The new novel follows the lives of two women, a German executive and a Kenyan victim of sexual abuse living in poverty on the streets of Nairobi who decides to escape to Europe as an illegal immigrant.
In the film ‘Living With Illegals’, Sierra Leonean/British journalist Sorious Samura becomes an illegal immigrant traveling from Morocco to Europe with a group of African migrants. Three of the men decide to make the crossing by swimming to the European enclave of Ceuta in Morocco – one makes it, three are caught. These journeys are horrendous and desperate and can often take up to four to five years, crossing many countries by land and sea.
At first there is a sense of comradeship among the men (there are no women in the film) as they struggle for a life of selling batteries, flowers and DVDs and living in make shift dormitories. But by the time Samura gets to France and realises he has been conned by the smuggler anger takes over. Many of the men admit to begging, which is something I never saw during my four years in Granada Spain, so maybe this is something new or something which happens in northern Spain and France.
This is a soulless lonely journey towards an often soulless lifetime. As the men in the film reach Calais, they are met by thousands of other men and women from across the world all desperate to make the final crossing to Britain. This is perhaps the most treacherous part, as they are so near yet still so far away. Now they must negotiate themselves around border police, more smugglers and the forest.
Crossing borders, migrations to Euroland presented as the land of milk, honey and endless riches. Juxtaposed against this ‘Dreamland’ is Africa, hunger, corruption and endless wars. What does it mean to make the perilous journey from the global South to the North. To work six or seven days a week, up to 16 hours a day for a pittance as domestics where often women are sexually and physically abused; day workers, fruit pickers or car washers? To have no social life with the only hope being that one’s children will somehow fare better. What does it mean when the journey is the other way around, from the global North to the South? How does white privilege manifest itself in contemporary Africa, in neo-coloniality?
The ‘The Outsiders’ goes some way to answer these questions. It is the first novel by Kenyan Caroline Adhiambo Jakob and follows the lives of two women - Irmtraut, a German high-powered executive, ambitious and single, and Philister, a victim of sexual abuse living in poverty on the streets of Nairobi. Philister's dream is for a better life and that better life exists in Europe. Irmtraut's venture to Kenya, on the other hand, is forced upon her by her boss and married lover. The characters are created around believable stereotypes each embarking on a journey premised on mythical imaginations of life on the other side. From the South, Philister approaches Europe with much more than hope. She is convinced she will be rich in record time. There are no obstacles in her imagination.
"Stories were often told of people who arrived in majuu and suddenly became so rich they had no idea how to spend all their riches".
Irmtraut on the other hand approaches Kenya with dread and a firm belief that nothing will work and no one can be trusted. Her search for Africa leaves her with stories of child soldiers and ruthless idiotic dictators. From the beginning we know for Irmtraut there is nowhere to go, but up.
To reach Germany, Philister persuades her abuser and uncle who is the manager of the Kenyan national football team to include her in the team. She arrives in Germany where the team loose all their marches and promptly they all disappear to begin a life on the margins of society. Philister’s story is told through a series of letters to her friend, Tamaa Matano, which begin with hope. Her hopes are very soon squashed at the realization that her life in Germany is even more precarious than in Kenya. She is challenged by the same problems of housing and employment but these are exacerbated by racism and the additional vulnerability of being alone and unable to trust anyone. Eventually she joins the millions of other undocumented Africans and Asians who supply Europe with its lowest ranks of the labour market.
In ‘Living With Illegals’, Samura makes the point that it is the illegal people who contribute to the economy. The ones who oil the wheels which keeps Europe turning, doing those jobs Europeans won’t do and nothing will stop them from coming.
Irmtraut is the kind of liberal whiteness that insists they are not racist until faced with Blackness and Africa. Her racism is challenged by her fearful reaction on a train to the only Black person she has close contact with. Still she manages to persuade herself that because Will Smith is her favorite actor, she is cannot be racist. As time passes both women learn the truth about their adopted countries and themselves. Irmtraut whilst enjoying white privilege in Kenya also faces the fact that it can come at a high cost if carried too far. Very quickly Kenya chips away at her ignorance and privilege but never leaves her without choices, something Philister rarely enjoys.
Though there are moments of laughter particularly for Irmtraut, the story of Philister is one of incredible sadness as she faces discrimination after discrimination in a life of emptiness and poverty in Europe. There is no escape, no way to return. The irony is that her friend who she left behind in Nairobi has a very different experience.
‘The Outsiders’ is an interesting read and is entirely plausible. Some of the dialogue is awkward and forced but the book achieves what I believe it set out to do, which is expose the myths on which prejudices and discrimination are built. Philister sinks further and further into invisibility till finally she more or less ceases to exist except as an object of pity or hate. Not altogether dissimilar from her life in Nairobi’s streets. But at least there she has the familiarity of language and people and most importantly her dreams. In Europe she is stripped of everything.
Irmtraut on the other hand is always visible, her existence always privileged even when she is the victim of a scam or theft. The question we are left with is, which is preferable: a life of poverty in Kenya or a life of loneliness and poverty in Germany?
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