This Year I Am Not Travelling Around the Globe.
Welcome to Kenya. Driving through Nairobi at night, and observing a sign that someone had posted on their car window:
'Given that everyone else is behaving badly, you are an idiot not to.’
Watching our driver speeding up over pot-holed roads, with no street lighting and his powerful Chinese LED lights on high, we both started to worry if we would reach the airport in one piece. We could not see the road ahead of us through the blinding dazzle of oncoming cars, all driving with their headlights on full beam.
Our driver seemed happy with the super bright lights blinding all other drivers. I stated worryingly that out of ten countries with the most traffic deaths relative to population, eight are in Africa and Kenya is among them. Given that most Africans still live in the countryside, where hardly anyone owns a car, it is particularly terrifying but it did not bother our driver.
“Everyone else does it. I’d certainly be a damned fool to turn my lights down, wouldn’t I?”
My friend tried to reason with him: “ If most Kenyan drivers dipped their lights, everybody would be able to see. But nobody does it because nobody else does. Right?”
Our driver nodded: “It is how we live in Africa. Nobody likes paying taxes. If you are a politician and everybody else is stealing from the treasury, you would be an idiot not to. Right?”
“In Australia, you trust that most people will follow the informal social laws that make society work. When everyone else is following rules, you feel ashamed not to. Politicians especially are expected to be an example to us all.”
Our driver laughed it off: “In the Congo where I come from, itis written in the constitution, ‘fend for yourself’, so we do. Politicians here who steal are re-elected providing they give away some of their spoils to their voters.” He chuckled: “I wish I could steal more too. I admire everyone who can.”
My friend asked our driver: “Do you believe most people in Kenya are trustworthy?”
“Of course not,” His reply came quick: “They are just like me.”
We look at each other, speechless. In Australia 78% of people believe that most people in society are trustworthy. It helps to keep the rules that make society from breaking down but there was no point in explaining this to our driver.
We kept driving dangerously while being blinded by cars coming from the opposite direction, just missing the pedestrians running across the highway in the dark. We watched helplessly as the crowd stole bags of coffee from the truck that rolled off the road, while a policeman watched it all from his car, half smiling. The truck driver was nowhere to be seen and the coffee from Ethiopia never reached the port. At the end, everyone is worse off but there is no one who believes it.
I have a jar at home in which I collect little pieces of rock or stone from my travels.
Every time I look at one special stone from one special place, a memory of that place comes back in the shape of a story.
Today I looked at two particular stones, one from Singapore and one from United Arab Emirates. As a migrant and living for a quarter of a century in Australia, i know that there are few migrants around the world who can say that they are in a better position than I am. Australia is truly heaven for migrants from all around the world. I have visited Singapore with my friend who was born there. She introduced me to the migrants’ communities living and working there. I have realised that I do not miss my homeland anymore as I have found my new home in my adoptive land. What about the migrants in Singapore and United Arab Emirates? Do they truly feel at home where they spend the majority of their working lives?
On the next trip I spent a day with a Pakistani migrant in the United Arab Emirates who introduced me to the Pakistani community in Dubai, where migrants comprise 88% of the population. In Singapore their share is 45%.
In Singapore we met many migrants from India, Bangladesh, Philippines, Indonesia, China and Malaysia.
They were spending time in church or the park on their days off.
Most of them group according their nationality and do not mix. There was one big group of mixed nationalities in the middle of East Coast Park who meet there every Sunday, we were told. Approaching the group, we heard a Bangladeshi young man reciting a poem in English titled: ‘Why, Migrant?’
His emotionally charged words pulled on our heart strings as we sat nearby and listened intently: ‘I long to run back to the warm embrace of my homeland. I want to return to what is my own. Golden mangoes ripe in the garden. The heady fragrance of jackfruit in the afternoon air. My life, my youth are held hostage and yet I long to love…’
Later we learnt from Shivaju Das, the organisator of this poetry workshop, that the poet is the shipyard worker from Chttagong. Das had the idea in 2013, when around 400 migrant workers rioted in the Little India neighbourhood after a private bus had killed an Indian construction worker. Tensions between native Singaporeans and migrants were running high. Das thought that seeing workers reading their own poetry would give the public a better impression and would help with integration. They recite both in English and their native tongues. Around 60% of the participants are women, mainly domestic workers. The men tend to work in construction or shipping. Most of the creative writing they produce is about their struggle with where to place themselves in Singapore, far from home and family, yet earning enough to give the relatives they left behind a better life than that they themselves have known.
Later in Saudi Arabia, I visited a similar workshop in a Pakistani tea room.
While drinking sweet strong tea, I listened to a construction worker’s new poem.
Pointing to the shiny new skyscrapers surrounding us that he helped to build, his eyes glistened with emotion when he exclaimed: ‘A slave in a foreign land, where people look down on us. However, for my family, I am a hero - fearless. I draw strength from my family, they would starve without me…