Part 4 of 4 of -WEIRD Diaspora and Responsible ‘Return’-
During my recent travels in Nigeria and Ghana I’ve been having many conversations with native people and other Diaspora travelers and returnees about the potential blessings and blights that returness can bring to the African continent.
When asking native people their thoughts on the returnee phenomena, the vast majority that I’ve engaged with, have expressed seeing it as a mostly welcome and positive situation for Africa and its peoples.
Many natives see the potential of investment opportunities, educational wealth and skill sets as valuable resources for the prosperous development of community, country and continent.
There are of course those who take a more critical perspective on how the phenomena has thus far been playing out and how emerging trends allude to potential troubles for some, on the horizons.
There are those who are concerned about the rapidly changing cultural norms and values. And who seek to preserve indigenous and traditional ways of being.
There are also critiques of the corporate capture of events like Ghana’s ‘Year of return’. As well as how such governments seem to only be targeting economically wealthy diaspora and excluding those not so easily deemed as financial assets.
In Ghana there’s been a big drive to develop the tourism industry, which is a potential big plus for many businesses and at the same time people have drawn attention to studies showing how, as tourism increases, it also drives up the prices for locals, who then get displaced and pushed out.
This is especially true for young city populations and this Gentrification dynamic is something I’m personally very familiar with from growing up in South London and experiencing this displacement first hand over recent decades.
House prices skyrocket while wages crawl and small and medium businesses struggle while big businesses move in to capture the spending of a new audience in an area.
Checking the balance
Due to factors such as global wealth inequality, many people with the means (desirable skills, academic ability or financial capacity) leave their homelands in search of ‘success’ and self actualisation, elsewhere in financially richer countries.
This can end up draining local populations of members and capacities that could otherwise help improve the overall health of the community.
A fractally similar dynamic is occuring in rural farming communities. The majority of young people leave for the more stimulating city centers. This results in increasingly aging rural populations with less able bodied young people, that are vital for maintaining healthy indigenous agricultural practices. This could be seen as another factor driving the now widespread adoption of less labour intensive, but ecologically damaging ‘Green revolution’ ‘Western’ agricultural practices that rely heavily on synthetic pesticides and fertilisers — leading to soil degradation and bio-scarcity.
Many native people welcome the potential economic benefits and opportunities of diaspora returnees.
But what happens when financial gain becomes a main driver of social interaction?
In my experience ,this trend tends to drive dynamics of separatism, extractivism and further alienation. Foreigners are often seen as ‘get rich quick opportunities’ and given dramatically hiked ‘Oyibo/Obroni’ prices.
Some may take a rationalist stance and argue that, at a macro level, this contributes to a much needed redistribution of global wealth from rich to poorer countries.
However, if we ignore the felt experience of people within these social dynamics, we make ourselves blind to powerful sociological processes and unable to adequately account for them in our strategies for change.
What’s required then, is a more embodied-rationality that fully acknowledges that humans are also emotional beings, not only driven by rational calculation and reason.
These felt experiences drive patterns of behaviour that have powerful effects at larger collective scales. This kind of empathic consideration is vital to any viable attempt to co-create mutually beneficial and satisfying paths forward.
At present, these prevalently experienced dynamics, often encourage a more defensive stance on the part of returnees towards local people.
“Do they enjoy my company, or am I a cash cow in their eyes?”
Not to mention the experience for many of context shifting from a relatively low to a relatively high socio-economic standing can be somewhat disorientating.
It’s common that the assumptions that native people hold about the lived experiences of diaspora arriving from Europe and America can contrast sharply with the understandings that we have about our own lives.
This agitates a dissonance in understanding that can be hard to bridge without shared frames of reference. When we feel that those around us don’t actually see us, a common experience for many is a boat load of alienation.
This alienation and being so regularly guarded against exploitation, is an exhausting existence and actually deters many diaspora from staying long term.
It also tends to cause those who do stay to gravitate more towards others of similar socio-economic standing and cultural background. As can be seen with many of the older generations of returnees, who seem to often keep themselves tucked away.
