Immigration, Emigration and Exile : The Figure of the 'Been-to' in African Literature

Megan Behrent '97

Immigration, Emigration and Exile : The Figure of the 'Been-to' in African Literature

We have lived that moment of the scattering of the people --
Immigrant, Migrant, Emigrant, Exile,
Where do the birds gather?
-- Abena Busia

Immigration, in other words, has had its own contradictions: many have been propelled by need, others motivated by ambition, yet others driven away by persecution; for some there really is no longer a home to return to; in many cases need and ambition have become ambiguously and inextricably linked.
-- Aijaz Ahmad

When did home stop being the place to be?
When did being at home become
proof of failure?
a life gone wrong?

Should we all fly away?


Get lost?
-- Ama Ata Aidoo

The 'been-to,' a term that is frequently used to designate an African who travels to the West, usually in the pursuit of education or employment, and subsequently returns to his home country; has figured prominently in African literature since its beginnings as a written literature. Indeed the first West African novel, Ethiopia Unbound, by Casely-Hayford which was published in 1911 has as its protagonist Kwamankra, a been-to, and this figure has continued and continues to be used frequently in the literature of African writers of subsequent generations. The history of colonialism in Africa has been such that the educational system was modeled after Western European systems and frequently those who excelled in these were sent to continue their studies abroad in the colonial country. As a result, many of the educated elite classes of colonial and post-colonial African societies had spent time and been educated abroad. Many of the leading African writers were a part of this group and frequently wrote of their experiences in their work which perhaps explains in part the prominence of the figure of the 'been-to' particularly in the works of the earlier generations of African writers.

Since decolonization African institutions of education have continued to be largely based on European or Western models which has perhaps contributed to maintaining ties between the educated elite of post-colonial African societies and institutions of learning in the former colonial countries. Likewise, the frequent lack of material resources available in African educational institutions has contributed to the fact that many members of the educated classes travel abroad in the pursuit of higher education. This has been compounded by the fact that the economic impoverishment and political instability of many post-colonial African countries has led many of these countries' intellectuals to abandon their home countries completely in search of greater educational and economic freedom and opportunity. The emigration of intellectuals and skilled professionals from Africa to the Western developed countries has been a phenomenon that has increasingly become characteristic of many post-colonial African countries. This process of the emigration of intellectuals and skilled professionals is often referred to as 'brain drain' and has been a controversial concept which has provoked much debate about the effects of this type of emigration on national development. As Johnson has described the phenomenon :

Brain drain is generally defined as the emigration of skilled and talented persons from their countries of birth to another country. Often, those persons who migrate leave poor societies for richer ones, seeking to maximize their earning powers, to best utilize their talents and skills, and to be in the company of their professional peers. Much controversy exists over the net benefit to the host or receiving country and the losses (or benefits) incurred by the country of emigration. It is disputed whether a person, by leaving his or her home country, contributes to the well-being of that country through whatever general contribution he or she makes to the stock of human knowledge, or whether the country of emigration suffers a loss of returns on investments made(...)

[These materials have been adapted from an honors thesis written by Megan Behrent, Brown University, 1997]

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