A Kenyan born in the US, Mukoma Wa Ngugi ponders the relationship between Kenyans at home and those abroad
Maybe it is just me, but I have been feeling that there is a growing divide between Kenyans at home and Kenyans abroad, that people at home feel that those abroad are not in touch with the problems in Kenya, be they familial, political or economic. Likewise Kenyans abroad feel that those at home are not aware of the growing hardship of trying to make a living overseas – in my case, in the United States.
So I have been thinking of a few things that as a Kenyan abroad I wish those at home were aware of.The first thing is that home is not as abstract as those in Kenya might think: parents, brothers, sisters, cousins and sometimes children keep us connected as well as emotionally invested in home. This is why Kenyans send millions of dollars each year to relatives at home, and why they are building and buying houses and starting businesses back in Kenya. And those who are in a position to, are returning in great numbers.
Home looks all the more attractive as life in the US becomes increasingly difficult, especially for undocumented workers. Anti-immigration laws are making it impossible for Kenyans whose visas have expired to find work.
It is not just a question of surviving anti-immigration laws. Generation X, whose Kenyan members settled in Atlanta, Boston and Texas in the late 1980s and early ’90s, are ageing. They have children somewhere between high school and college. American born, American-raised, these children do not know Kenya the way their parents do. At the same time, their parents do not know how to help their children navigate through American racial minefields because they do not understand the intricate workings of racism. The end result is a cohort of Kenyan American youth unable to account for who they are.
In some families, the parents are undocumented and their kids American-born. With the kids still attending school, going back to Kenya is not an option. However, because only the children can take care of official things like renting a house, opening a bank account and driving, they take on more and more responsibilities until the roles are reversed. The children end up taking care of their parents.
There is one thing that unites Kenyans abroad and at home, and that is coming to the aid of each other in both good and bad times. Whether it’s raising funds for a wedding, to celebrate a graduation or to pay for a funeral, Kenyans, whatever their circumstances, find common cause. And it is this spirit that should inform Kenyans both at home and overseas.
There is much that Kenyans abroad can do and are doing for their relatives and the country in general. But there are also some things Kenyans at home can do to help the diaspora. One is being a little more sympathetic towards undocumented relatives living in the US. Sometimes, even an email or a phone call just to say hello is enough to help one face a long and difficult day.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi is Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University, USA. He’s author of Nairobi Heat (2011) and the forthcoming Finding Sahara (2013).