Diasporans: will they ever come back?

By Alex T Magaisa

ONE morning Farai went to the local barber shop for a hair-cut. Old Joe, known to many as the “resident expert” always sat in his chair, having a beer and chatting with clients on all manne

r of subjects.


Old Joe was one of those people with the talent of managing to strike up a conversation with anyone on any subject. Perhaps it was the manner of his speech – gradual, calculated with a tone that suggested some form of wisdom and authority. It was difficult to be annoyed by his questions.


So on that occasion, while the barber was cutting Farai’s hair, Old Joe began to talk. He started: “Where are you from, young man?”

“Zimbabwe,” answered Farai.


“That’s a long way,” he remarked with a chuckle. “How do you find England?” asked Old Joe.


“It’s alright,” said Farai, “but things could be better. I miss home. Zimbabwe is a beautiful place.”


“So I hear,” said Old Joe. “So what are you doing in this cold place?”

“To make money,” answered Farai with confidence.


“And then what will you do when you make money?” probed the old man.

“I came here to make money and once I have got enough, I will go home,” answered Farai.


The old man stopped and took a gulp of his beer. He looked at the young man pointedly and began: “Young man, let me tell you something. I came here from Jamaica in 1960. I was 20. Young, energetic and hopeful. You know what I wanted, young man?” he asked.


“I don’t know,” said Farai.


“Money,” the old man said, pausing while his eyes remained fixed on Farai. “I was looking for money,” he paused again before continuing, “and I am still looking for it.”


The exodus of Zimbabweans to the diaspora over the last five years is well known. It is common knowledge that the political and economic challenges facing the small southern African country have been the central causes for the flight of so many people across numerous age groups.


Most worryingly, however, is that the country has lost and continues to lose the most economically active population. The loss of skilled labour to countries such as the UK, South Africa, USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada has left large holes in the socio-economic framework of the country.


While the loss of expertise is detrimental to economic development it is cheap politics to brand people in the diaspora as unpatriotic. History has recorded numerous episodes showing that people will always move from points of oppression and hardship seeking free space in which to maximise their potential.


The haemorrhage of intellectual capital diminishes the capacity of a country. It is very easy to blame the people that have left as cowards who cannot stand the heat. It is also very easy to blame the countries that have accepted them.


Yet the fact remains that the departure of the majority of the people is directly connected to the economic hardships and political difficulties prevalent in Zimbabwe. Like any other country, Zimbabwe needs its intellectual capital. But there has to be sufficient political will to retain expertise.


There are many that have left and more that wish to secure a chance to leave. But the question is: will they ever return at all? As part of the search for solutions to its economic problems, Zimbabwe should be asking what needs to be done to retain or secure the return of skilled labour.


In order to gauge whether or not those in the diaspora will return there are a number of issues to consider. There are three key things that will have a bearing on people’s decision: employment, property and children.


In other words, it will depend on how those in the diaspora establish a settled family life in their stations. Many who left did so in pursuit of pastures new. Many will attest that their original intention was to work for a few years, build or buy a home in Zimbabwe and then return at some stage when the situation returned to normalcy. Indeed a number of people purchased or built homes in Zimbabwe and more invested by purchasing all manner of trucks, mini-buses with which to pursue business upon returning home.


But their return has been placed on hold due partly to the on-going difficulties in the country and also to the fact that despite the glitter it is not always gold that they get in the diaspora. No sooner have they settled in the UK and earned a few pounds do they realise that it is insufficient to meet all their wants.


An increasing number of those that have managed to get formal employment or have access to legal status in their new stations have become integrated into the local way of life. While social integration may be difficult in the first few years, economic integration can be achieved fairly quickly since by virtue of their employment and status they are able to access mortgages.


Thus where a few years ago a Zimbabwean first thought of buying a house in Zimbabwe, today he is more likely to think first of establishing a home in the UK. It is makes business sense to pay the mortgage for your own property than to pay rentals to the landlord. While the latter is mere expenditure, the former is an investment.


Similarly, some see little sense in buying a house for cash in Zimbabwe, while renting a property in the UK. They know that some people spent years renting homes in Harare, while building mansions in rural areas, where title is insecure that those properties have limited, if any, market value. They are also wary of the way in which property rights are continually violated and ignored by those in power and worry that their investments might go to waste.


However, getting a house via a mortgage in the diaspora also means that the person’s flexibility is limited as he must maintain regular mortgage payments lest the property is repossessed. Getting a mortgage calls for or demonstrates long-term commitment to the station where one is based.


It is easy to see why a graduate is attracted to the UK where he is able to buy a property, whereas he could work for years before accessing a mortgage facility, if at all, in Zimbabwe. But once a person establishes a home in the diaspora, chances are that he or she will remain for the long term.


