The Pursuit of Happiness, On Being a Migrant

januari 2005 -

The man is about forty years old. His eyes are green and large. He wears an uneasy, apologetic look. Holding assorted documents , including a maroon passport, he says he has lived in Kenya for five years, resident in Malindi, Kenya, East Africa − where there are at least 20,000 others like him. He knows the words of the Kenyan national anthem and is willing to give up his citizenship. His Kiswahili has an Italian lilt, broken but hopeful , and he stares unblinkingly at the woman in the dark blue blazer seated across the table. Her name is Jennifer and she is an Immigration Officer.

As Jennifer’s guest, I am privy to the life dramas unfolding in her 10 ft by 10 ft office in Nyayo House. This episode has repeated itself eight times in the last hour. D ifferent characters arrive at that desk like extra terrestrials, uncertain of their right of abode, dependent on the whims of persons who may or may not recognize , or even share, something of their dreams, their desires. Later I ask Jennifer how many enquiries she deals with in a day. Rolling her eyes, she says that on a bad day she works on as many as seventy. She is not on her own, there are eight other offices. Jennifer’s five years at the Immigration desk has diminished her desire to venture outside Kenya because when the world comes here every day and asks permission to stay a little longer, w hat is there to seek outside?

What does an immigrant look like?

With apologies to migration theorists, when I visualize an immigrant I see an ungulate, a wildebeast or gnu furioushly dashing across the Mara river from the Serengeti , Tanzania , into the Masai Mara , Kenya on a certain day of the year , clinging to the memory of soft green grass on the other side whilst anxiously avoiding hungry crocodiles waiting in the treacherous waters.

The website pictures of the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) show that an immigrant is a human being who is any shade of dark. Today, from my chair in Jennifer’s office in Kenya, I see that an immigrant can be European, Somali, American and Australian, Indian, Korean or Chinese in origin. Sudanese too. In a few years time , some of them shall be called ‘settlers’ who are ‘Kenyan of Caucasian origin ’ or ‘ Euro - Kenyan ’, ‘ Asian - Kenyans ’ or perhaps simply ‘Kenyan. ’ Noticeably different, they shall also be prey to the paranoid of society − the unsettled class being overly represented by parasitic politicians in trouble. However, a sophisticated, fact - worshipping bureaucrat could assiduously apply the findings of Euro-Kenyan archaeologist Mr. Richard Leakey. To wit, all human beings can prove their citizenship with DNA derived from the ancestral bones of Koobi Fora making all humans Kenyan citizens!

Why do we gather at the Mara to gaze upon the annual wildebeast migration, “the greatest spectacle on earth”? Perhaps, it is because this window-on-the-plains reminds us of an age-old drive , resonant , symbolic. Or we are surprised that the pursuit of happiness, however ephemeral , is embedded in our genes . We move because we can . We migrate because of a niggling curiosity, a suspicion that the grass may be greener, gentler, safer and softer on the other side, ill-intentioned crocodiles notwithstanding . We safari, not because of the colour of our skins or because the situation in what we call our homes has become untenable, but because our best dreams transcend boundaries determined by paper or fortified walls.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor was born in Kenya but lives and works at ZIFF- an international arts and culture centre in Zanzibar. A south-south immigrant, she basks in the approval of Kenyan immigrant ancestors who − if legends left behind are to be believed − once guarded the Nile waters as river clergy.