A colleague who I greatly respect told me that there is call for abstracts for a conference on forests and livelihoods and wondered if we could work on a paper together. I said yes, of course. The conference was to be held in the land of my/our former(or current?) colonizers – the UK. We submitted our abstract which was accepted. We then began working on the paper. Then came the dreaded time – visa application time. If there is one English word I have grown to detest it is this four letter word: V-I-S-A. I have come to equate it with oppression.
So, I go through the usual grind. Filling in forms which ask me to fill in, amongst other things, the dates of birth of all my family members, their occupations, my travel history, income, etc etc. I source for all the necessary letters and submit my application. I am told that the processing is carried out in New York and that everything will be sent there, then mailed back to me. I have to pay for courier service of course! In the end, I fork out about USD 300 and compare it to the USD 100 that UK nationals pay to obtain a visa to Kenya. This, right here, is an example of how poverty is created. Those that don’t have are exploited through global hierarchies of power and race.
Time to leave for Scotland. I am going through Heathrow in London as there are no direct flights. Quick question – how random are those random checks in airports? For some reason, I am always selected as the random person to be searched (read molested). They papasa my hair, my thighs, my whole body.
I arrive in Heathrow and go to immigration.
Immigration officer(with a very hostile look on his face): Where are you going?
I would like to know if people are asked this silly question when they arrive at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. Kwani, you can take a 9 hour flight without knowing where you are going?
Immigration officer: What for?
Me: For a conference
Immigration officer: About what?
Me: Forests and livelihoods
Immigration officer: What exactly is that?
Me: How people use forests for various things…food, water…
Immigration officer: Oh, like in the Amazon
Immigration officer: Are you giving a presentation there?
Me: Yes, I am Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia
He looks at me and appears shocked. And he looks less stern now. His whole demeanor changes.
He stamps my passport and hands it over.
I did not know being a Ph.D. student is a respectable thing. I should be blurting it out even before I am asked to save myself these painful interrogations.
And by the way, did I tell you that the security officer at Heathrow wanted to know how old I am. She thought I was 16 years old and travelling unaccompanied…something like that. I defensively told her my age and even offered to show her my passport. She appeared shocked by real age. Based on the way she asked it I thought that there was a problem. I always think that there is going to be a problem at immigration points. They are scary places for people of certain skin colours or religious backgrounds, especially. Ngugi wa Thiong’o is quite right when he argues:
The nation state, the form in which capitalistic modernity organized power was born with notions of ownership in general and of territory in particular. The European nation-state, the slave plantation, the colony, and the prison are simultaneously products of the same moment in history.It is not surprising that these institutions have similar features. The primary one is that of an enclosed space, often with a single point of entry and exit. There are gated spaces with supervising authority. Like all such spaces, the gate is guarded all the time. One cannot enter or exit without the approval of the all-seeing centralized authority and surveillance system. The comings and goings are recorded meticulously. The border now becomes a wall separating those within from those without.
I expected Scotland to be colder than it actually is. I did not even wear the heavy jacket I had carried. We spend the morning of the first day sightseeing around the city as the conference was to start that evening. We hike to main park in the city and enjoy nice views of the city. The city is not ultra clean. There is trash lying around in some places. People seem friendly. They actually say hi. I am surprised by that.
The conference begins. I meet a colleague from Malawi who is doing very interesting research work on community responses to impacts of climate change. Her area of study was flooded but people did not want to move and relocate to another place. It reminded me of Budalangi in Kenya. We begin with the plenary and listen to four amazing speakers. The one that sticks to my mind is a presentation about environmental activists who have been murdered for protesting against various earth destroying projects. They are almost ten or even more. That is in recent times. The presenter suggests that researchers should take and interest in these (in)justice issues as an area of research. Then room is opened for question. Yours truly and others raise their hands.
Yours truly says: There is an issue that has been bothering me. And this is the way climate change financing is presented/framed. Side note: According to Paris climate agreement rich countries are supposed to fund poor countries’ adaptation to climate change. So, this issue is always presented as the rich countries have to “help” poor countries adapt to climate change. Shouldn’t this be understood as the rich countries paying for their pollution, after all, they are they cause of this problem?
I hear some chuckles in the room.
The response I get does not answer the question. After the end of the plenary fellow, global southerners(India, Nepal, an Indigenous scholar) come to tell me that they liked that question. I, later on, follow up with the person who had responded to the question and he tells me …its just like REDD+ (this is a program where rich countries pay poor ones to not cut down forests while they continue with business as usual with regards to use of environmental resources – that is my understanding). In other words, you create a problem and then you pay other people to solve the problem by freezing them in time.
