Tuesday, 6 December 2016

A Stranger in Fiction?

Talking with the director of Not Working Today

by So Young Chang

Abu Ahasan is a Bangladeshi construction worker in Singapore whose boss has withheld payment from his employees for several months. Unwilling to tolerate this situation any further, Abu gathers testimonies from his co-workers and jots them down in his notebook. One morning, he fakes being sick and instead of getting into the lorry, he gets into a city bus to pay a visit to the Ministry of Manpower. Written as such, the premise may seem rather straightforward. But as the opening scenes to Shijie Tan’s short film Not Working Today, the story of Abu’s day off holds a dramatic power that captivated an audience at a civil society event showcasing art about and by migrant workers. As people made their way out of the cinema, there was a collective buzz about the film, as well as about other segments such as a poetry reading from a migrant worker. “It might be a bit of preaching to the choir,” Shijie says in humble response to the reception it got at the event. But there is something special about the communal experience of watching a film in a darkened theatre, in how it can evoke our empathy for strangers and also offer social commentary about a system that is just “not working”.

Abu also happens to be the actor’s real name, and the story he acted out could easily have been his own. Shijie met him at Dibashram, which is a resting space in Little India for migrant workers run by the publisher of the only Bangladeshi newspaper in Singapore. While no longer in session, there used to be troupes of migrant workers who would perform plays once every few months. There you could feel the same conviction for how arts and entertainment could bring people together through shared emotions. Locals would come by to watch the plays and even without subtitles, everyone understood what they were about. In one particular play, Abu was playing the role of a jester and he had a special quality about him that caught Shijie’s eye. Not Working Today was filmed during Abu’s last three weeks in Singapore as he waited for his medical claims to be settled and two days after the end of filming, he returned to Bangladesh.

By the time he made the film, Shijie had spent six months volunteering with TWC2, a migrant worker support and advocacy organization in Singapore. Still in film school at the time, he was compelled to do something after reading an article about the treatment of migrant workers. While he felt strongly about reacting to injustice, he does not subscribe to the term ‘activist’ because it would be reductive in his role as a filmmaker. For one, there is no single cause that he feels committed to as an individual, and furthermore he does not think that one should make art to dictate ethics or moral statements.

“I’m inviting people to complete film. Typically how I think about it is you want to show them just enough for them to be interested, and give them the necessary tools to make their own decisions about the situations that they’ve just seen.”

The focus on provoking thought and sparking conversation is a core driver of what motivates him to make films. What the medium allows for is the space to engage with the human being on the screen, where you can be intensely interested in the well-being of someone else, and in that process, see yourself become a little kinder and a little more humanist.

This work of presenting human emotion and experience requires a lot of care, especially when dealing with subject matter that involves a social justice element. As a filmmaker, there is a fine line between feeling compelled to act and making use of the material. Ultimately, it comes down to having integrity and thoughtfulness from the moment you approach a topic and maintaining it throughout the storytelling. For example, if he had made a film that purely blamed society, it would have been a disservice to the migrant worker community.

“My job when I think of dramatic scenarios is to find the most appropriate, most dramatic, and most human thing to put on the screen. These three things don’t always settle on one thing, and they might be in separate directions sometimes. But when you do find something that pulls them all together, it’s quite special. So my job is to find those things and put it on the screen.”

Where power imbalances abound, the best one can hope for is to open up small pockets of exchange where people can start to listen to each other more. Unlike activists, the difficulty for artists, as Shijie says, is to express a message in a way that doesn’t involve him just telling you what he thinks.

As he wrapped up the film editing process and submitted a rough first cut to the faculty (after all, this was a school assignment), the Little India riots happened. The precise timeline was this: a week after submitting the finished product, he was called in to hear the evaluation, and the night before was when the events unfolded that changed society in ways both minute and profound. This sequence of events coloured the entire proceedings that followed and he was vindicated in the worst way possible that this was an urgent issue.

Not Working Today, it’s fictionalized, but is it fiction?”

