Category Archives: Diasporas

Refugee Boy – A Review

Refugee BoyBy Alpha Abebe

As I stood in line ready to enter the Oxford Playhouse, I overheard the conversation between the staff person collecting tickets and a father and daughter who stood before me in the line. She warned the father that she was advising all guests with children that the play included strong language and difficult situations. Undeterred by the warning, the man smiled politely, lovingly put his hand on the shoulder of his adolescent daughter and proudly proclaimed, “That’s alright, she read the book. And she’s lived in Africa before, she’s seen real refugees”.

Refugee Boy is a theatre production based on the teen novel written by Benjamin Zephaniah and adapted for the stage by Lemn Sissay. The story follows Alem Kelo, a fourteen-year-old boy of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent who is seeking asylum in England. Before coming to England, Alem and his parents were forced to move between Ethiopia and Eritrea as the border war intensified and identity politics devolved into increasing violence. After managing to find a way to travel to the UK, Alem’s parents decide to leave him to be cared for by the British state as they continued their peacebuilding efforts in East Africa, and with the hopes that they would be reunited some day. After a difficult time in a children’s group home, Alem is eventually placed with a foster family, where much of the story then unfolds.

Anyone familiar with the work of Lemn Sissay will notice his fingerprints through the rhythm and poetics of the characters’ dialogue. I have admittedly not read Benjamin Zephaniah’s original novel, but I imagine much of the grit and humour in the play can be attributed to Lemn’s adaptation. Lemn Sissay is a British poet and author of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent. Much like the play’s protagonist, Lemn grew up in the British foster care system after he was given up by his birth parents. I am certain that Lemn had a compendium of memories to draw from as he helped to tell the story of a young boy coming of age in a state of flux, uncertainty, and adversity.

“Your country don’t want you, nobody wants you. Refugee boy. Say it! Refugee boy!”

“DON’T CALL ME REFUGEE BOY! MY NAME IS ALEM!”

This scene happens early in the play, as Alem tries to fight off a bully at the children’s home he is initially placed in. Ultimately his is pinned down, runs out of options, and is coerced into saying it. I am a refugee boy, he says in defeat. Moments later, in a dream-like vignette, Alem recites: “Ask me who I am again. Ask me where I’m from”. It is this tension between Alem-the-person and Alem-the-refugee that gripped me the most throughout the play. Alem fights vehemently to assert his individuality – refusing to abbreviate his name, preserving the memory of his homeland, and proclaiming his appreciation for Charles Dickens. He is however simultaneously thrust into the legal political bureaucracy that is the refugee adjudication system, where he must fight to be recognized as a refugee in order to earn his safety and freedom.

My mind drifted back to the father and daughter at the entrance to the theatre. “She’s seen real refugees.” In the moment, I was instinctively put off by what I’m sure was meant as an innocuous and reassuring comment by the father. But at the end of the play, I was also struck by the irony of the fact that Alem spent so much effort trying to resist the homogeneity and objectification that so often accompanies the label ‘refugee’, yet it was exactly the ‘refugee experience’ that we came to the theatre to see.

The Horn of Africa is a diverse region whose history has been punctuated by years of protracted conflict and rapid social and political change. While ‘refugee’ serves as a useful analytical and legal term to refer to the millions who have had to flea their homes, Alem reminds us that each of these refugees are people with individual stories, ambitions, challenges, and lives.

The aristocrat who travelled to the US for university then decided to file for asylum status after the monarchy was overthrown. The young man from Eritrea full of hopes and dreams who boards a crowded boat destined for the Mediterranean seas. The young Somali girl sitting in a classroom in the same Kenyan refugee camp where she was born. These are all ‘real refugees’ in the strict sense of the term, but I imagine they’d all have very different stories to tell if we had tickets to see a play based on their lives.

