Six Feet From Forever

For diasporic communities, social distancing is not new

Social distancing has had an effect on my family that I suspect is common to many who are part of a diaspora: I get many more WhatsApp forwards.

In recent years, it has been a routine thing for me to receive these sorts of messages from my mother. We are Gambian (though my mother was born in Senegal), but most of my immediate family now lives in Chicago. Over time, I have seen my parents slowly move off Facebook almost entirely and onto WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook but presents a different pace and feel for communication. It is, in essence, their current experience of social media. The WhatsApp family groups allow for a direct feeling of a communal privacy, unlike on Facebook, where it feels like you must strive for it.

The experience of diaspora has something to teach those who are new to this kind of distancing from family and friends and familiar sights

I primarily use WhatsApp to communicate with my girlfriend in Guatemala, but it also connects me with a range of chat groups, which in turn grounds an everyday experience of diaspora. Similar groups exist through all manner of diasporas; children and young adults of diaspora constantly talk about the forwards they receive from family members’ various WhatsApp groups. The oldest one my mother belongs to, with 22 members, dates to July 2016 and comprises the wives of former and current African Development Bank diplomats around the world. My parents’ other groups unite around family. My extended family numbers somewhere in the thousands, so the groups that house our various subsections tend to have 40 to 80 members, almost all of whom were added by other family members. So even if, like me, you’re not an active participant of any of these groups, your connection with other Gambians can manifest as being privy to conversations that are going on within the groups, either through direct forwards or having someone like your mother paraphrasing them for you. A sense of connection is tied up with the inescapability of what’s happening on WhatsApp.

Sometimes the inescapability has been welcome. During the 2016 Gambian election, my parents would frequently share memes, voice recordings, and videos from the respective political groups (most with around 250 members) to which they belonged. I was amazed at how the media form lent itself to condensing political points into convincing bites of information. I don’t think that Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh would have been democratically unseated without WhatsApp. After his deposition, however, my interest in WhatsApp waned.

Before the pandemic, I scanned forwards I received from my mother’s groups haphazardly. Now, though, these messages are newly relevant, suddenly deeply engaging again. I even ask my mother to translate anything she forwards that is in a language I don’t understand. The messages indicate some of the cultural disruptions Gambians at home are now experiencing. One forward — with no known point of origin, as is characteristic — reads:

My feeling before and after the Covid-19 outbreak is like chalk and cheese for all my social life is seized especially after the government made a proclamation of state of emergency. I hardly visit my family and friends for it’s very hard to travel within the Gambia with fear of contracting the virus growing on a daily basis. The norms of brewing and drinking “attaya” [our tea ceremony] in groups have died out. Towns have been turned into ghost towns; everyone is in quarantine to avoid being a victim of the global pandemic, Corona. 

The stark sorrow of this writer’s message is, I suspect, slightly mitigated by the context of its circulation. It communicates their heartache to virtually any Gambian with access to WhatsApp. Their dejection is likely familiar to anyone who is now undergoing quarantine conditions, but it is also tinged with the idea, built into the promise of using services like WhatsApp, that it will find an already constituted community and circulate within it, reinforcing its existence despite geographic scattering. That scattering has revealed itself as a kind of preparedness.

It may seem that social distancing could be construed as a kind of spontaneous diaspora, albeit one that may not prove as protracted or permanent. Unless your government is extremely stringent in enforcing policies, quarantine is relatively easy to breach, especially for groups generally left unaccosted by the state, whereas some living in diaspora cannot return, and others have no interest in doing so. Still, the experience of diaspora has something to teach those who are new to this kind of distancing from family and friends and the familiar sights of their communities. My impatience with those unwilling to socially distance but having the means to do so, stems from — I suspect — my understanding that everyday diasporic experience has meant practicing something similar to social distancing all along.

As the pandemic is an all-consuming topic in official and unofficial media, it is no surprise that Covid-19 discussion has overtaken WhatsApp groups. Many members have expressed that traffic within their respective groups has greatly increased. One cousin wrote, “WhatsApp messages almost jammed my phone’s memory” (in a message accompanied by 🤗🤗🤗🙈🤣🤣 emojis). Yet most people with whom I’ve communicated have expressed how beneficial they’ve found the groups during this time of drastic further separation, keeping up with messages even as the rate of notifications increased. Partly this stems from how social distancing makes us lonelier while giving us more free time — consider your own likely increased usage of social media. That said, these groups make you uniquely reliant on them.

