Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Diasporan Guilt

Definition of diasporan guilt

Diasporan guilt is the term I've coined to define a pervasive feeling of bad conscience for being fortunate to live in a prosperous country (usually UK, France, USA, Canada etc.) while people suffer with poverty in one's birth country in the global south. 

What is the African diaspora?

The word diaspora comes from the Greek διασπορά, meaning "a scattering. Originally, its most common usage was in connection with the Jewish diaspora, but its been extended to other groups, particularly this century. The African diaspora is the global collection of African descendants dispersed throughout the world as a result of historic events, specifically the 16th- to 19th century slave trade from primarily West and Central Africa to the US, Brazil, and Haiti. An aside note, although we hear more about slavery in relation to the US, less than 5% of the total number of slaves were trafficked to the US. More of them went to the Caribbean and South America, particularly Brazil. 

In addition, the African diaspora often refers to Africans who have migrated from the continent but maintain a deep interest in the motherland and a willingness to contribute in different ways to the development of the continent. In fact, the African Union defined the African diaspora as "consisting of people of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality and who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union."

An estimated 11 million Africans were dispersed by the Atlantic slave trade. The modern-day African diaspora numbers about 140 million while the African continents population is 1.4 billion.

The African diaspora and politics

The African diasporan phenomenon digs deep into sensitive issues of racism, colonialism, and global domination. Slavery was a system that reflected all of those things and along with slavery came internecine warfare on the African continent. The partition of Africa , also called the “scramble for Africa,” a divvying up of the continent by Europeans in their own interest and not Africa’s, occurred from 1881-1914, during which time the colonization occurred at full speed. In 1884 the German chancellor Otto Von Bismarck held a Berlin conference the purpose of which was essentially to prevent Europeans from fighting each other over territory--who cared about the Africans?

No one knows what Africa would have been like without the slavery and colonization. The African geographic divisions imposed by the Europeans often ignored natural landmarks and political ethnic histories. Could there have been more African unity and development without all these partitions? Whatever the case, Americans and Europeans and Africans came into contact with each other and account for the mixed ethnic nature on either side’s countries to the extent that it exists. In response to a British person’s objection to Indians coming to the UK, standup comedian Russell Peters retorted, “Wait a minute, you started the whole thing!” 

We know many Africans in the diaspora in general do extraordinarily well in their adopted countries, some becoming highly skilled individuals like neurosurgeons. There’s a cruel irony that Africa is suffering from brain drain, and the continent’s best brains are successfully living in the same countries that continue to exploit Africa, particularly in the extractive industries like gold and oil. Foreign aid goes largely into the pockets of the elite ruling class, and I agree with Dambisa Moyo that foreign aid, which arose out of colonization, is not an effective solution to underdevelopment in Africa. It perpetuates the dependency relationship Africa has with the west, and now, with the Chinese.

How diasporan guilt affects me

I have a theory that the dependency relationship Africa has with the west extends to individual Africans. In Ghana, there’s an odd preference given to “asking/begging for stuff” than working to get it--both governmentally and individually. My three brothers and I have family in Ghana on my father’s side and the requests for funds and phones etc. are common. Carlos, the ex-caretaker of our family property in Ghana is barely making it, especially since unemployment and inflation are soaring in Ghana.  I’ve covered Carlos's family’s hospital bills, rent, school for the kids, and so on--apart from the expensive phones and tablets I take for them on my visits. Two of my brothers are quite firm in not getting involved with any such “charitable deeds.” They just don’t see the point, and in some ways I think they’re correct; and like Dambisa Moyo, this giving to the poor can generate a dependency that never ends. Indeed, in a way, my supporting Carlos, his wife, and four kids is a little ridiculous, not to mention unsustainable. But I still do it. Why? Diasporan guilt. I live in a nice house and buy sh*t on Amazon while they suffer in Ghana. Rational or not, it’s a strong sentiment.

Maybe the diasporan guilt was born of my leaving Ghana decades ago when the going got rough with the then-military government and the country’s accompanying economic collapse. Perhaps I felt I had deserted or abandoned friends and family members. My late father was Ghanaian, and even though I don’t even have a Ghanaian passport, the ties to Ghana are clearly still strong. But my always matter-of-fact Black American mother pointed out that even though I was born in Ghana, I’m American through her (jus sanguinis), so I have every right to live in the States. And think about it: if I had never moved to the US, I might well not have created Darko Dawson and Emma Djan. Isn’t life strange?


