Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Donald Trump is an ignorant, racist, pathetic excuse of a human being. However, if we are honest, his description of Haiti, El Salvador and nations on my own continent as “shithole countries”, and his preference for immigration from Northern Europe, are not dissimilar to attitudes held by many of the “respectable” people in the West and even here in Africa lining up to condemn him.
As any African applying for visa will tell you, the indignities visited upon us make it plain that we are not exactly welcome. It is humiliating to have to demonstrate to strangers that one is not about to abandon one’s family and nation to live on the streets of Europe or America, to have them stand in judgement over your acceptability as a human being. And that is just how the system treats those seeking a legal route for a temporary visit.
The reaction to the so-called European migrant crisis, which saw more than a million unwanted migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa cross into Europe in 2015, shows the extremes that will be considered in order to turn them back. “Europe has decided to cooperate with Libyan authorities, knowing the kind of torture, abuses, detention that migrants and refugees are exposed to in Libya,” Amnesty International’s Maria Serrano told the Voice of America last month.
Of course, the idea of a crisis is not extended to the nearly 12.5 million Europeans who are resident in a country not their own within the European Union, even when 95 per cent of these are hosted in just six countries. It is only a crisis when they come from “shithole countries”.
And it is not just Europeans. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in Kenya in November declaring how he loves Africans, seems to only love them when they stay at home. Back in Israel, he has taken to branding African asylum seekers “infiltrators” and is deporting thousands of them. In Libya, slave markets have reopened with many of the same Africans Europe is turning away being treated as commodities.
But African citizens do not even need to try to leave the continent to experience the dehumanisation associated with immigration. Kenya’s abysmal treatment of refugees from Somalia — who are crammed into crowded camps, forbidden from seeking work, regularly demonised as terrorists and even illegally forced back into the war zone across the border — is no less humiliating. Neither are the hoops Kenyans themselves — as well as other Africans — are forced to jump through when attempting to visit South Africa, formerly the continent’s largest economy, any less humiliating.
In fact, Africans don’t even need to try to go outside their countries’ borders to be insulted or have their humanity questioned. Hollywood as well as Western aid agencies and media regularly does it right in the comfort of our homes with their portrayal of Africa as a troubled, exotic paradise peopled by childishly simple, naïve beings unable to deal with the challenges of life and who need white saviours to rescue them from other white devils or from themselves.
Rounding out the parade of insulters are African elites, especially in the media and in politics, who have become our very own Uncle Toms, loyally regurgitating and fleshing out the worst stereotypes that the West has of us. Having opted not to reform the racist, extractive colonial states they inherited in the late 1950s and early 1960s, these elites have trouble seeing the humanity of the masses of citizens they prey on. So, like the Europeans before them, rather than fix dehumanising political and economic systems, they try to beat and shame the natives into compliance with it, into accepting the space that the world has allocated to them at the back of the bus — which is the reason so many try to leave in the first place.
This brings us back to Trump and his comments. Am I offended? You bet I am. But no more so than by the treatment and representations Africans have to endure every day from a world that has decided that they come from “shithole countries” and so must be shitty people.
And the supreme irony of it is, up until less than a century ago, Africans were quite content to stay on the continent. It was shitty people from other places who came here and forced them out. It was shitty people who took them to places like Haiti, where, after they fought for and won their freedom, more shitty people blockaded and invaded them and created the very conditions that a shitty American President, blissfully unaware of this, today disparages.