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Filed under Diasporas, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia

Destroying What Works? Barclays and the Changing Somali Remittances Marketplace

By Emma Lochery

In May this year Barclays announced it would no longer supply bank accounts to 250 money service businesses as of July 10th – including four major Somali money transfer businesses. For most other countries that rely on remittances, there are alternatives for sending money, but Somalia is in a difficult position due to the weakness of its banking system, lack of banking regulation, and high level of need. After much protest from Somali diaspora and other civil society groups, the original deadline was extended a couple of times for particular companies, but as of mid-October only one Somali money transfer company had been allowed keep its account open pending the outcome of a court case arguing that Barclay’s decision violated competition law.

Oxford’s Horn of Africa Seminar met on October 15th to discuss the Somali remittance landscape and the challenges ahead.

Amidst the multitude of challenges facing Somalis today, money transfer agencies represent ‘what works’ in the Somali territories. As pointed out by a FSNAU report authored by Laura Hammond earlier this year, they provide an efficient way for an estimated minimum of $1.2 billion to be remitted back to Somalia every year, which is far more than what Somalia receives in international aid (on average just under $850 million for the last five years), foreign direct investment (just over $100 million in 2011), or exports earnings ($516 million in 2010). In the FSNAU study, which covered both rural and urban areas, 40% of all Somalis surveyed said they received remittances from abroad – and in urban areas that number rose to over 50%. Remittances helped meet basic needs; three-quarters of recipients said they used them to buy food and pay for services such as health and education. Three-quarters of recipients also said they shared what they received with others – demonstrating the way remittances help maintain a fragile but crucial social safety net. 93% of all recipients said they used money transfer companies to receive their money.

Money transfer companies in the Somali territories have also begun to offer more complex services, such as deposit accounts, debit cards, and credit to small businesses. They are a principal employer in the formal economy across Somaliland, Puntland, and Somalia. The bigger companies are also crucial players in wider Somali trade networks, facilitating financial transfers to the Gulf and cities in China and other trading hubs. Money transfer companies have helped to hold together economic networks, which are the mainstay of the Somali economy – from livestock to retail trade businesses. Based on informal mechanisms at first, but soon formalizing and adopting new technologies, they proved essential through the oppressive and extractive 1980s, helped families rebuild their lives amidst the wreckage of a state in the 1990s, and enabled people to survive conflicts in Somalia since then. They have been key in allowing Somali trade networks to expand and link into markets in Kenya, South Africa, and further afield. The names of the largest firms are household names – they are highly trusted brands in very insecure places.

However, the very factors behind the companies’ success are also some of the reasons for the current struggle with banks and regulators. To understand why, it is necessary to step back and look at the broader banking sector.  Since 9/11 in particular, there has been a huge growth in anti-money laundering regulations. Much of the pressure in the sector today comes from US regulators – and with operations spanning the globe, British banks such as Barclays cannot afford to ignore the changes. Last year in the US, HSBC was fined $1.9 billion by the US government for weak anti-money laundering controls in Mexico, while Standard Chartered was fined more than $300 million for violating US sanctions on Iran, Burma, Libya, and Sudan.

Money transfer businesses then find themselves in a difficult position. While the amount of money transferred as remittances is important to Somalis, for a bank like Barclays it is rather small in terms of their global business, and the small amount of profit is not worth the perceived risk of hosting the companies’ accounts.

While neither of the cases cited above involved transactions to Somalia, Somali money transfer businesses seem riskier to banks for two main reasons. First, they principally serve one country – and the less diverse a money services company’s customer base, the more risky they appear to a bank. So the reason that the major Somali money transfer businesses are so trusted in Somalia – that they are homegrown businesses with strong track records and connections at home and in the diaspora – means banks trust them less. Secondly, Somali money transfer companies generally rely on a third location as a clearinghouse – and these are most often in the Gulf States. Between a sender in London, and a recipient in Mogadishu, a transaction may also flow through Dubai, for instance. Dubai has long been a central economic node in Somali trading networks; Somalis migrated to labour in the Gulf in the 1970s, and in the 1980s, Somali businessmen took advantage of their relatively easy access to profitable and convenient Dubai markets. However the very ease of access and laxity of regulation that makes Dubai and its free zones attractive to Somali businesses makes large, global banks nervous that they might inadvertently end up flouting regulations in the other jurisdictions in which they operate – for very little profit.

