Author: Rise Africa

Sending money to Somalia: The remittance economy

(Pic: Flickr)
(Pic: Flickr)

Some of my oldest memories as a child are of sunny weekend mornings eating canjeero, staring wide-eyed at my parents as they yelled into the receiver. That’s how you knew they were talking to relatives back home. The amplitudes of their voices would let us know right away they were on a long distance call. My brothers and I would always laugh at the faces they made when the connection was particularly bad. They winced and yelled and repeated the same sentences over and over and we, being nothing but the goofy children we were, found their facial expressions, their repetitions hilarious.

They would ask so-and-so if they had received their money, would inform their siblings or cousins how much would go to whom. Some was intended for so-and-so’s schooling, this part would go to grandmother, and this fraction to another aunt or uncle. Education was paid for, healthcare, rent, you name it. I still watch them go through the same routine.

I remember walking to Western Union with my father as a child; the Ghanaian clerk still works there. It is not a Western Union anymore, the banners changed more than once the past few years but if one thing stays the same, it was going to that office and getting that money transferred. The companies changed but the people stay; bills still need to get paid.

I remember telling my father he had to introduce me to the relatives I had yet to meet, by phone now and in person eventually. I remember looking up at him and saying, in that serious manner children adopt when they believe what they are saying is of utmost importance: “If you die, I will have to send them that money, but how would I know who to send it to?”

I hardly remember his exact words, but I recall his loud laugh, his hand on my head and him telling me that there are no ‘ifs’ but ‘whens’; that I would meet everyone eventually; and that I needed to worry about that French homework in front of me, not the bills of my incalculable number of relatives.

Every now and then there’s a new name. some are feeling the effects of the drought; a relative living in an affected area is calling right this moment.

It is a 20 minute drive to the place. For years now my parents have been dealing with the same Somali woman and the money transfer company she works for. Money exchanges hands, a text message is sent, a phone call is made. A day or two later a call to relatives; a confirmation.

This reality is not ours alone. I am 20 now and realising how, for the past two decades, Somalia has heavily relied on remittances in order to sustain herself. That with conflict and political instability, money transfers from the diaspora directly to the intended recipients has become more reliable than incomes garnered from economic institutions on ground; and remittance money has not only become the main source of individual/household sustenance, but also contributes to investment.

A post on the World Bank blog asked if Somalia could survive without its remittance. For most people, when they think of the country, the images that come to mind are of pirates or face-covered al-Shabab fighters brandishing automatic weapons and a black flag, or of malnourished victims of drought and poverty.

That however, is not a full picture. Other than livestock, Somalia’s (albeit largely informal) economy is based on remittances and telecommunications. Until very recently Somalia lacked a central bank and even now it isn’t as strong an institution as it should be. What kept the country together after the outbreak of the civil war, in terms of effective monetary management, are those many remittance transferring companies, which have been and still are the main financial industry relied upon.

The country is slowly rebuilding. infrastructures are popping up; in some areas expats are moving back; the government has regained control of regions which had been for a long time under the grip of extremist fighters. And this doesn’t mean that remittance money has been dwindling; rather it has been and still is financing the latest developments the private sector has been undertaking.

According to Ifad (the UN’s International Funds for Agricultural Development), remittances flowing into the African continent reach close to $40 US billion. When it comes to the Somali diaspora, about $1.6-billion is sent yearly to the country, and contributes to various vital fields, from education to healthcare to basic necessities such as food and shelter.

However, it all isn’t picture perfect. Recently, as more light was shed on the exorbitant fees imposed on remittance money sent to Africa, “leading money transfer companies” have come under scrutiny.  Many are realising, and talking about, the fact that “the African Diaspora is being charged twice the global average” to send money home. The Somali central bank is now in its fifth year of existence after its destruction and optimists might say that once it gets on its feet, it could in the future set policies and regulations which would eventually lead to the establishment of reliable banks.

Sumaya Ugas is an undergraduate student at McGill University. She studies International Development and Political Sciences. A lover of words, she is constantly carrying a novel (or three) and writing. This post was first published on Rise Africa, a blog written by a group of individuals who seek to create an atmosphere that encourages conversation between Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. Connect with them on Twitter@riseafrica

Looking for a hero to #BringBackOurGirls

I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night

I was a black schoolgirl once. I studied for exams, rode buses. While growing up, I ran the risk of ending up on the side panel of a milk carton. Have you seen me? But whatever my fears of kidnapping during my childhood in the US, I never could have imagined the mass abduction of over 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria, 276 of whom were still missing at last count, some reportedly sold as slaves in other countries.