Community — particularly refound community — outlasts world tragedies and helps us survive them

Even before Covid-19, the constant engagement common to these groups (and their interrelationship) created a sense of dependency. This is, of course, worrying, but for people like my parents, it appears more fulfilling than interfering. While most of what gets posted are memes or sketches in Mandinka, French, English, and Wolof (or any combination of the four), conversation is what drives these groups. In diasporic WhatsApp groups, digitally replicated familial dynamics are inevitable. One group, centered on sharing self-made cooking videos, reminds me of the preparation, communality, utterances of “bon appétit” and “bismillah” (Arabic for “in the name of Allah”) that were all core parts of meals I ate in The Gambia and Senegal. This replication of cultural niceties was reaffirming, but I was surprised by how easily it came, considering many of the groups’ members hadn’t spoken to each other in years or were acquainted only through the groups. Physical separation, I feel, makes these cultural signifiers — that can survive distance — all the more important and salient as fasteners of community.

From the WhatsApp groups, one can glean a feeling of jubilatory camaraderie that has not been dampened by the pandemic. Though the forwards share tragic news of death counts and false information (as well as attempts to combat it), what comes through most is a sense of repairing the severance of diaspora. Partly this is due to the literal reconnection made possible to family members who have been separated for years. But additionally, because of the ease of connection, you can also be newly acquainted with Gambians to whom you’re not related but form part of your larger community. One group member was added because she was kind to an aunt during umrah — the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca. I doubt that this particular type of connection is common but it is remarkable WhatsApp allows for community to be a living and changing experience. While making lifelong friends is common during pilgrimage, the introduction of the new individual into the subsection of your community is facilitated by WhatsApp. Community — particularly refound community — outlasts world tragedies and helps us survive them.

Like Hmong collective radio, Gambian (and the interrelated Senegalese) WhatsApp groups owe their very existence and structure to diaspora. Since gaining independence from the British in 1965, The Gambia has always had a diaspora. Until the 1990s, it had no universities, so members of the intellectual class would matriculate in Ghana, Senegal, other African nations, and the West. Dawda Jawara, The Gambia’s first president, studied in Ghana and the U.K. After a military coup in 1994, Jammeh’s dictatorship drove a sharp increase in emigration. From 1995 to 2000 — the period in which my family left — there was a more than 20% increase. Many were political exiles or asylum seekers for whom return was impossible. The sudden expansion of the diaspora, often into countries without established Gambian communities, halted community and communication that had relied up until that point on person-to-person interaction. While small forums of diaspora Gambians existed in — at the latest — the early 2000s as message boards, the availability of smartphones and social media apps like Viber resulted in an almost instantaneous burst of connectivity.

While diasporic WhatsApp groups are more close-knit because they are founded on longstanding generational relationships, in most regards they are similar to other groups and group chats. What differentiates them from non-diasporic Gambian groups is the prevalence of the human voice. Because about half of the Gambian population is illiterate, most of the communication within these groups is done through voice messages or videos. My father tells me that if a text is forwarded into the groups, illiterate members will often request that the literate members read it out or paraphrase it for them.

Voice, as Laura Kunreuther writes in “Technologies of the Voice: FM Radio, Telephone, and the Nepali Diaspora in Kathmandu,” “creates a sense of immediacy and direct connection.” No matter how instant the messaging system, a voice recording will likely feel more immediate. Especially for older generations, a text message can feel more like a letter you can get to at your own leisure while a phone call — it helps to think of WhatsApp voice recordings as bite-size parts of phone calls — requires your immediate attention. This reliance on vocal communication has helped Gambian diaspora WhatsApp groups confront false Covid-19 information.

For a time my illiterate, formally uneducated grandmother believed that reading certain Quranic verses would cure the coronavirus. It was through telephone calls — orchestrated through WhatsApp — that she was disabused of this notion. Because those that spoke to her were familiar with the references and vocal tone she was most receptive to, they were able to address her concerns. More important, by translating medical information to her in a form she understands, she can now combat further false information she receives and help illuminate those around her.

The misinformation doesn’t dissipate as gossip but functions as a different kind of currency, requiring a different sort of response — one that ultimately helps inscribe community in these spaces.