To make matters worse, the UK government’s response has been rather slow and uncoordinated. The Economist hit the nail on the head with their article about the recent conference on a ‘new deal’ for Somalia in Brussels – much waffling about aid and not enough about how to fix the remittance question. Soon before the last and largest company was supposed to have its account closed, the government finally announced that over the next year it was planning to create a ‘safe corridor’ for transferring money between the UK and Somalia in partnership with the World Bank. However, it is unclear what will happen in the short-term before the corridor is set up. Questions remain as to if and when either the UK or US government will also create the regulation needed to assuage the banks’ concerns sufficiently. Somali money transfer companies have adapted to regulation before – but it is hard to adapt to regulation yet to be written.

Finally, last week’s speakers emphasized that people will find alternative means of sending money, sending cash in suitcases (risky for everyone involved and not exactly what the regulators want either…) or by using other companies on the market, many of which have a smaller geographical reach in Somalia. One company for instance has their clearinghouse in a more highly regulated location and connects with Somaliland’s mobile money system. Others are ‘small payment institutions’ (rather than authorized payment institutions), limited to remitting no more than 3 million euros a month. The largest company Dahabshiil, meanwhile, has managed to find a bank that will host its corporate client business, but not its small-scale remittance business that is so central to daily life in Somalia.

It thus remains to be seen how people will adjust to the closure of the accounts of the four major remittance firms – and what effects this will have on the overall market for money transfer businesses, some of whom are very powerful players on the Somali economic scene. As the Oxford event ended, we were still waiting to hear the outcome of the court case deciding whether Dahabshiil, the final company due to lose its account, had managed to escape the ‘final final’ deadline one more time.

This post is solely based on the opinion of the author, but we want to thank the seminar speakers who included:

Abdi Abdullahi, Chairman, SOMSA | Industry perspective

Edwina Thompson, Beechwood International | UK policy environment

Farhan Hassan, Somali Heritage Academic Network | Civil society view

Emma Fanning, Oxfam GB | Impacts on NGOs

Laura Hammond, SOAS | Livelihoods impacts

Chair: Anna Lindley, SOAS

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Filed under Business, Development, Diasporas, Somali diaspora, Somalia, Somaliland

Politicking about Ethiopian Cuisine with The Simpsons

By Alpha Abebe

Screenshot taken from video. Copyright: FOX Inc.

Screenshot taken from video. Copyright: FOX Inc.

As a child of the 80s and 90s growing up in North America, I was rather accustomed to hearing about Ethiopian conflict and famine on the news. However, one afternoon while my mother was watching The Young and the Restless in the living room, something caught my ear. A character casually suggested that the couple head to an Ethiopian restaurant for dinner. My adolescent mind was blown. How did the writers hear about Ethiopian food?! And who among them had the gumption to actually try it? Oh, and I sure hope they didn’t see the kitfo! Hitherto, I had only known Western and Ethiopian social spaces to exist separately, and the notion that the two could overlap truly fascinated me.

On November 13, 2011 an episode of The Simpsons aired, entitled “The Food Wife“. It featured a 3.5-minute segment where the family wearily stumble upon a Little Ethiopia enclave, but eventually find that they thoroughly enjoy the tastes and textures of Ethiopian cuisine. As foolishly entertaining as the show can be, The Simpsons is both a repository and icon of American pop culture and often provides great analyses on issues of contemporary global importance through satire. There’s much to learn from that two dimension dysfunctional family.

