Emotionally charged narratives about mobility and respective immobilities produce an endless array of meanings, judgements, and labels. Through framing in politics and media, complex realities are reduced to a point where only a few figures and rigid set pieces seem to be available to tell migration stories. Aspiring African migrants obviously have their own perceptions about mobility. However, they are also forced to position themselves in relation to European representations of the pitiable refugee, the undeserving economic migrant, and the threatening human trafficker. These narratives permeate everyday African spaces, are reflected in ‘information campaigns’ funded by the European Union and translate into border practices.
‘Narrative’ has become a hazy buzzword in contemporary scholarship, politics, and marketing, which makes it an intriguing as well as complex subject of analysis. A single story is not sufficient to establish a narrative. Instead, a large number of similar stories, told over and over, produce a particular kind of story. This storyline is not static but feeds on a web of meanings spun around migration in which individual experiences constantly interact with expectations, common sense, and various forms of migration storytelling. In this article, I will examine the particular story told about international migration in the Central African country of Cameroon.
In Cameroon, migration narratives often revolve around the wish for maturity, hence the capacity to fulfil social responsibilities, and the general desire for a piece of the ‘good life’. Many people want to travel to further their education, others seek business opportunities abroad. To begin with, the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘migration’ are rarely used. Instead, people describe themselves as travellers, hustlers or aventuriers (adventurers). In a context of often-forced immobility and limited local opportunities, young Cameroonians perceive the world as closed off and are constantly searching for so-called ‘openings’ and ‘connections’. Moreover, young Cameroonians are starved of political and economic participation in their home country and find themselves in an increasingly risky, if not hostile environment – one of my interview partners once described Cameroon as ‘at the verge of social explosion’. Despite the fact that the majority of those dreaming of ‘travelling out’ never actually get to leave Cameroon, the example of those who return successfully creates some sort of collective hope, which makes personal migration projects almost inevitable. Locally, migration equals a highly visible and tangible promise of success, substantiated for instance by the beautiful house a neighbour has built with remittances. This omnipresence thus shapes the very way in which life, future, and possibility are spoken about and understood in countries marked by transnational movement.
Gabriel, a 30-year-old Cameroonian start-up entrepreneur, offers a summary of the most popular Cameroonian narrative on international migration:
‘Most often, you will have a guy that didn’t graduate from high school travel to Germany, to France, to Canada or in any European country. He goes there, five years later he comes back with a lot of money. Like 10,000 euro, here in Cameroon, it’s a lot of money. When he comes back, he becomes like a local role model. That influences other families who now begin thinking that in order for their children to be successful, they need to travel to Europe.’ (interview conducted in Yaoundé in 2016)
In contrast to the uncertain and unpredictable life in Cameroon, the narrative schema of success in Europe forms a simple and steady tale. It fits a classic adventure story with fixed narrative components of departure, unknown adventure, successful return and social recognition by the community. What happens during the ‘adventure’ phase often stays vague: How migrants travel, where they live and how they earn money is flexible and can even stay unmentioned as long as the basic narrative and material expectations are fulfilled. A visually striking example of such gaps is the music video of the popular song Bank Alert by the Nigerian pop-duo P-Square.
The basic adventure structure finds an equivalent in the Anglophone Cameroonian concept of ‘bushfalling’ as the act of going out to the ‘wilderness’ (bush) to hunt down meat (money) and bring back trophies to support the family. Felix, a 45-year-old Cameroonian in the diaspora, explains the connection between the notions of ‘bush’ as in farming or hunting and ‘bush’ as in popular migration destinations as follows:
‘In Africa, in Cameroon especially, most of the people work in the farm which we call “bush”. That is where money comes from. Now, when people leave Cameroon and go abroad, they come back with more money. That is the big bush! They have gone to bush, they have fallen bush.’ (interview conducted in Southern Germany in 2018).
Not every migration destination is automatically ‘bush’: Migration imaginaries are organised in a kind of ranking of ‘worthwhile’ destinations with North America and Europe at the top:
‘We always knew that immediately your family succeeds in getting you a visa for key countries like Germany, Denmark, Norway, the UK, France, it’s an immediate achievement and a success. When we are going to see you off at the airport, the only story we tell you is that “Go and then make for us a way”’.’ (42-year-old Wilson, Cameroonian diaspora member in Gauteng, South Africa, interviewed in 2018).
While countries like the Gulf States or South Africa need personal testimony, Europe and North America still feed on the idea of a rather indisputable ‘paradise’, rooted in colonial imaginaries and Hollywood-fuelled dreams.
The return component is absolutely essential in this narrative schema, as it is the most visible and most celebrated part of the whole process of migration. Preparations for departure, on the other hand, are often marked by secrecy to avoid embarrassment or jealousy which could lead to witchcraft.
While storytelling exposes risks and contingencies, it promises that they can be managed at the same time. This is a crucial reason why more information on the dangers of migration cannot lastingly discourage aspiring migrants. The radiant promise of reaching Europe and returning back home as a ‘big person’ is so all-engaging and loaded with emotions, that even life-threatening risks seem to be worth taking temporarily. Of course, not everyone ignores the risks of migration, nor established storytelling structures simply trump individual agency. Young Cameroonians are often well informed and critical about the challenges of life abroad. However, before departure and during the journey, the imaginary of Europe as a place of imminent wealth and status often still holds sway because others have made it big – so why not oneself? In this way, the stability of success tales influences migration decisions and trajectories through the promise of mastering contingencies against all odds.
Marlene is a literature and cultural scholar at the University of Konstanz, Germany. Since 2018 she is pursuing a PhD titled Narrating migration, narrating futures. She collected the material for her dissertation during three research stays in Cameroon’s capital Yaoundé and by interviewing members of the Cameroonian diaspora in Germany and South Africa. Besides her academic work, Marlene has co-founded the German-South African NGO Bridging Gaps e.V., for which she develops and implements workshops on everyday racism, othering and gender inequality. The organisation empowers young people by combining critical political education with creative learning.