While this individual and collective effort to curtail false information is commendable, it is, I am afraid, an uphill battle. All the Senegalese and Gambians with whom I spoke stated that the rapid spread of false information was a problem. With a few exceptions, they all had the same visceral reaction to erroneous forwards — deleting them hastily. Many even said that while they could not do without the connectivity afforded by WhatsApp, the unfounded claims diminished their enjoyment. On the platform, the ways social connection is inevitably linked to the spread of misinformation is foregrounded and made to seem inextricable. That said, their efforts to disentangle them are not futile. Most view verifying the information in forwards that are designed to be spread as a personal responsibility and strive to make their groups medically sound spaces. One uncle sometimes calls up whoever sends him a forward and asks them if they can attest to its veracity.

After social distancing ends, even those who have never experienced diaspora will need to refind the communities they have never left

Misinformation is widely and casually spread offline as well, but dismissed, forgotten, and often recontextualized as chitchat. I think of specific friends as more prone to believing in conspiracy theories than others, but I rarely remember the specifics of their beliefs. In digital conversations, irresponsible statements loom larger because, unless you delete them, they stay up — word for word. Even deleting an erroneous forward leaves one with the memory of doing so. One, brutal but possibly effective, approach would be for group members to identify frequent spreaders of false misinformation and block them. But I cannot imagine anyone would be readily willing to isolate others — to re-sever bonds cut off by displacement after refastening them. Additionally, I don’t even want to imagine the fallout that would occur if one group member — who is most likely related to everyone else in the group — took that first step and blocked another.

Blocking may not seem necessary in part because of the speed of communication within these groups. Physical conversation isn’t merely replicated; it is expanded by digital affordances. During this pandemic, my mother sends me roughly 20 to 30 forwards a day from different groups — consider how many memes, videos, and conversations she isn’t sending my way but to which she actively responds. Conversation offline does not occur with such density at this apparent speed or with as many interconnected groups of people. As a result, it is impossible to fully keep up with all that is communicated. While this rapidity facilitates the proliferation of false information, it simultaneously makes it easier to ignore as there is always another topic of discussion into which to lose yourself. It is unfortunate but ignoring the false information and choosing not to spread it is effectively the only recourse made available by WhatsApp.

I admit that I am defensive of these groups, as I dislike the disparaging tone in which diasporic (and non-diasporic) people who don’t use them discuss them — often focusing solely on how they can be used to spread misinformation. My defensiveness is rooted in the marvel of witnessing reconnection. To understand my experience of diaspora and emigration, imagine all your childhood conversations and plans with friends and family suddenly interrupted. During the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, an aunt of mine “sometimes went a whole year without hearing from family members,” she recalls.

I think the old cliché applies: You don’t fully appreciate what you have until you lose it. A friend was once perplexed at my wonderment that she could so easily communicate with her grandmother, as they were both English speakers. I, who cannot properly speak any of the many languages in which my grandmothers are fluent, am still shocked that my friend is not appreciative of this gift available to her. I imagine that, after social distancing ends, even those who have never experienced diaspora will need to refind the communities they have never left, now realizing that that neighbor you keep meaning to invite over could become physically inaccessible.

I imagine, too, that some readers may recall those videos of locked down Parisians applauding their health workers — and generally celebrating their own continued survival — from their balconies. I saw that through an aunt’s camera, as she contextualized the celebrations to her refound community — stopping only to whoop along with her neighbors. Her commentary stayed with me, I think, because it recontextualized my understanding of diaspora. Our community is now a set of media objects that we renarrate to each other again and again. We tell each other stories of ourselves. In narrating that video to us, my aunt was telling us that this was now who she was, who we were, and what — accordingly — our diaspora had become.

She had holed up with an uncle and his family. I have not been on the same continent as either of them in decades. Yet my mother’s never-ending WhatsApp forwards reconnected us in a moment when I needed it the most.

To clarify, social distancing is not completely comparable and translatable to the experience of diaspora. Yet I implore you to learn from the Senegalese and Gambian diasporas and reach out digitally to anyone who might be part of your community. If we can do the previously impossible act of reconnecting severed ties with people we might never be next to again, you might just be able to communicate profoundly with those around you who you won’t need to stand six feet from forever.

ML Kejera is a Chicago-based writer from The Gambia. He was recently shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and nominated for the Caine Prize for African Writing. Please tweet him pictures of your favorite pizzas.