Film Review & Interview
Surprising Europe: The life and times of Ssuuna Golooba, directed by Rogier Kappers and produced by Jongens van de Wit, the Netherlands -- 70 mn documentary and 9-part TV series, 2011.
(Swans - July 4, 2011) The history of humanity is also the story about migration. In the final analysis, we are all migrants. Central to my Yoruba people's philosophy on human migration are two of their proverbs. One is Omi ni eniyan; the second, Ibi ti aye ba gbeni de, la npe layede.
The first means that human beings are like water that flows wherever it can find its level. The second one means that it is where destination leads us that we call home.
It is probably the knowledge of these proverbs that informed many Africans to migrate to Europe to seek the proverbial green pasture. The natural instinct of every animal is to look for wherever the grass is greener. Europe, in recent history, emptied as much as a third of her population to other climes when the going got tough. It therefore remains incomprehensible to many African immigrants in Europe, why the continent that has benefited so much from migration, remains the most hostile to them.
Several thousand Africans have moved and settled in Europe. Some of them managed to build lives that are far better than what they left behind. But for the majority of these migrants, it has been tales of harrowing disappointments. For many of these profoundly disappointed Africans it is always a case of: "Had I known?"
Many of them had well-paying jobs in their countries with middle-class lifestyles and expectations. But human ambitions being what they are, they wanted more.
Images from Western media like BBC World and CNN are beamed into their living rooms, with commentators constantly harping on "rich" Western countries with out-of-this-world GNP, GDP, and other statistics that paint pictures of a paradisiacal West. The same media portrays Africa as a hopeless, war-torn, famine-overwhelmed, dictators-ridden continent that is forever begging to feed its lazy citizens.
Hollywood also lends hand with movies that show the bold and the beautiful who, with no apparent means of livelihood, tool around town in kilometer-long limousines, wining and dining the whole day with no apparent care in the world. Images are shown of people putting plastic cards into walls from which money gushes out. Ah, white people are magicians!
There are also the new missionaries on the block, those kind-hearted NGO folks who drive around in big 4-wheel-drive jeeps, hold endless conferences, and talk themselves silly on how to end poverty in Africa.
African immigrants who come on holidays and start spending money like it's going out of fashion also do not help matters.
These are the images Africans are bombarded with and who does not like better things? Determined to get his share of the wealth of Europe, the African quits his job, and sells whatever properties he had accumulated over his toiling years. Some sell the family jewels, houses, and even the farm. Occasionally, loans are contracted to embark on the journey to a supposed El Dorado.
Arriving in Europe, the immigrant is thrown into a severe culture shock from which he hardly ever recovers. The illusion that Europeans are nice and welcoming is the first to go.
In many parts of Africa, especially in the villages, total strangers are mostly welcome with huge smiles and a desire to help. The immigrant's first contact with Europe is with stony-faced immigration officers with the countenance of a wolfhound and the friendliness of a Gestapo. The confounded immigrant wonders what has happened to all those Europeans he saw in Africa with smiles pasted on their faces, as they trample around the continent looking for places to develop.
When he's finally admitted into the country after a bruising encounter at the port of entry, the senses of the poor immigrant are further assaulted when he finds out that he needed more than his expensive visa to even begin to settle down.
First, the small question of accommodation needs to be settled, and it becomes a major production when he's asked to produce a residence permit without which he cannot get legal accommodation. Our bewildered immigrant, who had a spacious apartment in his native land, is forced to make do with sleeping in other people's corridor.
Money in the pocket also happens to dry up fast, especially when it's not being replenished. The search for a job also helps to drain the pocket. Looking for a job poses its own perilous challenges as our immigrant is told that he needs a working permit. He discovers that there are heavy fines to be paid for hiring illegal immigrants.
Before long, the month-long visa has expired leaving the immigrant living as an "illegal," with all the attendant perils. The only solution is illegal jobs that pay starvation wages. In addition, the immigrant is constantly on the lookout for the immigration police that could pounce unannounced at any time.
As though he's not facing enough wahala, the immigrant is also bombarded with requests for support from the family he left behind. Most immigrants do not want to alarm their families about the true state of affairs, so they concoct loads of lies to allay the anxiety of their people.
Illusions dashed, it does not take long before frustration sets in and our immigrant starts doubting his sanity. Forlorn, unloved in a very hostile environment, he must struggle against all odds and an array of overwhelming forces ranged against him.
Going back home is not an attractive option as he, like many, has burnt his bridges when he embarked on the journey. Losing face also remains a big problem in Africa. How do you explain that you are a failure?
For many there's also the question of paying back the loan contracted to embark on the journey. Desperate to make ends meet, the immigrant is forced to do jobs that do not even begin to challenge his education or intelligence. Many males take to fraud and other illicit means to stay afloat whilst women are reduced to peddling their bodies.
Ugandan-born photo journalist Ssuuna Golooba is such an immigrant. He came to the Netherlands in 2002 and was confronted with the reality of living as an illegal immigrant. After four frustrating years sleeping rough and cleaning houses and toilets, he decided to return to his country. The question of what he was going back to do necessitated his decision to tell his story in a documentary film. The idea was to make some DVD copies to take back, sell, and hope to rebuild his life in his native land.
Luckily, the producers, Jongens van de Wit Productions in Amsterdam, saw a greater potential in his story. The result of their collaboration is an international cross-media project SURPRISING EUROPE, consisting of a nine-part TV series, a documentary, and an interactive Web site.
