Written before the historic Elections that brought Barack Obama to power, and published in the Guardian Life magazine (Sunday, November 9, 2008),
By the time you read this, the United States of America will have a new President. I believe it will be Barack Obama Jr., son of a Kenyan father and an American mother. Barack Obama Sr. left home and family behind to travel to America in search of an education, perhaps a new life. He met Ann Dunham at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, while they were both students there. Not long after, Sen. Obama was born.
It is a story that many will be familiar with. In the forties and fifties shiploads of Nigerians regularly set sail from Lagos, headed for colonial Britain’s Universities (and to a lesser extent America – Nnamdi Azikiwe being one of the more famous examples of Nigerian students in America). In the sixties and seventies Russia, Hungary, Poland and other Communist (Eastern European) countries joined the list of destination countries for young Nigerians seeking certificates for a better life. These opportunities were the fallout of the Cold War; it must have dawned on the Imperial Powers that the Cold War was not merely a battle for military supremacy, it was also a battle for the minds of men and women, and Africa was virgin ground, waiting to be taken. So that they turned on Africa and lavished it with scholarships and exchange programs.
It was inevitable that many of the young Nigerians who left would fall in love with women from their host countries – like Barack Obama Sr. Some came back home with their (new) families. Others chose to stay behind. Today, in and out of Nigeria there are sizeable communities of “half-castes” (that word is now ‘Politically Incorrect’) of Nigerian origin.
Many Ghanaians moved to Nigerians in the seventies and early eighties escaping political and economic turmoil in their country. By the early eighties there was a sizeable Ghanaian population in Nigeria, working at all sorts of jobs, from blue collar jobs ones like shoe-mending to white collar ones like teaching. Most of my primary school teachers were Ghanaians, and they were such excellent teachers it seemed like God had created them specially for that purpose. In 1983 we asked them to leave (see Ghana-must-go). They did. But I’d like to imagine that in the years they spent here, they fell in love with and/or married Nigerian women, and had children, and that there is a sizeable population of Ghanaian-Nigerians, or Nigerian-Ghanaians (take your pick) scattered between Nigeria (those who stayed) and Ghana (those who left).
Interestingly, years before we asked the Ghanaians to leave, they asked us to. In 1969 Ghana deported 50,000 Nigerian migrants, for “economic reasons.” And today, Nigerians are again moving in droves to Ghana, to take advantage of a country where things work better, where there are more possibilities than the one they left behind.
A significant number of Koreans moved to Japan during the 2nd World War, and have lived there since (even though they still remain largely as second-class citizens, due to the fact that Japan is (in the words of the New York Times) a “homogenous and insular nation… notoriously unwelcoming to immigrants…”
But once upon a time even the “notoriously unwelcoming’ Japanese had to “move”. I was surprised to discover that the largest Japanese population outside of Japan is found not in a neighbouring Asian country, not even in America –“Home to Everyone” (where there are about 1.2 million Japanese – 2005 figures) – but in Brazil. There are an estimated 1.5 million people of Japanese descent living in Brazil, descendants of the thousands of Japanese who have been traveling to Japan since the Brazil-Japan Immigration Treaty of 1907 permitted the Japanese to seek work on Brazil’s coffee plantations – the same plantations to which millions of Africans were forcefully shipped during the transatlantic Slave Trade.
About 6% of Finland’s current population is made up of people known as “Swedish-speaking Finns”, (the percentage has actually fallen to this figure over the centuries) their origins can be traced to the time when Finland used to be a part of Sweden, before the Russian conquest of 1809.
A while ago I wrote about the following exchange between myself and an American postgraduate student that I met here in Uppsala:
Him: "Did you know that in Liberia Nigerians are treated as God?"
Me: “Yeah, ECOMOG...”
Him: “And did you know that there is a village (in Liberia) full of half-Liberian half-Nigerian children…”
Me: [laughing] “Yeah... “
It’s a joke even in Nigeria, about the sizeable number of Nigerian-Liberian children in Liberia, whose fathers happen to be Nigerian soldiers.
I can’t help ending the way I started, with Barack Obama.
In 2006, on The Oprah Winfrey Show, he said: "Michelle will tell you that when we get together for Christmas or Thanksgiving, it's like a little mini-United Nations... I've got relatives who look like Bernie Mac, and I've got relatives who look like Margaret Thatcher... we've got it all."
10 years ago