Having Cake And Eating It

I’ve been suffering from a very acute flu for the past few weeks. Each and every joint I had ached as if it was getting good money to do so. My nose decided that it was equally as capable as my feet of undertaking the task of running. My head decided to notify me by throbbing painfully after every heartbeat, without a doubt under the impression anything the heart could do it could do as well.

This however did not stop me from more or less attempting to get around to my various duties, and, naturally, getting involved in a very heated debate.

This past few months have seen an unusual influx of Kenyans in the diaspora from the various countries and counties that they diaspora in. Following is a sample 2 week schedule of one such cowboy

Day 1
Arrive in the country at some ungodly hour of the night and proceed to call up everyone you know to inform you are around

Day 2
Find bearings. Get used to :
– Driving on the left
– Ever changing geography of Nairobi
– largely ignored highway code

Day 3
Meet the family. Hug everyone. Give away the gifts that were limited by (in descending order)
a) Budget
b) Airline personnel
c) Customs personnel

Day 4
Go to see the grand folks in shags

Day 4
Back in town, meet the friends and chart out a solid 10 days of enjoyment

Day 5 – Day 10
Attempt to visit all the discotheques, clubs, bars, coffee houses, movie halls and restaurants in and around Nairobi

Day 11 – Day 14
Go to coast

Day 15
Leave town in a hurry, carrying nothing more than an amazing hangover and pleasant memories

Good times, good times. And us locally based sons and daughters of our parents also attempt to stuff as much fun as possible into the remainder of the year. In this haste we generally forget that the December salary is actually supposed to be spent in January, but that is for another day.

But I’ve digressed enough. A couple of days ago I was having coffee and throat lozenges with a conglomeration of Kenyan Tourists (KTs â„¢ ) and Kenyan Roots(KRsâ„¢ ) until the discussion took an interesting turn.

The discussion as usual swiftly swiveled into politics and the state of affairs of Kenya. Nothing can neatly divide the diaspora from the locals better than this topic.

Armed with copies of the Washington Post, the Economist and numerous clippings from the online version of the newspapers, and memories of conversations with ambassadorial staff, and the odd clip on CNN and BBC the KTsâ„¢ will pontificate just how good governance and the economy has grown in leaps and bounds, and how things are looking much better under Kibaki’s able leadership. They will be pleasantly surprised that Nairobi has become a safe haven where the lion will lay with the lamb.

Armed with copies of police abstracts, medical bills and numerous physical and emotional scars, and memories of conversation with gangsters, us KRsâ„¢ will wonder exactly what the KTs have been smoking, and when it expired. We will wonder what manner of good governance has a cabinet that is precisely a third of the entire community of members of parliament. We will wonder which economy is this that grew, and where its mother keeps it indoors because we have never seen it. All we see are steadily rising prices of everything. We will question Kibaki’s ability to lead his shadow through a doorway. We will wonder about this security business when police themselves are being shot by the day, and when people who yawn carelessly in down town Nairobi finish their yawning without realizing they have been relieved of wallet, belt, tie and tooth fillings in that brief interval between opening mouth and closing it.

Naturally fierce and enthusiastic debate will ensue and after everyone is flushed under the collar, a subtle change is introduced when someone finally concedes that there is a problem or two in Nairobi, and wants to know what can be done t fix them.

It is at this point things began to hum.

“By building Kenya,” a KTâ„¢ declared impressively rising to all of his four feet and banging the table with a fist for effect.

The agreement was unanimous, and there was peace until I sneezed (while holding top of head to keep it from exploding) and fired the shot that sunk the ship.

“And just how do you build Kenya from a very comfortable air conditioned apartment, complete with goldfish, in New York?”

This particular KTâ„¢ floundered briefly.

Another spoke up, haughtily informing me that she sent thousands of dollars to Kenya over the past couple of years.

And it was there that the camel’s back was broken.

Thousand and thousands of Kenyans leave these hallowed shores to go abroad to study. Each has their own reasons
– They can afford to
– What they want to study is not offered here
– To say the magical sentence “I’m flying out”
– They’ve gotten a chance to study at a good school
– Just because

And so they depart. The entire clan is at Jomo Kenyatta Airport to see them off. Everyone, from the family patriarch to the family livestock and poultry is there. While the several dozen uncles, aunts, bothers and sisters deposit kisses on the cheeks of the excited students, the family poultry deposit guano everywhere. Tearful goodbyes are exchanged and the student leaves, ostensibly for four years to study Nuclear Physics / The Mating Habits of the Equatorial Baboon.

Five, six, seven years later, there is puzzlement as to why the student has not returned.

Bewildered relatives corner the father in a bar.

No, Waithera did not switch to Music then to Theatre then to Engineering then to Catering like so many of her fellows. She did not acquire a credit card for each day of the month and then spend days hiding from creditors in a manner that the Special Forces and Navy Seals would do well to emulate. She was not forced by circumstances to get 5 jobs that consigned her studies to a distant back bench.

