The longer I live, the more I get to understand that I am just passing through – a migrant – on this wonderful Earth of ours. I spent my childhood in migration with my parents on the three continents of Europe, America, and Asia. The bigger part of my diplomatic career, in labour migration, I spent on a fourth one, Africa. And not even in my retirement here in Nairobi do I get to be a sedentary local. In summer of 2023, Bilha and I visited an old Swiss friend and his Zimbabwean wife in their retirement in the Algarve of Portugal. We had spent some wonderful years together in Abidjan, had not seen for many years, and had lots to catch up on. We did a wine tour from Porto to the South of the country and on the cliffs of the Lighthouse of Cabo de Sao Vicente, I understood why the Portuguese became seafarers. The thunder of the Atlantic waves on the rock of the precipice below and the almost full round disc of the blue ocean around you, giving into the blue of the sky – that cannot be the end of the world. One day, I will go there and find out what lies beyond. Anyway, my friend informed me that as much as themselves, not taking our retirement in Switzerland, in the Swiss population statistics, we counted as ‘retirement migrants’. Little do they know that it’s the nearly perfect climate of Nairobi that brought me to Kenya and that if a migrant, I consider myself to be a ‘climate migrant’.

Ten years earlier in Addis Ababa, I had gotten to know the ‘climate refugees’ from Djibouti. Your usual body temperature is just below 37° Centigrade, anything above that is fever and when your fever reaches 42°, you are in danger of losing consciousness, and death. Djibouti is one of the hottest countries of Africa and the world. In the hot and dry month of July, daily average temperatures can easily reach 44°. Being cool in such heat takes a different meaning, it becomes a physical effort and stress, and instinct tells humans to flee. So, those who can, will move to Addis Ababa, in the Ethiopian highlands. There, they will have to face the rainy season, but in a comfortable temperature of the low twenties. These climate refugees were businessmen, our Djiboutian Swiss Honorary Consul among them, government officials, expats and diplomats, and entire wealthy families. The dock workers, street traders and camel herders of Djibouti would have to ride out the heat at home. And of course, the climate refugee is not a recognised category and misses protection under human rights and humanitarian law. Strictly speaking, the climate refugees from Djibouti are not even migrants: Their movements of are just another form of modern mobility. It’s comparable to my taking refuge in my house in Ferenberg in Switzerland over the summer months, when it’s winter and cold in Nairobi.

And for the climate refugees, the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the rescue! During my tenure in Addis, Bern found a partner in Norway to launch the ‘Nansen Initiative’: This was a ‘state-led bottom-up consultative process to build consensus on a protection agenda addressing the needs of people displaced across borders in the context of disasters and the effects of climate change’. – In the last years of my career, I had become allergic to such inflated lingo of assembled buzzwords. Fortunately, a few years earlier, I had read an essay, ‘On Bullshit’, a theory on using language with the sole objective of persuasion, without regard for truth and reality. So, I knew what it was. My experience with African governments, internally displaced people and refugees in the Horn of Africa, and having met the climate refugees of Djibouti in Addis Ababa, made it clear to me from the onset that this initiative would go nowhere. As all the Swiss Ambassadors around the world, I pushed some papers and held some meetings for the initiative. At the end of 2015, I was in Somalia again, the Nansen Initiative ended with a 244-page report on its global consultations. And today, its website is floating on the world wide web like driftwood from the shipwreck of a fancy yacht.

But make no mistake, climate change does get people to move around. It always has. 30’000 and then again 20’000 years ago, the last glacial period of our current Ice Age peaked. The average global temperature was half of the 15° Celsius we measured in 2023. In southern Africa in winter, the ground would freeze, and in the highlands, there were areas of permafrost. Small glaciers developed. Being Swiss, I know that this does not make a territory unliveable, but for the hunter-gatherer Homo sapiens then were, it was certainly not pleasant. Many of the Khoisan remembered their homeland in the warmth of the tropics and for better survival – eat, drink, and sleep – migrated north.

