We exist just a little bit less these days.
Imagine a paler silhouette of yourself on paper. That’s how we feel.
Because the truth is that today, we are merely a statistic.
And we are not quite sure where we belong.
This is our story. The story of those among us who are stranded abroad, some in India, others in Kuala Lumpur, and yet others, like me, in Nairobi.
These times remind me so much of Hannah Arendt, a Holocaust survivor, and a political scientist, who wrote extensively about how the focus of the international community ought not be on detailing a bill of rights to protect people, but first and foremost, on securing their status as citizens of a country. Because once this is denied in any way, so that a human being loses his/her identity and status, this incapacitates him/her from vindicating any rights at all.
Denying a man his identity would mean he wouldn’t be able to travel, work, own property, have a bank account, get rations, reducing him overall to a non-entity who is vulnerable, and who can be subjected to a variety of abuses and mistreatments that the Second World War taught us only too well.
Our situation isn’t as bad, I must admit. We are still citizens of a country, and hold a valid passport—this country being Mauritius. It’s just that we can’t go home because the borders are closed, and it almost feels as if we have been deprived of a fundamental human right. Call it what you may: the Right to life, the Freedom of movement, but I will just call it the Right to Go Back Home.
Our status as citizens who ought to enjoy full-fledged rights, and among these, the right to be treated with respect and dignity, both at home and abroad, is now greatly compromised. Let me explain.
These borders, I must specify, in most cases, are closed on both sides, that is the country where we are stranded, and the country that is our home. And we who are stranded, are aware that a border will only open depending on a series of variables such as the date of the first infections, the size of the population, the rate of contagion, and everything to do with the management and containment of the scourge. In other words, we’ll have to wait twice for this to happen for us to Go Back Home.
I conducted a series of informal interviews on WhatsApp and Skype with Mauritians stranded in the aforementioned countries. These are the conclusions I reached: some of us are not coping very well due to financial constraints, especially because we may have budgeted just enough to take a relative abroad for medical treatment, or to visit a loved oned. Many of us have depleted our savings, and are living in dire conditions. In some countries that are under a total lockdown, such as India where there are about 300 Mauritians stranded, it is impossible to move from one location to another to secure accommodation, especially when we are having to negotiate prices, and find better rates in view of the periodic review of border closures.
Additionally, these transactions are being conducted illegally, as lockdowns signify that no movement is allowed, even if it implies moving out from one apartment to another. A few landlords and property agents, I was told, are being flexible about the payment of rent, especially in India, but when I interviewed one family in Kuala Lumpur, I was given a detailed account of how they were literally smuggled into an apartment they rented on booking.com. The same family also went through great hardship when they found out that a place they rented on airbnb which seemed incredibly affordable, was inexistent, and that the transaction was a scam. All this goes to show that what’s happening has made us unduly vulnerable in many ways, and I can’t help being reminded that this is because we have been denied the Right to Go Back Home.
Having said that, in all fairness, there are those among us who are stranded but who are coping rather well. We are making do with what we have, and we feel we’re better off in a country where the rate of infection isn’t as high as it is Back Home; where we would rather stay for as long as possible, rather than return home and be placed in quarantine in conditions that only speak for themselves, having viewed the dreary videos of what our predecessors endured, and are still enduring.
But all in all, we are of the unanimous view that the Right to Go Back Home shouldn’t have been denied to us without a grace period being proclaimed by the government, giving us at least the freedom to choose whether we wished to Go Back Home.
You citizens of Mauritius who are Home, may not feel it, and understand it the way we or I do.
That’s why I wish to tell you through these words today, that it is quite something to be deprived of the Right to Go Back Home, to carry the guilt that we may not be there for our loved ones if something happened to them. To watch videos shot in the UK, from the comforts of our self-imposed quarantine, where we’re being told that extra graves are being dug in the cemetery just in case, for those who are still alive, but who may not be so in the matter of a few days.
It is quite something to fear the complications of being stranded in a country not for days, but possibly for months.
It is quite something to face such arbitrariness and uncertainty, not knowing how long to rent accommodation for, and facing the daunting thought that by the time we take that flight Back Home, some of our loved ones would have already been buried.
Everything about this pandemic is new to us, and to the entire world. It only makes sense therefore that our government do the needful to place us in the least encumbrant position in enduring this global ordeal. My point is that our Right to want to Go Back Home deserves recognition, and is a matter that should not be treated lightly by the government.
In the intial days of the border closure, none of us managed to establish contact with Mauritian High Commissions and embassies in the countries where we were stranded. When we wrote to the emergency email addresses passed on to us, providing our details, and all that was asked of us, we expected a reply, even if it were to be an automated one. But our emails were met with silence.
I wish to say that there has barely been much assurance given to us. We are relying on one another, on our fellow citizens who are stranded in various parts of the world, for that.
As I write this, I now hear that the Kenyan government has extended the travel ban, or the closure of the borders by another month.
Thirty more days over here. I am not sure how long this will go on.
Nevertheless I wish to thank Art Moves Africa(AMA), the Belgian organisation that sponsored my trip to Kenya so that I could take part in a series of activities related to my writing, and who has maintained contact with me even until now, although by right it is under no obligation to do so, and whose team regularly inquires about my safety and comfort. I also wish to thank my friends in Kenya for keeping a eye on me and making sure that I am comfortable during these times of emergency.
I wish to end on the note that I am well, and that I am not only implementing measures of social distancing to protect myself and other people, but realised along the way that I’ve been coerced into adopting a wholly different dimension of it.
Let it be termed ‘national distancing’.