For as long as I have been able to remember, I have known that I would not always live where I was born. I knew that at some point, I would have to leave my country of Sudan if I wanted to secure work that would provide a meaningful living.
At the time, it wasn’t a sad realisation but more an exciting prospect, one that promised a shot at a “modern” life. To me, that modernity meant social mobility, the loosening of oppressive family ties and economic prosperity.
All around me, family members at one point picked up and left. Those in the village moved to the towns, and those in the towns looked to move to the Gulf, if they could. In the Middle East, they took up blue-collar jobs to help build the new, oil-rich kingdoms, and white-collar ones to establish their healthcare and education.
It wasn’t just my generation – I do not know a single member of my parents’ cohort who live where they were born. Born in the 1950s and 60s, they had to move fast if they wanted to transition from farm work and hard labour. I grew up believing that escaping the conditions and location of your birth was a privilege, that it was autonomy.
A year into the pandemic and I am not so sure of that any more. The freedom to pick up work far from home comes with high tithes. The first is precarity. As the networks that hold our social and economic arrangements dissolve, so do the protections that come with them. For the worker to become as agile as possible, they also must become dispensable, and as cheap as they can be. Globalisation has enabled their employers to optimise their arrangements to pay less tax, less rent, and to provide fewer long-term benefits. The result is shift work, zero-hours contracts, the stripping back of pensions and healthcare benefits.
The second cost is a profound loss of a sense of place and identity. Contrary to David Goodhart’s analysis, where he split the world into unencumbered “anywheres” and firmly rooted “somewheres”, being an “anywhere” is not usually a happy state of fluidity. It comes with a lot of angst, a fragility of familial and friendship networks, a yearning for stability, and often an inability to make a home.
Throughout the last year I have found myself, in the stillness of lockdown, suffering from a sort of amnesia, where I could not piece my life together coherently before this moment of suspension. It is all a blurry reel of movement between countries, between short-term London rentals (I counted 10 moves in 10 years), and stolen moments of family time outside the UK, periods granted in short, stingy portions by various employers. This is not the life glamorised by the term “Afropolitan”, a label that implies an effortless fusing of modernity and identity. It is a jagged, exhausting one where the future is always uncertain.
That uncertainty now feels systemic, as well as personal. These arrangements of precarity and atomisation produced a world that was already starting to fray before the pandemic hit. The dissolution of communities and volatility of labour are now causes of discontent easily exploited by identitarian politicians. It will only get worse.
After a year of the pandemic, the lives on the edges of that fraying fabric will fade further as people seek new pastures to replace the ones scorched by the virus. We will emerge into a world upended, where the thing we treasure isn’t mobility but predictability, continuity, and closeness to family and friends. These fruits of stability will be even more scarce in low-income countries where many, from childhood, have already had to embrace the sacrifices required to make a living.
I look back upon the rewards of those sacrifices now with disenchantment. I see that leaving was not an active choice but something enforced by a lack of options, a bargain between alienation and freedom. I see now that living and thriving where you are born is perhaps the most immense privilege of all.
As normal life resumes, there will be moments in which we will reunite with family and friends. But many will be pulled back into saying goodbye once more in order to reap the diminishing promise of prosperity. With that wrench looming, we are compelled to ask: we have our freedom back, but at what price?