The Economic Migrant and the Bag Lady

Some years ago I was telling someone about my bag lady experience. She looked at me with astonishment and disbelief.

The Bag Lady
Many years later this person, who had by then become a friend, also had her own bag lady experience. She had gone from place to place, not quite sleeping on a park bench but near enough, with only the barest essentials – a toothbrush and change of clothes in a bag – not enough to merit a supermarket trolley!

The economic migrant and bag lady experience are etched into my DNA. I was born on the Caribbean island of Dominica nestled between Guadeloupe and Martinique, two French colonies. Dominica was itself fought over by the French and British for centuries. The French eventually lost. I could so easily have been a French citizen sitting in Paris writing this. In fact my mother's maiden name is the same as her family's French slaveowners of yester-year.

locator map of DominicaA SNAPSHOT OF HISTORY: In 1635, France claimed Dominica along with all the other 'Petite Antilles'.  As part of the 1763 Treaty of Paris, Dominica became a British possession. In 1778, during the American Revolutionary War, the French mounted a successful invation with the active cooperation of the population. The 1783 Treaty of Paris ended the war and returned the island to Britain. French invasions in 1795 and 1805 ended in failure.*

My parents were economic migrants. While one travelled to another more economically developed Caribbean island, the other came to the UK bringing me, as an eight year old.

In between Dominica and England I lived in Guadeloupe, and since in South Africa. For me the bag lady experience was about searching – for identity, for belonging, for home. There is nothing like a peripatetic existence to focus the mind on who you are, what you need and where you belong.

The whole bag lady experience brought enormous benefits to my life; it also brought a certain amount of resolution to my friend’s life. I smile every time this successful middle class lady says she now understands what it means to be a bag lady. I have to tell her I seriously doubt that. But it is an experience every citizen of the rich capitalist North should have; it might 'enable' what Carl Jung referred to as the 'feeling function'.

A recent newspaper article told the story of yet another economic migrant, an unknown young African male whose decision to seek a better life in Europe ended with a 2,000 feet drop through the sky near Heathrow. His broken body lay on the pavement where he fell from the undercarriage of a passenger jet as it prepared to land - a dreadful death as a result of a voluntary 21st Century Middle Passage journey. What exactly is it that drives people to risk their life like that?

Donor aid
Even if he had made it alive,conditions for asylum seekers in the 'new world' they seek have dropped below the level of human decency.

Why is so called ‘donor aid’ to under developed countries apparently not having any impact? Fifty years ago television pictures showed African children with bulging bellies, flies in their eyes and mouths, living in makeshift camps. Today the picture is much the same.

To me ‘aid’ means assisting [the continuing] immune deficiency of poorer nations, which at best functions in the interest of the donor nation, with very little consideration of what is in the best interest of the recipients, and at the same time manages to exploit and disempower.

We in the West are yet to fully appreciate that the security of the global family is dependent on advanced nations sharing their wealth and technological know-how with the developing and undeveloped nations, not simply through a process of what often is life deadening aid.

This very week the French and British are collaborating in taking the ‘war on terror’ to West Africa where near destitute subsistence farmers (because they too are there) not only have to contend with the ravages of climate change, but also with war. And of course the land of the Malian Tuaregs, an ancient nomadic tribe, contain what we in the West want above all else, great reserves of oil, gas, uranium and valuable minerals.**

*Dominica: History Dominica, caribbean history, black ... - Itzcaribbean

** See Patrick Cockburn's piece: ‘War on terror’ is a tempting defence, but it isn’t that simple


  1. Very interesting post Amari
    I would love to hear more from you about how the individual bag lady experience you describe for yourself and your middle class friend - and how this makes a difference to the global aid issue? What distinguishes this from those politicians who "spend" a week living on the dole in a council flat? What does the journeying bag lady bring back to the world of the so called civilised west?

    1. Carole I'm simply presenting symbolism and metaphor in everyday life. You as the 'viewer' must discern what you will from it. If there are 6bn of us on the planet, then it probaby has 6bn meanings!


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