The joyful power of the diaspora

Two weeks ago I met another one of Rwanda’s truly remarkable women - I will refer to her only as Joy. But this article isn’t about her. Rather, it is about the idea behind this article which was planted from meeting Joy.

The idea that so many Rwandans and Jamaicans who were born and raised in the diaspora later return home and contribute tremendously to the building of their country.

Years ago I was posted to the Jamaican Embassy in Washington DC as the Community Relations attaché. A major part of my job was to mobilise the diaspora to contribute to the development of Jamaica.

While working on these issues I came to see three basic types of diasporans - (a) those who have turned their backs on the country and moved on; (b) those who are critical of what is happening in their country and will do nothing to help until ‘something’ changes; and (c) those who see challenges but continue to support their country.

I will not  comment on the choices other people make. For me, I am one of those diasporans whose umbilical cord is still in place. I am and will forever be deeply connected to my island home. Once I see a photo of our food, our country, or our people, or hear our music, I am right back home.

No matter the problems. Some call this patriotism, others call it stupidity. What I call it has a long name: “Knowing who I am and where I came from.” My faith in my country is unshakeable. And I admire people who remain committed to their country, irrespective of its challenges.

Since coming to Rwanda, I have met dozens of Rwandans who were born in other neighbouring countries - DRC, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi etc. Some, like Joy, lived in these countries until they were in their 20s and 30s before coming back home. Some spent years in refugee camps. Each has a story, and I have been fascinated by some of what I’ve heard.

But what has warmed my heart most is to see what almost every single one of these persons has achieved since coming back to their native land. And how much some of them have invested in helping others and their country. We need more of them.

The world is changing. Some countries are beginning to look more inward and focus more on their own development. Foreign assistance is no longer as certain as it may have been before.

What this means is that lesser developed countries such as Jamaica and Rwanda must rely more and more on their own resources. Long term dependency is not a viable option.

This will not be easy. But the surest way to develop a country is to have all hands on deck. The country must have all its resources working for its development. And this includes its people - those at home, and those abroad.

The potential contribution of the diaspora to the economic and social development of a country can be considerable. In the recent debates over immigration in the USA, I heard CEOs of major companies talk about how immigrants have helped build the US economy. Many of those immigrants came from developing countries in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere.

I heard this same discussion last week at a Transform Africa session discussing the mass migration of Africa’s youth to the North and West. This is not the article that will lament ‘brain drain’.

The point I wish to emphasise is that at some point we must also develop our own countries such that young and old people will want to stay.

And those already in the diaspora can help. From an OECD report (“Connecting with Emigrants: A Global Profile of Diasporas”) I read recently, I saw that Rwanda has thousands of diasporans. Many of them are highly skilled. In addition to valuable experiences and exposure, they also have resources and networks.

They can help to promote Rwanda abroad - its culture, its coffee, its business opportunities and much more. And they can also invest in Rwanda. Rwanda, like Jamaica, needs its diasporans working for it.

One of the important lessons I have learnt in life is never to sell your own country short. There are people of all shapes, sizes and colours who already don’t believe in your country. Some do not think that Africa or any developing black nation has real potential.

Some are waiting for our countries to fail, and they relish any bad news about our countries. For them, bad news is proof that we cannot govern ourselves. My message to all diasporans: do not smile and nod with those who spend all their time relentlessly criticising your country.

Your energy would be much better spent on helping to build your country and the dignity of your people.

“Hardships there are, but the land is green and the sun shines.” This is the meaning behind the colors of the Jamaican flag. It is a simple but powerful statement not about our weather, but about our belief in ourselves.

We have challenges, but we are a hard-working, smart people committed to our country. There is beauty and goodness in us. And we are no less capable than anyone else.

I am proudly Jamaican. And I admire all those diasporans who, in spite of whatever challenges their country may face, remain proudly committed to their country and ready to contribute to its development.