An African Living Away from Home ~ A sad and lonely life in the US

Posted September 6, 2011 by Ugandan Diaspora News Team in Featured ~ 8,122 views


By STANLEY GAZEMBA, The East African ~ Dinaw Mengestu’s book, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, won’t inspire you to pack your bags and leave home; it won’t excite you either.

That is because Stephanos, the protagonist, is literally stuck in a rut from the first to the last page; more like a cow on a tether gradually trampling a little circle in the mud.

But then one thing this book will do is open your eyes to the realities of life in the US as an African immigrant; the life they do not tell you about in the Green Card brochures and college adverts.

When he opens his store on Logan Circle in a rundown part of Washington DC, Stephanos, an Ethiopian immigrant, believes he is on course to becoming his own boss and eventually living the fabled American Dream in this land of opportunity.

What he doesn’t foresee are the numerous hurdles he will have to cross in this resigned neighbourhood where enterprise has long surrendered the fight to mere survival; where the neighbours waits for nightfall to peddle sex and drugs underneath the imposing statue of the man who gave the centre its name.

Mengestu’s book highlights the lonely existence that awaits the African immigrant at the other end of the Trans-Atlantic flight.

He or she has not only to adjust to the weather, but also a highly individualistic lifestyle.

The last thing a young African emigrating to the most powerful nation would expect is to be holed up in his shabby apartment on Christmas Day with no one to talk to and nowhere to go, broke as a church mouse.

Which is enough reason why all potential immigrants need to read this book; if only to take the scales off their eyes.

While Stephanos spends his day at the store, his Kenyan friend Kenneth works as an engineer.

Their other friend, Joseph from the Democratic Republic of Congo works as a waiter at the Colonial Grill, patronised by top politicians and diplomats.

Of the three friends — brought together by circumstances — only Kenneth appears to have a handle on his life.

He is the one who helped Stephanos secure the business loan to open the store, taught him how to keep books of accounts and, like Big Brother, tries to put some order into Stephanos’s life, often picking up the Ethiopian’s tab when his daily profits are too low to pay for an after-work drink.

Kenneth too has achieved one of the hallmarks of the American dream; he drives his own car, no matter that it is a beat-up Saab with peeling paintwork.

Joseph on the other hand is content with winding up his day on cheap wine pilfered from the hotel, which allows him to lose himself in fantasy, dreaming of what might have been.

When a wealthy Caucasian woman moves into the neighbourhood and Stephanos gets sentimental over her, his friends know better.

Apparently Joseph has been bound in the same tourniquet before, and knows quite well where it is all headed.

Judith and her money are “them” — the same people who are trying to drive the residents of Logan Circle out of the neighbourhood as the city expands and demand for housing rises.

Shifting ground

Life as an immigrant proves to be a walk on a swaying tightrope. The ground underfoot keeps shifting, and nothing is certain.

On an evening walk in the park, Stephanos finds himself gazing at the imposing Capitol building above the trees — a building that is the citadel of the American bureaucracy, and which was constructed using slave labour.

One wonders what might be going on in his mind; a 21st century consenting slave of the system sans manacles.

The irony of well-educated third-generation Africans boarding a flight to wait tables at the Colonial Grill in DC close to half-a-century after Independence perhaps sums up the continent’s leadership and policy failures.

Which begs the question: Is the continent fated to fail?

Or maybe it is America that will self-destruct like the lumbering cyber-supermen in Hollywood sci-fi movies whose programming goes amok and exits the stage with a bolt-scattering bang.

That, despite its wealth and technological advancement, is it America’s class and racial tensions that will finally cause it to implode?

Mengestu, who lives in New York with his family, writes in a fluid flawless manner.

He personalises the narrative enough to appear to be telling the story of a close friend, and yet occasionally detatches himself to look in with us and reflect on the complexities of the situation.

The clarity of thought and the easy humour that he slips into the many crisis moments in the narrative make it an easy read. “…a man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone. I have dangled and been suspended long enough…”

The melancholy in this sentence perhaps best sums up the narrative.

The slow acceptance that no miracles will happen here, that the grey walls will darken further with either the soot of a boxed-in-a-corner arsonist or the mould of neglect.

America provides a safe distance from which the three immigrants can reflect on their mother continent and her failures, their favourite peg being the numerous coups that Africa has suffered and the resulting tyrants.

But even as they chronicle the continent’s misadventures, it is apparent they don’t have the choice of leaving wintry America.

When the soldiers came for his father — a respectable lawyer — in the middle of the night during Ethiopia’s Red Terror, Stephanos had to flee their middle-class home in Addis Ababa and leave the country, pawning his mother’s jewellery to make his way across the border into Kenya, and eventually to America.

As the first born, the unwritten understanding was that he would make it in the land of opportunity and then help out his widowed mother and younger brother.

But then he finds himself caught in the embarrassing situation where he has to depend on the same widowed mother for money to settle his bills, hardly making enough to send a decent cheque home. His friends are no better.

It takes a lonely Christmas night out for the three friends to realise they are in the same boat.

That used Saabs, tailored suits and crisp button-down shirts are just a facade.

Out here in this foreign land miles away from the comfort of family, they are all shadowed by the same fear of the unknown.

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Ugandan Diaspora News Team

Ugandan Diaspora News Online is an independent, non political news portal primarily aimed at serving Ugandans who work and reside outside Uganda. Our aim is to be a one stop shop for everything Ugandan and the celebration of our Ugandan heritage.


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