by Oyella Odong, founder of Go Bare and MRN Advisor, for Migration Week 2024.

Be very aware of the distant elephant, one day you will be confronted by it… when the time arrives, it’ll be impossible to ignore such a giant.

African proverb.

White silence: the elephant in the room

Imagine tiptoeing around the room of life, trying not to disturb the colossal elephant – that uncomfortable conversation we’ve all been avoiding. Now, please visualise being caught in the middle, not just a witness but a living testament to the echoes of our past.

And so the distant elephant, which then becomes the elephant in the room, is a touching representation of life’s many aspects. In respect to Migration Week, this phrase is a representation of colonialism and how it continues to haunt and seep into the present. Its presence is unavoidable, as it penetrates every nook of our existence, defying attempts to sidestep its reality. 

Now, let’s venture into uncharted territories – within the recesses of our own selves. Colonialism unfolds not merely as a geo-historical account but as a living, breathing personal experience. At least for me. I am not claiming, nor do I claim, to know how other migrants relate to the concept of colonialism. Yet I share my thoughts in the hope that some of them resonate with you, during this Migration Week, and beyond.

My story

Now, let’s dive into my story – the kid who landed on UK shores at the tender age of seven. Imagine witnessing the ripples of Western colonialism shaping the very air you breathe. Imagine this feeling, one that isn’t found in textbook lessons, but rather one that underlies all daily encounters in a world sculpted by events long gone. Although I do not see myself as a victim, I want you to be able to see the world through my eyes.

I want you to see what language looks like through my eyes. Statements like “we are a tolerant nation” show a clear denial of colonial violence by the perpetrators of said colonial violence. And when one questions such expressions, and calls out the denial, there’s often a perception of overreaction. That is gaslighting. 

Having to prove ourselves is violent. And this too is a colonial hangover. It is a burden for migrants to continually demonstrate their worth, as seen in statements like, “skilled migrant workers”. The fatigue emerges from the constant urge to feel like we must validate our presence here through highlighting our “contributions” to society. Migrants have built this country, yet even when we point to our monumental impact, there are those who perceive us to be “taking” jobs from others. The contradiction is evident, highlighting the complexities and challenges faced by migrants in justifying their existence. Our worth is only always conditional on our ability to prove we are exceptional. This has to change.

The elephant and “post”colonialism

Now imagine this – observing the Western world thriving on the remnants of its colonial legacy. It’s not an abstract concept; it’s seeing societal structures, cultural dynamics, and global power plays unfold in real-time. Personally, migration isn’t only about movement; it’s about experiencing the impact of historical events that continue to shape today’s realities. Numerous motivations drive individuals to migrate, with the pursuit of a better life being one of them. Often, people must seek out this better life and migrate as a result of historical forces, making that link between colonialism and migration even more apparent.

And so the metaphorical elephant in the room becomes the living, breathing testament to the intricate dance between history and our present: a reminder that there is no moment “post” or succeeding colonialism. Colonialism is in the now: the echoes of colonial legacies shape our perceptions, influencing societal structures, cultural nuances, and even the power dynamics we navigate daily.

So what next? Migration as a shared human narrative.

As we delve into the broader context of migration, we’re not merely exploring distant lands; we’re experiencing the rich tapestry of human resilience and adaptation. The Western world profiting off of colonial histories isn’t an abstract notion; it’s a tangible reality, witnessed through the lens of migrants who traverse these cultural landscapes.

Now, consider the intersections of history, migration, and individual narratives. As migrants and storytellers, we navigate these intersections, contributing to a narrative that is uniquely ours. We’re not just talking about the past; we’re actively shaping the present and future by unravelling the complexities of our shared human journey.

In contemplating migration through the lens of shared experience, we recognise that everyone’s journey is a mosaic of unique stories entwined in migratory movement. Acknowledging the commonality in our migratory experiences fosters empathy and understanding, emphasising that, at our core, we are interconnected beings with shared aspirations for a better life.

So, here we are, on the cusp of understanding. Addressing “post” colonialism isn’t just about acknowledging history; it’s about feeling its pulse in every step, every breath. As we explore the narrative of migration, don’t see it through a distant lens. Instead, step into these migrant shoes, feel the weight of history, and let’s unravel the complex, interconnected tapestry of our shared human journey. Together, as migrants and storytellers, we navigate the intersections of our past, present, and future, contributing to a narrative that is uniquely ours. It’s not just about where we came from; it’s about where we’re going, hand in hand, as architects of our shared destiny.

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