Monday, January 26, 2015 11:25 am
By Kunle Ajibade
The Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, in his essay, The Philosophy of Travel, asks rhetorically: “What is life but a form of motion and a journey through a foreign world?” He submits that “locomotion, the privilege of animals, is perhaps the key to intelligence.” Unlike plants, condemned to suck up whatever sustenance may flow to them in a particular spot even when there is a richer soil or a more sheltered and sunnier clime nearby, animals can migrate to better places. And because of their privilege to migrate, animals don’t live where there is no life. They constantly aspire to enjoy “the luxury of blooming and basking and swaying in the light” of an enabling environment. Santayana observes that the power of locomotion changes all the dull experience into a life of passion. Travel, he argues, lends meaning to life. It sharpens the eye and expands the mind. “All tourists are dear to Hermes, the god of travel, who is patron also of amiable curiosity and freedom of mind. There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humour.” He goes on to remind us that if possession of hands has given man and other animals their superiority, they certainly owe their intelligence to their feet.
I find Santayana’s position on migration even more incisive and convincing: “The most radical form of travel, and the most tragic, is migration. Looking at her birthplace the soul may well recoil, she may find it barren, threatening, or ugly. The very odiousness of the scene may compel her to conceive a negative, a contrast, an ideal; she will dream of El Dorado and the Golden Age, and rather than endure the ills, she may fly to anything she knows not of. This hope is not necessarily deceptive: in travel, as in being born, interest may drown the discomfort of finding oneself in a foreign medium: the solitude and liberty of the wide world may prove more stimulating than chilling. Yet migration like birth is heroic: the soul is signing away her safety for a blank cheque.”
Signing away their lives for blank cheques is what many refugees do as they leave the known calamities for the unknown catastrophes and, possibly, triumphs and grace.
Albert Einstein laments in A message to intellectuals: “while mankind has produced many scholars so extremely successful in the field of science and technology, human beings have been, for a long time, so inefficient in finding adequate solutions to the many political conflicts and economic problems which beset us.” For that reason, war, terrorism, communal clashes, poverty and natural disasters are largely responsible for displacement, dispossession and migration of a large number of people all over the world. In a detailed report published by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) last year, more than 170,000 refugees arrived Italy in 2014 by boat from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Gambia and Palestine before they travelled to other countries in Europe. Using ill-equipped boats to journey across the Mediterranean has led to thousands of deaths. In 2013 up to 700 migrants perished near Lampedusa, off the coast of Italy. Desperate migrants no longer wait to cross the Mediterranean in warmer months, they now do it all year round to seek for asylum in Europe. Migrants don’t only pay to be smuggled across the sea, they do other dehumanising things just to run away from the boiling cauldron or impending doom in their countries. Home is a problematic idea to all those who are hopeless in it.
The high level of migration flows, and the problems associated with it, have become a humanitarian burden to Italy, several countries in Africa and the European Union. For instance, Italy’s Navy, at a very high cost, runs Operation Mare Nostrum (OMN) to save migrants’ lives. Established by the Italian Government on October 18, 2013, Operation Mare Nostrum, in accordance with the 2004 Italian national law, has been patrolling sea lanes, combating human trafficking, improving maritime security and tackling the Mediterranean human emergency in the Sicily Straits. The International Organisation for Migrants’ records show that migrants’ deaths occurred along the US-Mexico border, Africa’s Sahara Desert and the Indian ocean.
What about the increasing number of Internally Displaced People? In June 2014, according to UN’s High Commission for Refugee (UNHCR), Syrian civil war displaced about 3 million people, 2.7 million people were displaced in Afghanistan, 1.1 million were forced to leave their homes in Somalia, 670,000 left Sudan, 509,000 fled South Sudan, 480,000 were displaced in Burma, and 426,000 fled Iraq. Countries like Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Kenya and Chad bear economic pressure of hosting the displaced refugees. In Nigeria, for example, an estimated 3.5 million people have fled their homes in the North-Eastern part of the country as a result of the Boko Haram terrorism, not just to other parts of Nigeria, but also to Cameroon, Niger and Chad. Right now, the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Norwegian Red Cross, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the UN Population Fund, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) are helping to cushion the pains of the victims.
This is not about mere figures. It is about human beings who have been cut off from their means of livelihood. We are talking about trauma patients who are not receiving any treatment. It is about thousands of children who cannot go to schools. It is about thousands of people who have lost their loved ones. It is about people whose social and even political lives have virtually been put on hold. Add to all this the tragedy of the abduction of 276 Nigerian girls from their secondary schools in Chibok by the Boko Haram terrorists. At the time of writing this, these girls have spent 280 days in captivity. It is a pity that the girls are being treated by Nigerian government as special internally displaced people. Their abduction indeed should make us feel ashamed that we live in a country where school girls writing their final exams were taken as hostages. When you yield an inch of your decent space to terror, you should be prepared for a total take-over and dominance. It makes a lot of sense to emphathise with innocent victims – whether they are black, white or brown – because when we do that, we are saving our own lives too. In a world that is becoming increasingly flat, those who want to impose their obnoxious values on others can do so now from anywhere. And those who want it to grow and endure can start the process from their tiny corners of our planet .
This brings me to the good works of Tobias Zielony, the German photographer, whose graphic and poignant images of refugees in Eurpope will be exhibited at the German Pavilion from 9 May to 22 November this year during the 56th Venice international art exhibition curated by Okwui Enwezor. Since 2013 when he accidentally met a group of refugees from Bangladesh, he has done a lot of work on refugees from different parts of the world, creating images of their individual anxieties, nostalgia, hardwork, imaginative leaps, alienation, lifestyles, emotions, aspirations, self-doubts and their political activism. With striking images, Tobias Zielony tells the stories of his subjects with empathy. They are narratives of tenderness that survived in the miasma of existential tragedy. Believing that photography ought to be a positive agent for those who live on the seamy side of life, Zielony uses his camera to tell their peculiar stories of anguish and dangerous love. His authenticity, uniqueness and clarifying moments come from the street. In photograph after photograph, Zielony invites us to look intently, with some detachment, in order to understand deeply the enduring complexities and contradictions of life in the light of the alienated conditions of refugees.