The more alienated diaspora feel, the more they tend to insulate themselves from native populations, which increases perceptions of otherness from both perspectives, which in turn leads to more alienating situations arising. In systems thinking, this is known as a reinforcing feedback loop.
This isn’t a particularly novel social dynamic, humans tend to resonate with like minded people in whom we share common languages (not only spoken) and in whom we’re able to feel our values and inner dimensions reflected.
However what makes this cross-cultural dischord particularly troubling, is that intertwined with the other aspects of cultural difference, is often a large economic disparity, as well as asymmetric distributions of the educational wealth and skills that allow for participation in emerging digital economies and industries.
While at the macro scale digital industries will likely benefit from wider skill sets and improved infrastructure, on a more micro interpersonal scale, we will likely see the emergence of competitive conflict dynamics, particularly between diaspora and native members of city populations who tend to me more involved in digital economies.
If unchecked there is a high chance of an ever inflating socio-cultural-economic class divide, where the newer non-native arrivals tend to have more leverage to determine the pace and directions of cultural development.
These dynamics run the risk of becoming entrenched in the fast growing polities such as Nigeria and Ghana as well as across the entire African continent.
As Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson explore in their book ‘The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-Being’,
If this trend continues,it’s likely to inflame and increasingly worsen public health crises. The effects of which can be felt by the whole society, not just the poorest.
Another dynamic feeding into the cultural dischord, comes in the form of media streams of poor and misleading information about the real lived experiences of ‘the other’.
‘Western’ media floods the information ecosystems of the world with content that often exaggerates wealth accumulation and status hierarchies. Thus reinforcing perceptions of many native African populations that diaspora are living vastly more luxurious lifestyles than is actually the case.
Meanwhile, ‘The West’ is drip-fed misleading portrayals of uneducated, poor and starving Africans, unable to take the lead in forging their own futures without the aid of others.
Yet over and over, models of aid so often employed with this mindset, have been shown to breed that very dependence and stifle self-determination of those receiving it.
Similarly, many development projects come with eyes of seeing ‘what is missing in this community?’ which inevitably comes with a host of imported cultural value biases.
These kinds of approaches are often blind to many of the indigenous ‘community assets’ present, such as formal and informal communal institutions, locally adapted knowledge systems, practical skills and environmental resources.
When these assets are ignored and attempts are made to replace them with skills, knowledge and organisational patterns that are completely alien to local populations, the effect is often the development of a culture of disempowerment and dependence.
Alternative approaches such as Asset based community development (ABCD) instead look to engage, support and develop existing skills and expertise, which cultivates the self determination required for people to be empowered within the processes of their own collective liberation, co-development and actualisation.
Potential pathways and Transcultural mediation
In the realms of biology and ecology we often talk about genetics, but in the noosphere of ideas and culture the real game is one of memetics.
In ‘The Memetic Tribes Of Culture War 2.0’ Peter Limberg and Conor Barnes define Memetic tribes as “a group of agents with a meme complex, or memeplex, that directly or indirectly seeks to impose its distinct map of reality — along with its moral imperatives — on others.”
In many activist spaces we explore Decolonising as a process of dismantling Ideological, Institutional, Interpersonal, and Internal patterns of relation, that have been imposed by dominant colonial forces such as European imperialism. This Postmodern deconstruction is an essential part of an ongoing process — but it doesn’t stop there.
Humans can’t be A-cultural. So I suggest that we should be very honest and deliberate about the paradox that even the process of ‘decolonising’ is a form of memetic colonisation in the sense that it is propagating certain views, values and practices over others.
“Wait wtf did you just say!? Did you basically just say that everyone is a coloniser including me!?”
Well pretty much yeah, but maybe it’s worth drawing attention to my deep roots in ecology and the influence that this has on my thinking and the definitions that I use.
There is of course the more commonly used definition of colonisation being “The action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area”.
However in Ecological terms it is defined as “The action by a plant or animal of establishing itself in an area.” which isn’t an inherently negative process of domination.
It’s important here to not mistake my words as some kind of shady dismissal or justification of the genocidal horrors that are associated with the first definition.
This is most definitely not that.
