A tragic kind of hope

Nigerian and South Sudanese filmmakers give voice to the search for identity, stability, and belonging through the lens of youth and migration.

Still from No U Turn, 2022.

Africans have always been on the move. Quantifying African migration patterns has long been a fraught process of data collection and interpretation, and the COVID-19 pandemic created new challenges for researchers and policymakers invested in the numbers, particularly when it comes to patterns of what social scientists call “irregular migration.” Nonetheless, the available data at present indicates that African migration continues to grow at rapid rates while conditions of African transnational mobility are often difficult, sometimes punishing, and too often life-threatening. The International Organization for Migration (IMO) reports that as of June 2020, 40.5 million Africans were living outside their home country. This figure includes about 21 million Africans living outside their country of origin but still on the continent, and the remaining 19.5 million living outside the continent. According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, these figures indicate a 30% increase in African international migration “stocks” (a term widely used by organizations such as the World Bank and United Nations) since 2010.

Shocked? I am. Not by the numbers, but by the fact that researchers and policymakers refer to migrants as “stocks” as if we are talking about the movement of animal livestock. I am straying from the point of this essay. Yet, the human lives, and the human stories of migration are the point. And that’s what Nigerian filmmaker Ike Nnaebue asks his viewers to keep in mind when watching his new documentary, No U-Turn, about irregular West African migration to Europe:

migration is about people … not numbers. These are not just digits on the screen. These are actual human beings who have actual valid reasons why they are moving from point A, from their home countries, to Europe, where they think there’s a better life for them.

And as South Sudanese filmmaker Akuol de Mabior also confronts in her new documentary, No Simple Way Home, leaving and returning to one’s home country is an intergenerational struggle between family and nation, between aspirations realized and thwarted.

Historical studies of African migration—both forced and voluntary (terms that too have their limitations particularly when the line between these categories is blurry at best)—have been critical to the development of African Studies over the past 50 years, offering more qualitative data and interpretation than the policy-oriented population studies that inform reports from organizations like the IMO. Still, stories of African migration are harder to come by in popular media and culture. From my Global North vantage point, popular media outlets regularly emphasize refugee “crises” (both real and imagined) of African migration to the Global North. Critics aptly note that this tendency fuels anti-immigrant sentiments and “containment” policies that aim to restrict African mobility.

In response to the dearth of African perspectives shaping these dominant narratives, a recent documentary film project from the continent offers fresh perspectives for global audiences on the entwined search for identity, stability, and belonging across diverse African experiences of migration. In 2018 the Cape Town-based nonprofit media company STEPS, issued a call for documentary film projects that tell stories of African youth and migration. Out of the nearly 150 submissions, the project called Generation Africa, in partnership with the European-based media company, Arte, produced 25 documentaries made by filmmakers from 16 countries across Anglophone and Francophone Africa. According to the Generation Africa website, the “pan-African project aims to deliver films with local perspective and global appeal,” while highlighting the experiences of African youth “through the lens of migration.” In June 2022, two of the project’s feature films, No Simple Way Home and No U Turn premiered at Berlin’s 72nd International Film Festival. Both films have won accolades at various international film festivals from Berlin to San Francisco, with No U Turn taking home the award for best documentary at the 2022 African Movie Academy Awards.

No Simple Way Home is an autobiographical and intergenerational story about South Sudan’s struggle for lasting peace amid economic crisis and climate disaster, as told by the filmmaker and daughter of John Garang de Mabior. Dr. Garang led the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005) and was killed in a helicopter crash in 2005, just weeks after becoming vice president in what would become another failed peace deal in a series of many leading up to (and following) the 2011 partition of Sudan.

Akuol de Mabior grew up and currently resides in Nairobi. Following a short but storied career as a runway model in Europe and South Africa (where she attended university), the documentary centers the filmmaker’s search for a sense of self and purpose as a 30 year-old woman who moved home after the 2019 revolution in Sudan, and just before her mother, Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior, became one of South Sudan’s vice presidents in February 2020. No U-Turn tells a different kind of story about the search for self among West Africans migrating by road to Europe. Now middle-aged Nigerian filmmaker Ike Nnaebue retraces his personal story of attempting this same journey in the late 1990s, a journey that stopped short in Bamako where he lived for two years before returning home to Nigeria where he has established himself as a popular filmmaker and “cultural entrepreneur.”

In addition to the shared lenses of youth, migration, and autobiography, both films center women and gender as crucial themes in the stories they tell, and the questions they ask, about what it means to dream of a better future for Africa’s youth. In Nnaebue’s own words, “No U-Turn is a film about West Africans who are trying to migrate to Europe using what we call ‘the back door’ … through the roads, through the desert, and through the Mediterranean Sea.” It is inspired by his experience of being “one of those people” 27 years ago when he embarked on his journey with three friends to cross West Africa, the Strait of Gibraltar, and “make our fortunes in Europe.” Along the way Nnaebue learned about the dangers ahead, and by the time he arrived in Bamako, he was discouraged from continuing. Instead, he took what he calls a “detour” living in Mali for two years before returning to Lagos.

Nnaebue was also moved to make this documentary because, almost three decades later, “people are still engaging in this very dangerous migration.” These days, “a lot of people actually know” about the dangers, and yet they still attempt the journey. So Nnaebue saw an opportunity and a need to ask, why? “Why do people go ahead to risk their lives in a quest to migrate to Europe? … What is this hope of a life in Europe that transcends the fear of danger, the fear of even the risk of losing one’s life?” What he found was that the journey is just as much about a crisis of identity as it is about making it in Europe. But he also found that far more women are making the dangerous journey these days than when Nnaebue did. Many of these aspiring migrant women are young and single and leave behind families of elders, siblings, and children. They face particular threats of sexual violence and human trafficking on the journey, an ugly reality that Nnaebue captures through some tense scenes between the men who act as gatekeepers on the back door route to Europe, and women trying to board the busses without looking back.

