The Land of Milk and Honey, and Other Migration Fantasies

Standing in line for supermarkets is a new experience for many, but not for Maka Tuwe. She reflects on her past in Zimbabwe, and how Covid-19 has impacted many displaced people over the world.

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Panic-buying, empty shelves and the familiarity of survival as a migrant in New Zealand. 

We were driving into Taupō for dinner when we decided we probably needed to top up our groceries. What followed a casual trip to the supermarket shook me. As I scrolled through my timeline that warm February evening, during what would unknowingly be one of our last trips out of Māngere for a while, I saw photos and videos of people of panic buying in Auckland, and hoarding and fighting over toilet paper in Australia. 

As I started seeing the empty shelves in supermarkets, and unfathomably long lines to get into the store, all I wanted to do was run. Seeing those lines of people at the supermarket, snaking around the building, touched memories I had of a time before my life changed. The prevailing feeling I had was of impending despair. What happens when the land of supposed milk and honey bears resemblance to a taste that you would much rather forget? When the droplets of bitter milk fall on a wound that never quite healed? The experience was surreal: my feet were in 2020 but my heart and mind were replaying the times we sat in the back seats of cars in 2002.

As a child of Zimbabwe and a first-generation migrant, my life has been spent erring on the side of caution, so instinctively I knew about the importance of getting my shit together before it hit the fan. Back then I was young and oblivious to the anxieties of a parent who has had to line up all day just to get petrol, in addition to all the other lines they had yet to stand in for other supplies. Before we migrated to Wellington in 2003, lines for essential goods had become a norm and buying in bulk became the way most mums in Zimbabwe shopped. Seeing the empty shelves and long lines tugged on a familiar feeling, a signal that things were about to change for the worse.

I decided to reach out to some other people in the Zimbabwean community here in Aotearoa, specifically those who had lived there in 2008 when sanctions and bad governance led to inflation rates skyrocketing and an economic crisis that left the majority of Zimbabwe only informally employed. I wanted to see what the empty shelves signaled for them now that they lived here in New Zealand. Here are some of their responses:

“As a public health worker I understand that seeing people lining up is more about order and social distancing. At first I panicked when I couldn’t find Colgate in one store, and ended up buying three elsewhere. I was comforted, when I went back, to see that they had restocked – it affirmed that there are resources. This isn’t going to become part of how we do things.”

Seeing the empty shelves and long lines tugged on a familiar feeling, a signal that things were about to change for the worse.

“Waking up in this pandemic feels like living in a dreamlike state. While I am tired of resting, I am welcoming it as an opportunity to reflect, restore and reform. I find myself wondering about community care and what it is missing for our community level, socially. Seeing empty shelves was like déjà vu – it reminded me of Zimbabwe, when people started hoarding and selling items on the black market. That was my fear, that people would do it here, and a few attempted on platforms like Facebook Market. I felt like I was prepared for whatever was to come. I have always shopped in bulk, and top up my supplies as I go. My biggest concern going forth is our mental health. If someone is in the ongoing process of settling in, it’s already difficult to grasp what the future holds.”

 “At the start of the lockdown I moved back home. Something that fascinates me is that we still have to pay the same amount of money for services that we aren’t using. When this all started, I thought surely it’s not as bad as what people are making it out to be. I thought of when we had to line up for two loaves of bread to feed eight people, and how that became part of our normal. What made me think this might be serious was when we couldn’t find yeast and flour, and when it felt like things had come to a standstill. I worry about international students, though. Do they get refunds, and what happens to their qualifications?”

 “The impacts of the lockdown reminded me that things can change overnight. I thought, by migrating here, some things would never happen, and that we’d left things like lining up, shortages and sanctions regarding the amount of stuff we could buy back home. People losing their jobs and businesses closing down makes me concerned about our recalibration.”

When the pandemic hit New Zealand, the events we were preparing for – food shortages, limited access to essential services, the inability to cross international borders, feelings of isolation, and more – sent the country into panic. What we were about to experience, though, was just a glimpse into the daily realities of displaced persons and those in exploited regions, or what I refer to as the global majority.

Our daily experiences are full of this unquestioned access without really ever wondering whether or not it could be taken away from us.

Although that has been part of my life’s experience, it’s not my intention to conflate seeking safe refuge from life-threatening conditions in your homeland with being in lockdown as a safety precaution to save lives. Instead, it is a lens that allows us a temporary opportunity to be in the shoes of displaced persons around the world. It’s an opportunity to recognise the privileges we have to choose to see our friends and family, go to work, use public transport, and the ability to walk into shops to get what we want and need. Our daily experiences are full of this unquestioned access without really ever wondering whether or not it could be taken away from us.

Hyperawareness, connectivity and the global Black experience

 The pandemic hasn’t only restricted our movements. Amongst other things, it has proved to be a test of the social and political systems we have in place. As always, I sit in the middle of many worlds. As a migrant, Queer, Black African the intersection of my diasporic experiences means I find myself in this space of ongoing enquiry about the things that happen to people who look like me, are in bodies that resemble mine, and whose daily experiences mirror some of mine. I can’t ever think of the pandemic as an isolated experience – it’s merely highlighted the many injustices people like me have faced and continue to face. 

