we’s” syndrome never referred to people who had been in developing countries such as China or India. My father, who worked as a migrant worker in Malawi and South Africa, was never called a “been-to.”
“Been-to” was seen as a mark of achievement, success and prosperity. It commanded a lot of respect for the educational qualifications attained in those far-flung places were supposed to be superior to those obtained from local institutions.
The syndrome affected many of us.
It was also sometimes easy to see the “been-to’s” because of the inter-racial and/cultural marriages, especially in a Rhodesia where inter-racial marriages were legally prohibited.The “when-we’s” syndrome was also accompanied by the “diploma disease” where pieces of academic papers from overseas institutions were considered more important than productivity. Even amongst themselves, the college or university one attended in those Western countries also mattered. It was common to hear people claiming that those who had studied in the US had phony degrees.
The “when-we’s” syndrome has now taken a new look. It is now the Diaspora syndrome. It is a syndrome that looks good on the outside, but when one digs deeper; there is so much dirt and rot underneath.
At the peak of the MDC heat wave, many Zimbabweans went to Western countries, claiming to be asylum seekers, when in actual fact they are just economic migrants.
They claimed torture and harassment from Zanu-PF and the government. That these so-called refugees had to go through the rigorous processes of getting passports and visas, and then claim political asylum, are some of the twists and turns of the matter for Zimbabwe in the new millennium.
However, the price some of them are paying is immense for family values, as most of their families have been thrown to the dogs. Is it a wonder that we have so many dysfunctional families among people whose dollar power is so strong? A majority of them are unable to return to Zimbabwe. Some of them died in their “new” homes, and their remains are now interred in those far-off places, being buried with very few friends and relatives present to bid them farewell.
Is it worth it?
The glorification of the Diaspora and condescension of homes that give us succour are ironies that mean that we have mindsets that need deprogramming. And some minds need to be installed with totally new programmes, programmes that should realise that when we go into the Diaspora, we are following the pillaged and plundered national assets.
We go over to make them refined products that will only be sent back to us with labels “Made in the UK”, etc, and not made “Made in Zimbabwe.” But they will be beyond the reach of ordinary people. Look at the gold necklace, earrings and the diamond ring you are wearing, and you will know that it brought very little value, let alone wealth to Zimbabwe.
It is a syndrome that has outlived its usefulness. More than ever, a lot of people, especially among the young generation, would rather be living in the glitzy cities and towns of the Western world than in Africa, even if it means doing menial jobs.
Diaspora, which has replaced the “been-to” syndrome, is now so rife, and the worst part about this is that whereas the “been-to’s” of the past did not have immediate economic benefits for their families and themselves, it is now a different kettle of fish. Today’s “been-to” or Diasporan is bringing immense economic benefits to their families.
In Zimbabwe’s harsh economic environment, you hear many claiming that if it were not of the family members and relatives in the Diaspora, they would be suffering more than they are doing right now. Diasporans are now the new buyers and owners of property, and they are doing it at unprecedented levels. For a nation which is going through such an economic crunch to have roads littered with the latest vehicles from all over the world, most of them fuel-guzzling 4 x 4s, is a wonder.
Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation is good news to their ears. The parallel economy they have created is an institution that they would do not want to see disappearing. Modern information technologies make it easy for them to peg the hard currency at any level they want.
As if the colonial propaganda and brainwashing were not enough, the “been-to” or Diaspora mentality has created a class of people who do not have confidence in themselves, let alone confidence in their capacity to transform their conditions at a national level. It is a mentality that has created the derogatory terms of such as zvaanaMuseyamwa, meaning products and services offered by indigenous people. It is a mindset where 27 after independence you hear people always saying: Dai kwakanga kuchine varungu zvinhu hazvaimbodai. (If whites were still running the show, goods and services would not degenerate like this.)
You also hear people bragging that they are now British, Australian, US and/or South African citizens. It is their right, but if the Rhodesians were comfortable with dual citizenship, there was a place they always knew was home, no matter what.
Almost 10 years since the economic migration started, Zimbabwe still has to benefit from these migrants, for economic migrants in countries such as India and the Philippines contribute substantial amounts to the national GDP since they make their foreign exchange remittances using formal channels.
As a caveat, it is Zimbabwe, and Zimbabwe only, where issues of national security seem to have little significance since we do not care where eventually the hard-earned US dollar, pound sterling or rand will end up.
Socially and culturally, there are attempts to decolonise the minds, but to what effect? But for how long will we continue to search for a Zimbabwean or African identity, especially at a time when capitalism seems to be rearing its ugly head through the much-touted globalisation mantra? Africa has been independent for more than five decades now. Transforming ourselves to suit international norms is not a problem, but we cannot be a people that always look up to others to define our identity and destiny.
Our social and cultural norms are littered with Western templates. Our clothing industry has been reduced to nought. The beauty care and fashion business for black women the world over, for example, is pouring in billions of dollars of foreign currency into foreign industries, while basics such as food, health care, housing, water and sanitation are neglected beyond any measure of understanding. So is the entertainment industry.
The domino effect of the “been-to” syndrome is so overwhelming that it has not escaped the elderly generation. So often, you hear cross-border shoppers always wanting to compare Zimbabwe with neighbouring South Africa, economically in particular. True, South Africa has an advanced infrastructure compared to most African countries, and it is the leading economy on the continent, but who owns and controls that economy?
The Diaspora effect also opened windows of opportunity of travel for most elderly parents of people living in the Diaspora. It is a very commendable thing that the elderly are getting to travel and be exposed to other cultures and viewpoints.
However, the colonial mentality seems to be a curse that will live with us for a very long time to come. As a people based on an oral culture, we like to talk. The street corner Press has always been our major source of information. Writing and reading are alien to us. If this is the case, what do these children in the Diaspora tell their elderly parents about their “new homes” vis-à-vis Zimbabwe, for one would expect them to return from these visits wiser and better teachers of our young generation?
This reminds me of Walter Rodney’s book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. The African psyche needs emancipation and redemption. For, although globalisation is being force-fed on most developing nations, there are marks of our identity that should never be traded for anything.
Some of it was over the top, such as the insinuation that Zimbabweans ignore formal channels of sending money home out of a lack of patriotism. He rather conveniently ignores the little matter of Zimbabwean formal channel exchange rates that are a fraction of the street rate! No one who battles for their dollar in the diaspora is going to be willing to lose a cent by exchanging it at a far less than its real value, a universal selfishness imperative that is far stronger than more abstract ones like “patriotism,” regardless of how one defines this word in today’s bitterly politically fractured Zimbabwe.
I got a little uptight about “As a people based on an oral culture, we like to talk. The street corner Press has always been our major source of information. Writing and reading are alien to us.” Not because it isn’t true, but because Maimbodei seemed to almost celebrate how “writing and reading are alien to us.” As long as they remain so, we will be stuck even further behind the rest of the world than we are now as a people! Changing this should be an important part of the “reprogramming” he talks about, but I accept that this is not the theme of his article. I just get alarmed at any suggestion of comfortably wallowing in accepting factors, cultural or otherwise, that put Africans at such a competitive disadvantage in the world as it is structured today.
But this is nitpicking on my part, these are all points more appropriate for another time. The fact of the matter is that Maimbodei has done a good job of digging deep to analyse our collective psychological state of mind in regards to an important phenomenon of our reality today.