Tanja Müller, Professor of Political Sociology, Global Development Institute
Semhar (not her real name) lives in an urban neighbourhood in Nairobi. She had, by local standards, a fairly comfortable life. She and her partner and two children are urban refugees from Ethiopia with the correct papers to live and work in Nairobi. They always regarded their stay in Nairobi as temporary and waited for the opportunity to move on to the UK, either through formal resettlement or with help from relatives.
Semhar’s partner could not easily find work in Nairobi, so she became the family’s breadwinner with a qualified position. But then an opportunity arose for her partner to relocate to the UK, and they decided not to waste this chance but that he should go ahead. She would stay behind with the children and apply formally for family reunification once this was possible.
This had several implications for her day-to-day life: As the children were too small to be left on their own, she quit her job and stayed at home to look after them – a task formerly her partner had done. She now lived off the remittances he sent from his job in the construction industry in the UK. That all worked well – until Covid-19 hit.
Lock-down measures in the UK Covid-19 initially left her partner without work for many months. She had just enough savings to survive and continue schooling for her oldest child. She also started to give some home-schooling lessons to others, as she was still housebound with her youngest child. With the UK lock-down easing, her partner started work again, just in time before her savings ran out. Semhar’s story demonstrates the fragility of such transnational arrangements and life plans.
Semhar is also realistic enough to know it may take a long time until she can join her partner in the UK. She and her partner’s prime efforts are still geared towards securing economic survival and a better future for their children – hence the big emphasis on education. But the focus of her daily life has shifted away from the grand future project of onwards migration to more local networks.
Her main support network and the focus of her life beyond financial remittances has become the local Ethiopian Oromo community in her neighbourhood, in a multinational and multi-ethnic city like Nairobi, a relatively narrow network, confined to nationality and perhaps, more importantly, ethnicity. Semhar says in this respect: ‘Most of my time is with my friends who like me are mothers […] we spend time chatting over coffee and discuss life while our children play together […] my friends are mostly Ethiopian Oromo … there are also Kenyan Oromo in Nairobi, but I do not socialise with them […] I mostly socialise with Oromo from my province’ (virtual interview, 31 October 2020).
Semhar’s story is a pertinent example of a local turn of transnational conceptions of life and belonging, particularly when a crisis like Covid-19 interacts with migration journeys and migrant aspirations. In our ESRC-funded project on transnational lived citizenship, we have found multiple examples of how Covid-19 re-enforced or triggered a turn towards local environments. This has been most prominent in relation to a turn towards local networks of fellow nationals or fellow ethnic communities.
At the same time, this local turn in practices of lived citizenship has maintained or enforced a deep connection to the national and transnational community of participants’ country of origin. Through focusing on concrete lived experiences and how these have been re-assessed by research participants due to the pandemic, the project demonstrates that transnational lived citizenship can quickly become reconfigured as a local practice within and among migrant communities, even if, as shown in Semhar’s and other stories, not in relation to local Kenyan citizens. This turn towards the local may be temporary or more permanent, but above all, it indicates that transnational lived citizenship holds promise when analysing the role of migrants in global networks.
This local turn also not only occurs at the level of everyday private lives. In parallel, new local support networks have sprung up, often based on similar narrow networks of nationality and ethnicity. In relation to the Ethiopian Oromo community, there was already a strong semi-formal global network of support before Covid-19. The community is rooted in the core part of Oromo culture belief that Oromos should help each other as much as possible. This has resulted in a web of social welfare organisations that are, in fact, structured entities in the different communities. They collect money regularly from their members and then support either, activities for the common good of all Oromo or, in times of crises like Covid-19, those in urgent and unexpected need. They are also loosely interlinked across closed social media groups globally, thus drawing on wider support if needed.
When Covid-19 hit Nairobi and lock-down measures started in the city, Ethiopian employers would try to keep their compatriots on as staff. In addition, a partly coordinated response by business owners and other wealthy members of the Ethiopian community was started. Partly coordinated through the Ethiopian embassy, immediate support was provided, and additional funds were raised to buy necessities like flour and sugar for those who lost their work or became destitute. In a further step, monthly stipends to those affected by lock-down policies and closures were set up by wealthy Ethiopian business people.
As discussed in more detail in this recent paper, responses to a crisis like Covid-19 supports the assertion that refugees and migrants enact their citizenship in relation to a transnational social field. Transnational linkages are being severed or enforced, but also the turn towards local networks is determined by how these networks are related to countries (or ethnicities) of origin. In addition, Covid-19 has enhanced pre-existing inequalities but at the same time opened avenues for new forms of solidarity within migrant communities. A case in point here is various ad-hoc or organised networks where those with resources helped others in need.
The full paper on which this blog is based demonstrated in more concrete detail that even where transnational lived citizenship turns local, migrant lives unfold in a transnational social field that fosters innovative ways to sustain identities and belonging.
The research on which this blog is based is part of the project: Transnational Lived Citizenship: Practices of Citizenship as political belonging among emerging diasporas in the Horn of Africa (2020-2023), funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council, Grant number: ES/S016589/1.
The full open-access paper behind the blog has been published in Global Networks (2022)
- Transnational lived citizenship turns local: Covid-19 and Eritrean and Ethiopian diaspora in Nairobi.
Photo by Nemuel Sereti on Unsplash
Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.