Earlier this week, I was in Twitter conversation with Dr Britney Cooper  and others. Cooper and I were conflicted about US military intervention but hoping something good could come of President Obama getting involved in responding to the abduction. Others in the conversation cited recent instances where concern about women and girls was used as a pretext for military invasion. I noted that when President Bush invaded Afghanistan, it was an obvious sham because he and the conservatives backing the invasion were notorious for their opposition to policies for women’s rights, both domestically and internationally. Cooper cited the “the political dangers of US imperialism” and the “need [for] a moral schema that allows us to protect Black women and girls” concluding that “we must hold these things in tension”.

I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the morning light
He’s gotta be sure, he’s gotta be soon
And he’s gotta be larger than life, larger than life

US President Barack Obama. (Pic: Reuters)
US President Barack Obama. (Pic: Reuters)

I want to believe Obama is different. Isn’t he black enough, Kenyan enough, progressive enough? And I opposed US military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran and Pakistan and Syria and Korea… but maybe it could be different this time. I could not accept that hundreds of young Nigerian girls could just be carted away. One leader of a Nigerian elders group spoke out against Nigeria’s own military inaction: “The free movement of the kidnappers in a huge convoy with their captives for two weeks…is unbelievable.

I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the morning light

Obama has a black wife, black schoolgirl daughters, a Kenyan grandmother. Can’t we trust our Soul Brother commander-in-chief to rescue the damsels and not slip in Shell oil slicks? Isn’t it possible that the same US military with an epidemic history of rape problems could somehow be a rape solution in Africa?

I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night
He’s gotta be strong, he’s gotta be fast
And he’s gotta be fresh from the fight

I should know better. I’m Puerto Rican, a daughter of the US’s eyesore present day colony since 1898.  So before I could take a definitive position, I turned to my friend and trusted colleague, Kenyan poet and playwright Shailja Patel.  She sent me this article from Compare Afrique, titled ‘Dear Americans, Your Hashtags Won’t #BringBackOurGirls. You Might Actually Be Making Things Worse‘. I could clearly see that my perspective had been skewed by a lifetime of conditioning to see the US as a potential rescuer. This, in spite of my opposition to all the military intervention in my lifetime, Vietnam, Guinea-Bissau, Chile, Uruguay, Guatemala, El Salvador, Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq…

We progressives in the US, particularly those of African heritage, can be swayed by Obama’s public stances and record of improvement in various domestic social issues. However, progressive social policies at home do not correlate in any way with anti-colonial foreign policy.

Yet I had wanted to believe. I envisioned a Blaxploitation remake of Rambo that would bring Obama striding home against a backdrop of flames, fiery red bomb blast turning to smoke behind him, fainted schoolgirl limp in his arms (saved!). But I need to remember black girls will never be the Lois Lane of this tired movie. The story of black women and sexual violence has not been a tale of rescue. Ain’t nobody gonna spin the world backwards, restore our hymen, return the blood to the capillaries in an unlacerated vulva. Our story is of endurance, and survival, and healing.

To remix Audre Lorde: the coloniser’s army will never dismantle the legacy of the coloniser’s brutalityPerhaps all of us Afro diasporans in the US, hearing about the abduction and violence against African girls, wanted something other than silence, other than business as usual. We have nightmares of our own, from the recent outrage with R. Kelly’s Black Panties album, and the latest in-depth revelation of his one-man sexual violence crusade against black girls in US, we are desperate for someone in a position of influence to notice and intervene. We want someone powerful to #BringBackOurGirls. If only it were that simple.

And we already have our heroes: 53 girls who escaped from the gunmen. When the bus broke down, “some of us jumped out of the vehicles and ran into the bush”. According to the 17-year-old girl who spoke to the LA Times:

“I and two other girls were close together [cooking], speaking softly, and we came up with a plan.”
The girls told the gunmen they needed to relieve themselves….
“As soon as we were out of sight of the gunmen, we fled…”
Eventually, the three stumbled across a group of Fulani herders, who rescued them.

The Fulani herders didn’t rescue them. Those girls rescued themselves when they decided to run. I claim Nigerian schoolgirls – scared teenagers who jump off buses, who stick together and plot escape while cooking for their captors, who stand up to and outwit grown men with AK-47s – as the heroes of this story.

I just hope that if one day one of them is in a position to be the first woman president of Nigeria, and proposes economic measures that would uplift her people – at the expense of US and multinational corporations – that whoever is president of the US doesn’t send the military in to assassinate her.

Aya de Leon (@ayadeleon) is on the faculty of the Afro Diaspora Studies Department at UC Berkeley.  She writes, blogs, and tweets frequently about issues related to race, gender and colonisation at This post was first published on Rise Africa, a blog written by a group of individuals who seek to create an atmosphere that encourages conversation between Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. Connect with them on Twitter@riseafrica

Urbanisation in Africa and the conflict that comes with it

African nations are experiencing substantial urbanisation at a rate like never before. A continent that was once characterised by its largely rural nature is now seeing diverse groups of people – ethnically, religiously, and socioeconomically – flood its urban centres, 50 of which have a population of one million or more.

