Monthly Archives: August 2013

I’m preparing to go home. (My other home). It’s the strangest feeling to pack my bag with excitement knowing that soon I’ll see my family again – but I now have a home here too. The only time I get homesick now is when I’m actually preparing to go back again. It’s a  familiar ache that tugs on the edges of my consciousness, reminding me that part of me lies elsewhere. And yet, when my plane touches down at Heathrow, it’s a homecoming too. I leave home to go home and return home again, like eating candy that’s sweet and sour at the same time.

Living in the diaspora is a peculiar contradiction. Almost everyone has a plan for when they return home. And yet, the years drift by and sometimes you find that your other home is where you lay down your roots for good. Or, you do return but soon realise that the home you cherish is perhaps the home of your childhood, or your teens – it’s a storehouse of memories but just as you’ve changed since you left, it has too.  I also nurse the hope that one day I’ll return to live somewhere in Africa, if not in my own country. But I know too that even though it will feel in some ways like returning – mostly it will be a case of starting over.

Britain is home. Malawi is home-home.

When I tweeted that, someone asked, “What about home-home-home?”

We have those too. I think we have as many homes as our heart has room to love.

And that’s quite a lot.

Where the heart is

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Different Standards

Melanie McDonagh, writing in yesterday’s Evening Standard, reported on some comments made by Boris Johnson in Australia about the cap on non-EU immigrants, proposing that Commonwealth citizens be given “preferential treatment.” Melanie agreed:

“Arguing about immigration simply in terms of bald numbers always seems a dud idea because it ignores the fact that some immigrants assimilate without even trying; others don’t.”

Without qualifying exactly what this means, she pressed on:

“Australians don’t have integration issues the way migrants from, say, Somalia or Pakistan do; indeed, nobody really thinks that Australians are foreign at all.”

Her statement sums up why I am suspicious about the “assimilation” (or integration) discussion with regards to immigration in Britain.  It’s a coded discussion and the code here is race.

Melanie and everyone else who makes these sweeping statements about neighbourhoods changing and people not assimilating are talking about difference. Australians are white, that’s mainly why “nobody thinks that Australians are foreign at all.” They blend in with 97% of the population because Britain is still a white country (despite claims to the contrary).

And if invisibility is the acceptable standard for assimilation, ethnic minorities will never make the grade. Before we even start to talk about religion, or dress, or food, or whatever other markers of difference there are, the fact is that Black and Asian people can never make this grade because we will always stand out. We will always be the symbol of change because we are visible. And if it’s change that Melanie and her cohort are against…well…that ship has sailed.

So what do we really mean when we talk about assimilation? I’m yet to hear a coherent answer to this question.

All across the country immigrants of all races are going about their daily lives in the communities in which they live. Some wear Western dress, some do not. Some have a better grasp of English than others. Some bring their culture with them and open restaurants and businesses that enrich the cultural life of a city like London. Where on the scale of assimilation are they?

A final thought:  Pakistanis are Commonwealth citizens, too. However, by Melanie’s standards, I guess they are just not the “right type” of immigrant – and it’s clear that they (and anyone else who looks different) never can be.

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AARX Press Release: Survey shows government ‘Go Home’ message is ‘unacceptable’

Research in London, Leeds and Birmingham shows that the British public isn’t a prejudiced monolith. Politicians, take note!

Action Against Racism and Xenophobia

An independent network of researchers have gathered opinions from diverse communities in Leeds, London and Birmingham – and found that the majority of those surveyed disagreed with the approach used in government campaigns against immigration. The research team also found that the public is uncertain what the government is trying to achieve through these campaigns, with almost a quarter believing that the aim was to increase intolerance.

In response to public concerns about the use of the ‘go home’ van in diverse areas of London and the allegations that immigration checks in London stations targeted non-white travellers for questioning, a group of independent researchers have taken to the streets of multicultural Britain to find out what ordinary citizens make of these tactics.

Professor Gargi Bhattacharyya from the group explained,

“These Home Office campaigns target highly diverse neighbourhoods and impact on the lives of people there. We wanted to get a…

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Production Values

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 I haven’t seen the new series of Top Boy on Channel 4 yet, but the reviews are asking if it could be Britain’s version of The Wire. I really enjoyed the first series so this has definitely whet my appetite. Among the legion publicity interviews, I came across one in which Ashley Walters chides black actors for leaving the UK for the US. Even though I’m sure this was probably overstated for a juicy headline, he did say:

“It’s obvious that it’s more difficult for black actors than it is for white actors over here. So you can run away to the States or you can stay here and try to change things.”