Three years after the film was made, the story of Abu still rings true. Where the line between fiction and documentary blurs, the artist positions himself, hoping to communicate something that will eventually make life better for some. For the filmmaker, “you don’t need to think up stories, just look around.”

Abu is not working today. 

Not Working Today won Best Singapore Short Film at the Silver Screen Awards at the 2014 Singapore International Film Festival. It was screened at HealthServe’s event, Builder, Father, Poet at the Projector on August 14, 2016.

So Young Chang has recently finished a 3 month internship with Migrating out of Poverty based at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Kayayei Migrants of Madina Market in Accra, Ghana

By Mariana Chambel

Kayayei or Kaya Yei
a Ghanaian term that refers to a female porter or bearer, who has usually migrated from a rural community to any of Ghana's urban cities in search of work.

As part of the informal sector of the economy in Ghana, kayayei women and girls address market transportation gaps and assist in market exchange in Accra. They are improving local economic development. The kaya business significantly contributes to improving the standard of living of young female migrants and their families. After a heavy rain one morning, I headed to Madina market, wishing to find a group of women and girls taking a break from their duties to get the chance to interview them. Navigating the market between crowds, motorbikes, goats, and numerous kayayei (carrying big pots) I found a group of women gathered in a circle sitting on their upended pots; some eating, some feeding their babies or simply taking a rest.

Making the decision to travel
Fati comes from Wa. She is 22 years old, divorced and has one child staying with her mother back home. This day was her first day working as a Kayayei and she had found her place among other women that came from the same region.

Salamatu also comes from Wa. After arriving in the city she looked for people from her home town as a part of her ‘network’. They assisted her in finding a place to stay in Accra. She is married but has made the move to Accra alone a year ago. Salamatu came to Accra to help to support one of her siblings to stay in school, after the person who was sponsoring their education passed away.
Amina is from Tamale. She is married and her husband is in the north with their four children. She arrived four months ago and is planning to go back home by December. Amina came to the city to assist her husband in paying for their children’s education.

It is no coincidence that these three internal migrants – Fati, Salamatu and Amina –all came from regions in the north. In Ghana, there is a high level of income inequality between rural and urban areas, with a disproportionately high percentage of the poor living in rural areas. Since independence, the rural areas of Ghana have been neglected while urban areas have been developed attracting migrants from rural areas to come to Accra.

Why migrate?
The interviews of Fati, Salamatu and Amina reveal that they have opted to migrate as a strategy to improve their livelihoods. They migrate looking to improve their employment opportunities. Fati, after arriving only five days ago, has found a place to stay. She bought a pot in the city and started her first day of work as a kayayei. She aspires to raise funds to learn hair-dressing and practice it back home. Salamatu has been settled in Accra for a longer period and is not sure when she will return to her home town as in Accra she has a job and is able to support herself, her infant and family back home. Amina is an example of someone who has entered into the informal sector to improve her family’s livelihood, by providing remittances and school items for her children, ensuring they stay in school.

Having little to no safety net, the three of them find in each other the strength to persist with their goals:

  • They stick together both in housing accommodation and during daily work. 

Fati and Salamatu are living together with 10 other women, most of them from the same ethnic and cultural background. Amina is also staying in the same place, even though she comes from a different region. Her reason is simple: “… because we are all kayayei”.

The three of them mention that they feel safe surrounded by women working in the same business and being inside locked doors at night. They do not fear for rape nor robbery inside their rooms – “No I am not afraid of rape because of the doors but for the money, none of the room-mates would steal money” (Fati)

  • They help each other financially 

Salamatu explains that their community group of seven kayayei has formed a “Susu group” (informal loan club) which aims at rotating 50 GHC (Ghana cedi) a week among the women. This collective strategy protects each one of them in case of financial need - “…should anyone have a financial problem, we would be able to help her… we would be helping each other out financially if someone becomes sick or bereaved etc.” (Salamatu). Then, she adds, on Sundays, seniors organize meetings to discuss issues related to work.

