Waiting to be local
The writer, in graduate school in Britain, writes about the various roadblocks in the way of Africans, in his case Ugandans, to travel to Europe.
The predicted El Niño rains start in September. Kampala is wet in the afternoons and sometimes in the nights too. The traffic jams are jarring. It is wise to stay home. It is wise to stay home because you resigned from your three part-time university teaching jobs in Kampala to move to London for a fellowship at the African Leadership Centre. Does it matter to the British visa and immigration official who will allow or deny you entrance?
It is wise to stay home because you do not want to explain the shame and embarrassment of having to wait for three weeks to be judged fit to live in London, to friends who are demanding on social media for a photo of you in Trafalgar Square. You are stuck here waiting, for your passport to be returned to Kampala from Pretoria where UK visa and immigration decisions are made, so you can fly into the term that is already two weeks underway.
That is when the video and transcript of Taiye Selasi’s TED talk, about being local in many places across nations, finds its way into your Kampala living room. The crux of the talk is against the idea of a nation. Localities should matter more than ‘nations’, or ‘countries’, Selasi orates. The question “where are you from?” does not make sense to her. She wants to be asked where she is local instead.
“I have no relationship with the United States, all 50 of them, not really. My relationship is with Brookline, the town where I grew up; with New York City, where I started work; with Lawrenceville, where I spend Thanksgiving. What makes America home for me is not my passport or accent, but these very particular experiences and the places they occur. Despite my pride in Ewe culture, the Black Stars, and my love of Ghanaian food, I’ve never had a relationship with the Republic of Ghana, writ large. My relationship is with Accra, where my mother lives, where I go each year, with the little garden in Dzorwulu where my father and I talk for hours. These are the places that shape my experience. My experience is where I’m from.”
The first week of October is gone. There is some news from Pretoria. They want you to send them proof that you are not infected with tuberculosis. Jesus Christ. You already had to sit two separate English tests to prove that you could study and live in London. The list of things you have had to do is long, and maybe when you get the visa you will forget about it, but tuberculosis?
You do the test and send the results. And wait. Revisit Taiye Selasi’s speech. One of the things that pulls you to speeches, novels, plays, films, music, art and other works of creativity is their ability to reflect your own happiness, sadness, triumphs and troubles, thoughts and experiences. You listen for a second time because you somewhat hope that she remembers that not everyone has permission to turn anywhere in the world into their own locality. To claim any place as their home. Some people are allowed only one home, and some, no home at all.
You wonder if what Selasi is describing is within your reach. You wonder if you can ever look at Catford in London as the place where you are local. Whether the rituals, relationships and restrictions that you will have in Catford will ever matter at all. How does one shed off their foreignness to be able to claim places that do not want to be claimed? What does it take for one to call a place their locality? You once lived in Budapest. Could you call it your own? You spent a few months in Hamburg, but long enough to have rituals, build relationships and become aware of your restrictions. But can you ever call it yours?
Selasi says that human beings can’t be multinational in the sense that a company like Nike is. But maybe multinational commodities are exactly what neoliberal capitalism makes of us – coming on the heels of the industrial revolution, enlightenment and whatever else has put monetary and other types of values on everything, including human lives. When the British visa official decides that I am fit to study and live in London, and a certain someone (whose names we never take time to even note) is not fit enough, what they are in essence doing is assigning a value to these lives and experiences. Deciding which ones they want, and which ones they do not.
Some of us will not accept that we are unwanted. And so we find ways of appearing in spaces of which whole institutions were established to keep us out. When we appear, do we have the same right to own these spaces and call them our own, and shrug off the identities that locked us out before? What does it take for one’s psyche to feel at home in more than one place? What does one do to earn that privilege? Is it carrying a British passport? An American passport? Both? But then again, there are those who carry those passports and still are not allowed to own nor claim any locality. This is why they are asked again, where they are ‘really’ from when they answer the first time by referring to a locality that their passport proves. You can’t be from there is the message. You are not allowed to be from here.
So when my waiting ends, I will need to find some advice on how to own a place, on how to remove myself from the metaphysical and physical space that the British visa and immigration office is established to cement, such that Catford becomes my locality. But I won’t get ahead of myself; I resume my waiting.