A letter to Kenyans Abroad
There is this time I walked into this shoe shop in Dublin, Ireland. It was winter and cold as a hyenaâs snout. I had on this hoodie with âSafaricomâ emblazoned on its front in green. So, there I was checking out these shoe when I heard someone ask, âWewe ni Mkenya?â I looked up to find this grinning miro guy. I said, yes, I was Kenyan. Boy, was he happy to make my acquaintance! He bear hugged me, which is something I try to reserve for the opposite sex. He then rattled on, asking about home and how it was âback there.â Asking about politics and things. He told me he watched Citizen news online most of the time, but that still left him shelled with homesickness. He lived in Northern Ireland, which is really next to the end of the world, and he is probably the only black guy for thousands of miles before you run into a Nigerian.
I asked him when was the last time he was home and he said 11years ago. That depressed me more than the weather. I asked him what he missed most about being home and he surprised me by saying, âattending funerals for close ones.â
He said he had missed his fatherâs funeral (it was cheaper to send money for burial), something that seemed like a monkey on his back. In fact, he had missed tons of funerals for close relatives. And he missed Mukimo (he was okuyu). On a light note I asked him if he had a kiosk in Belfast and he laughed, that distinct Kenyan laugh that starts from the diaphragm and doesnât leave it. We chatted for a bit, in Swahili, mine markedly tattered.
I remember feeling such gutting sympathy for him when we parted. Him, out there, in that bleeding cold that makes your nails pale and your tongue blue, so far away from home, wondering who else will be buried in his absence. Wondering when he would next feel the balminess of the African sun on his forehead and the warmth of our own soil under his feet. It must be tough, this life in absentia. I would die of depression. No really, I would.
Itâs easy to feel sympathy for fellows living abroad, right up until they land at JKIA, then the bottom falls off. Letâs first talk figures before my spiel.
Do you know how much guys living abroad ploughed into the economy in the first five months of this year? Ksh45 billion! Thatâs a lot of dough, about 10% of what Kamwana is bringing back from the East! And we appreciate this contribution, guys. We could use every yen, dollar and rupee we can lay our hands on now, especially during these trying moments that some of our governors have decided to conduct county matters from plush hotels where they live.
But your financial contribution notwithstanding, we need to straighten out some issues, guys. Itâs about your conduct when you come back home for vacation.
First off, please donât whine about how nothing works in this country. Nobody wants to host a whiner. Thing is, traffic cops will control traffic at traffic lights that work. Thatâs just how it is. Service in eateries might not be as swift as it is in Toronto. Thatâs just how it is. Matatus are a law onto themselves. Thatâs just how it is. Itâs illegal to burn music for local artists, so donât ask us to. Oh, and Kalamashaka doesnât sing no more.
Secondly. You know, we love having you back home. And we donât mind taking you to look for artefacts at Masai Market. But can you imagine that since you left life also happened to us? Hard to believe, I know. We got and changed jobs. We dated and we got married. We got kids. Most of us grew up and that came with different priorities. Life is a moving wheel. I know it might seem like we have lots of time on our hands back here but we donât. We can get very busy between spending time in traffic jams and Facebooking.
And because there is work and there is school and there is family we canât take you out partying on the daily. And just because you are back in the country after 10 years doesnât mean all these things stop and we have to lay banana leaves on your path to Mercury Lounge. Or fetch you coffee. You are on holiday, we arenât. If we have time, we will take you to do your rounds. But itâs not your right, so donât sulk and brood and feel unappreciated.
Secondly, the legal tender of Kenya is Kenyan Shillings. Not the dollar. Not the Euro. Donât go to Mama Oliechâs for fish and when the bill lands you ask the poor waitress if they can accept dollars! That waitress is from Kochia, the dollar is a currency she isnât well acquainted with. And FYI, the only people who accept dollars or rands are the forex bureaus.
Talking of going out. A few years back my cousin landed in the country from Jersey (you should have heard how he pronounces âJerseyâ). This time I took him to Havana in Westlands and he kept asking the deejay to play some song by T-Pain. I wasnât that acquainted to T-Pain at that time because he was new-ish in the scene and Iâm not exactly hot for that genre of music. You should have seen how after harassing the deejay he would come back to the seat complaining how the deejay wasnât with it because he didnât have a particular song by T-Pain. And so the whole whole night it was T-Pain this, T-Pain that. What a royal pain!
And guys, if you are going to have the deejay play your favourite jams at least buy him a drink, will ya? And be sure to use Kenyan Shillings, if thatâs no trouble.
Then there is politics. Isnât it flattering that every guy in diaspora has a solution to our political problems? And this is only because, I suspect, they have read Obamaâs âAudacity of Hope.â Guys, like Mikhail Gorbachev once said, if you really want to change things back home, you got to go back home. You just canât change things during your tea break at Starbucks. Iâm afraid itâs a bit more complicated than that. This animal called African politics needs time and energy, not a quote from Malcolm X.