Amina reinforces the idea of companionship when she says – “If someone is really sick, we can contribute to take the person to the hospital and even contribute more money if the need arises and then transport the person back home”.

Migrant care and support
The kayayei have been identified as one of the vulnerable groups who need social interventions, including: access to free healthcare, shelter, scholarship grants for their children, and the establishment of response centres to protect their rights and to protect against gender-based violence.
Yet, according to the interviews, the government of Ghana barely supports them, nor recognizes the pathways through which the livelihoods of these young female migrants contribute to development. The kaya business has been labelled as a part of distress migration. In my opinion, this view focuses exclusively on the negative aspects of their migration. There is a gap in migration policies, research and evidence around the links between rural-urban migration and poverty reduction, as well as, in the documentation of migrants’ coping strategies.

Are kayayei vulnerable? Yes, but they're also determined, brave and resilient. Migration allows them to play important roles: in the economy, within their families, within the kayayei community and in their personal lives. They feel these opportunities would not have been available if they had stayed back at home. It is time to recognize their strength and contribution to all these different spheres, and to make policies to support them and protect their rights.

Mariana Chambel is a Migrating out of Poverty Communications Research Assistant based at the University of Ghana, Centre for Migration Studies currently working on issues related to the Migration Industry, in particular Kayayei and domestic workers.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The national anti-‘Kwerekwere’ pastime

by Shezane Kirubi

“You do not look Kenyan.” 

This statement has been repeated to me in response to where I am from, too many times to count, during my time here in South Africa. Until now, I did not think that I had to fit into some stereotypical view of what a Kenyan should look like. When I first arrived in Johannesburg in July, I was excited at the opportunity to immerse myself in the vibrant cultural activities and events that South Africans frequently speak about, and for which the country is well-known.  However, within a few days of my arrival, I personally encountered the expressed displeasure, from some South Africans, at my inability to understand or speak a local language. I very soon came to realize how pervasive and sad the daily phenomenon of xenophobia is in South Africa. It is a huge obstacle to the success of regional migration in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. During my mini-excursions around the city centre, I can sincerely say that I have never felt more like a foreigner in any other country than like I have here in Johannesburg.  I find this absurd, considering that I am black and African! 

However, because I am indeed black and African, many local South Africans start with an assumption that I must be a South African and automatically start a conversation in a local dialect. It seems that some use this as a sieve-like tool to identify foreigners of other African countries. Now don’t get me wrong: I think that its amazing that South Africans have been able to hold on to their cultural identity embedded within their local dialects. However, when this is used as a discriminatory tool to exclude other people, it loses its symbolic value. In my view, xenophobic tendencies and attitudes indicate a lack any moral or rational reasoning, especially when one considers that African national borders were created by colonial governments. African foreigners seem to be so frequently harassed, seemingly to ensure that they do not ‘violate’ deeply flawed racial and ethnic purities that were artificially cobbled together under colonialism and apartheid. Therefore, despite the transition from ‘white’ authoritarian and colonial rule to democracy in 1994, prejudice and violence persist in many parts of contemporary South Africa. It seems to me that the shifts in political power that have occurred since 1994 have ushered in a range of new discriminatory practices and victims. 

Xenophobia seems to be part-and-parcel of South African technologies of nation-building, and some argue it is part of the country’s ‘culture of violence’. During my internship at the African Centre of Migration and Society (ACMS), I have observed that xenophobia in South Africa is a catchword that pops up in many conversations. It is also featured in profound and intense academic research articles and policy papers exploring the causes and its implications to the country.

