We Need Ideas From Immigrant Returnees, Not Petty Handouts

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

This is the time of year when throngs of people converge at airports to welcome back relatives working mostly in Europe and north America. They cast hopeful glances at the luggage of their immigrant sons and daughters.

You can detect their faces falling when they notice that the bags are not many and big enough to be carrying presents. African immigrants send back to the continent billions of dollars every year, and in all but a handful of countries, they do more for the people than the governments.

Think of something close to that scene at a big airport in the US; many of the people arriving back home who have been away for a year will be mostly young. Several will be students who took a gap year to travel as backpackers in Africa, living on less than $1,000 and hitchhiking around the continent. Or they spent the time doing volunteer work in an African slum helping to dig wells and latrines.

NEARLY ALL Africans who go to Europe or North America travel there to work or study. They don’t “waste” time travelling or discovering the countries and how the knowledge from the universities is applied to daily life. That is one reason you find an African who went to Harvard or Oxford University behaving like an illiterate villager when he becomes a member of parliament or a minister.

When the young Europeans and Americans return home, many find their way into universities, NGOs that work on Africa, foreign affairs, and so on. In this way, over the years the West has accumulated a lot of knowledge about the foreign communities they deal with. When they confront African government officials, they usually have a tremendous advantage in negotiations drawing on that knowledge.

I have a relative who studies impenetrable things like what language reveals about a community’s history, its power structure, and the chances of its survival in the future. Not too long ago, she was doing research among the Jopadhola people in eastern Uganda. One day on her trip out, she ran into some Japanese fellow crossing a swamp deep in the village.

THEY GOT talking, and she found that he too was doing a study of the Dhupadhola (the Jopadhola’s language). She couldn’t figure out what business a Japanese had studying the language of such a small community. However, the encounter turned out to be an eye opener. For her preparatory research, she had compiled a bibliography that was about 20 articles and books long on the affairs of the Jopadhola. That was considered impressive. However, the Japanese researcher had a bibliography more than 100 books long.

IF THE Japanese are doing that in many other countries, then it is no wonder that their cars are the most popular in the majority of African countries. Might the Japanese carmakers have more information about the kind of cars that work in Africa than Africans do? Yes, and perhaps that is why attempts to make an “African vehicle” like the Nyayo car during Daniel arap Moi’s rule in Kenya flopped. So back to where we started.

When the African immigrants return, their relatives look forward in the hope that they will get a new dress, shoes, toys and money. As long as that continues to be the case, Africa will remain backward. You will know the sun is about to truly shine over Africa the day the people who show up to meet returning immigrants are white-coat-clad assistants from hospitals, research institutes, and technology companies.

They will be going to the airport to get ideas from the returnees, not petty handouts. I love peasants, but too many of them waiting at the airport isn’t a good economic indicator.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s managing editor for convergence and new products.

Source: The East African (Nairobi), Charles Onyango-Obbo (link opens in a new window)