People come to the city for a number of reasons – to escape civil conflicts in rural areas, to search for employment in an effort to better their lives and those of their extended families, or in response to environmental issues such as drought or famine. In Africa especially, circular migratory patterns exist as people oscillate between large urban centres (to have access to wealth and other resources such as food and aid) and their villages (to maintain familial bonds).

However, even with the circular nature of migratory patterns as it exists, urban centres continue to grow in Africa. Considering the high fertility rates across the board, the bulk of this growth is in fact not coming from migrants but from the offspring of current city dwellers. When you combine this growth together with the aforementioned migratory population, it is estimated that this continent, where approximately 40% of the population lives in cities, will be more than 60% urban by 2050.

Traffic on Agege Motor Road in Lagos. (Pic: AFP)
Traffic on Agege Motor Road in Lagos. (Pic: AFP)

In the 2014 publication Africa’s Urban Revolution by professors Susan Parnell and Edgar Pieterse, civic conflict – a phenomenon that occurs hand in hand with this kind of rapid urbanisation – is defined. It is the violent expression of grievances vis-à-vis the state or other actors. Essentially, civic conflict is the manifestation of marginalised civilians’ frustration on the state’s inability to do things such as provide adequate housing or transportation, reduce distresses such as traffic and pollution or provide other services including healthcare, education to the masses. Though this type of conflict is distinct from warfare, which commonly exists in rural areas, these conflicts exist and effect great numbers of city dwellers. With the urbanisation in Africa taking place at its current rate, these conflicts should not be ignored.

The misconception that urban growth is temporary, that it will dwindle as conflict in rural areas is solved, robs civilians of a chance to live comfortably within the cities that they occupy. When I travelled to Abuja in February, I was struck by the immense traffic around the national mosque on Friday evenings. In recent years, increasing Boko Haram attacks in the northern states of Nigeria, many people have come to the nation’s capital to be out of this harm’s way. The traffic associated with the expanding population of the city does not only occur during this holy time for those of Muslim faith, but during rush hour as people struggle to find or get to work. Of course, the Nigerian state should take the steps it must in order to oust the terrorist group driving people away from their homes and into the capital. However, it should not be assumed that if and when it does, the population of Abuja will decrease to a more manageable one. Abuja and other cities in Africa that are experiencing growth from similar factors must increase attention towards alleviating woes within the urban centre or frustration amongst those caught in traffic jams of increasing length or those who live in inadequate housing due to the jurisdiction’s reluctance to provide the growing population with such will increase and strain the relationship between those who live in cities and those people who generate the policies around them.

Africa’s urbanisation provides both a challenge and an opportunity. It is an opportunity for young people to introduce innovative ideas that will allow for diverse groups in urban centres to be able to equally access resources and infrastructure in a way that will not put pressure on the state. However, in order to do so, the state must recognise that city growth is long-term and facilitate this kind of innovation. A symbiotic relationship between the state, the city centres and the population must be developed that allows for the growth of cities to occur in an efficient way that is considerate of the many different types of people who occupy these spaces.  As cities continue to grow in Africa, which they will, it is important that city management and these kinds of symbiotic relationships are not neglected. If they are, these civic conflicts and the ugly violence that becomes of them are sure to grow as well.

Georges Ekwensi is a Nigerian American from New Jersey. He contributes to Rise Africa, a blog written by a group of individuals who seek to create an atmosphere that encourages conversation between Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. Connect with them on Twitter@riseafrica

‘Afro-British’, ‘African American’ – what’s in a name?

(Pic: Reuters)
(Pic: Reuters)

I’ve lived in the United States for over two decades. If I were in my fifties, perhaps that would not mean much. Since I am currently basking in the naïve sunshine of my mid-twenties that means a lot.

I left my country when I was three. After immigrating to the west and having my accent beaten out of me, I opted for a neutral tone, and very big vocabulary. I excelled in school, went to college, then graduate school.

As I venture into the years that will define my life, those marked by career, marriage, and family, I come across identity issues every day.

When my sister calls my hair “nappy” instead of “kinky”, I think of the ever-boiling natural hair debates. (What is good hair anyway?)

When I struggle with some skinny jeans with no interest in going past my exceptionally wide hips, I am sadly reminded that consumer fashion is not made for me.

When I scan the pots and pots of foundation in the drugstore, because let’s be real I can’t afford the good stuff yet, all I see is a sea of peachy, creamy, pale-ish muck.

When I fill out a job application form I bounce back and forth between African-American, and other.

I am not of this country.

Yes, I was raised here, my skin has adjusted to the climate here, I bought my first pair of glasses here, made friends, fell in and out of love here, but I am not of this country.