Xenophobia combines the Greek words, xenos (foreign) and phobos (fear) to denote a ‘hatred for foreigners’.  It is usually characterized by a negative attitude towards foreigners which is frequently typified by dislike and fear. Most often, xenophobia is framed as an attitude; however, this is misleading in South African examples because xenophobia is not restricted to a fear or dislike of foreigners, but it also frequently results in intense tension and violence in many parts of the country.  Unfortunately, this type of violence is not only concentrated in ‘xenophobic hotspots’ where localized competition for political and economic power is sometimes a trigger; but it has been found to be more inescapable than many are ready to admit. When one reflects on South Africa’s history, one finds that for centuries nasty and derogatory labels proliferated for different groups of people. During apartheid, the word ‘kaffir’, which is now considered a taboo word, was used by ‘white’ people to describe and address dark-skinned people. Currently, the South African colloquial word ‘makwerekwere’ (plural) is used for foreigners in South Africa, specifically dark-skinned people from other African countries. However, ‘kwerekwere’ (singular) doesn’t simply mean foreigner, but includes pejorative connotations of regarding foreigners as incomprehensible and undesirable. Commentators on the etymology of the word have argued that people who first coined the word were referring to the languages of foreign-born people sounding like a meaningless “kwirikwiri” noise to speakers of the main South African languages. 

Anthropologist Francis Nyamjoh, in his recently published book #RhodesMustFall: Nibbling at Resilient Colonialism in South Africa, strongly argues that there is a deadly national game going on in South Africa. This game involves the sport of spotting the ‘kwerekwere’, naming and shaming the Mozambican ‘shangaan’, taming and maiming the Nigerian, stealing and looting from the Somali businessperson, exploiting the Zimbabwean waitress, and abusing the Basotho domestic worker. The purpose of this national hobby, he argues, is to ensure that foreigners do not invade ‘sacred borders’ or violate what he calls the imagined “borders of intimacies”. 

In trying to explain such high levels of discrimination, some scholars have attributed South African xenophobia to learned behaviour acquired during the experience of Apartheid. Another frequent explanation uses critiques of the national government’s service delivery record. With regards to this, the rate of socio-economic inequality in the country has been pinpointed as the greatest scourge implicated in xenophobic violence which has frequently occurred in the informal margins of the formal economy. Many locals hold perceptions that foreign nationals compete with the poorest South Africans to eke out menial livelihoods. 

Additionally, South Africa’s stringent immigration policies have aggravated the problem. Unfortunately, this has tremendously affected the country’s refugee and asylum system. Research findings have shown that refugees and immigrants often state that they are sometimes prepared to accept very low-paying jobs because they do not have easy access to social protection in South Africa; and because many don’t have the ‘safety net’ of an extended family that they may have in their home countries. Ironically, the Department of Home Affairs frequently institutionalizes xenophobia via discriminatory laws and practices against migrants from other African countries, while at the same time it is frequently stated that the country is stymied by a severe shortfall of skilled workers. Black foreigners in South Africa are often portrayed as parasites sponging off public services for their own selfish survival. Many South Africans seem to indulge in a political rhetoric of panic which likes to spread perceptions that South Africa’s current socio-economic problems have been caused by a so-called ‘influx’ of African migrants.  

In a new project, ACMS, and a tech company iAfrikan  have collaborated with a number of partners to set up a platform to monitor xenophobic threats and violence. Similar to the Ushahidi crowdsourcing platform which was created after the 2007/08 post-election violence in Kenya, Xenowatch aims to track all forms of xenophobic threats and attacks on people and property in South Africa, and includes a website containing interactive mapping and visualization based on reports received. The platform allows anyone to easily and anonymously report threats of violence, past attacks, or active mobilization using a free SMS (text message), an email, or by entering a report on the website. When I reflect on the efficacy and success of the Kenyan Ushahidi platform to provide timely and detailed information on any possibility of election-related violence in the 2013 General Elections; I think Xenowatch may be a step in the right direction. 

The prevalence of the stereotypical views of foreign-born people that many South Africans hold onto is neither innocent nor accidental. Similarly, I find that it is no laughing matter. While there is a popular contemporary emphasis on stabilizing the continent of Africa and bringing peace to its various regions, in my view, xenophobia contradicts the ideals of nationalism and Pan-Africanism, that many argue are the pathway to African progress and socio-economic development. As Africans we need to get ourselves out of this self-hating conundrum by letting go of truncated and static notions of citizenship or belonging. The Africa we have today would not have existed and cannot exist without immigration and emigration.