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Published On: Sat, Aug 22nd, 2015

Somaliland:Why people jump lives, and confuse politicians

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tahribBy Jonny Steinberg, 21 August 2015

Deep down in many of us there resides a fantasy that we might abandon the lives we know and jump into another world


Earlier this month, during a visit to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, I met a journalist who anchored a TV news programme. She was young, in her early 20s, I think, and I asked her how she saw her career progressing.

“I’ve no idea,” she replied. “I’m about to get married to a man who lives in a small town in Ohio. What opportunities there will be for me there I do not yet know.”

As we spoke further, it emerged that she had not met her future husband — she had come across him on Facebook and they had talked a great deal on Skype, but she would meet him in the flesh only two months from now, at an airport in Cleveland, Ohio, from where he would drive her more than 160km to her new home.

Her coming union was not entirely blind. She had met her in-laws, who lived in Hargeisa, and the two families had approved the marriage. She had verified that her prospective husband was in a modestly paying but stable job. And she knew the name of the town in which she would live and had examined its streets on Google Earth. But beyond these fragmentary details, she had no tools with which to imagine the rest of her life.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked.

“Because,” she replied, “sometimes you need to jump.”

This seemed to me the best possible answer to my question. Deep down in many of us there resides a fantasy that we might abandon the lives we know and jump into another world. But in certain times and places, this jumping breaks the bounds of fantasy and becomes real; indeed, it becomes a cultural habit, something that many people simply do.

Usually, the circumstances that give rise to this syndrome are very painful. Among the Somali, the notion that one might jump out of one’s life stems from the civil war in the early 1990s, when countless people fled their homes and scattered across the planet. Jumping thus became a fact, something that people had been forced to do, and from being a fact, it became a tradition, something people kept doing, even when they were not fleeing.

In other parts of the world, the practice of jumping stems from different sources. In his recent essay on Chinese immigration, Richard Poplak pointed out that about 90% of Chinese small traders in Southern Africa hail from one province, Fujian, which has been a categorical loser in China’s economic rise. From inhabiting a province that is being left behind, the notion that one ought to make “a go of it on distant shores” becomes “hard-wired into the culture”.

Most South Africans have begun encountering in their daily lives people who are among us because they have jumped out of their previous lives. I am thinking in particular of the small traders who now live everywhere in SA, even in the smallest hamlets. I say that they have “jumped” because I know from working among them that many arrived on our shores having shed their pasts, oblivious to what might be in their futures.

Encountering these people is changing us. We observe them living lives we find strange and we grow troubled and confused. Among the confused ones is President Jacob Zuma. Watching the jumpers, the first thought that comes to him is that his own people should be more like them. They appear to work day and night, often for next to nothing; why can’t South Africans do the same, he asks. And so the sight of the jumpers causes a president to lose his head and insult his own people.

Many ordinary people are equally confused, patronising the jumpers’ shops en masse because their goods are cheap, but then turning against them for making too much money.

We are not alone. Across the world, the presence of jumpers is confusing sedentary people, wreaking political havoc. In the US, Donald Trump soared in the Republican presidential candidate contest for insulting Mexican immigrants. Across Europe, politicians spitting hatred at foreigners are turning politics upside down.

In Hargeisa, I wished the young journalist luck for Ohio. As I walked away, it struck me the life she leads is causing much of the world to lose its head.

Steinberg teaches African Studies at Oxford University and is a visiting professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research


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