Everyday I am reminded that as an immigrant I am merely tolerated but not accepted. My presence is monitored, examined, and suspect because I left another country, a place where I was born and deigned to cross onto American shores.

I am told I am not entitled to anything, not just because my skin is dark, but also because my name-sound is unfamiliar.

So, if I am not of this place, and it is not mine by birth, why does my homeland treat me like a second-class citizen? I have been gone so long that my conversation is seasoned by my American accent. My skin can’t figure out why there is so much heat around me, and my complexion looks like I’ve been on vacation my whole life and everybody can tell.

Being a member of the “lost” diaspora, marked by the features of my homeland, driven by the guideposts of culture I have clung to, makes self-identification hard. While I believe to my core that I am African, Africa does not embrace me.

So, if I am not American, and not African, then how can I be African-American?

With so many children being sent, and taken abroad for education, a better life, are they still African?

Is it enough to say that we are African, even though when we go back home we are told that we are western?

What characteristics count as African?

Are there characteristics, no matter how invested you are in your culture, that will revoke your African-ness?

Does being African-American, Afro-British or Afro-Italian mean that we are just not African?

Chinwe Ohanele is a lawyer in training by day, and a writer by night. Born in Nigeria, raised in California, and now living in New York, Chinwe hopes to merge her love of words, an insatiable curiosity, and dedication to the mother continent in a way that challenges the way we experience the world. She writes for Rise Africa, a blog written by a group of individuals who seek to create an atmosphere that encourages conversation between Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. Connect with them on Twitter@riseafrica

‘How can you be a vegetarian and an African?’

(Pic: Flickr / itsokaystay_calm)

I have observed that many Africans, specifically West Africans, share this idea that there is a checklist of things one must do in order to be a “real African”. Some things on that list may include eating jollof, azonto-ing and reading Things Fall Apart. I most recently found out that eating meat is also on that list. Being a vegetarian, my African pass, as I jokingly say, was called into question when I revealed I don’t eat meat to many of my African associates.

“You are a vegetarian and you are African?” I often hear. “How can you be a vegetarian and an African? That is unnatural.”

My decision to become a vegetarian is a part of my African identity and not separate although many have argued that, “I am not a real African because real Africans eat meat.”  My decision had nothing to do with animals or the environment. It really had nothing to do with health either, as I’ve always been conscious of the food I eat even when they included meat. I became a vegetarian because of my views on immigration reform, the meatpacking industry and how it directly relates to Africans. About 3% of all undocumented immigrants in the United States are from Africa. Almost a quarter of the workers who butcher and process meat, poultry and fish are undocumented. We always hear the stories of those Africans who immigrated to the United States and worked their way to the “American dream”, but what about the others whose voices we never hear?

I became a vegetarian because I disagree with the exploitation of immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry. I disagree with the cruel work environments. According to a report by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the meatpacking industry has a rate of 7.5 cases per 100 full-time workers when it comes to injuries. This may not seem high, but in fact, it is about 21% higher than the food manufacturing industry as a whole and 50% higher than the manufacturing industry as a whole. Furthermore, almost none of these immigrant workers have health insurance to treat their injuries due to the cost. Besides a poor work environment, they are paid wages that anyone would find ludicrous. Wages are based on the judgment of those in charge and can range from $2 an hour to $9 an hour. Undocumented workers are unable to assert their rights and have no protection of labour laws. They are faced with abuse and discrimination.

Being a vegetarian is a personal choice I made due to my views on this social and human rights issue. Just as I do not wear diamonds due to the conflict, I do not eat meat. These are not decisions that I would force on anyone, but I find it disheartening when my African identity is put into question because my eating habit is considered “unnatural” for an African.

My question to this thinking is simply, why? Why is it unnatural for an African to not eat meat? Africa is a continent compromised of 54 countries. Fifty four countries bursting with tribes, traditions, languages and eating habits. Of those 54 countries, are you telling me that all of its citizens have the same diet? From the North to the South to the East to the West, are we really all meat eaters?

For those who believe it is unnatural because “it is a part of our culture”, who creates culture? Is it not the people? Furthermore, seeing that Africans are dispersed all around the world due to voluntary migration and the trading of enslaved people, can we really box what African culture is? Who determines what culture is for an African on the continent and an African in South America?

 I am an African woman. I am a vegetarian. There is no “and” because those two identities aren’t independent of each other. My Africanness led to my decision to become a vegetarian.

*Immigration statistics sourced from

Bilphena Yahwon is a Liberian artist, writer, womanist, social justice activist and student currently pursuing a BS in Information Systems/Business Administration. She is editor of Rise Africa, a blog written by a group of individuals who seek to create an atmosphere that encourages conversation between Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. Connect with them on Twitter: @riseafrica