I’m in the middle of reading a book – Behold the Dreamers – a novel by Imbolo Mbue that contrasts an immigrant family from Cameroon and their wealthy American employers living in New York around the financial crisis of 2008. The Cameroonian family is dealing with complex immigration laws, finding employment, low income whilst sending remittances back home, acquiring an American education, and securing a future for their son.
Without giving too much away, the main character Jende Jonga is the chauffeur of a wealthy wall street executive and during one of car rides, the exec asks him about his hometown in Limbe, Cameroon. Jende goes on an exciting nostalgic monologue describing how Limbe is so beautiful. An Atlantic Ocean coastal gem with the friendliest people and his boss must must visit it. A place where they live simple lives but enjoy it. The exec then asks him, “then why are you here?”. His response is a stark contrast to what he was explaining earlier. His mood changes as he explains to him that as a poor man, he would never be able to make it. He would be destined to continue living in poverty. However, in America, he believed he could claim part of the American dream and his son could become anything he wanted to.
I thought this was really interesting as it’s a common experience for many immigrants. Jende’s description of his home – a land of beauty that he cherishes so much yet at the same time, it is a place of despair for him. He loved it but yet he had to leave home. As Warsan Shire wrote in her poem ‘Home’ – “you only leave home when home won’t let you stay”. But when Jende left home, upon realizing the many struggles of being an immigrant, he wondered whether it was worthwhile for him to have left home.
This is a common experience for many immigrants, where home is a beautiful place. Where home is full of joy and laughter. Where home means family – with weddings, graduations, and no celebrations missed. Where home has good weather. Where home is a place you belong. At home, your soul is at peace because you simply belong.
But sometimes home lacks opportunities, home has poverty, home has war and conflict. Sometimes home has its own kind of discrimination – “what is your tribe, your religion, your gender, your social status?” It asks. Sometimes home cannot educate you the way you desire. Sometimes your fortune exists across an ocean. Sometimes home means things stay the same.
There are so many people who want to leave home yet there are so many people who want to go back home. Many children of the diaspora (young and old) are longing for home. They want to be part of “Africa rising”. They want to be part of the “Year or Return”. They see the returnees with successful relocation – thriving after trading their western dreams for a new African dream.
So for those watching, debating and waiting – my question is how do you reconcile the struggle that Jende describes? How do you deal with longing for home yet not wanting to be home? How do you deal with wanting to be home but feeling like home doesn’t want you there? I don’t know the answers but I know many of us are grappling with these questions.
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