He has a point. And yet, I wonder if it’s that simple. So many actors have crossed the pond and returned to the pick of roles, in TV – Idris Elba, David Harewood, Chiwetel Ejiofor spring to mind – or in theatre – Marianne Jean Baptiste who was recently in The Amen Corner at the National Theatre. Film roles continue to be scarce, but then British film is under the cosh at the moment and this affects film roles for actors of all colours. The path to the US is well-trodden. However, I wonder if Walter’s is overlooking the importance of what goes on behind the screen?

Earlier this year I went to panel talk at the National Theatre featuring Paterson Joseph and other black actors on the state of Black British theatre. We discussed the Black Audience (does it exist?) and the shortage of roles for black actors. One of the problems identified was the dearth of black writers, producers and directors. They are there, of course, but it is clear that until you have more people of colour behind the scenes  in positions to commission and produce content, we won’t see any tangible change. And this isn’t to say they would only create “black” productions – though there’s nothing wrong with that – progress will be when we have those productions but we also have black actors in roles that aren’t “the black character” – in other words,  they’d pass the Shukla Test.

Just a thought.

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Past, present and future

Three news pieces caught my eye this week and raised my hopes that the counter narrative on migration and race is getting stronger, reinforced by factual research.

One. A long read but a good one –  The Institute of Race Relations paper which looks at past and present political and media discourse to determine that:

“The rhetoric on migrants shows how politicians and the media have created, and embedded, racism in British politics.”

It makes for sobering reading because it shows how the main political parties and the media have reinforced each other’s messaging and perception of the public mood to develop a “politics of grievance”:

“The electorate is also seen as ‘entitled’ to be racist, politicians are simply giving them a voice, and the myth of the lack of debate on immigration and asylum is wheeled out. “

I think the main reason that politicians do this is because they see the very real grievances of those who struggle with lack of school places or housing and pressure on health services and they know that this is the result of policy failures of successive governments.  Just this week the Local Government Association reported that there are hundreds of thousands of houses waiting to be built that have been approved at local level but held up by central government.  Unfortunately, a person (stranger) down your street is easier to see than  a faceless official in Whitehall and that’s where the blame falls.

Two. Formidable Labour MP Diane Abbott has warned that Labour has to do more to change the discourse on immigration. Keith Vaz said the same last week. I just doubt that this will happen. Ed’s heart might well be “in the right place” as Abbott kindly suggests, but actions matter. Language matters. And Labour is scrabbling at the bottom of the barrel that the Tories have rolled out, hobbled by opinion polls that suggest that the public  is very hostile to migration at a time of high youth unemployment – even though figures show that the two issues are not linked. The papers say this is proof that immigration must be tackled by politicians; it shows me that they’ve done a fine job so far…misleading everyone.

Three. This is a good time to mention that new research from the impartial Migration Observatory shows that the press uses overwhelmingly negative words when discussing immigration. The most common word is “illegal”. The most common adjective for asylum seekers is “failed”.

Which brings me back to the first article, which concludes:

“It is surely time to reinvent and organise an effective wider anti racist resistance movement bringing the many campaigns together. The Tories’ racist ‘Go Home’ campaign on ‘illegal’ migrants may have become the last straw.”

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Spinning Out

It may be the silly season but there’s only one topic dominating the news while parliament is on recess: immigration. I suspect that this is how the coalition, in particular the Tories, want it because it’s clear that initiatives such as the Racist Van*, spot checks on public transport and the Home Office #immigrationoffenders twitter campaign have less to do with efficacy than public relations. While there’s a news vacuum (at least for UK news), it makes sense to focus on the issue that they plan to exploit at the next election.

This week, Labour joined the fray. As usual, their intervention took the form of a dense speech, with parts leaked in advance to the press. I read the full draft of Shadow Immigration minister Chris Bryant’s speech, which was much more nuanced than the spin that Labour put on it, which centered around Bryant scolding Tesco and Next for hiring foreigners over British people. He later had to back-pedal on that claim and for a while that became the story, before everyone cut him some slack for “admitting that Labour let in too many people.”

Although Chris Bryant slammed the press for focusing on “process” rather than the content of his speech, this mess was entirely of Labour’s making and signifies everything that’s wrong with every political intervention on this issue.

Primarily: Spin over facts. It’s telling that Labour’s spin doctors chose to highlight unproven anecdotes about discrimination against British workers above all else. When a politician speaks, especially a minister or his shadow, they have a bully pulpit. Too often, they use this bullhorn to reinforce (often unfounded) fears,  repeat (unproven) anecdotes and dog whistle.