The lasting glacial period was even harder for those of Homo sapiens who had left Africa and migrated into Europe, only 10’000 years earlier. As northern Europe disappeared under thick sheets of ice, they turned back south into Spain, Italy, and the Balkans. This behaviour of the Europeans has since radically changed. When there is ice and snow, they move into it for skiing and skating. And inversely, when the sun is hot, they go south to the beaches of the Mediterranean. The Alps and the Mediterranean have become their preferred destinations for the winter and the summer holidays. Even for me it used to be only natural to go skiing in winter. I was a founding member of a club that runs a ski hut on the Bernese Alp of ‘Hasliberg’. But then, when I was something over forty and introduced my Kenyan wife to the art of skiing, she slid down a gentle slope for a few meters, fell, got up, slid some more, fell, got up and slid and fell again. Getting up, Bilha said, “This is not for me, it goes in all directions”. – We went to the hut, had an ‘Ovo-Kirsch’, a hot chocolate with a shot of cherry brandy, and for the first time in my sporting life I descended the Alp in the cable car, while underneath the conditions for skiing were perfect. Thereafter, I started emulating the strategy of the early Europeans. When there was ice and snow in Europe, I made sure to be in the South. I started taking my big leave in the month of January, fly to Kenya, and enjoy the best time of the year there for Safaris. Somehow this then led to me taking my retirement there, at first to see how it would feel, and then I applied for permanent residence. – Why not? My ancestors were out-of-Africa Africans.

As the early Europeans migrated south to the Mediterranean, some of those modern humans who had stayed in the Arabian Peninsula started crossing back into Africa. First, across the Strait of Bab el Mandab into the Horn of Africa, and later and less, through the Sinai into North Africa. They had spent tens of thousands of years in western Asia and had out-of-Africa ancestry. And now returning to Africa, they became ‘back-to-Africa Africans’. Based on their languages and genomes, anthropologists call them Afro-Asiatic peoples. Over the following millennia, they would settle along the coast of the Red Sea, along the Nile Valley, and into the Sahara. In North Africa, from Egypt westward along the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.

This meant that in Africa, humans now appeared in three types: One, until around 12’000 years ago in West Africa, there still lived some archaic humans that had evolved out of Homo erectus. Like the Neanderthal in Europe, some of them interbred with Homo sapiens there. Two, the original Homo sapiens, like the Khoisan, the Pygmies, and the Nilo-Saharan and the Niger-Congo peoples; And three, the back-to-Africa Africans or Afro-Asiatic peoples with out-of-Africa ancestry. – And just as a reminder: It was still the Stone Age. The lifestyle was migratory, hunting and gathering, and unpopulated space was abundant. The total human population between Africa, Asia and Europe was estimated to have been around a million at that time and the lasting glacial period had not only triggered the migration of Europeans but also decimated them. This was not a mass migration and the area the back-to-Africa humans moved into is vast. Linguists suggest that the first Afro-Asiatic languages were spoken anywhere in northeastern Africa, spanning from the Horn of Africa to the Eastern Sahara all the way to Egypt. And they estimate that the Afro-Asiatic languages are 18’000 years old.

Today, there are five population groups in Africa that linguistically and genetically identify as Afro-Asiatic. On my tour of assignments on the continent, I was accredited to two countries with such Back-to-Africa populations. I have twice worked in Somalia, once as the Resident Coordinator for the United Nations from 1996 to 1999, and just before my retirement in 2016, as the Swiss Ambassador to the country. The Somali are Cushitic, and they are more than just the people of Somalia. They are the people of the Horn of Africa. But colonial borders have divided the Somali like no other African people. The five points of the star in the Somali flag stand for the areas where the Somali are found: Somalia proper, which was Italian Somaliland; Djibouti, previously French Somaliland; Somaliland, previously British Somaliland; the vast Ogaden region of Ethiopia; and the Northeast of Kenya. The Oromo, about a third of the population of Ethiopia, are also Cushitic. And apart these two big groups of the Somali and Oromo, there is a number of smaller Cushitic tribes, mostly in northern Kenya, like the El Molo, Borana, Dassenich, Gabbra or Rendille.

In Ethiopia from 2010 to 2013, I didn’t only get to know the climate refugees from Djibouti, I also got to know the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic peoples. This is the largest and most interesting group, and it is not confined to Africa. It brings together the Amharic, Tigrinya, and Gurage people of Ethiopia and Eritrea with the Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic speaking peoples of the Arabian Peninsula, from Yemen and the Gulf countries of Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Iraq to the Levant with Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. Linguists suggest that the Afro-Asiatic languages were brought to the Arabian Peninsula by return migration of groups of back-to-Africa Africans from Ancient Egypt into the Levant and ultimately, the Arabian Peninsula, from around 4’000 BC onward. The Semitic Afro-Asiatic peoples thus link Africa and a region in which over the following millennia, early civilisations would emerge.