This whole climate change fiasco is like a person coming and stealing all your belongings and destroying your livelihood. Then, you organize for a fundraising and the thief comes to the fundraising and makes a contribution of x amount. Then, they claim they have helped you. Those that are being fried by the hot sun or sunk by rising ocean levels as a result of climate change, but yet, have not contributed significantly (or at all) towards it makes you me wonder if there is a God, Goddesses, Godlings etc out there or in here. It is not fair at all and I cannot understand this at all.
Let me digress a little bit. A friend of mine once told me of a city in DRC which was set in the Congo rain forest during the colonial period. The settlers chose the location for amongst other things, the amazing views it offered. At independence, the city was occupied by Africans and the population expanded and of course, the infrastructure could not support the people effectively. They wanted an expansion of sewer systems, drainage, roads etc. This would necessitate the cutting down of part of the forest. Apparently, a nordic country opposed this move and gave the DRC government money so that they could keep the forest intact(sounds like REDD+ to me). Meanwhile, the people continued to live in a heavily congested space without sanitary amenities. This just one example of the many anti-people, anti-justice conservation that comes into African countries.
Sessions/presentations begin and as usual, I am hopping from one place to another hoping to listen to as many speakers as possible. My colleague and I give our presentation. A professor attacks us and says that what we are doing is just advocacy and not Ph.D. research work. My colleague is very gracious in her response. She says that what we shared was small snippet of our respective research projects that intersects/is similar. We find that we have a common interest in people-forest relationships and land governance issues. I echo my colleagues comments and say that this was just a 10-minute presentation of much larger projects. Then I finish by saying.
I think Ph.D. students and researchers should be interested in advocacy work, in social justice issues. I am coming from an area where communities are being ravaged by climate change, for example. I simply cannot stand aside and turn a blind eye to all of these issues so that I can be seen to be doing pure research. I think research should address real needs of people and contribute to resolving some of the greatest problem of our time and some of those great problems, in my view are injustice and inequality.
There is an applause from other participants in the room.
After the end of the session, one of the participants came to tell me that she thought I responded to that “nasty comment” quite well. Later on, I also met with other participants who said they could not believe someone could say something like that to a fellow colleague. Academia can be brutal. Shish! The Prof later one walked to me at the evening reception and said: I was not trying to be rude or to attack you. I was challenging you and your response was satisfactory. I just want to make sure there is no problem.
I say: Thank you for your challenge.
Onward to other sessions. There is lots of discussion about poverty, livelihoods…I make a point of attending as many presentations about Africa as possible. I had noticed that there were very few Africans in the conference. So most of the presentations were given by non-Africans. I discussed this issue with my African colleagues. Some of them said that it is hard for Africans to get visa’s. Then another colleague told me that when Africans see a white researcher they either give them fake data to make them happy or to make them pity them and give them money. This is not a necessarily far-fetched assumption. Researchers, like tourists are synonymous with white people.
So, I ask my African colleagues what they think should be done. Some of them say that there is nothing that can be done because it depends on who has the money at the end of the day. The Africans don’t. I tell one of my colleagues that we should say something about the representation of Africans at the conference. They tell me this: If you are too critical you will not get funding. So, just keep quiet and move on. In other words, I should be meek. I should say nothing controversial, not speak about injustice…I should be an agreeable African who says yes sir/madam and bows down. Then I say: I see no point of discussing our issues amongst ourselves. It does not change anything. Maybe speaking about it will not change anything but at least people will know. Then they tell me: It is risky. You can find yourself ostracized and sidelined from the research or academic community.
We continue with the conference. I attend more sessions where researchers are marveling about the poverty of Africans. Analyzing it. Explaining it. There was not a single presentation on Africa that I went to where Africans were presented as people with agency, dreams, ideas, etc. They were always the silent participants of research interventions. The only person who shone was the researcher. I am beginning to wonder when Africans will begin to be speaking for themselves and not to be spoken for. Then I go to a presentation in which the researcher says how it is so interesting to do research in African country X because the rate of poverty is so high. This one hurts me to my core! I am now completely at a loss of what to do. I look at the programme and start counting the number of presentations by Africans. They are 34 presentations. Out of these only 7 are made by Africans(including me). That is a paltry 20%. If we were to add up the other countries from the global south I do not know what the percentage would be – maybe 90%. I do not know.
