THE ILLUSION OF THE ‘HEALTHY IMMIGRANT’: A Note on Rudolf Ogoo Okwonko’s This American Life Sef

  • Title: This American Life Sef
    Author: Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo
    Publisher: Winepress Publishing
    Number of pages: 94
    Year of publication: 2016

You behold America the beautiful. The triple-decker burger and the giant cup of coke and cars that are wider than your village road and you wonder what took you so long to get here. You get on with schooling… you study the things people who came before you say brings money– the things Americans do not want to study– to prepare you for the job Americans do not want to do. You hear nursing, bloody, nursing. You say, bring it on (‘This American Life’, p 39)

Not a few will be offended by Rudolf Okonkwo’s dare to reveal a different picture, and one that is not in the least paradisiacal, from the one they have developed and like to retain of life in America. Before his own travel to America, as we discover in the Introduction of the book, Rudolf Okonkwo used to be one of those who doubted and shriveled away from anybody that tried to distort their jealously-guarded, and most often unrealistic, opinion of life in America. Even now, some of his readers will still find it impossible to imagine the existence of a realm in America inhabited by the souls of African immigrants caught between their dreams and their actual nightmarish experience.

On the surface, this book is deceitfully simple but underneath this apparent simplicity lies strong currents which are bound to knock the reader about. The culture shock contained therein is as severe as that in James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son.

This American Life Sef is a small collection of essays and short stories that reeks of satire and sarcasm as does all of Rudolf Okonkwo’s works. In addition, apart from morbid scenarios, the book is full of statements which are capable of jolting the reader into stupefaction, one of which is “The African man in America is confused” (p 18). The argument is that the African man in America suddenly wakes up in a world governed by a different set of norms, mores and cultural values than the one he was born and brought up in. He is chagrined that the same American instruments of law defangs him but hands his wife immense powers. In the end, he cannot help abhorring America for arming his wife with a leash with which to pull him down to his knees– the threat to divorce him and get half of all that he has worked very hard for. It is mainly this cognitive dissonance– this clash of cultures– that leads to the deterioration in the health of the African immigrant. Says the author:

Everywhere I look, I see children of Africa who have become ghosts of their former selves. The noisy ones are sheer empty vessels. The dumb ones are experiencing shock. A distorted image of life and perception had transformed the Africans in America into a pathetic lot. There are more of them struggling to retain their sanity than there are those who are struggling to save their souls… Those who are trying to be Africans in their homes are forced to be Americans outside their homes, while those who are pretending to be Americans in their homes, are daily reminded by the reality outside that they fall short of that title, in effect, raising so many questions and creating so many conflicts (p 17-18).

The African woman in America is not immune to this virus. More pressures buffet her than they do her counterpart back home in Africa. While she is trying to take care of her husband and children, a dozen other hands reach out to her for her time and resources. “She too receives letters from home… they are asking for favours, like money for hospital bills, ticket to Germany, school fees… (p 19)”
It would seem that the main problem the African woman has with her husband is his propensity for double standard. When he:

marries an ‘akata’ or a ‘fat white trash’, he knows how to behave– how to do the laundry, cook, clean the house, take the baby to the hospital, pick up the baby from day care, etc… but as soon as he escapes from the American woman, he instantly remembers how to be an African man (p 18)…

Rudolf Okonkwo takes the notion of the “healthy immigrant” a notch higher in that most of the African immigrants in both the essays and the short stories are not just healthy but are also in the industry of health care provision. But this mental and bodily health only lasts for as long as the immigrant continues to be charmed by the beauty of his or her new environment and the functionality of its institutions. With time, the immigrant is reduced to an empty shell waiting to be shipped back home for burial by children that may never visit Africa again thereafter.

Travelling is also a form of education. And even though travellers are not issued certificates for travelling, they acquire experience and alongside, in most cases, disillusionment. This American Life Sef does not in any way attempt to dissuade prospective immigrants from jumping onto the next available ship to America or Europe. On the contrary, it is only pointing at a path which diverges from the mainstream.


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