But for now, back to the back-to-Africa Africans: In the Sudan, the languages and genomes of the population for some time remained mostly Nilo-Saharan. The Nubians in the North, the peoples of Darfur in the West and the peoples of the South all have Sub-Saharan ancestry. Sudan had always had some Arab immigration from the Arabian Peninsula, but after the Arab conquest of Egypt in the 7th Century, the Arabic language really started spreading. And over time, the back-to-Africa peoples superposed themselves on the original African population. – Apart the natural resources of the respective areas in play, today’s conflicts of the Sudan must all be seen against this ethnic background. The two Civil Wars of 1955 to 1972 and 1983 to 2005 ending in the creation of South Sudan as a country of its own, and the lasting conflict in Darfur both pitch the Back-to-Africa peoples against the original African population, Afro-Asiatic against Sub-Saharan. The Nubians in the North, also of Sub-Saharan ancestry, have practically been absorbed by the Afro-Asiatic.

In the possible homeland of Homo sapiens around southern Ethiopia and Turkana of Kenya, there live some remaining and scattered Omotic peoples. Their genome is also Sub-Saharan. But their languages are somehow related to the Afro-Asiatic ones. This has scientists wondering and trying to find out whether these Omotic languages are at the origin of the Afro-Asiatic languages which were taken out of Africa and then came back, or whether the Omotic peoples adopted them from the Afro-Asiatic peoples as these moved into the region. Howsoever, the peoples speaking Afro-Asiatic languages today outnumber the Nilo-Saharan peoples and are the second largest language group of Africa, after the Niger-Congo.

Still in Sub-Sahara Africa: In the larger basin of Lake Chad, in the countries of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroun, and Chad, some 140 Chadic languages are spoken, also part of the Afro-Asiatic languages and peoples group. The Hausa of northern Nigeria being by far the biggest group of the 90 million Chadic peoples, they get their own channel on Africa Magic, a movie and general entertainment channel at Nollywood, showcasing African cultures. The four other languages that get this privilege are two other Nigerian languages, Yoruba and Igbo, and Swahili and English.  

In North Africa, the Berber of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, and the Tuareg in the Sahara are another group of Back-to-Africa Africans. But then, the Berber languages and cultures were superseded by Arabic. – In the 2022 World Cup in football, Morocco was the first African team ever to make it into a semi-final. Celebrating their famous victory over Portugal which brought them there, the Moroccan players dedicated it to all the Moroccans, and Arab and Muslim people. As a former diplomat, I immediately knew that this would call for an official statement. And so it did. A few days later, a communique of the Moroccan Football Association made good by stating the Moroccan team, the Atlas Lions, were proud to have made Morocco become the first country of the African Football Confederation to have achieved such an outstanding result in a World Cup.

The Sinai being the land bridge between North Africa and the Levant, Egypt was the linchpin of the Afro-Asiatic peoples and their migrations between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. An Egyptian language, culture and entire civilisation emerged onward from the time of the return of people with out-of-Africa ancestry into Egypt. Ancient Egypt flew high as an early civilisation and regional power from around 4’000 BC onward. It brought the Afro-Asiatic languages into the Arabian Peninsula, and it influenced the happenings and culture in the Levant until it fell to the Romans, in 30 BC. But migration is rarely a one-way movement. And in this case of the Afro-Asiatic peoples, it’s a continuing back and forth between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The short version: Some of Homo sapiens had moved out of Africa into the Arabian Peninsula. Then, some of them moved back into Africa. Then, some of these moved back into the Arabian Peninsula and took with them their Afro-Asiatic languages. And then, the last of these major population movements occurred: With the Arab conquest of North Africa in the 7th Century AD, one Afro-Asiatic people from the Arabian Peninsula supplanted its language and its culture on the Afro-Asiatic peoples of North Africa and on the Nilo-Saharan peoples of Sudan. As the Berber countries to its West and Sudan to its South, Egypt today considers itself to be an Arab country – and due to its glorious past, a leading one.

to receive email adverts for new texts.

to write comments.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}