Bujumbura International Airport

How not to be just another elite

By Millie Raissa Gateka

Disclaimer: this article was written for, and previously posted on the “Bantu Observer”.

I came across an article in The Guardian written by someone claiming to be a “good woman not in Africa”. The article is a rant on how many Africans abroad returning back home say they have patriotic or charitable motives. She suggests it is all a masquerade. According to her, all they are doing is going back to be the elite, live on top of the pile, get the biggest share of the pie in the rising Africa. The next day, I came across a BBC article talking about women of Somali background going to Mogadishu with the agenda of helping to rebuild their war-torn homeland. The article was talking of how they came from countries such as the UK, Canada, or the US abandoning their comfortable lives, good jobs, human rights, and security to risk it all in Somalia.

Now numerous things come to my mind with these two extreme perspectives. These are things we all hear, and that I have previously observed and discussed with friends that studied abroad and are now living on the continent.

The first observation is many of these Africans that go back tend to talk about local situations or practices in a very condescending manner. Usually complaining about things in the country, how things are done, how entertainment is conducted, essentially sounding like high school “cool kids” not mixing with the “losers”. And yes, the reality of many major African cities is Africans educated abroad, or that have lived abroad, will not socialize much with “local” people. Additionally, you will see many coming from abroad always wanting to start their own businesses claiming the existing ones are no good. Let us not forget the usual, “this is what I hate about this country” phrase we often hear when something they don’t like happens in their home city. They place themselves somewhere in between expats and the rest of the local population.

Well, this bothers me as I see it often being neo-colonialist with a latent superiority complex. I can’t help but imagine that when freed African American slaves were sent in Liberia, they landed with this mindset. One can find the “what I hate about this country” situations for any country in the World. As a matter of fact, many Africans abroad complain about things like cold, racism, missing food from home, not having half a dozen domestic workers. They keep saying how their life back home was awesome. Yet, when they reach home, these same people seem to think that their fellow countrymen-and women- are too backwards. There is an obvious inconsistency in the speech. Though I agree, the development levels in Africa can get irritating, the governance issues aggravating, simply saying that Africans are all slow, inefficient, corrupt, you can’t trust them, drive like mad men, will hustle you anytime are statements that are demeaning and unconstructive. As for the many entrepreneurs, though many businesses are a great, spitting on working for existing successful organizations in the country might not be the best attitude for everybody. I mean they must be successful for a reason, and if you are as awesome as you claim to be, you should be able to improve them.

The second observation is to look at the reason why people go back home. Well according to the two articles stated above, they all go to save the continent. Yes, some do go claiming or genuinely thinking that they will help their country and alleviate it from all its ills. Though, that is noble, this approach keeps making me think of the neo-colonialist approach described earlier. It often discredits local talent, not acknowledging that those that have grown in local job markets might have some insights that are crucial to success in the local context. Another reason people want to go home is so they can live comfortably at a low cost. Have the big house with a garden; eat out as often as they like; have a maid, a gardener, a driver and a security guard all at an affordable price. Others just want to go back because they find better opportunities home, or simply because they feel at home and would rather live there.

One common thing seems to be many returning and being the elite in the country.  Or at least often do not end up at the bottom of the economic scale. Is that so bad? If a person has traveled the World to study, worked in World recognized institutions, is able to share their knowledge on “best practices” from around the globe is it wrong that they end up in the society’s elite? And what is elite? Not going to a village and becoming a farmer? Not living in slums or working as a domestic worker in a home? That is pretty much the only safety net people coming from abroad have, as not all of them have a huge business or minister seat waiting for them when they come back.

The issue becomes, does this new “elite” promote status quo and bad governance or do they promote positive change on the continent? The fact is, most of the elite all over the continent, since the independence era, has been educated in the west, and the aftermath of the older generation’s leadership is mediocre! How does the new generation, having studied and worked across the globe mark the difference from our elders and grow individually while promoting good governance and economic growth?

My approach is as follows: as educated and/or experienced human beings, we are now an economic resource. Just as gold is a mineral resource and coffee is an agricultural resource, we are human resource. Currently, the largest share of World GDP is human resource. We are subject to the laws of supply and demand. Thus,if your home country does not offer value for your expertise, by all means stay where you are if you can. However, we cannot deny that in increasingly home countries pay a greater price than host countries for our talents. By price, I do not just mean salary; I am also talking about well-being, job satisfaction, work-life balance, and many more.

Let us take the example of a doctor originally from South-Sudan, working in the UK, deciding to relocate to participate in building the young nation. Perhaps, no salary, security, or working conditions, will ever equal the satisfaction he/she gets from saving an infant dying from a curable disease or the hiring of a local nurse that provides for over 10 people. Another example: a Kenyan accountant in a big four accounting firm in the US, relocating to Nairobi to work in public accounting in his home city. He/she probably has family values ingrained in that city, and is willing to take a slight salary discount in order to enjoy a better work-life balance by being able to live closer to family or raise a family with the same values he/she was raised with. The last example, is probably the most common one, the host country just does not offer better opportunities then the African country he/she calls home. Yes, many Africans abroad really struggle, some because the legislation is harsh on immigrants, others competition in a given field is tough, or they lack networks in the country to advance, some are victims of discrimination, you name it. For some, especially skilled workers, Africa offers better opportunities than the host country they live in.

I will conclude by disagreeing with both the perspective of the BBC article or the Guardian article. Though true in some cases and some fields, do not come to Africa for charity, exotic extravaganza, or CSR. These are the perspectives, in my opinion, maintaining status quo on the continent. The perspective of aid, desperate need of help and guidance from abroad, is status quo. If the Afro-Diaspora wants to be a successful elite on the continent, keeping a complex of inferiority will only make the continent worse off. Acknowledge that you are joining an existing setting, instead of insisting on rebuilding everything from scratch -unless it applies for your country, like in the South Sudan example. Come with an open mind, share innovative ways for all to move forward. Many repatriating Africans’ are often surprised, in many cities in Africa, that the local competition is really tough, at times tougher than in their host country.

Africa is on a race to development and growth. Join if you want to be a runner. Alternatively, you can be a supporter, a spectator, or even a sponsor. Choose your role, as an African you will always have some role.

Millie Raissa currently lives and studies in Toronto, Canada

One thought on “How not to be just another elite

  1. Pingback: I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? | This Burundian Life

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