There has in recent times been a steep rise of nationalism that has permeated the world. The divorce of Britain from the European Union is one manifestation of this. The rise of Boris Johnson and his populist right-wing politics is a further exemplar of this. In the United States, Trump and his politics are what can be termed as extreme politics. This is occurring in our current time and is not a retrospective glance. Currently, the leader of the so-called free world can refer to Mexicans as rapists and thieves with little consequence. Children separated from their parents are detained in concentration camps. Despite the world urging us to remember that history should not be repeated and that we should learn lessons from it, this form of power used to terrorise and trample over basic human rights is lauded. Our assumption is that this should have relegated Trump to the annals of history. Instead, we find that the detention of children from Mexico in concentration camps has made him popular.
The tension between the United States and China is really about who dominates the future. The racial undertones of this conflict are there to see, for instance, when the US president haphazardly uses words like “Chinese virus” to describe a pandemic that we should all collectively confront. In the recent Black Lives Matter marches, we unexpectedly saw counter-marches professing white supremacy. What are we to make of this conundrum? Karl Marx once wrote that “it is not the consciousness of a man that determines his existence, but it is his existence that determines his consciousness”. If Marx was right, we are infusing the negative consciousness through normalising our existence that is embedded in a society that is normalising evil.
Why is this world increasingly polarised along racial, ethnic and nationalistic lines? Why do we have a rise in extremism? It is because of two reasons; the difficulty of comprehending the current changes we are experiencing due to the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and the difficulty in predicting the future. The 4IR has redefined the concept of nationality where borders are blurred because of connectivity and social networks. It has also made the concept of job security a thing of the past with the workforce increasingly shrinking and ushering in an era of human irrelevance. It has changed the psychology of people and created a dependence on technology akin to an addictive drug. It has redefined our democracies making algorithms the ultimate arbiter of who wins elections. It has taken away our privacy by tracking our every move and collecting and profiting from our data. It is redefining the concept of nationality with digital citizenship becoming a distinct possibility. All these changes make people insecure and long for the “good old days”, and this manifests itself through extreme nationalism, xenophobia and protectionism.
Then, of course, is the worry of an uncertain future. What does the rise of China mean for all of us? Who are the dominant powers of the future? What will education look like in the future? Is the economy of the future going to be more inclusive or exclusive? Will we have wars and will future wars end all wars because of the consequent human extinction? When the future is blurry, then confusion abounds, and people react through irrational means.
Here, I turn to Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – a story of migration, race and identity. The tale begins with our protagonist Ifemelu growing up in Nigeria during a time of military rule when many people wanted to leave the country to seek better fortunes elsewhere. In a high school in Lagos, Ifemelu falls in love with Obinze, whose widowed mother was a professor at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Ngozi Adichie begins weaving a complex tale of love juxtaposed against a constant battle with the patriarchal culture of Nigeria. When Ifemelu’s father, who worked for the federal government agency, loses his job, the family is left in a tailspin.
Ifemelu joins her aunt Aunty Uju who was in America struggling to start her medical career. When she was still in Nigeria, Aunty Uju fell in love with a married army general who took care of her, and they had a son, Dike. The General, as he was called, died in a helicopter crash and Aunty Uju was evicted from her apartment, which was registered in The General’s name, leaving her with little option but to migrate to America. As Ifemelu begins her life there, Obinze tries to join her, but his visa is denied because of 9/11, steering him towards England. Yet, Ifemelu faces the dark underbelly of America and takes to prostitution in exchange for $100. Feeling guilty, she cut ties with Obinze.
Ifemelu becomes an au pair under Kimberly, a white liberal American. Ifemelu dates Blaine, an African American Yale assistant professor and blogger. She became a successful blogger on race, a concept she first encountered in America, and became a fellow at Yale. Behind Ifemelu’s narrative, Ngozie Adichie teases out racism and the complex relationship between Africans and African Americans. As Ifemelu tells a woman at a party, “I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black, and I only became black when I came to America.”
In England, Obinza tries to organise a work permit by attempting to get married in a deal arranged by some Angolans. Instead, he is arrested during the wedding ceremony and deported back to a significantly changed Nigeria. He gets married, becomes wealthy and has a daughter. When Ifemelu decides to return to Nigeria, she and Obinze contemplate reviving their relationship.
Americanah is a complex book about migration, survival, gender, Americanisation and the failure of African countries to retain their most talented young people. Many African people live as illegal immigrants in the West, and this is almost akin to being a non-person, as they cannot legitimately access health and educational facilities. Migration is a complex issue, and if it is accompanied by obvious physical differences, many Africans in Western countries, encounter racism. This is prevalent in small towns where impervious to developments around the world, bigotry is rife. The power disparities intrinsic in gender divisions rears its head as we are reminded that women are sometimes forced into abusive relationships in order to survive. In her ideal world, Ifemelu would not be forced into a context where she would have to sell her body for $100, but she was driven by economic forces and the need to pay her rent. Even after Ifemelu had settled in America and had become prosperous, it was not enough for her, and she decided to return to Nigeria.
This is an indication that despite all sorts of comforts in the faraway lands and the lack of opportunities in African countries – at the end, home was the preferable option. This feeling, or sense of belonging, is perhaps best personified by Ifemelu’s description of Obinze. “She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself. With him, she was at ease; her skin felt as though it was her right size.” After all, it is that ease, that belonging, that “right size” that makes it home.
In this narrative, the character Ifemulu understands without naming it, othering. It seems that in the 21st century, the strangeness of othering, of enhancing difference rather than embracing our commonalities and the wedging of deep fissures in society continues unabated. This is perhaps a nod to Albert Camus’ ruminations in the Outsider. The common thread between the two is that those who are perceived to be different or weighted on an invisible scale continue to be the outsiders. The trick is to move from being an outsider to an insider and dismantle invisible boundaries.
Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He is the author of the book: Closing the Gap: The Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa. He is on twitter at @txm1971.