The following lines are taken from the opening scene of the segment, where Marge is horrified when her car breaks down in a dark and seedy part of town.

Bart: “Um, mom. Where are we?

Marge: “Nowhere scary” [as she hurriedly locks the car doors].

And later on in the segment when the family runs into some other non-Ethiopian characters at the restaurant:

Marge: “So did all of your cars break down?
Lisa: “Mom! They’re here on purpose. They’re foodies.

I presume that images of the neighbourhood were inspired by Los Angeles’ Little Ethiopia strip, however the details mirror similar establishments found in other metropolitan cities across North America. Fairfax Avenue/Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles, the U Street corridor in Washington, D.C., and Danforth/Greenwood in Toronto. These are all small but vibrant enclaves, lined with Ethiopian restaurants, convenience stores and clubs. Continue reading

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Filed under Diasporas, Ethiopia, Film review

Somalia’s ‘Constructive Elite’ and the Challenges Ahead

Laura Mann reports from the first event of the Rift Valley Institute’s Nairobi Forum for Research, Policy and Local Knowledge – ‘A Somali Spring?’ A link to the podcast can be found at the end of the post.

On October 11th, the Rift Valley held its first ‘Nairobi Forum’. They invited Ken Menkhaus, Amal Ismail, Jabril Abdulla and Matt Bryden to discuss the post-election climate in Somalia. The former Kenyan ambassador to Somalia, Mohamed Abdi Affey, who was chairing the proceedings, joked: “We wanted to show Kenya what it means to be a democratic nation”.

All parties agreed that Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is a man who combines two clean hands with enormous street cred. There is reason for ‘cautious optimism’ even amidst the challenges ahead. Ken Menkhaus argued that it was not the election of this single remarkable man that was important, but the extensive support network behind him. Describing this network as a ‘constructive elite,’ Menkhaus clarified that this was not a mass uprising ‘Somali Spring’ but a civic mobilization of determined professionals tired of warlordism and ineffective foreign interventions alike. These individuals have been on the ground for the past 20 years, building hospitals, schools, universities and private businesses. They have spent the past 20 years “navigating the streets” as Ken Menkhaus put it. They have learnt how to negotiate deals with difficult parties, how to build trust across clans and most importantly, they know how to get things done. Jabril Abdulla added that these negotiating skills are important. The gradual expansion of the state will not just involve institutions, but people, some benign and some less palatable. Getting warlords to engage in politics is one of the key challenges.

Abdulla added that while elites had gotten him elected, there was nonetheless widespread public support behind his victory. He described how the public ‘legitimized’ the election by broadcasting the news on radios and televisions during the week following the election. However he also cautioned that there were some regions that did not share in the jubilation.

Nevertheless, as each of them said in turn, there is reason for cautious optimism. Continue reading

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Filed under Development, Diasporas, Elections, Somali diaspora, Somalia, Uncategorized

What does Ethiopia represent in the 21st Century?

Ethiopia’s flag bearer Yanet Seyoum holds the national flag as she leads the contingent in the athletes parade during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

by Alpha Abebe

When Kenenisa Bekele, Tirunesh Dibaba, and Dejen Gebremeskel take their marks at this year’s Olympics, and that start gun goes off, it is more than their personal careers on the line. Millions of people in Ethiopia and the diaspora will hold their breath, bite their nails, yell at their TV screens, and (hopefully) cheer in jubilation in heroic displays of nationalism. The Olympics has a way of creating patriots overnight, even drawing in the most apathetic and cynical of the lot. For a few days every four years, the nation feels like less of an ‘imaginary community’ as Benedict Anderson so famously argues, and more of something very real, visceral and tangible. But what will people (and I) be cheering for above and beyond the incredible athleticism and dedication of these Ethiopian athletes? If (ahem…when) the Ethiopian flag is raised above the Olympic podium, what will those colours represent to the world?

I struggle to think of another country whose historical global image is as diverse and contradictory as Ethiopia’s.

