I’ve been thinking about migration.

mi·grant
1. One that moves from one region to another by chance, instinct, or plan.
2. An itinerant worker who travels from one area to another in search of work.

-From www.thefreedictionary.com.

It started last week. My friend Nelisiwe, aka Nells, invited me to be part of a video campaign she’s working on for the International Organization for Migration, called “I Am a Migrant Too”.

Heather migrant

Nells asked me to wear my Basotho blanket for the “I Am a Migrant Too” shoot. (Photo: Ofentse Mwase.)

At first I thought it was a little weird that I was participating in this campaign. “Do you really want an American?” I asked Nells.

“We want everyone,” she said.

I was born in America and I live in South Africa. I’ve lived here for close to four years. But I had never thought of myself as a migrant before. Nor had I thought of myself as an immigrant.

im·mi·grant
1. A person who leaves one country to settle permanently in another.

When asked to explain the context of my living situation (which happens on a daily basis), I have always referred to myself as “a foreigner”, “an expat”, or more simply “American”. Up until recently, my description on Twitter and Instagram read that I’m “an American living a quirky expat life in Johannesburg.”

ex·pa·tri·ate
1. One who has taken up residence in a foreign country.
2. One who has renounced one’s native land.

As part of Nells’ video shoot, I sang a song that went like this:

We breathe the same air.
We see the same sun.
I am a migrant.
Are you a migrant, too?

These lyrics got me thinking.

The next day, I attended a book launch for my friend Caroline. Caroline is a writer and sociologist who specializes in migration issues. Her book is called Migrant Women of Johannesburg: Life in an In-between City, and documents the lives of women who migrated to Joburg from various places in Africa. I’ve just started to read the book and I’m really enjoying it.

Caroline’s interest in migration is personal as well as professional. She is originally from Kenya and moved to South Africa in 1994. In many ways, my story and Caroline’s are very similar. We’re both educated women who moved to South Africa because we weren’t getting what we wanted from life in our home countries. Neither of us had firm plans for what we would do or how we would support ourselves when we arrived in South Africa. We’ve both faced major challenges, but have managed to build good lives for ourselves here.

Caroline told me that she has never thought of herself as an expat. In her mind she has always been a migrant. In the preface of her book, Caroline writes:

I began my Johannesburg life selling Kenyan crafts to passersby on the streets. Lured by the city’s promise of a brighter future, I left Kenya with little more than an address and a conviction that Johannesburg was the place to be in. And indeed it was.

Caroline migrant

This is Caroline Wanjiko Kihato. She is a migrant.

Caroline’s book launch, as well as the conversations that I had with her afterward, made me think some more. Why have I never considered myself to be an immigrant or migrant? Why have I always defaulted to calling myself an expat?

Wikipedia says this:

An expatriate (sometimes shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person’s upbringing…

In common usage, the term is often used in the context of professionals or skilled workers sent abroad by their companies, rather than for all ‘immigrants’ or ‘migrant workers’. The differentiation found in common usage usually comes down to socio-economic factors, so skilled professionals working in another country are described as expatriates, whereas a manual labourer who has moved to another country to earn more money might be labelled an ‘immigrant’ or ‘migrant worker’.

I also asked Nells if she considers herself a migrant. Nells is South African, born and raised in Mpumalanga province, and she moved to Joburg in 2008. Here is what she said:

Yes, I am a migrant to Johannesburg. My heart is still in Mpumalanga. That’s where my happiest memories are, my most trying times have been experienced, my first experience of falling for someone, where everything is authentic…I raise my son with the same principles that I received there…

I came to Johannesburg for tertiary level studies, but ultimately ended up staying here for love. It became my second home because home is where the heart is…

Nells migrant

This is Nelisiwe Mahlangu Mwase. She is a migrant.

Similar to Nells, I initially moved to Joburg for love, although I stayed for other reasons. I wasn’t relocated by a company and didn’t have a job when I arrived. I didn’t come here out of economic necessity, or due to violence in my homeland. I wasn’t “fleeing” anything, other than my own inner turmoil. I left a country that people tend to want to immigrate to, rather than emigrate from. I don’t know if I’ll be here forever, but I have no plans to leave.

Am I a migrant, and immigrant, or an expat? In some ways I’m all of them; in other ways I’m none.

But if I had to choose from all of the definitions above, I would take the first one: “One that moves from one region to another by chance, instinct, or plan.” That’s pretty much what I did.

Heather Braamfontein

I’m Heather Mason, aka 2Summers. I am a migrant. (Photo: Gareth Pon)

So, migrant it is. I am a migrant, too. Are you?

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