For de Mabior, the challenge of returning home, single, unsure of her direction in life, and feeling at once rooted in her identity as South Sudanese while alienated from the place she calls home, raises similar questions and challenges. Her vulnerability on screen speaks to shame as a barrier for migrant women wanting to return home after running into obstacle after obstacle in their quest to accrue savings or achieve other tangible goals on the difficult journey that took them away from home in the first place. At the same time, de Mabior highlights her relative privilege in moments of escape from the daily struggles of life for most in South Sudan, further evidenced by her “regular” migration history following years of living with her family in exile before her father was killed.

The two filmmakers, a generation and vast distances apart, reflect too on their inheritance of the postcolonial struggles of their parents’ generations and the “tragic kind of hope” (to borrow Nnaebue’s words) for self-actualization amid the deferred dream of a peaceful, stable, self-determination. Along his journey, Nnaebue meets all kinds of people from across the region who are making their way to Europe. He also meets others who, like him, took detours and, for now, are attempting to make lives for themselves on the continent, but away from home. We get segments of their stories—the lost jobs, stalled careers, abandoned relationships, larger than life ambitions for fame and fortune, and challenging family situations that drive young people to hit the road. Viewers, like the filmmaker himself, will be troubled by the stories of young folks who would “rather die on the road than go back to Nigeria.” We also learn along the way that in 1988 at the age of 13, Nnaebue, the eldest son, left school to become an apprentice trading auto parts. His mother, a young widow, was struggling to support her family and so he found himself at a crossroads: to pursue his studies under the weight of poverty or, make the personal sacrifice to care for his family. He recalled, too, the shame and sadness that he saw in his mother’s eyes when he agreed to take this unexpected path.

De Mabior’s mother, also a widow, had far more resources to support her children’s ambitions for education and creative livelihoods in the diaspora following her husband’s death in 2005. And yet that reality does not detract from the hardship and weight of responsibility that the family has taken on in the ongoing struggle for peace in South Sudan. Akoul de Mabior beautifully and tragically captures the unrelenting nature of that struggle in scenes following the deadly and destructive floods that swept the young nation in 2021. During her family’s visit to Mangala, a camp for internally displaced people, de Mabior films a woman who asks, “are you capturing this?” and proceeds in Dinka to describe the struggle, starting with the harrowing reality that many women lost their husbands in the region’s long history of violent conflict and civil war:

Your father and our husbands fought all over the country for our freedom. Our husbands are dead now. They followed Garang. The people who fought with your father left small children. And they are drowning back home. Do you understand?…They are suffering. They are sick. There is no medicine, no food. And even if we get grain, then there is no stew.

De Mabior listens and affirms as the woman stands and stares deeply into the camera. In the next scene, Mama Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior, with her head hanging low, reminds viewers of her longstanding commitment to a peaceful and prosperous South Sudan, and to her position as a role model for South Sudanese girls and women. But then admits that she and her government are failing. “What we called for, we are doing the opposite of that. What was being done to us is what we are doing to our people now. Even worse than what the enemy was doing to us. Yes, we have freedom, but can people eat freedom?”

De Mabior’s film ends here, as she herself reflects on the unfulfilled quest to realize what it means to be South Sudanese 10 years after liberation:

It looks like there is no peace on the other side of freedom. And home is not a place of rest. I still don’t know what it means to be South Sudanese. I do know that the promise of liberation and independence is not the reality of liberation and independence. I look to my mother, but now also to my sister, and the young women who support their families by serving tea on the roadside. They are the quiet force keeping things from entirely falling apart. We’ve been 10 years free, most of our compatriots are struggling to survive. And we’re still holding our breath.

As the current conflict in Sudan unfolds, tens of thousands of South Sudanese who once sought refuge across the 12-year-old border delineating Sudan from South Sudan are now reluctantly returning “home,” where the current moment of relative political stability remains fragile at best, and while the economic situation continues to deteriorate following persistent floods into 2022. Meanwhile, in Nigeria, public debates persist surrounding the country’s February 2023 elections results. In a new form of online political protest following the election, videos surfaced of Nigerians living in the diaspora tearing up their Nigerian passports to renounce their home country as a “failed state.” Meanwhile Nigerians living in the country have been taking to the streets and to the courts to protest what analysts tend to agree was an election marred by voter suppression, violence, and fraud.

Finding hope amid these difficult headlines is a challenge for observers, near and far, of current events in Nigeria, Sudan, and South Sudan. The recent outbreak of political violence in Senegal adds to the difficulty in feeling hopeful about the current state of the world, and what lies ahead. But I’d be remiss if I allowed readers here to believe that this feeling of stalled hope and deferred progress for brighter futures was a sentiment reserved for the continent of Africa in 2023. There is an undeniable universality of the struggles of these films’ protagonists who are searching for hope, stability, and self, amid the intertwined global realities of climate change and migration. At the same time, they raise the persistent question of Africa’s neglect on the world stage despite all that it has and continues to give to the world. In Ike Nnaebue’s words: “Africa is such a vast continent, producing a lot of resources extracted by the world. We have a lot to offer the world. Gas, oil, metals. And also, people. This fact gives me a tragic kind of hope. But the present reality makes me so sad … Why is it unrealistic to dream of a comfortable life in a continent of abundant resources?”

Further Reading