She stuck to her Nuclear Physics and indeed completed, Summa Cum Laude, Quid Pro Quo, Et Cetera, Nolle Prosequi, Ave Maria, some five years ago.

Then why is she not returning? Because she has decided to live there. She now works for NASA.

“In fact,” the proud patriarch says happily taking a swig of his Tusker Malt, “She was just telling me that she has developed a vehicle constructed entirely from bamboo, fishing line, timber and a watch battery. It is powered principally by the warmth in the human breath, and speaking for five minutes into a little unit gives the car power to travel 100km. Of course if given to a politician he can travel to the moon and back, ha ha!”

“But,” asks a cousin morosely, who forgets to hide his ulterior motives, “Is that to say she is not coming back?”

“She says not in the foreseeable future,” the patriarch says polishing off the Malt and then hailing the barman.

“However she sends me a good bit of money every month and so, my friends, help me reduce this thousand dollars to more manageable levels. Drinks all around my good man!”

There are several thousand Waitheras out there. In the North America. In Europe. In Asia. Indeed, even in other countries in Africa. It’s just a matter of time before South Africa and Botswana start speaking Kiswahili. I vaguely recall some report some weeks back that suggested that Kenya was one of the top contributors of students aboard in the world.

We have several dozen thousand very able scientists, doctors, surgeons, lawyers, IT professionals, authors, musicians, artists, researchers, scholars, engineers and architects all around the world, doing sterling work wherever they are.

Which is good. When opportunities present themselves, grab them. If they don’t present themselves, you go out and get them. Once Harvard / Yale / MIT / Princeton are through with you, and empower you to join the working masses you have in many ways triumphed over adversity.

Naturally, while studying for your degree, you don’t stop living. You come to the realization that in some places it is a big deal for power to disappear. That opening a tap and getting running water is not a pleasant surprise. Some countries have realized that roundabout is Ancient Greek for one person wasting three other people’s time. Some politicians resign because they have been accused of some misdemeanor. That you can apply for a job, do your shopping and pay your bills without leaving the house and dealing with sweaty gentlemen who breathe through their mouths and do not believe in Colgate.

There are plenty of reasons for one to decide that the grass is indeed greener on the other side and decide to settle there. And so a good many do precisely this and go on to settle abroad and get jobs with NASA, IBM, Microsoft, on Wall Street, etc. They will do those jobs and be equally adept, if not more, than the residents.

It is therefore amusing for Waithera, lead researcher for NASA and Onyango, Head of Design at IBM to come to Nairobi for holiday and while seated across from me, purport without batting an eyelid to be working round the clock building Kenya.

You are doing nothing remotely of the kind.

Any innovations you make there will be the property of NASA and IBM, ergo any benefits above and beyond a handsome bonus cheque to you will go straight to NASA and IBM. Your ingenuity is building NASA, IBM and the USA.

Waithera’s car will be made at a cost price of4$ and will turn up for sale in Kenya some 5 years later at a pocket friendly price of 1,000$. If 1 million Kenyans buy this car they will send a grand total of 1,000,000,000,000 dollars straight to the United states GNP, which they can undoubtedly find uses for like building roads and disaster management. In the United States.

While Onyango is developing processors the size of a crumb of bread that can be powered by a watch battery and run for a month on it, the Ministry of Science and Technology still operates a behemoth whose processor is the size of Chris Murungaru and produces about as much hot air and sweat.

Now just imagine how many hundred thousand Waitheras and Onyangos we have working and building USA, UK, Switzerland, Holland, Spain, Belgium, and a dozen other countries with their skills and know how.

If they all returned to Kenya and took charge of ministries, parastatals and the private sector, starting KASA and KBM it would just be a matter of time before we start being known for something other than running.

Before we build our own industries. Before we build nuclear power plants and stop being at the mercy of rain and shine. Before we laugh at the hypocrisy of George Bush and Tony Blair whining about Iran’s nuclear program while they are doing the exact same thing.

Before my computers come in boxes saying “Made In Kenya” and not “Made in the USA”.

Before we tell pontificating condescending, professional activists like Bob Geldof and Jeffrey Sachs to take their magic bullet experimental formulae and stick them in a location that depends on how tightly these magic bullet experimental formulae can be rolled up.

I have nothing against settling overseas. After all, all of us dream of having a good life and are always in pursuit of actualizing our dreams. I don’t even have a problem with changing citizenship if it brings you closer to your dreams. The sad truth is that patriotism is not particularly edible and it’s difficult to remember the words of the national anthem when you’re hungry.

What I take issue with is pontificating about how things are going to the dogs, how the country is run by nitwits and how you’re correcting the situation and building your country by wiring money from the comfort of your New York apartment, complete with goldfish..