I get it, It’s one of those hot sticky words that trigger a whole bunch of uncomfortable associations.
But it would actually be a pretty terrible idea to try and decolonise our gut for instance. Without those healthy bacteria that have colonised our digestive tract, we would be pretty screwed. Instead people often use probiotics to promote a more favourable symbiotic colonisation rather than the parasitic dynamics associated with Malaria and European Imperialism.
As the decolonise movement points out through it’s critiques, not all cultures are equal.
For example, some are more ecologically sustainable than others. Some are less sexist than others. Some have regular mass shootings in schools. And some tend to care for their elderly within their own communities, while others ship them off to nursing homes when they are considered a bit too annoying to have knocking around.
Different cultures have a range of varying characteristics, and some characteristics are more or less desirable than others (depending on situational context and the values of those evaluating them).
So how do we nurture cultures that are better adapted to contexts and are healthier and more favourable for more beings (Human and non-Human) both within and around them?
And what are the processes that different intra-acting cultures are acknowledged, evaluated and mediated as to avoid relationships of vast Asymmetric power distribution that run the risk of becoming new parasitic strains of neo-colonialism with a black face?
These kinds of questions and tasks can’t be adequately met by a purely Postmodern deconstructive stance.
So what then would be a Metamodern reconstructive approach?
Much like Peter and Connor’s ‘Memetic Mediation’, I use the term ‘Transcultural mediation’ to describe the process of facilitating healthy intra-relations between contrasting cultures by utilising various ‘social technologies’ such as non-violent communication, peace process facilitation and transformative ‘Theatre of the oppressed’ practices.
These are but a few of many potential examples, but I suggest that as much as possible, elements of indigenously resonant mediation practices — Such as polyphonic singing rituals of the Bayaka people across the Congo basin — should be employed with respect and consideration where appropriate to the context.
The intention of wielding these various social technologies should be to ameliorate already emerging cultural dischords, to deepen transcultural empathic understanding and to facilitate a mutually healthy cross-pollination of cultural practices and values into a ‘higher synthesis’ that takes into account a wider range of skills, resources, needs and wants within them.
So what are appropriate processes of exchange and integration between diaspora and native populations?
What’s appropriate unlearning?
What’s inauthentic conformity?
As well as finding and nurturing points of coherent resonance, how do we facilitate and mediate common dischords between:
- Individualist and collectivist values
- Gender relations and expectations
- Norms around LGBTQ safety/celebration
- Awareness and integration of neurodivergence and access needs
- Various indigenously rooted knowledge systems and emerging educational models
- Metaphysical matters like perceptions of and relations to Time
The rise of the returnee phenomena is undoubtedly influencing the course of cultural evolution in Africa.
Therefore I feel it’s vital for this process to be carefully considered and made accessible to a wide range of stakeholders who are affected by these changes.
An important step will be to begin collectively mapping the various dynamics that can currently be perceived from our many different vantage points within these flowing systems that we swim in.
I find Bonnitta Roy’s Source code analyses of Power equation (Part of a larger body of work on group flow, which also looks at Trust and Action), to be a useful tool in such situations. Power = (Skills + Resources) ÷ (Needs + Wants).
This equation can be used as a way of identifying power asymmetries between individuals or groups. When there is too much imbalance between two agents, it can impair capacities of cooperation, collaboration and co-creation.
Such imbalances in a system can be seen to cause dis-ease. By being able to better see the shape of these imbalances we can be guided in movements of alignment to help facilitate healthier relationships.
For example, one trend (that surely reflects a bias of my interests) that I’ve noticed with much of the diaspora that I’ve connected with, is the desire to live much more closely with the land. For many this looks like off grid, eco-village communities and self-sufficient food systems.
I see a potential for these desires of returnees to form a symbiotic relationship with the needs of rural communities to retain young populations by integrating values and infrastructures that provide appealing opportunities for the native youth.
An important consideration however, is that there is more likely to initially be a higher degree of cultural discord between the value sets of older native rural populations and WEIRD Diaspora. Therefore it may be helpful to have more ‘intermediary’ hubs within Urban African cities.
