Perhaps because of technology, we are all busier than ever. For neo-African diasporans like myself, the busyness is not just what I have to do in my adopted country—which can be overwhelming in itself—but also all the things I need to keep up with back in my country of origin. Such is the dilemma of immigrant transnationals who find themselves simultaneously maintaining life in more than two countries.
As migration has grown, so has immigrant transnationalism. African immigrants are among the fastest-growing segments of the immigrant population in the US. There has also been a steady increase in the percentage of immigrants from Africa in OECD countries. Transnationalism is a way of life for millions of African immigrants. It is also the means through which neo-African diasporans contribute to the development of the continent, mainly through remittances but increasingly through other avenues.
As transnational immigrants, we end up dealing with a variety of issues over and above the usual level of domestic busyness. We frequently have to send money home to take care of relatives especially in times of crisis, to build a second home, or invest in a lucrative real estate market. We spend a lot of time keeping up with friends in a different time zone and following relevant social and political issues as stakeholders in our country of origin. For those who can, we may visit our home country on vacation and in unique circumstances to attend to an emergency e.g. when there is a loss in the family. Being a transnational requires extended mental and emotional capacity to transact on the motherland while maintaining a full plate of responsibilities in our adopted homeland.
Transnationalism has its advantages. For one, it allows us to stay connected to our roots. You never forget where you came from and it feels great to give back. Having a second home also gives us a strong sense of identity, which is especially important for our children. Transnationalism allows us to leverage the power of a stronger currency, allowing us to invest in a growing economy where barriers to entry are lower and returns are higher. This is also critical for spreading risk by ensuring you have a footing in your adopted homeland but also a fallback not just in terms of financial investment but also in regards to social capital. As transnationals, we aim to maintain strong and positive relationships with people back home; whether relatives, friends, or even politicians which helps us to be more resilient in dealing with issues that come up in life including when there is a loss in the family or even in times of festivities such as weddings and homecomings.
For all its merits, transnationalism comes with its own challenges. The biggest one is perhaps not being able to rely on people and institutions back home. This paucity of trust can take various forms. For example, most neo-African diasporans are frustrated about investing back home because of bad experiences where people have been ripped off despite relying on trusted acquaintances. Despite being a native, immigrants pay what is referred to as a “diaspora tax” which is the higher cost of doing business by virtue of being a diaspora. Prices for services and items seem to be priced higher when they know someone overseas is paying for it. There are also concerns about dependency. I have heard many immigrants quip about how their relatives think money grows on trees in America. The mistrust means the relationship that neo-African diaspora have with the motherland is complicated at best, perhaps even toxic at times.
As transnationals, we aim to maintain strong and positive relationships with people back home; whether relatives, friends, or even politicians which helps us to be more resilient in dealing with issues that come up in life…Neo African Diaspora
Transnationalism can also be an expensive endeavor. Traveling home is not cheap. The cost of travel itself can be substantial for a sizeable family. Even more costly are the operating expenses while visiting home including gifts for friends and relatives, finding a place to stay, securing transport, and visiting all the posh places you’ve missed while being away, often with a band of accomplices in tow while you foot the bill. If you are lucky enough to have built a second home, you get to enjoy it when you go home but the cost of maintaining it while you are away can be pricey. Another common challenge is difficulty in navigating seemingly archaic systems for public services like obtaining government-issued ID and in some cases business services such as opening a bank account. Often, immigrants visiting home are frustrated by what they see as poor customer service and what those at home may consider spoilt attitudes of entitled diasporans.
Transnationalism however is not static, it evolves over time due to changes in society. Technological advancements for example have made it easier for people to be connected across borders and to transact more efficiently due to easier access to information and streamlined reachability. Governments and businesses are also trying to address the needs of the diaspora, although the jury is still out on how effective their strategies are. For the most part, transnationals contend with a lot of uncertainty, which can lead to elevated levels of anxiety. Corruption makes it hard to secure returns from investments. There is also a degree of risk associated with transacting and observing laws in different countries. While many diasporans invest with the intention of moving back at retirement, the reality is that such a transition remains a mirage for most immigrants.
As we embark on the Neo African Diaspora journey, I am looking forward to furthering dialogue and reflection on what it means to be a transnational for African immigrants in the US as well as those living in other developed countries. There is great data on remittances but less qualitative data on the experiences and processes of transnationalism. This includes looking at how can we lessen the frustrations of diaspora and nurture win-win relationships between the diaspora and key stakeholders such as government, businesses, and civil society.
I am also keen to understand how transnationalism is evolving over time. For example, how will the trends of diaspora returning to Africa change over time? What will happen to the diaspora investments made in Africa if they cannot move back “home” as they envisioned? How does transnationalism differ for people of different backgrounds? For example between men and women, people from different countries, age groups, etc. As we engage, I hope the conversations and reflections will generate solutions and elicit positive change in the enabling environment for African immigrant transnationals and stakeholders.
Whether you are an African immigrant or a stakeholder, we gladly welcome you to share your thoughts on why transnationalism matters. You can do so by adding your comments or even submitting a blog on the same topic. Thanks and best wishes to all transnationals as we navigate this busy course!