On the continent, memes about how the universe was ‘giving us a break by sparing us of the virus’ started circulating. In reality, it was actually a stark revelation of the restrictions that African natives face when attempting to travel to other countries. It highlighted the issue of hard passports that make visas so expensive and almost impossible to obtain. In addition to this, the resources to travel are limited. 

Now that the pandemic has spread throughout the continent, conversations have shifted to daily reports about how the virus is impacting different communities across the 54 countries. In economies where daily earnings tend to daily expenses, what does a lockdown mean when there are no structures in place to protect a person’s livelihood? The state of facilities, ranging from homes to hospitals, can make social distancing and containing the virus difficult – the picture of a Covid-19 isolation centre that resembled a camping ground, in my hometown of Gweru, broke my heart.

I can’t ever think of the pandemic as an isolated experience – it’s merely highlighted the many injustices people like me have faced and continue to face.

In the UK it’s the reports of infections impacting those from BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds. Not because there is something in us that makes us biologically more susceptible to illness, but because of the ways societies continuously fail to protect those who are vulnerable. That’s often people from minority backgrounds. 

I can’t ever think of the pandemic as an isolated experience – it’s merely highlighted the many injustices people like me have faced and continue to face. 

It’s the same in the USA, where in addition to the disproportionate number of Covid-19 infections amongst African-Americans, they are still gunning down and killing Black folk. As it stands, prosecutions of Black Africans and organisers of protests in New Zealand are being called for, for standing in solidarity and protesting the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade. Health professionals in the country have also highlighted the implications the protest might have on Covid-19 infections. The conversation thus far hasn’t taken into consideration the implications such statements will have on Black citizens in New Zealand (even those who didn’t attend the march) and their heightened visibility during this time. In China, it was news of members of the African community being evicted from their homes due to a rise in xenophobic attacks on Black folk in Guangzhou, a result of the spread of fake news and migrant baiting. Imagine being made homeless during a pandemic that demands that you stay at home. I also came across articles about queer folk who are homeless or who are being housed in environments that restrict their expression of being, which is triggering.

I thought about the 400,000 people on temporary visas in Aotearoa, some of whom are being told by the Ministry of Social Development to approach their embassies in case of financial difficulties. Some are being reminded that as part of the conditions of their visa types, they aren’t entitled to emergency benefits and they are to rely on savings. The same assets and savings that they either sold in order to afford the migration to New Zealand, or lost amidst a fight for survival. The same savings that are supposed to come from precarious employment, or no employment at all. As it stands, the Council of Trade Unions wants people on temporary working visas who have lost their jobs to have access to emergency benefits

I thought of people from migrant backgrounds who are no longer on temporary visas but still face a precarious future. We live in a structually unequal society and being a permanent resident or citizen does not protect you against discrimination and institutional oppression. Poor living conditions and circumstances of members of migrant communities are ongoing, even years after resettlement. How will the lockdown affect their futures and livelihoods?

While there’s no denying that borders should remain closed, I wonder if this will allow fear-exploiting rhetoric to continue? Such as the comments on migrants being the cause of water shortages and Auckland’s inflated housing market. The rhetoric could extend to one that will paint migrants and those seeking refuge as threats to the containment of the virus and push stricter long-term migration policies.

Why is the basis of our dignity justified by our contribution and productivity, and not our humanity?

I also wonder why the first thing that comes up in discussions about migrants is their economic contributions; whether it’s the estimated 258 million migrants who filled labour shortages internationally in 2017, or that in an attempt to cure race relations we’re only talked about in terms of economic benefit. Why is the basis of our dignity justified by our contribution and productivity, and not our humanity? We live in a country that at every opportunity applauds itself for being multicultural and diverse, in response to conversations about race relations. All it takes is looking at our industries, media and segregated neighbourhoods and interactions to see that the reality is otherwise. 

I wonder about those who are on the margins, who are already brushing up against cultural gatekeepers and bumping into glass ceilings. Already, we scramble for the scraps of opportunity, resources and access thrown our way. Will we be pushed further into the margins? The idea of us being more creative and placing our intellectual property online ignores the ways platforms and brands thrive off cultural appropriation and generally exclude creators of colour. 

Going forward, our outrage, reactions and questions of “Where are the women?”’ should include questioning where the Brown, Black and disabled folk are. Not to tick quotas or to appear to be down (we know it’s big bucks to be ‘woke’), but to dismantle the structures that enable us to comfortably exist in our silos, excluding others and never questioning why we do this, or even recognising that we are. We need to ask these questions to dismantle the excuses we make about how things really are to mask our individual ambition and blissful ignorance, and the easiness of apathy.

As we settle into Level 2 with no new cases and no virus in New Zealand, my concern for the welfare of those from minority backgrounds is ever present. The feeling of impending despair hasn’t disappeared, but has morphed into a general state of being. The vigilance, the constant and seemingly unending redefinition of our lives, where we shift and bend to fit the containers and restrictions that life, natural disasters, governments and societies put us in, are things I think about every day. Covid-19 has highlighted the inequalities of this world even further. Let these policies and calls to be kind not be rooted only in the need for economic success in order to maintain a normalcy that had us jumping rapidly for solutions to correct it. Let it be rooted in dismantling the structures that oppress, and nurturing inclusivity and equality.