In these hubs, Diaspora could be educated in indigenous histories, philosophies, embodied practices and languages, as a vital part of empathising with worldviews and patterns of relation that are encoded in those knowledge systems, languages and community practices.
This integration would have to be considered as a developmental process that harnesses the power of existing cultural institutions like museums, libraries and community centres, as hubs for education and co-development.
The mediation process would benefit from having facilitators at these hubs, who are capable of adopting and synthesising a wide range of perspectives. This would of course include Native people who have also travelled among other cultures and more seasoned Returnees. There are bound to be many valuable insights from such people that can be shared and utilised by the wider community.
Returnees bringing with them, some of the more ‘attractive’ aspects of their social inheritance — including cultural, informational and material wealth, may potentially ease the pull away from native homelands for many. As some of what may often be sought elsewhere, can now be found domestically.
A similar approach could be explored for developing ways of retaining young people in rural communities. This would no doubt entail much more decentralised forms of domestic planning and governance.
Another important consideration in such situations is ownership. As the ‘Western’ and indigenous African concepts of ownership — particularly of land — differ in some key ways.
How can we facilitate appropriate communal ownership and/or access, given these differing values as well as the asymmetric distributions in economic wealth?
Also to be considered is that as Diaspora returnees continue to spread throughout the African continent, they are greatly increasing the interconnective relations between African countries as well as the wider global population. This will potentially have far reaching implications across politics, economics and culture.
While there are many great practitioners in this field who use the term ‘Culture Design’, I feel that this elicits the wrong metaphors. Cultures aren’t mechanistic things that can be designed.
Cultures are organically evolving somas. Rather than Design I prefer the terms like Cultivation and Nurturation and more organic metaphors such a tending to a food forest.
Healthy ecosystems depend on nonlinear networks of symbiotic relationships.
There’s a collective intelligence present in the soil that must be respected and listened to.
There’s no objective outsider position when working with living systems, if you perceive them, you participate in them. And as the name suggests self-organising systems have lives of their own and despite our best intentions will very often respond in unpredictable ways to our interventions. Just think about the way that many of todays problems were yesterdays solutions.
Yet even inaction is a form of action.
This kind of work requires what I call an Ambitious humility.
It would be naive to assume that we can develop processes that will eliminate all conflicts and dischord. Even many people from the same cultural context, just don’t get along for a variety of reasons.
What we can aim to do is to make these processes of exchange and intra-relation smoother, more open to critical reflection and for learnings to be available for open-sourced sharing between an emerging network of such hubs.
Although each hub would have a unique set of environmental circumstances and indigenous considerations, there will no doubt be deep and valuable insights that can be shared and adapted to be relevant to other hubs, communities and contexts.
Aspects of these ideas of locally focused, globally connected — ‘Glocal’ — learning networks are already being explored and grown — such as the ‘Regenerative’ communities network.
I see these Transcultural mediation hubs as essential parts of such efforts to nurture more healthy and coherent systems of mutually beneficial exchange and co-creation.
My intentions for writing these 4 articles has been to help develop an understanding (not least for myself) of some of the complex dynamic terrains that many of us are navigating every day.
They are not maps from nowhere, but emergent parts of an ongoing process. Through writing and releasing them I’ve become more intimately entangled in the flows they seek to highlight.
I’ve been invited into deeper contemplation and dialogue with the many friends (and siblings) who have helped in their creation through hours of conversation and invaluable feedback — for which I’m very grateful.
They’ve also helped me form new connections and relationships with others who’ve resonated with their words. These relationships help us weave the living networks from which the oh so vital collective intelligence can emerge and work it’s nonlinear magic.
They originally started as my attempt at a quick post-zoom chat summary of some of my thoughts and experiences over the past several months while in Nigeria and Ghana, but seemed to take on a life of their own and had other ideas about what they’d become.
2020 has shown many of us that even our most meticulous plans can’t stand up in the face of a reality that gives no fucks about them.
Life happens and thus inevitably Shit happens.
Yet we can choose to get creative and use that shit to fertilise our forests for more life to emerge.
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