The first pillar of the project, the documentary SURPRISING EUROPE, The life and times of Ssuuna Golooba, premiered in The Hague, the Dutch capital, on Sunday, 27 March 2011. Ssuuna's is a typical immigrant story to which many African migrants in Europe can relate. Unsatisfied with a successful photo-journalism career at a newspaper in Kampala, Uganda, Ssuuna borrowed money to embark of his journey to a supposed El Dorado. He came to the Netherlands and soon enough had the blinkers about a welcoming and prosperous Europe removed from his eyes. A few months after he landed, he ran out money and started sleeping rough.
The film dallies back and forth as it tries to show the complexities and subtleties of an immigrant life. We saw Ssuuna worked as a general factotum -- as a paper-boy and, when he could get it, as a cleaner. Naturally, the odd and dirty jobs are not sufficient to pay rent and feed and clothe the body. Lack of legal residence papers precluded the prospects of rising above his sorry state.
In the meantime, pressures from his family back home were incessant and unremitting. A sister sent a shopping list longer than her arms. The mother also would like the son to remember her as she has, for having one of her children abroad, become the toast of the village. Every distressed person in the village solicits her assistance.
Despite all these travails, the film shows many Africans plainly admitting that since life for them is always dicey, they will gladly gamble on their chances in Europe. In a pre-screening scene in Ssuuna's native Uganda, many people were simply fatalistic.
There are serious but hilarious moments like a scene where people go to church to pray for a visa and the priest fervently casts off anti-travel spirits.
SURPRISING EUROPE is a nice, moving human story of one African immigrant's struggle to juggle various permutations in order to stay afloat in a bewildering and hostile environment.
Migration is a multi-faced and very complex socio-political problem that cannot be addressed in one movie, but the failure to at least show some of the reasons why Europe remains alluring to African immigrants is one of the films weak points.
At the post-screening question-and-answer session, the director honestly admits that theirs was Mission Impossible as they cannot hope to compete with big Western media like CNN that continue to beam their propaganda to Africa.
Ssuuna himself also readily admits that he was not on any evangelical mission to dissuade people from traveling. His mission, he says, was a journalistic job to give people information. What they do with the information is left to every person's discretion.
That is the reason he chooses as his motto: "Be informed." After watching the film, those that took their chances and came to Europe will no longer be able to say: "Had I known?"
It was a message well-presented in the film. Only the most credulous will watch SURPRISING EUROPE and still harbour illusions of a rich, welcoming Europe.
Overall, SURPRISING EUROPE is a moving human story that strives to honestly tell the story of an African immigrant.
Femi Akomolafe (FA): First, congratulations on the successful completion of your movie. How do you feel?
Ssuuna Golooba (SG): After five years of hard struggle, it gives good feeling to see that one has achieved something.
FA: How did you come up with the idea?
SG: Actually, it was a story begging to be told. It is based entirely on my personal experiences. People do not understand what it means to be an illegal immigrant in a foreign land. Not having enough to eat; no good place to sleep, and cannot go to hospital when you're sick. And the trigger was the fire at Schiphol that killed 11 detained illegal immigrants. I was an illegal immigrant so I easily could have been one of them.
FA: How did you meet the director of the movie, Rogier Kappers?
SG: It is very complicated. I am glad that they saw the potential in my story and that we could work together to bring it to fruition.
FA: From an "illegal immigrant" to a celebrity, that is some transformation. Do people look at you differently?
SG: Ah! If you know me, you'll know that I remain the person I have always been. I like my privacy and I don't hug the limelight.
FA: What has been the reaction so far? Do Europeans and Africans react differently to the movie?
SG: The reaction, as I expected, has really been mixed. Many Dutch people are truly shocked that people exist (not live) in such conditions in their country. Many Africans find it courageous that I came out to tell a story to which they can relate. Some of them however think that it will jeopardise their status. But that's life.
FA: We saw your mother and some family members in the movie; can you tell us what their reactions have been?
SG: Luckily for me, I never hide anything from my mother. I kept her fully aware of my situation at all times. She knew all along what I went through. But the release of the film also brings her tears of joy. She receives calls from people telling her that "Oh, we have seen your son on TV."
FA: What are your feelings when you hear some Africans say that no matter what you say, they will like to go to Europe?
SG: Like I said in the movie, I am just putting out information about what the life of an immigrant is like in Europe; what people do or decide not to do is left to them. Of course, many will take heed and learn from my experience. To those who say that they will risk it, I say "good luck."
FA: What reasons do you think are responsible for Africans wanting to go to Europe at all cost?
SG: Poverty, corruption, lack of opportunity. Back home, you are limited if you don't know the right people. So, people say, let me go out and try to make it.
FA: What are your plans for the future?
SG: I plan to finish writing my book. It has taken me too long to complete; I'd like to put more time to its completion. I also will try and take the film to many African countries to let people be aware of life in Europe. We can have question-and-answer sessions with students.
A voice from Africa worth hearing... Please consider a
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About the Author
Femi Akomolafe (see his profile on Swans) is a computer consultant, a writer and social commentator, an avid reader, and a passionate Pan-Africanist who lives in Kasoa, Ghana. Femi is known to hold strong opinions and to express them in the strongest terms possible. As he likes to remind his readers: "As my Yoruba people say: Oju orun teye fo, lai fara gbara. It means that the sky is big enough for all the birds to fly without touching wings." Femi Akomolafe's views, opinions, and thoughts can be accessed on the blog he maintains: http://ekitiparapo.blogspot.com/. (back)