Itâs not like we are sitting here allowing the politicians to shaft us without as much as dinner first. Itâs not that we have become so politically numb and inept. No, we make noise. On twitter. We stoke Boniface Mwangiâs fires on Facebook then we go on Youtube to see if he survived the fracas. We have realised that the only way we can fight these politicians and their endless plunder and greed is through the mighty power of Retweet! So donât judge us, not until you walk 140 characters in our tweets.
Iâm overeating? Just look at the Facebook pages of Kenyans in diaspora, with their breathless streams of political consciousness, tinged with Machiavellian teachings hoping that will change the political panorama. They wonât, guys. Because politicians donât read. And the few who do donât care. Your tweets will drown in the churning sea of social media melee, never to be seen by them. And their social media tools are managed by busybodies that only retweet comments that favour them. And so the most they can do, in response to your Facebook updates is to poke you. And you donât want a politician poking you, trust me. And if you donât believe me, askâŚ
And why are you guys shocked at poverty in Kenya? Poverty is the same as you left it. Poverty is still spelled the same way you left it. This is Africa; some folk eat only one meal, yes, even here in the city. And they arenât on a diet; they just canât afford to eat square meals. Fast food? Do you know that KFC is a luxury back here? Yes, back here itâs the hoity-toity who throng there, with their iPhones and their monstrous Guci shades coifed in Gussii-land. Poverty is part of this social fabric, even the middle-class are poor, only their poverty is the worse kind.
You know what we secretly laugh at behind your backs, dear Diasporas? When you come visiting and you tell us smugly, â You know, back at homeâŚâ Back at home? Excuse us. United States of America is not your home, son! Your home is Nyansore, South Mugirango. Isnât that where the remains of your dear mother lies? Iâm sorry, was your grumps buried in Brookhaven, Atlanta? You are called Moguche, how many native Londoners are called Moguche? And please donât ever say âyou Kenyans,â Thatâs just racist.
And here is one of my favourites. I had this retarded conversation one day with some diaspora.
Kenyan from Texas (KT): Biko, I want to go to the Barclays in Loita Street, is it safe?
Me: What is safe, Barclays? Yes, it is.
KT: No, I mean Loita Street.
Hehe. Did he just ask if Loita Street is safe? Tell me, how can I be so wrong about my friends?
No, I told him, Loita Street is not safe. Get police escort. Hell wear a Flak jacket
and lower your hat to your face in case they suspect that you are a foreigner because your eyebrows are different from ours. Hire security if you can (but not G4S). Loita Street is very dangerous. People get killed there every day, especially Kenyans visiting from abroad. And donât wear your fancy cologne; it might draw attention to yourself.
Doesnât that just make you sad? Here is a guy who grew up in Umoja and shopped at Mutindwa scared of being mobbed in Loita Street. A guy who lived in Kenya for 27yrs â taking matatus and eating roasted maize by the roadside- before he flew out. A typical Kenyan. This is the same fellow who asks you if Loita Street is safe because he now has an iPhone 5? While odiero backpackers are fearlessly trolling downtown Nairobi this guy is debating if he should leave his damned wallet at home before venturing into town?! If he should remove his watch before going to Kimathi Street?! Do they imagine we are super humans not to get killed by the numerous, mines, IEDâs and snipers outside Loita Street? Do we, as Kenyans, have a special contract with God?
One last thing. Letâs be honest. We know you arenât as loaded as you once was. No, we do. Central Bank Of Kenya told us. The diaspora remittance to Kenya declined by 9.4 per cent in June from Ksh 9.66billion to Ksh8.75billion in May owing to inflows from North America, Kenyaâs biggest source of the dollar injections. Life, indeed, is hard everywhere. If Detroit declared itself bankrupt, really, things are hairy. Europe isnât any better financially as we speak. So no need to keep appearances. Itâs unnecessary. When you come down donât drag us to the champagne bar at Sankara and get mild dementia after one look at their menu. And donât call Sankara thieves. They arenât. Sankara isnât McDonalds. Shit is expensive there.
This city has its owners, mate. They dine at the Tribe Hotel and sleep in Laikipia. They never look at the bill after their meal and they can put three actuarial science students in a room with all their money and those kids will grow beards before they finish counting that cheese. So Sankara guys arenât stealing from you, itâs just a different pond for a different kettle of fish. Try Tamasha, they have a happy hour. Look, we are just happy you are home, we donât care much that you can splash money because we know it wasnât handed to you easy back there.
And one last thing. You couldnât have schooled in Durban, South Africa and picked an American accent. Itâs unfathomable and ludicrous. We can understand you having an Indian accent because Durban has the largest population of Indians outside India, but they donât speak like Americans last time I was there. And if you came back to Kenya from abroad more than 3 years ago you canât prefix all your statements with âWhen I was in the UKâŚâ It negates everything you will say after.
I love Kenyans in diaspora because of their uncanny ability to summon amnesia. You guys forget fast. You forget so quickly where you came from. You forget how the machinery back here runs. You forget that this is motherland and no matter how broken this place is, this place still remains your place.