This is meant as a statement, not necessarily a critique. Besides, all countries are dynamic, heterogeneous social and political constructions…right? So any effort to represent a country as something more stable and coherent than it is involves some level of fantasy, fiction and often subversion. But national images, however constructed and confused as they are, do matter. They matter in public diplomacy, they matter for tourism revenues, and they matter to individual identities. Unlike pop-stars and retail companies, countries cannot simply hire consultants and marketing firms to whip up a compelling global brand. As regimes rise and fall, geopolitical interests shift, economies grow and collapse, and culture does what it does – evolves – new layers and dimensions are added to Ethiopia’s self and global image. This generally evokes one of two responses – creative adaptation and innovation, or desperate attempts to hold on to things past. However, if there was ever a case to find the middle ground, it is with Ethiopia. It is a country with such a rich (albeit contested) history that is worth commemorating. Yet, social, political and economic conditions are rapidly changing the country’s landscape, as well as its position within the world.

Coming to grips with what Ethiopia represents in the 21st Century must involve a willingness to engage with the inevitable tensions between the past and the present, the personal and political, and the local and international. Continue reading

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Filed under Addis Ababa, Diasporas, Ethiopia, Nationalism

Generations of East African diasporas in cyberspace

Photo credit: Alpha Abebe

By Alpha Abebe 

It should come as no surprise that diasporas and the internet are such good bedfellows. They are both in the business of obscuring national boundaries and building long distance relationships. Independently, they often coalesce into deterritorialized communities, facilitate collaboration, and become sites of fierce contestation. Brought together, they work in much the same way. Scholars and commentators caught on to this long ago, and have been examining the social, political and economic impacts of diasporas online. Debating Eritrean independence, the 2005 Ethiopian election, Oromo nationalism, Harari identity politics, the London conference on Somalia – many of the processes that have shaped these constructs, events and movements happened online in virtual spaces created by the diaspora. The extent to which this has facilitated the circulation of progressive or regressive discourse and action is up for debate in each case. However, what has become clear is that the internet has and will continue to play an instrumental role in connecting the East African diaspora to issues of the Horn.

As a new generation emerges from the offspring of East African migrants, they too have created online spaces to negotiate their relationships to their countries of heritage. In many respects, they have entered into this scene far more equipped – more access to resources, more tech savvy, more platforms, etc. However, their social, political and economic ties to these countries would appear to be less direct, begging the question – what does their web presence look like? As you would imagine, it is quite diverse. There is Bernos.com, where one can buy a stylish Horn-of-Afro-centric tshirt and share dating advice on the same website. Then there is OPride.com, an aggregator of Oromo and regionally related news stories. Tadias.com is an online magazine often profiling the stories of Ethiopian-Americans who have found mainstream success. Abesha.com (currently on hiatus) was a pioneer in many respects, and created platforms for political debate, showcasing of art, and building community among young Ethiopians and Eritreans in the diaspora. Add to this the vast number of virtual spaces, including websites, facebook pages, twitter feeds, etc. that mobilized a rapid humanitarian response to the recent famine in Somalia, among a generation of people in the Somali diaspora – many of whom have never stepped foot on the continent. Finally, there is HornLight.com, a new player on scene, created to challenge mainstream narratives about the Horn through the stories and contributions from people in the diaspora.

As new generations of East African diasporans create their own cyber spaces, there will be many new and old questions to ask. What role do these spaces – including this one – have in shaping issues on the ground in Africa? How are communities formed online, and what are the politics of these communities? How are people mobilized online, and what social movements emerge? How do old and new axes of privilege intersect, how are they challenged, and how are they reproduced? In a region as dynamic as the Horn, and the increase in size and visibility of its diasporas, I suspect we will be returning to these questions frequently over the next several years.

Alpha Abebe is a current PhD student at Oxford. Please see more information about her work here.

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Filed under Blogging, Diasporas