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Africa’s Stockholm syndrome

Moky's musings

Africa’s Stockholm syndrome

Despite the degrading and abusive treatment African students faced in Ukraine, some wanted to remain there, in spite of the war, rather than return home. Why do we Africans return to our abuser time and time again? asks Moky Makura.

In 1973 a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden where the hostages famously protected the robbers, inspired the naming of a psychological phenomenon – Stockholm syndrome. It is a condition where people develop positive feelings toward their captors or abusers over time. As unlikely as it may sound, it seems like a plausible explanation for a situation that is happening in Ukraine. Hear me out.  

A Nigerian student who has been studying in Ukraine for nine years, through two Russian wars in the region, shared her story of the racist challenges she faced fleeing the invasion. Despite the traumatic journey to Hungary (which by the way, granted her only a one-month visa), she refused the opportunity to return to Nigeria. She wanted to stay and finish her medical degree despite the degrading and abusive behaviour she has suffered at the hands of her hosts. In other words, she is choosing a life of uncertainty in a foreign country with her ‘abuser’, rather than return home to Nigeria.  

There have been several painful-to-read accounts by African students fleeing the war that have revealed the racist underbelly of Ukraine. Many of the 19,000 African students in the country, mainly from Nigeria, Morocco, and Egypt have opted to remain temporarily in neighbouring countries, rather than return home to the continent. 

The stories of these students are depressingly familiar and are not unique to Ukraine. Two years earlier, in April 2020, African students who were studying in Guangzhou, the manufacturing centre of China, were being discriminated against because of fears they might be spreading the coronavirus. They were thrown out of hotels and apartments, forced to undergo mandatory testing and compulsory quarantine, refused entry to shops and left on the streets to fend for themselves – all in the name of Covid-19 containment policies aimed specifically at Africans.

These students are choosing to remain in often inhospitable places where they are tolerated rather than welcomed, where they are treated as ‘less than’; and they remain because they believe the benefits of staying far outweigh the costs of leaving. 

It was Maya Angelou who said, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”

And this is not the first time that the world has shown us who they are and what they think of us, yet we continue to allow them to have power over us.  

Have we forgotten slavery? As far back as the 15th century, the first African slaves were transported across the Atlantic under brutal conditions by the Spanish, the Portuguese, French, British and Americans, who treated us inhumanely and with the same contempt we have seen recently in Ukraine. 

Have we forgotten colonialism? The scramble for Africa started in the 19th century with Belgium and its despicable actions in the Congo. Soon Britain, France, Germany, Portugal and Spain forcibly took control, dehumanising us and stripping Africa of our economic independence and our dignity.   

Yet despite all we know, and all we have learned, we have not managed to build a continent that can offer an alternative that is compelling enough to incentivise our people to come back home – even during a war!  

Remember who we are

Instead, we choose to suffer the indignity of racism, and the many ways in which we have been shown that we are not respected or wanted, because we stay. It is almost as if we have forgotten who we are.  

We are from the continent that birthed humanity. It is from here that modern humans originated over 200,000 years ago. We are home to some of the world’s oldest universities in Fez and Timbuktu, showing we had intellectuals and thinkers way before many others. The two oldest mathematical objects in the world – the Lebombo bone and the Ishango bone – were found right here, proving we understood logic and geometry long before people think.  

It is here in Africa that the first human-built structures, and those that remained the tallest in the world for many centuries were conceived, showing we had engineers to design and tools to build way back then. 

Africa is the continent richest in the resources that the world most needs – they should be laying out the red carpet for us. We are the largest global suppliers of cocoa for chocolate, platinum for cars, cobalt for batteries, and manganese for steel. 

We brought the world coffee; some argue we also brought music, and today our musical pioneers, from Fela Kuti, Youssou N’Dour, Salif Keita to Burna Boy, Cassper Nyovest, Sauti Sol, WizKid and Davido, have helped take back the throne.  Our writers – Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to mention a few – are some of the most widely acclaimed  worldwide, and our sportsmen and women are dominating global competition.   

 Yet there is something in our psyche that makes us return to our abuser time and time again. The Ukraine war has simply highlighted why we should be more self-reliant as a continent. Why we should improve and build better education, health and economic systems, designed for our challenges. And why we need to ensure we don’t continue to give away our power and give up our youth to those who have abused us for centuries. Let us not forget, we have done this before and we can do it again. 

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