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An Open Letter to the Kenyan Diaspora

By Matunda Nyanchama, PhD

Dear colleagues,

Greetings from ground zero here in Kenya. Lovely country, this one is: good all-year round weather, nice scenery due to near all-year round evergreen vegetation; and on the whole, a land of good people.

Our nation is, generally, a place of hardworking people, regardless of vocation, age, gender, etc. It is a nation of individuals focused on upward mobility, even when (unfortunate as it usually happens) some take shortcuts and care less about the harm their actions have on society!

Here, parents work harder than in a lot of other places in the world to see their children attend school; and the best schools they can afford to boot! Parents can even starve themselves to ensure their kids get the necessary education. Indeed, as in many societies, education can be a ticket to better life in the future!

It is a land of hardworking students, like many others in the world, with focus on passing examinations with good grades, despite that others’ hard work is focused on acquiring grades via unorthodox means such as stealing examination papers, paying others to write their papers or simply bribing those that award grades! On the whole, though, most behave well and want good certificates, which they work for. Invariably, a certificate is viewed as a way of latching one to some place on the ladder leading to success.

We are a country where professionals retain persistent focus on progression in rank but also save religiously for the rainy day: investing in real estate, farming, running matatus or some other businesses on the side. Some, of course, take short cuts with get-rich-quick schemes, informed by the notion of “you eat where you work”! Others have taken to the trade of illicit drugs, profiting out of the misery of many in the population! Sad!

Ours is a place of extreme, ruthless capitalism and businesspeople (including impunity-prone matatu operators) show it through constant motion as a means of staying ahead! It can be a jungle by any description with everyone to themselves and God for all, where the fittest would survive!

One cannot forget politicians, the quintessential noise makers, focused more on their well-being than that of Wanjiku; and where their actions remain true to the adage that the squeaking wheel gets the oil! And they usually get what they want, when and where they want it. They typically ensure they take care of themselves (they make the laws!) for they know not what cometh in the next elections!

We are a land where mention of the word Diaspora conjures images of lands of milk and honey, lavishness in spending and where (in the view of some) money comes easy, perhaps growing on trees! It is here that Diaspora money (whether to a friend, relative or even institutions) is seen as easy dough that can be used without care. Many understand that even if their benefactor learnt of impropriety, distance would be an impediment to action! And, perhaps, of prohibitive cost!

Kenyans love Diaspora money to support families in need (education, sickness, personal support, etc.), itself a good thing! They love Diaspora money for investment and associated responsibility to manage those investments, be it in real estate or some other business. Simple: Diaspora money comes easy, in their view! Diaspora is too far and those handling Diaspora money can do what they deem necessary with that money; and by the time the Diaspora wakes up, they would have moved on!

Just listen to stories (horror stories) of some our colleagues that have been bitten, bitterly, and you will understand. People like the one who bought land, was assured it was in his name only later to discover it had been bought in his agent’s name! Or the friend that asked the father to help him build a house, which the father did only for the father to hand the property to another son, arguing that the one abroad had enough money to build another house! Or the person who was constructing rental apartments and constantly got progress updates that the project was on track only later to find the updates were false! And land title was in another person’s name and the person had taken a bank loan on it! And there was no project of the sought he used to get updates on.  One can go on and on about these horror stories/nightmares! They are many! Very many!

Of course investment via institutions is seen as a panacea to this. Such institutions are only now playing in this space with mixed results. Only time will tell of their eventual success or otherwise based on their current strategy!

Let them say all they wish about this or that regarding the Diaspora goodness and value: platitudes such as the Diaspora being the 48th County (powerless, non-voting!) or 43rd Tribe (hence tribeless)! Let them enact such legislation as for dual-citizenship, empty dual citizenship when no dual citizen can hold a State Office! In others words, second-class citizen!

In the lead up to the last elections, there were spirited efforts by Diaspora organizations to enlist those in the Diaspora in the voters roll. All came to nought as every impediment was placed on the path towards that objective, marked by contradictory pronouncements by various officers of government. It is now obvious that those in power never intended that the Diaspora participate in the general elections for (I suspect that) Diaspora leanings could not be predicted and could influence outcomes in “undesirable” ways!  In effect authorities were saying: you are citizens, yes! But know what? They don’t need your participation in determining the future of the nation. You cannot vote. Second class citizens!

Let them tell us about investment opportunities targeted at the Diaspora, and which they aver would be protected for our best interests. Let them even promise us jobs (oh, yes they need our experience) even when all they want are ones of their own to occupy the said jobs. In any event why come back to the “village” to fight for the low-paying, poor jobs here at their disposal when you can earn more abroad; completely disregarding personal sacrifice and offer to serve!

The fact is that hardly anyone in Kenya (except perhaps one’s family) cares for the welfare of us Kenyans in the Diaspora; and the truth is that, the Diaspora is good for what it provides: cash remittances. It isn’t good for rights of the Diaspora.

In such a situation what can the Diaspora do?

My sincere advice is this: the Diaspora should focus on its own welfare, whether realized via investments in Kenya or elsewhere. Put your money where it serves you best! And while a sense of patriotism is important to help target helping Kenya, the fact is that Kenyans in the country (and especially the leadership) care less about you, except for your money. They even care less about patriotism. In any case, as one writer once said, patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. This is a land of God for all and everyone for themselves.

With all this, one is tempted to give up on Kenya once outside country. This need not happen. May be God is letting us (as Kenyan people) go through all this (unfettered, ruthless exploitation of each other, looting of public resources, handing plum state jobs to the “networked” rather than the “competent”, fueling ethnic hate by the elite for their own advantage, peddling drugs to youth and decimating generations, etc.) as a means of teaching us lessons. And here the Diaspora can play the role of John the Baptist, always working for a better nation and urging Kenyans to believe in a better future society. And the Kenyan Diaspora can lead the charge even if they are accused of “serving foreign masters”. Remember: nothing good comes on a silver platter! And that power doesn’t yield easily (say) with a nudge but with a HARD PUSH!

Think of what that hard push should and must be!

Dr Matunda Nyanchama is an ICT Professional, Book Publisher, past candidate for Governor of Nyamira County and retired President of the Kenyan Community Abroad (KCA).

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