Photo credit: Heike Steinweg
I was sitting across from Ahmad and Wassim in a shared apartment in the Kreuzberg neighborhood in Berlin. Ahmad was Somali, Wassim was Pakistani, both were migrants seeking asylum in Germany. Wassim had made mango lassi for us, frothy, creamy, sweet, and he watched as I took a sip, waiting for my verdict.
“Excellent,” I said. It was really good.
“This is so good,” Ahmad echoed and Wassim smiled, pleased. Wassim wanted to be a chef if his asylum application got accepted; at the moment he washed dishes in a Vietnamese restaurant somewhere on Wilmersdorfer. Ahmad had no job as yet, he was waiting for a work permit; his asylum application had just been accepted and he had been granted a stay of five years before a final decision was made. As I listened to their stories, I couldn’t help but reflect on the different paths each of us took to get here, Berlin, in 2013. I was a writer and a professor, a Nigerian living in America, currently on a writing fellowship in Berlin with my wife and children. I was here to work on a novel; it was six months already and I still hadn’t figured out what my novel was going to be about. I couldn’t seem to settle down, my writing kept getting interrupted by political events that I just couldn’t ignore.
My country was roiling under Boko Haram Islamic militancy, and I kept following the news trying to make sense of it all. Could this be the country I knew, the peaceful, sleepy region where I grew up? How could things have changed so drastically in just 15 years? At night I dreamt of my family back home being attacked by fundamentalist hordes. Two hundred and seventy-six school girls had been kidnapped by the militants. How could I intervene as a writer, what could I write to console the families of those girls who might never know freedom again? At times like this, one realizes how puny the pen is compared to the sword. I was drawn to the migrants I started encountering in the streets of Berlin because of the violence in my home country which had already displaced over a million people, some of them already here in Berlin, some in Italy, and some drowned in the cold waters of the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe.
If you were white, I wanted to say to him, they’d make movies about you.
A German newspaper had approached me to write something about a recent tragedy — on October 3, 2013, a boat carrying over 300 migrants from Libya had sunk in the Mediterranean off the coast of Lampedusa, killing all on board, mostly women and children. What could one write in the face of such a staggering cataclysm? How do you get to the heart of it, how do you express your sorrow at the loss, your rage at the politicians back home who let this happen under their watch, and the right-wing politicians in Europe who seek to demonize these helpless but determined voyagers for political gain?
“My story is true,” Ahmad said, as if anxious to be believed. How many asylum panels had he sat before to lay down his case? He had left Somali over 10 years ago because some Al-Shabaab warlord wanted to forcibly marry his 10-year-old daughter. He had lived in Yemen, and Syria, and Turkey, and Bulgaria, and finally he had arrived in Germany. “I have seen many bad things, but I thank God I am alive. Many have died on the way,” he said almost cheerfully. Would I be as cheerful if I had gone through what he had? He had left his wife and two daughters in Turkey and had trekked across the border with his two sons into Bulgaria, where they had lived for over a year in a prison-like refugee camp. Finally, when they left the camp, his older son had left him to join the Jehovah's Witnesses. He said his wife accused him of losing her son; she said she would never join him in Europe unless he got her son back. “What can I do?” Ahmad asked, turning from me to Wassim. “The boy he said he don’t want to travel any more. He is over 18 years now. I can’t tell him what to do.”
Wassim’s story was different. He had arrived in Germany on a plane, first class. He was former military and due to some bad investments he had made back home, he had to leave in a hurry. His middle class family had contacted what he described as “agents” who organized a passport and a visa for him, including a first class ticket. “How much did it all cost?” I asked. About $13,000. “That’s a lot of money,” I said. He shrugged. He had to leave home. It was a matter of life and death. He hinted at some mob connection. We had to leave home — the three of us had that in common. I left home because I knew I couldn’t be the kind of writer I wanted to be if I stayed. Most of the writers I knew and modeled myself after had ended up in prison, like Wole Soyinka
; or in exile, like Chinua Achebe
and Ngugi wa Thiong’o
; or dead, like Ken Saro Wiwa
. We had to leave home because we didn’t feel at home at home.
Our home had been taken away first by colonialism, which came waving the banner of trade and modernity, which then carved Africa into nation states and forced the African into the modern, cutting him off from his tradition and culture and religion and history. This was the first departure from home. After colonialism came globalism, which further estranged the ex-colonized from his home in the name of free trade: existing local languages were crushed under the heels of the almighty English language; local cuisines and cultures became commodified curiosities for the western consumer; local settings and populations became mere backdrops for Hollywood movies and western tourists; multinational corporations undermined the fledgling national governments as they carted away the natural resources of these countries and pretended to be giving financial aid in return. Politicians, propped up by corporations, engaged in coups and counter-coups to hold on to power.
Wars, famine, and insecurity were the inevitable result. And, as the African proverb says: When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. Travelers, exiles, refugees, migrants — different names in different shades of political correctness, but essentially portraying similar experiences. We, each in our own way, were the grass — we had fled to Europe, the motherland, to escape being trampled upon by the fighting elephants. According to Toni Morrison, “Excluding the height of the slave trade in the 19th century, the mass movement of peoples in the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st is greater now than it has ever been.” Think: Rohingyas in Myanmar, the Chin, the boat people, Syrians, Afghans, Libyans, Somalis — the list is endless. How does a writer humanize statistics and news headlines?
“You will write about this, no?” Ahmad asked. He had urged me to record his story as he talked. Wassim was more guarded, less specific with details. He hinted at some gangs back in Karachi who would kill him if he ever went back home. “I’ll try,” I told Ahmad. If you were white,
I wanted to say to him, they’d make movies about you. They’d tell of your heroism, how you left home to save your daughter from pedophiles and crossed four national borders to get your family to safety.
Perhaps this was what brought me to Berlin, to try to get answers to the questions that had been following me these past years: What was home? Can you ever return home after leaving? And if you can’t, is it possible to make a home away from home? Yes, I told Ahmad. Six months into my fellowship and I had finally found my story.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the novels, Waiting for an Angel
, Measuring Time
, Oil on Water
, and Travelers
, and a nonfiction book, The Chibok Girls
. His writing has won numerous awards including the Caine Prize, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and the Windham-Campbell Prize. He is professor of creative writing at George Mason University and lives in Virginia with his wife and three children.