Literature of exile: The refugee activist poet J. J. Bola

We came here to find refuge / They called us refugees / So we hid ourselves in their language / until we sounded just like them. / Changed the way we dressed / to look just like them / Made this our home / until we lived just like them. — from J.J.Bola’s poem “Refuge”

The refugee experience is integral to poet JJ Bola’s art and life. His family fled violence and chaos in Congo for London when he was six years old, where they lived the shadow existence of undocumented refugees. His dreams of playing professional basketball went unfulfilled; without a British passport he wasn’t able to travel to international competitions. His writing examines concepts of displacement and belonging, as well as black masculinity.

Bola recounts many of his childhood experiences, and those of his parents in his novel No Place To Call Home. Like Bola, the protagonist Jean Ntanga escapes Congo with his parents as a young child, his parents giving up family and careers for somewhat stable poverty in Britain. However, without passports the threat of deportation is an ever present threat.

Jean’s family is part of a close knit community of African refugees, mostly centered around the ministry of Pastor Kaddi, whose sole qualification for ministry is that he has been blessed from the heavens: he has received papers: “His fortune was no random act of chance but a manifestation of his faith; proof “Nzambe azali awa”, God is here, alive and present and at work, for those who believed”.

In fact, the desperate need for citizenship is the principle component of Pastors Kaddi’s theology:

The most resonating was the prayer for citizenship; an incantation for those without papers…The question on the edge of everyone’s lips was often “Ozui mukanda?” It was the climb to the top of the mountain, it was Daniel Escaping the Lion’s Den, or Jonah being freed from the stomach of the Whale, it was reaching the Promised Land after years of wandering in the desert, a miracle on equal par, as it was sign there was a higher power who showed eternal grace and favor toward you.

To have papers is to be blessed and find holy favor; to be deported is to be curse to Hell, whereas the daily life of a refugee is purgatory. Young Jean discovers the repercussions of this purgatory when he wins a school trip to France but learns that he can not participate; like the author his dreams are dashed because he has no passport.

Bola sensitively portrays the pain of cultural assimilation: when Jean meets a newly arrived refugee family from Congo, they have difficulty communicating:

Jean spoke mostly English now but understood French while his Lingala decrescendoed into the background like the end of a beautiful song. Christelle spoke Lingala, she spoke as if she had been for a long time, watering the seeds planted on her tongue.

As he tells his own story, Bola also recounts the traumas of his parents’ generation. Tonton, the family’s alcoholic lodger, is initially seen by Jean as a pathetic figure of contempt; only later do we learn that he drinks to blot out the horror of seeing his wife and daughters slaughtered by “Les Soldats” of the corrupt Congolese military. Jean’s parents, like Bola’s parents were once idealistic lovers; on their first date his father says of his mother:

Her dark eyes resembled two marbled containing a myriad of galaxies, and her cheekbones were thrones upon which desire sat.

Yet their lives in Kinshasa become untenable, as “Mami” finds herself alone, at the mercy of roaming gangs and increasing violence, and Papa is forced to abandon his studies and his dream of becoming a doctor to escape with her to Europe. In London, they create a new home and new dreams, but this home does not welcome them:

If you are lucky you will never have to remember home through your mother’s tears or the rage in your father’s voice when it shakes. Home will be somewhere you run to, never away from. It will never chase you away–a rabid dog hot on your heel with teeth like a shark, teeth so sharp you can already feel it cutting into you.

No Place to Call Home is clearly influenced by Bolas’ poetry. The poem Refuge, his best known work explores themes of forced flight, home, integration and the perception of refugees.

from “Refuge”

imagine how it feels to be chased out of home. to have your grip ripped. loosened from your fingertips something you so dearly held on to. like a lovers hand that slips when pulled away you are always reaching.
my father would speak of home. reaching. speaking of familiar faces. girl next door
who would eventually grow up to be my mother. the fruit seller at the market. the lonely man at the top of the road who nobody spoke to. and our house at the bottom of the street
lit up by a single flickering lamp
where beyond was only darkness. there
they would sit and tell stories
of monsters that lurked and came only at night to catch the children who sat and listened to stories of monsters that lurked.
this is how they lived. each memory buried.
an artefact left to be discovered by archaeologists. the last words on a dying
family member’s lips. this was sacred.
not even monsters could taint it.
but there were monsters that came during the day. monsters that tore families apart
with their giant hands. and fingers that slept on triggers. the sound of gunshots ripping through the sky became familiar like the tapping of rain fall on a window sill.
monster that would kill and hide behind speeches, suits and ties. monsters that would chase families away forcing them to leave everything behind.

Bola currently works as an advocate for refugees, speaking for Africa Writes and Amnesty International, and as an ambassador for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. For more on Bola and his work:

TED Talk: Reaching for a Place to Call Home

Article by J.J .Bola on combatting racism and xenophobia: “Much of this is not new”

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