He may indeed buy a home in Zimbabwe – but this is in the tradition of Zimbabweans, who have always maintained a home in the rural area despite living and working in the city. Just as they worked and lived in the city and returned home for Christmas, so will many Zimbabweans who have set up base in the diaspora.


The Zimbabwean property, if it does not fall prey to the vultures, remains at best a retirement home. But relatives also have a place of abode in the meanwhile.


Then there is the question of employment, which is available in the diaspora but is scarce at home. Even if it is available at home, the rewards are very limited.


Towards the end of the 1990s civil engineers found themselves redundant in a dormant construction market in Zimbabwe. Yet their skills are highly sought-after in the diaspora.


Medical doctors and nurses provide an essential service in protecting the health of the nation. Yet they find themselves earning far less than the average employee in industry – the essential sector is one of the lowest paid.

And yes, cry too the beloved teacher without whose wisdom and commitment we would all be poorer. Their working conditions are poor while the bigger portion of the budget goes to non-essential services.


These people work hard for humanity, but they also need to survive and live comfortably. But what they get is not commensurate with the service they give to society. Small wonder therefore, that when the foreign countries call, they respond en masse. There they earn better salaries and are able to buy homes and are generally well looked after as essential employees.


That is not to say it is all rosy where they go, but in comparison, they fare better than they did during their time in Zimbabwe, when they were incarcerated even for protesting at their dire situation.


Give a person a job and good conditions and he will settle. People often talk about those in the diaspora using disparaging terminology. But beyond those dire descriptions, there is an increasing number of Zimbabweans who are doing very well in the middle and top end of the formal market.


Many offshore financial centres, the city of London, Johannesburg etc host an increasing number of high-calibre Zimbabwean professionals whose talents are much appreciated. As long as you have what it takes and can demonstrate your ability, space will be available to you.


Once a person gets a long-term job settlement often becomes more established when people establish stable social relations and have offspring in the diaspora. People meet and marry from across cultures, races and all manner of backgrounds. These bonds assume a bigger meaning over time.


Slowly but surely the Zimbabwe factor becomes a factor in a complex web of interests. Children become an important part of the equation and their best interests have to be considered.


Many people have expressed concern over the education standards in many of the UK schools and there was a time when Zimbabwean parents in the UK used to send their kids for education in Zimbabwean schools.


But given that the standards there have plummeted and may not be at the levels they were before and the general difficulties people face in their daily lives, that is no longer an easy option for parents. Many of those with stable jobs, income and homes it seems now prefer to keep their kids in the diaspora, closer to the family.


Whereas parents may find social integration hard, their children who are born in the diaspora have become part of that local society. The culture, behaviour, lifestyle and taste are domestic to them even though they may be foreign to their parents.


In fact, on many counts Zimbabwe becomes a foreign land to them and they lack the attachment of their parents. This generation that will grow in the diaspora is more likely to be comfortable in the local environment and when making a decision whether or not to return, parents will have to consider what is in the best interests of the child.


Some in the diaspora are still nostalgic about Zimbabwe, seeing it through the lens of the past, without realising that things have changed. There is no doubt that many first-generation Zimbabwean immigrants have a yearning to return home at some point.


But when is a question that continues to defy an answer. On the one hand they yearn for a yesteryear Zimbabwe but at the same time they want to return home with “something” but sadly for quite a number that “something” remains elusive.


Many people are also aware of what transpired in 1980. In the euphoria of Independence, many Zimbabweans who had been in the diaspora decided to return home to participate in the building of a new Zimbabwe. Many sold their properties and left their jobs to start a new life. The change in political governance may give rise to new hope, but those who recall what they refer to as the “folly” of the 1980 immigrants will probably take their time before making a permanent return. The current political developments in the opposition movement do not give rise to much hope and many will be keeping their cards very close to their chests.


Finally, there is also the reality that what many considered were finer pastures have turned out to be thorn-infested. For many, especially at the lower end of the job market or in the extra-legal market, it is simply a matter of survival. It is commonly referred to as living from hand to mouth.


Not only do diasporans need to look after their welfare in their stations but they have so many pressures from home — to build or buy a house and to look after the many extended family dependants. The bulk work hard for long hours but the wages are mostly sufficient to cover only their basic needs, leaving very little to save. Slowly but surely they get into the routine, and without realising they will have spent many years in the diaspora.


Those hoping for a quick return have not learnt from their fellow immigrants who came before them – the Nigerians, Jamaicans, Ghanaians, Kenyans, Pakistanis and Indians. They too thought they would come for a short while, make money and return to their homelands. Many of them are still in the diaspora, now with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Perhaps in 2050, Farai, well in his 70s, will also be sitting in some barbershop somewhere, telling another young immigrant with dreams of making money and making a quick return home that he too came looking for money at the turn of the century, but is still looking for it.


* Dr Alex Magaisa is a financial services lawyer in the UK. He can be contacted at wamagaisa@yahoo.co.uk

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