We claim Mbappé but is he one of us?

On the evening that France lifted the 2018 Fifa World Cup trophy, my friend Dee, a retired model and art curator, told me about a friend she made almost 15 years ago in some west European country. Dee is an animated storyteller — she would have made a great griot — and she told us about this man, who is one of the most intelligent human beings she has ever met.

“He would be doing great if he was back here and he was nurtured as he deserves. He does amazingly well as an invisible man in Europe,” she said.

Mo from Tanzania is a very unofficial immigration consultant. It is to him that fellow Africans go to when they have got to the west European nation he lives in and need a good cover story before their asylum interview with immigration officials.

Mo is up to date with African countries that are in conflict and takes his work seriously. He would examine his client’s preinterview facts and determine: “It’s best if you tell them you are from Central African Republic.” After which, he would tell his client the name of the local chief and have them rehearse some important sentences in their new dialect. At the time Dee knew him, Mo had a 100% success rate.

I wondered then, what sort of conditions the African continent places on its citizens, that make it easier to live in countries where they are treated like second-class citizens through racism or xenophobia than to stay home, where many would prefer to be.

Why are our prospective sports stars, our artists, our scientists, our accountants and even our Mos nurtured and appreciated away from Africa in a way that we cannot seem to do ourselves? Who bewitched us?

One answer may lie in an interview with a Kenyan government spokesperson last week. A report came out recently about Kenyan employees working under unfair labour conditions on the new standard gauge railway, a flagship project of the government in partnership with this continent’s new BFF, China.

Asked to comment, the government spokesperson immediately stated that if this was happening, it was because the locals were lazy and not as hardworking as the Chinese. Then belatedly he said the government would investigate allegations of abuse and Kenyans not being promoted.

Many in South Africa — and probably in every other African country — will have similar stories of feeling disempowered and marginalised by companies and governments, such that at some point their only option is to leave for greener pastures where they are respected.

In several conversations I have had with African expatriates in Europe, the United States or, lately, the Middle East, the consensus seems to be that, given a choice, many would rather stay home. But home never makes it appealing enough for them to return.

Frustration may come from an increased call for scrapping the arts in tertiary education, shortage of resources in schools and hospitals, politicians grabbing successful businesses from entrepreneurs and … and … and.

Without fail, there is frustration, which results in people leaving the continent.

And as long as this happens, we shall pathetically continue claiming the Kylian Mbappés and Paul Pogbas and celebrate France as “the African team” at the Fifa World Cup. Yet we make zero attempts to change conditions in our countries that would make it possible for future Mbappés and Pogbas to play in our own countries.

When a Tinashe Kachingwe is on MTV, we shall say she is Zimbabwean, and when a Kevin Anderson makes the final at Wimbledon, we shall claim him as South African. We shall continue to claim them and toast them in bars across the continent but refuse to change the way we do things so that we can pull them back home.

Many of our countries have signed the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement but it means nothing if conditions on the ground do not reflect the spirit of the document signed.

Perhaps it’s time we reflect on how to prevent the best of our talent on the African continent bleeding to Europe or the US, to stop expressing ineffectual and meaningless outrage when another one who looks like us is shot for just walking by, or is asked by allegedly well-meaning Europeans: “So where are you really from?”

And when they are a Mo who we meet in a train somewhere in Europe, we shall continue wondering what could have been had their skills been nurtured by us. But this constant wondering is useless when we don’t make any meaningful changes. 

Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner (born 1976) is a South African journalist and novelist, born in Zambia and now based in Kenya. Since 2006, when she published her first book, her novels have been shortlisted for awards including the South African Literary Awards (SALA) and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.
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