Shameful lesson of the African migrant crisis: Home is where the heart breaks

Friday July 13 2018

Migrants wait to be rescued by the Aquarius rescue ship run by NGO SOS Mediterranee and Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) in the Mediterranean Sea at the Libyan coast on August 2, 2017. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


The idea of home has been central in the historical drama of humankind. People have waged wars in order to return to homes taken away from them.

For instance, the enduring desire of Palestinians scattered all over the world is to return to the homeland they lost in 1948.

Because home, in both its physical and psychological aspects, is intrinsically linked to societies and nations, the theme is a constant in literature.

John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath opens with the pain of families forced off their homes and land. These poor folks leave a part of themselves behind.

When old Tom Joad dies on the way to California, their new idea of home, Casey, the preacher says of him: “And Grampa didn’t die tonight. He died the minute you took ‘im off the place…”

It is a monumental tragedy, therefore, when people flee their homes, either because they have been forced out by murderous or oppressive regimes or because their conditions are so deprived that homes is synonymous with poverty and death.


This is the tragedy of African migrants on their way to their version of California – Western Europe.

Like Steinbeck’s Joad family, they leave their villages where their dearest and sweetest memories are. They leave the pathways where they had their first kiss under the moonlight.

They leave their local church where they were baptised, or the mosque where they recited the Koran.

More painfully, they leave behind their ageing parents or ailing sisters. They abandon the graves where they buried their loved ones.

The Joads and other emigrant families face hardships and death on the way to California.

But for the African migrants on their way to Europe, the hazards and deaths are on an epic scale.Skeletons and shallow graves mark their trek across the Sahara. In Libya, some migrants are sold as slaves.

Those who get to the Libyan coast board rickety boats on a perilous journey to Italy and other landing spots in Europe. Hundreds, if not thousands, having escaped sandy graves in the Sahara, have come to a watery end in the Mediterranean.

Whichever way we look it, this migration tragedy is a crippling indictment of the African post-colonial state, and should precipitate an urgent rethinking of its formation.

And yet the African Union, which should be the lead agency in this process, is more concerned with the insults hurled at Africa by Donald Trump.

When the US president referred to African countries as “sh*tholes,” the AU histrionically demanded an apology. And yet African migrants have been dying on a daily basis in the Sahara and at sea without registering on the AU’s moral scale or pricking the organisation’s sense of dignity.

Surely, the greater insult to African dignity is the image of its citizens being sold as slaves in Libya or crowded in unseaworthy boats, being rescued, not by African, but by European ships.

Is it not a great shame for the AU and Africa that Europeans have held several high-level meetings to discuss the migrant crisis, and the AU has held none?

In 1979, Tanzanian troops invaded Uganda, intent on ridding the country of the murderous grip of Idi Amin. The Organisation of African Unity, the predecessor to the AU, frantically held an extraordinary summit to discuss – get this – not how they could lend military support to Tanzania, but how to stop the invasion, because by invading Uganda, Tanzania had transgressed on the OAU’s sacrosanct policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states!

In 1994, at the height of the genocide in Rwanda, one would have expected the OAU to hold an extraordinary meeting to discuss how to stop the mass killings and, afterwards, help with reconstruction of the country.

But it was Rwandans themselves who stopped the genocide and who pulled themselves out from the ensuing economic and social cesspool by their bootstraps.

The AU is incapable of responding to practical issues affecting the African people.

The organisation was designed to give African leaders diplomatic clout to fend off criticism of their governance.

It is an ideological tool useful for mobilising – as a way of distracting people’s attention from grinding poverty – around issues of dignity and sovereignty.

Not dignity as in human dignity, but dignity as in nationalist philosophy.

But nationalist and colonial theories are no longer able to explain away the failure of the African post-colonial state.

The migrant crisis, with its images of terror and horror, is a cry for a fundamental deconstruction and reconstruction of the African post-colonial state.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based social and political commentator.