In case you are wondering what the issue is here let me outline it in the form of questions.
- Who decides what is to be researched? Not Africans.
- Who benefits from research? Not Africans. If you are wondering how researchers benefit it is through publishing papers, books etc which they then use as leverage to get promotions etc. Hence, to make it explicit, some people are cashing in on the poverty of Africans.
- Related to 2 above- who gets published? Definitely not the Africans who are not there in the first place?
- Whose papers get read and cited – not the Africans who are not there in the first place. Hence, who gets locked out of the production of knowledge?
I believe you get the drift. I am not trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. There is a real problematic issue here.
- Do we/would we envision a situation where the there were say 34 presentations about Europe and North America and have these bulk of these presentations made by Africans?
- Who gets to challenge any notions or wrong ideas that may be presented about Africa(ns)?
I, for instance, sat in a presentation about a country and I could tell the presenter did not have a grasp of the deep and complex historical issues that affect that country in relation to land, governance injustice etc… heck, let me say it. I am talking about Ethiopia. I had long conversation with an Ethiopian friend about the history of the country shortly before this conference and I was stunned at how little I knew about it.
It is time for the plenary. I had decided to let the issue of representation go and just seethe inside. Then, a highly respected colleague gave a presentation and outlined the imbalances of representation based on continents. The bulk of the participants were from Europe and North America of course. He highlights that there were a lot more Africans who had planned to attend but did not make it. I am guessing because of visa issues. The floor is opened for questions and or comments.
I decide to say something.
I want to make a comment of X’s presentation. I want to demonstrate to you how this conference is a representation of the asymmetrical power relationships that characterize our world today. We have 34 presentations about Africa in this conference and only 7 of those have been given by Africans. I sit in sessions and I hear non-Africans dissecting African poverty, analyzing it… and it feels me with a huge sense of disempowerment. There is an element of suffering to poverty and that cannot be plotted on a graph. It seems to me that the research industry is married to the poverty industry. There is no sympathy, nor compassion. There are many Africans as X has pointed out, who did not make it here because of visa issues. If you have a skin colour like mine you are treated as a potential illegal immigrant. I do not have a solution to these issues but I just thought I should day how I feel. Thank you.
There is an applause. I am surprised.
A discussion on whether it would be easier if the conference was held in an non European/N/American country. One of the funding agencies says that perhaps it can be made easier if the funding agency/those that are funding the conference issue out letters to African participants.The colleague who had presented the stats walks over to me and says: Thank you for that. That is what I was trying to say by showing the figures but I could not have said it the way you said it. I tell him I find it a little absurd to be listening to people who have never experienced poverty telling me about poverty. We exchange contacts or rather he gives his card and I say I will write to him.
Afterwards I chat with some African colleagues and one of them asks me: What do you want them to do? Cry? There are also Africans who live off the poverty of other Africans. They want the Africans to be poor so that they can use them as fundraising tools to get money from the west.
While I fully appreciate the point being made here, and I think it should be equally condemned, I do not think that this negates the points I had made. And actually, crying is not such a bad idea. Maybe we should have a global day of crying. Maybe that will remind us that we are human. Maybe it will make us more humane! and humanistic!
Now, I refused to be the African who goes to conferences or other forums just to add to the arithmetic’s of skin colour. So that people can say that there were participants from all over the world including from A-F-R-I-C-A. Well, what did those participants say? What new ideas did they have? I was challenged in another conference by a South African colleague who said that the existence of Africans and indigenous peoples in academia should not simply be for “adding skin colour.” If you say you have been historically excluded, then you have to demonstrate that there was something missing by the way you conduct your research, what new ways of looking at things you bring to the table etc…otherwise, it means nothing if your are perpetuating the same old myths about these groups of people.
To finish this I will say to my fellow Africans and other global southerners: Raise your voice. Say something. Challenge something. Say something different. Or say what you feel. We need to be emancipated from silence. There are people who make a living from the poverty of Africans. There are people who rejoice at the poverty of Africans because that is their money maker. We are keeping some people in business. Some people would go out of business if there was no poverty in Africa.
By the way, after all this, I was thinking that I am going to excommunicated from the research/academic community. So, when I had problems at the Edinburgh airport(they said they could not find my visa number and had to call Canadian immigration). Then the lady at the counter started telling their colleague how they had another problem like this and how it turned out to be a deportation case (how so very tactless!) I began thinking that I had been deported from Canada for saying what I said. I started thinking of how I would ask my friend to pack my belongings and ship them to Kenya….