You can’t have your cake and eat it.

I’m sorry to inform you that sending money is not building anything, besides offices for Western Union. It does not build Kenya anymore than trainee teachers build schools by declining to return to teach after training and sending money instead.

Sending money merely allows Kenya to run on the spot at best. It allows your nearest and dearest to subsist. It pays bills. Nothing more nothing less. Spare us the absurd notion that we should be grateful to you for the greenbacks you mail every month in the guise of building the country. Attempting to place your wired money on a pedestal is merely massaging your conscience.

Which is not to say you should not send money. Au contraire. If it keeps roofs over heads of wee tots, pays the odd bill, clothes backs and educates a few, carry on. If it enables cantankerous old men to down rounds at the local bar, soldier forth. At least you’re sharing your spoils.

You can’t have your cake and eat it.

The United States we know today was, and continues to be built by the English and the Irish and the Chinese and the Mexicans and the Italians and the Indians and the Russians and the Japanese and the Germans who live and work there. And of course by poor Africans who had a remarkable incentive program called the whip and were not distracted by little things like wages and unions.

Money does not build countries. People working does. Do not for half a second delude yourself otherwise.

You can’t have your cake and eat it.

There is only one way to build Kenya.

Come back and work.

Alanis Morissette – Uninvited

173 thoughts on “Having Cake And Eating It”

  1. Why does that fascinate you? Everyone knows that guys in developing countries has brains on what we need to do to progress our nations but no-one is ready to sacrifice their personal luxuries to see to it that we get there. Ever wondered where all those brilliant ideas our politicians utter during campaign periods come from? They all have the right intentions but whenever they get there,…well they say power corrupts but even in the western world, G.W. Bush has proven to all that absolute power corrupts absolutely. What then do you think we can do about this poor human race of ours???

  2. that one on kibaki not being able to drag is own shadow through a door is just WAY TOO FUNNY!!

    true, being abroad and sending money doesn’t build our nation. and as you correctly point out, the money sent only helps short-term. but i’d like the education, experience and money gained abroad will help build the nation some day when the person returns home – especially the money…

    really nice post (though a bit harsh :-) )

  3. My my these comments get more and more interesting as time goes by.You have different groups here:
    1.Those who agree with M whole heartedly
    2.Those who agree with M but have some objections
    3.Those who vehemently disagree and believe that there money is indeed helping
    4.Those who vehemently disagree and say that they are out here because patriotism does not equal food
    5.Those who disagree and say they are coming home someday
    6.Those who disagree and say that since people back home are gnashing in business and employment why should they rush back to fail?
    And the list goes on and on and on.
    M I have decided to take a page from Victor’s book and take all these comments and compile them into a book with commentary from me.I will give you 5% out of courtesy.Send me your details….:D

  4. I was tidying my bosse’s desk last week when I came across this letter at the bottom of her drawer. I suspect that she meant to send it so I have bought a virtual stamp and sent it off to you.

    “To M

    Your article about cake making and the bit about Kenyans abroad in particular has brought much anger and dismay in da house. I am writing on behalf of a fuming, hard working lady who claims that your reporters are all twisted and really should have had the decency to check their facts before going to press.

    Yes Bwana Ishmael Amothi has a daughter abroad and her name is Waithira; she don’t go for none of that neo classic style of spelling like some folks. Yes indeed she went and studied and attained a degree in medieval dance rituals and Business administration. She also did a short correspondence course on plant psychology purely for visa xtension purposes.

    The institute that she currently works for may sound like nasa on the phone but your dim reporter should know that it is called The Nursing and Residential Care Service Association, NARCSA and they have many homes in all towns and cities.

    I expect an apology.”

  5. Bravo M!! Your idea is very important to the right thinking Kenyans. If there is any Kenyan who does not like your sugggestion about nation building, its because of the following reasons:
    1. Some of us have never been to school/college/university since they left Kenya to the West for furthjer studies
    2.They have no required skills to enable them succeed in Kenya
    3. They will be a liability to the country because they have nothing to offer.
    4. They are hiding in the west and are KTs who are liars. They have non-existent occupations while they are cleaning old women in nursing homes for years averaging 10years.
    5.Basically they have nothing to bring back to KENYA IN TERMS OF EXPERIENCE AND GLOBAL EXPERIENCE BECAUSE THEY WORK 24*7 to eke a living
    6. For those Kenyans in the diaspora that have worked hard and have gained professional experience, Kenya needs you. Kenya is the next frontier.

  6. Please do refer to this to answer your question:


    As Kenyans abroad remit Sh50bn, shilling gains new ground

    Publication Date: 02/14/2006
    Foreign currency sent home by Kenyans living abroad has been helping to shore up the Shilling.

