By Sampa Kabwela
I had a stint in England. It would turn out to be the most traumatic one year of my life, yet, the person I am today (whatever that is) was shaped there and I would learn my most endearing lessons on self reliance.
I have not fully recovered even after many years, from the suffering and trauma that characterized my life there. Nothing to do with racism, I experienced no racial discrimination in England, and even if I did, I was way too naïve as a 22year old Lilanda girl to pick up the subtle nuances that come with institutionalized racial relations.
In retrospect, the trauma was perhaps largely my own doing. It was in England for instance where I discovered that if I didn’t buy soap, there would be no soap in the bathroom. It took me a very long time to realize this very basic sum.
While many of my experiences have blurred with time, one has remained as sharp as it was then; I can never forget the emptiness and desperation in the eyes of some Zambians I met, who desperately wanted to come back home, but were held captive by fear or one thing.
Perhaps things have changed now with internet and social media, but during my time there, whenever a person arrived from ‘home’ word spread and before you knew it, a good number of people would come to meet you, partly to show-off how well they had assimilated to the English culture including the weather, but more so, to find out “how things were back home.”
They desperately wanted to know how the economy was doing, what chances they stood if they returned “pa zed” of getting a decent job that would deliver the kind of lives they were used to in England. Such sessions would last for hours as scary tales popped up of corruption, disease and suffering back home, tales of a family who had left Wales for home six months ago and were now near destitute unable to find a job and living with in-laws. Some stories were real, but others total works of imagination.
There are three kinds of Zambians in the Diaspora. Those on scholarships, chance takers and ‘immigrants.’
Those with scholarships get the best from the Diaspora because they do not have the immediate pressures of survival in a foreign land and can concentrate on studies. Most of them make it, this group usually returns home or decides to study further or go to another country; They have choices and the world is their oyster.
The chance takers are people who find themselves in the Diaspora with no scholarship, no money, no plan, no return ticket, but big dreams of studying, working, saving and making it big. In England, I fell in this category. This group soon meets reality. With shock they learn the difference between New York in a movie and New York in real life. They drop out of school, the student VISA expires, but they don’t leave anyway. They work at a Pizza shop, the money seem good especially when mentally converted into Kwacha even if they cant save. They continue working, they master running a fast-food-business and soon ascend the MacDonald chain and earn a good livable income.
Let me add that some in this group overcome their circumstances by either getting back into school, or somehow manage to save money, return home and soar.
The third group is made of immigrants. They went to Diaspora as professionals. In fact this group is a combination of sorts, including chance takers, scholars and anyone in between. For these, Diaspora is now home, they have married there, children are born there, have taken permanent residence or citizenship. Some are very successful, most are doing just fine, yet a bulk could do well returning home.
After more than a decade in the Diaspora, here is my observation; Most Zambians in Zambia are doing far much better than those abroad. Despite all the feigned air of success, most people in the Diaspora are not exactly successful or better off than their peers here. I have not met a Zambian in the Diaspora who doesn’t want to return home. While the Diaspora offers a resemblance of a good life, especially those content with a middle class life, real chances of success and wealth lie here at home. Just the ability to buy land, even 5acres, not a house or a Condo, is only possible here.
Ideally the Zambians abroad should have a head start when they return, because they bring the exposure, the money and perspective that the Zambians at home lack. Some are doing just that but a bulk return with nothing more than just memories and cloned accents.
One of the things I enjoy observing are new arrivals from the Diaspora, specifically developed Diaspora. Some are quiet comical; carrying a bottle of mineral water everywhere they go. They pronounce bottle to sound as “borror”, water as “worrer ” “a borror of mineral worrer” adding or exaggerating the ‘r’ on every ‘worrd, becorrse, herre.’ In a restaurant, they might even order just a salad, except that nothing about their body shows any evidence of salad intake hitherto.
The Diaspora is a weird a place, its a jungle. It seems that the longer a person lives there, the more difficult, but the more stronger the urge to return home. But coming back home is not always easy at many levels. It means cutting away from a life and routine that one has established over the years to start-over in a place that is both home and foreign. Zambia can be a totally foreign place for people returning home; liter, mediocre, failure to keep time, expensive, poor customer service and dysfunctional public services.
The biggest dilemma though, for Disaporans, is coming back to account for one’s success to friends, family and relatives. It’s easy to play successful on a two weeks visit, but relocation casts a spotlight. It’s not easy to face the relatives when you return. The expectation for returnees is much higher. Family is more forgiving, more understanding of the poverty of those who never left, but are unforgiving of unsuccessful returnees.
That song ‘aPhiri anabwela kuchoka ku Harare’ is a torment. It should be banned.