The emptiness of life in Exile (I)

By Sabella Abidde (Associate Professor of Political Science, Alabama State University, USA)


The vast majority of sub-Saharan Africans who live outside of the continent are in exile. For these Africans, their condition may either be self-imposed or forced by the prevailing conditions in the continent. And the general conditions in the continent are not healthy or enriching, or conducive to personal growth and happiness. Although conditions differ from one country to another, by and large what we have is a continent where a sizeable number of the people – especially those between the ages of 18 and 45 – cannot wait to go into exile. They cannot wait to get out of their respective countries. Nigeria is an archetypal example of a country where, if embassies assured travel visas, 70 per cent or more of the college students will leave of their own volition.

The majority of those in exile either have nothing substantial to return home to, or their own governments do not want them back. We also see that in some cases, the political, economic, social and cultural space is not large or absorbent enough to accommodate exiles; in other cases, some exiles get blinded by the security, comfort and predictability of their host countries so much so that going back home becomes less attractive. Nigerians, for example, habitually point to the lack of basic infrastructure, poor personal and human security, and a sickening and corrupt political system. To be sure, there are other discouraging and encouraging factors, but mostly, the aforesaid accounts for why most exiles remain in North America and European countries.


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Whether one knows it or not, acknowledges it or not, living in exile is horrible. It is one of the most painful of all human experiences. The pain and the anguish are less for most who vacated in their pre-teenage years. For them, acculturation and assimilation are much easier. With time, their memory of the old country fades; cultural chips become less powerful or insignificant, and ties to friends and family may become loose or non-existent. Essentially, therefore, they lose one country and gain another; lose one set of identity and gain another. They transfer their love and loyalty to their new country. For most of these early exiles, they will know one country and one country only. This is generally the case and the pattern unless of course a mother or a father or an influential relative kept the flame and the desire for the old country alive.

The United States, with which I am most familiar, is home to millions of African immigrants. Data may show that the US now houses more Africans than Western and Eastern Europe combined. For a while, Europe – especially Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium and Germany – was the preferred destination for Africans, particularly because of their colonial relationship. In other words, until recent years, colonial Europe was the port of call for Africans. Today, the whole world is present in the US: Every language and culture and nationality is present here. They are present here for different reasons. But above all else, people come here for the freedom, the opportunity and the option to live in manners that are guaranteed by US law and customs.

However, sooner or later, immigrants – African immigrants, whom this essay is about – will come to realize that the longer one stays in this country, the deeper the pain and the agony. They may have big cars and big homes; they may have beautiful wives and successful children, and they may also have investment portfolios that are the envy of most. Yet, most will and do feel empty. Every so often, they travel to the motherland to see friends and family. They still feel empty. Most act and feel like tourists in their own father’s land (as most can only spend two to four weeks at a stretch before returning to the grind and their predictable lifestyle). There are those whose eyes swell (with tears) at the thought of returning to Oyinboland. It can be lonely here. And they know it.

If you were a ‘nobody’ before coming to the US, and if you are still a ‘nobody’ after all these years, the ache and the grief may not be much. What may matter to you is that you are now a success compared to your previous life. But if you were ‘somebody’ before your departure, and you are still a big deal here, you are more likely to feel the pain. Even if you were a ‘nobody‘ in your previous life, but once you become ‘somebody’ here, you begin to, after a while, feel a gradual pain – the type of pain that gets more discomforting and unbearable as time passes. First the pain and then the anguish, followed by a sense of uselessness and sadness. If left unchecked, an acute sense of loss and actual depression may set in.

To be concluded next week.


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