  1. Morality (from whence guilt originates) is a difficult thing. I've thought a lot about native americans and the European 'conquest' of the americas, and what is, isn't, should be, or shouldn't be owed to some people or groups of peoples. At what point does the movement of peoples become immoral, or what behavior by those "moving people" make them moral or immoral? Originally, there were NO humans in the Americas. At some point, the first immigrant peoples arrived (and probably died). Then more arrived. Then another wave, and another wave. Tens of thousands of years later, there were "native peoples" in the Americas (and, yes, I'm aware of the ...irony... of use 'Americas' in this treatise, but sometimes shorthand is convenient :-). But, at what point did the arrival of new waves of people become 'invaders', 'conquerors'? The second wave? The third wave? The 300th wave? Or only when the Europeans arrived, bringing with them massive deaths and cultural changes, indirectly and directly? Is it just a matter of time? Sometimes, morality seems to be a very slippery eel.

    A similar, but related topic, that I think I've mentioned before, is: when does it become okay to dig up the graves of people? How old do the graves have to be for "desecration of graves" to turn into archeology? I suspect it has more to do with "written or living memory" than with some number of years. If the grave is for a KNOWN (remembered/recorded) person, then the number of years since they were alive must be much longer before disturbing their grave is acceptable (such as King Richard under the parking lot). But if the grave is for an unknown person, then the time frame is much shorter. Then, of course, cultural issues come into play: disturbing the graves of native americans (especially by non-native americans) is a much bigger problem than disturbing graves of non-native americans.

    Slippery eels...

  2. Moving people by coercion or trickery is surely immoral.

  3. Absolutely, no argument there. But... where/when do you draw the line for guilt (and/or reparations). That's the tricky part. If you go back far enough (and it's probably not as far as you might think), every human alive today descends from someone who was moved (or enslaved, or murdered, or raped, or...). So, the gray area is "for how long" do we hold grudges or guilt. It would be hard to argue against a lifetime (at least, for some acts). Two lifetimes? Five? Ten? A hundred lifetimes? "Sins of the father" and all that.

  4. Hmm, I think we might have gone a little off topic. The thrust of my piece was I wrestle with PERSONAL feelings of guilt about having a relatively luxurious life in the diaspora while the poor in Africa and numerous locations the world over have a rough time. My reference to the slave trade was in the context of how the diaspora came to be.

    1. :-) Didn't mean to hijack your post. But good writing DOES spark lots of thoughts... :-)

  5. This is a wonderful piece, Kwei, touching on really important topics that most people I know don't think about: the scramble for Africa and the Eurocentric borders it created; the ongoing brain drain; the debate about aid; and contemporary European attitudes towards desperate migrants. Apologies for not responding earlier - I've been travelling, and it's now 0400 in Denmark. And I'm wide awake.

    I suffered from guilt from my early teens, when I realised what was happening in South Africa with its huge differences of opportunity, wealth, and freedom, all based on race. That changed to diasporan guilt when I left SA in 1970 to study in the States. And it continues today.

    The pressing issue for me is what to do about it. When I was living in SA as a student, I became involved in a variety of anti-apartheid activities. However, when I left, I found a lot of similar activities in the States were well-meaning but didn't seem to me to do anything other than to tick a box for the activists.

    I remember well standing up to speak at a campus meeting at the University of Illinois, convened by the university president in response to student pressure that wanted the university to divest itself of stock in any company that was doing business in SA. The student activists immediately heckled me as being a pro-apartheid apologist. That hurt. Even though those who wanted to shut me up had almost identical goals to mine, namely end apartheid, my comments and suggestions were unacceptable because I was White. My proposal was that instead of selling those shares, the university should take all dividends from them and create an educational foundation for non-White South Africans. To my way of thinking that would actually help people suffering from apartheid and start building a cadre of educated people who might not otherwise have the opportunity. After all, the university's mission was to create educational opportunities. Needless to say, my proposal didn't prevail, largely because it was easier for the university to accede to the protesters's wishes and therefore keep them quiet.

    To some extent I agree with Dambisa Moyo's perspective. However, I strongly believe in helping individuals who have ambition but don't have the means to fulfil it. Even if those recipients of my support don't stay the their home countries, at least they have benefited from my support.

    Of course, there are many South Africans of all hues, living in South Africa, who do the same thing - provide focussed support not blanket aid.