To echo Keith Vaz MP, who has called for a better debate:

“We desperately need a consensus on immigration. Let’s stop this dangerous war of words, initiate a ceasefire and put forward some proposals that can command the respect of the British people. It’s time to end the immigration arms race.”

 

* The legal challenge against the “Go Home” vans has been dropped after the Home Office agreed not to run similar adverts again without community consultation. The statement by the law firm representing the claimants states that:

Our clients’ legal challenge was based on the Government’s failure to comply with the public sector equality duty under the Equality Act 2010. This duty requires the Government to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and harassment based on race and religion, as well as to foster good relations between people from different racial and religious groups. Due to the inflammatory nature of the campaign, as voiced by several prominent public figures including Vince Cable MP and the leaders of Brent and Redbridge Councils, the due regard duty was high, and a consultation should have been carried out before the pilot began so that the Government could have properly considered the effect of the campaign before deciding whether to go ahead.

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Al-Jazeera’s The Stream: The UK’s Immigration Crackdown

Al-Jazeera explored the UK’s Immigration debate on The Stream this week and I joined in the debate.

 

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The Epic Adventure of Nhamo the Manyika Warrior and His Sexy Wife Chipo

Back to the Tricycle, my favourite theatre in London. (Theatre Royal Stratford East is a close second). When I was at high school in Zimbabwe, my love of theatre was first stoked by a hilarious, witty theatre troupe called Over the Edge. One of their alumni, Lucian Msamati, who has gone on to have a glittering TV career (Game of Thrones, Luther, No 1 Ladies Detective Agency), directed this sharp, funny debut by Zimbabwean playwright Denton Chikura.

The play centres around an unassuming goat herder called Nhamo who might just be the guy to star in an epic African adventure. It’s clever, fast and just so much fun. The cast are members of Tiata Fahodzi, the British African theatre company, and this is Msamati’s directing debut as their new  artistic director.

It’s something of a play within a play – and the adventure is constructed in front of the audience, rather than simply unpacked. It’s a classic story (young man becomes hero, survives perils to get the girl) imaginatively told. It’s expansive, giving room for the cast to weave a tale in the best storytelling tradition but also demolish familiar tropes about Africa.

Ery Nzaramba  captures Nhamo’s naivete and deadpan wit,  which is balanced by Nyasha Hatendi’s thoroughly epic villain, a comic figure that’s more of a thrwarted hero with delusions of grandeur than a criminal mastermind. If the hero is rather unassuming, his future wife is anything but a passive damsel waiting to be saved. Tanya Fear plays Chipo, who is imperious yet endearing, rather vain, smart, tough and mistress of the withering put-down. Weaving the tale for both cast and audience is Don Gilet’s narrator, who blurs the line between showman and conman, but always keeps the audience engaged and amused.

Although there are only four cast members they tear up the stage. It’s pacy, hilarious, tongue-in-cheek and surprisingly moving at times. One thing I loved about it was that the play accessible for the British audience, but with a lot of little in-jokes for the Zimbabwean audience too. It’s a witty play that demands belly laughs. Just go and see it. You won’t regret it.

Five tomatoes out of Five.

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A Season in the Congo

congo lift

The first thing you notice is the set. You don’t so much step inside the theatre as jump into the story. It’s spectacular – multi-level, sprawling, drawing you in – particularly those in the first few seats in the stalls, which are set up as tables in a Congolese bar.

The classic play, by Aime Cesaire, charts the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected president of post-colonial Congo. Chiwetel Ejiofor does a star turn as Lumumba, capturing his journey from trader to politician.  But it’s not the Chiwetel show. He’s well supported and the cast frames the story beautifully with song, dance and puppetry.

Daniel Kaluuya’s Mobutu grows in stature as the play progresses and by the end I was struck by the juxtaposition of the two characters and how both men had changed as their friendship soured. The last time I saw Kaluuya was in Sucker Punch at the Royal Court and then, as now, I was drawn in by his subtlety. His Mobutu moved gradually from a loyal, young man to an army man whose star starts to rise as his (former) friend’s begins to fade.

It’s an energetic, sharp production that doesn’t pull any punches. The depiction of the colonial powers, business interests, Russia and the US is witty and critical – the puppets are used to devastating effect. In this way, the play captures both the immediacy of Lumumba’s situation and the external machinations that conspired against him. It’s an imaginative and dynamic portrait of a man, a country, a period of Africa’s post-colonial history and an expose of real politik.

Five tomatoes out of five.

 

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