Last Tuesday, when Morocco knocked giant Spain out of the 2022 Fifa World Cup, every African and every Arab claimed to be Moroccan.
Who, indeed, does not want to identify with a hero? For me, however, the goings-on in Doha, Qatar, reminded me of the late Tayib Salih, a Sudanese.
He had, in his illustrious career, served as Director General at the Ministry of Information there, in Doha, for a few years.
That further illustrates the oft-underplayed close links between Africans and Arabs. Do you notice, for example, that Arabs populate at least eight of the countries on the African continent?
Try and count: Morocco, Mauretania, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Sudan and the emergent Sahrawi. These folks are as African as you and me, but how we play the fact to our best advantage is a puzzle I leave to geopolitical strategists and football fans.
Tayib Salih, however, came to my mind because I was already thinking of migration, and Salih wrote a famous novel called Season of Migration to the North. Its original Arabic title is Mawsim al-Hijrah ilâ al-Shimâl.
Those of you who, like me, are interested in Arabic influence on Kiswahili will note that “mawsim” is related to our very Bantu-sounding “msimu” (season). “Hijrah”, too, is readily recognisable from its specialised use in Islamic history, dating the years from the Prophet’s migration from Mecca to Medina. We are, for example, currently in the year 1444 AH, dated from the Hijrah of the Prophet (SAW).
The migration to the north in Salih’s novel, however, is about the unsettling experience of the colonial encounter between African culture and the imposed European ways. The main character, Sudanese Mustafa Sa’eed, is taken by the colonial “civilisers” from his rural Sudanese home to study in Britain. He does well academically, even writing a PhD thesis on “an obscure English poet”.
But the culture clash trauma leaves him permanently neurotic and he can no longer fit into his society when he goes home. This is reminiscent of Frantz Fanon’s definition of the colonial experience as “a nervous condition”, and it anticipates Tsitsi Dangarembga’s 1988 powerful novel with that very title, Nervous Conditions.
Our season and our migration, however, are of a happier and more exciting hue. The season is Christmas-New Year, which is already upon us.
The migration is our long-established practice of travelling out of the cities and towns to our original, rural homes, which we variously refer to as “ushagoo”, “shags”, “Nyalgunga” or, as we say in Western, “home square”.
The endearing nicknames indicate that we hold this “homing” tradition dear and close to our hearts, as indeed we should. That once-a-year visit to our ancestral places, which is all that most of us can afford, helps to reconnect us with not only our rural relatives and friends but also with the realities and challenges of daily life beyond the mwisho wa lami (where the tarmac ends), as Mwalimu Andrew calls it.
The visits temper and lessen our alienation from our roots and also make us appreciate better the advantages of our lives in urban surroundings.
We should, however, avoid those common mistakes that often weaken the impact of our “home square” visits and sometimes even turn them into unmitigated disappointments for both visitors and hosts. One of these is leaving the travel until very late.
This leads to not only misery for you on the overcrowded roads but also shortened time with the people we are visiting. Exaggerated and unreasonable expectations and demands on our hosts, as well as criticising their ways, can also vitiate our visits.
We should be tolerant and flexible, gratefully accepting what our hosts have got to offer.
A thoroughly heart-breaking trend around festive homecomings, especially among the young male urbanites, is for them to gang up and spend nearly all of their daytime hours around the locations’ shopping centres and “karumaindos” (watering places).
The only “quality time” they seem to be able to give their parents, grandparents and other home staying relatives is the late evening or early night hours, when they finally plod home, mostly in dubious states of sobriety. Some even opt to spend their nights in guesthouses at the shopping centres, even if there is ample accommodation in the old homesteads.
A particularly strong worry I have about this season’s migration to “shags” is the apparent ease and speed with which we have either forgotten or simply discarded the good habits we learnt during the worst of the covid-19 scourge.
We learnt to wear our masks, to wash and sanitise our hands frequently and to avoid overcrowding, keeping reasonable social distance wherever possible. These measures stood us in good stead in our fight against the pandemic.
Indeed, in combination with the direct medical interventions, like vaccination, they brought us to the fortunate stage where our leaders felt it safe to lift the crippling shutdowns and lockups.
This, however, did not mean that we should throw all caution, literally, to the winds. But, sadly, this seems to be just what is happening. I have told you that I have been moving around East Africa lately, travelling by road and air to Zanzibar, Kenya and Uganda, and I have been astounded at the general laxity and sheer negligence of those simple precautions that contributed to our safety in the bad times. I was shocked to see that, even on most of the air flights I caught, the wearing of masks is apparently optional.
On the ground, in my favourite haunts in Nairobi and Kampala, the situation is even more reckless. Handshakes, hugs and kisses are lavishly exchanged at the drop of a hat. Anyone donning a mask is seen as an eccentric or a weirdo.
Maybe our leaders should give us new guidelines, at least for the festive season. But what happened to our common sense?
Anyway, this is to wish you a blessed, and safe, journey home to the “shagoo” and a fruitful bonding with your folks.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]