    According to information made available by the Central Bank of Kenya, up to Sh50 billion ($700 million) is remitted to Kenya annually.

    The money has not only helped lift the local currency, but has also spurred activity in the property market. Buying of houses and construction of new buildings have received a boost from monies remitted to Kenya in recent times.

    Of course, the building and construction boom has also been driven by lower mortgage interest rates, and higher budget allocations to road construction and rehabilitation in the 2005/06 financial year.

    Not surprisingly, among the other sectors that have benefited from this is the cement industry, with consumption rising by 7.9 per cent in the first ten months of 2005 to nearly 1.2 million tonnes.

    Better economic environment

    With five per cent of the GDP being sent back by Kenyans in the diaspora, it is clear they have made a sizeable contribution to economic growth in recent years. The Kenya Club, an organisation of Kenyan professionals and investors residing in Britain, said last September that there were well over two million Kenyans abroad, including 130,000 in the UK itself. The veracity of the figures notwithstanding, it is true that the economic circumstances of those who opt to reside abroad is sometimes better than that of those they live behind.

    Late last year, the Club said: “It is a fact that we are a vital source of revenue to our country, through the remittance of foreign currency to our families and towards development projects.”

    Kenya Club even estimated the annual remittances to be actually higher than what is given by the Central Bank of Kenya. Its annual bank survey for Kenyans abroad showed that they send back not less $1 billion (Sh71 billion) annually, while those in the UK alone remit Sh50 billion annually. The organisation said that when informal remittance mechanisms are taken into account the amount more than doubles official flows.

    Reliable infrastructure

    The money sent home by Kenyans abroad could be even more, were it not for the fact that expensive transfer charges hinder the sending of more money home.

    The Government set up an informal facilitation committee to help them send money at affordable rates. However, when they Kenya Club made enquiries on the progress of its work last year, the Central Bank revealed that there was little movement, despite several meetings among the organisations concerned. Some Kenyans abroad even suggest that a possible solution to remitting money home would be the establishment of a Kenyan Bank in the UK, or the setting up of a reliable information and communication technology infrastructure.

    Kenyans may be sending dollars back home and helping keep the local currency strong, but local exporters have to live with a strong shilling and its negative consequences. Horticultural exporters have especially been vocal against the Shilling’s appreciation, unlike importers who are content to bask in the luck that recent developments have brought to their business.

    At a workshop on financing the tourism sector last week, the chief executive of the Nairobi Stock Exchange, Chris Mwebesa, said Kenyans living abroad invested at least Sh10 billion in 2004 in the stock market.

    He said that the money even had an impact on the local currency. The Central Bank, however, says that apart from the estimates, the data given about remittances are not reliable. The Bank is also reluctant to admit that the remittances have had an impact on the Shilling.

    It notes that organised repatriations of funds boost domestic foreign exchange holdings and facilitate transmission of funds by Kenyans abroad at more competitive pricing.

    Indeed, foreign exchange reserves have been growing. Those held by the banking system rose to $2.446 billion at the end of September 2005, from $1.906 billion at the end of September 2004. Foreign currency deposits held locally by residents increased to $1.14 billion at the end of September 2005, from $881 million at the end of September 2004.

    Despite the contribution to growth that Kenyans living and working abroad make to the country, facilities for sending money home are limited. Indeed, it seems most of the money is sent through Western Union, but there seems to be a variety of other informal ways that bypass the formal banking system.

    Foreign accounts

    When Kenya Club sought to establish the best banking facilities available for Kenyans living in the diaspora, it found out that most would prefer a bank account to manage financial obligations in Kenya, rather than the ad-hoc arrangements available to them.

    The survey also noted that banks are not catering for the needs of the majority of Kenyans abroad, pointing out that most of the banks contacted lacked the infrastructure to manage foreign-owned bank accounts from abroad, did not offer internet banking services, and expected customers to operate bank accounts by post, or even face to face. Some banks have adopted some form of Internet banking since the survey, but the general situation remains unchanged.

    The Kenya Club also found out that bank charges varied greatly, with no standard rates or charges. Some banks charged five to 10 times as much as the cheaper ones for the same service. Most charge for all manners of services, including monthly service charges, which are not the norm for Kenyans in the diaspora.

    However, the survey also highlighted some banks that had by then enabled Kenyans to use their services to send money home, including Commercial Bank of Africa and National Industrial Credit (NIC) Bank. Others are now even offering mortgage finance for Kenyans abroad.

    “Banks still have a long way to go to redress the balance and ensure that foreign currency remittances are channelled in the most effective way, we hope the Kenya Club Banking survey will create a step-change,” said Sam Manjau, Kenya Club’s finance director, at the time of the survey.

  7. Great post M, was cool to read through all these comments…
    I’m Tunisian and if you replace Kenya by Tunisia, USA and UK by France and Italy, you’ll find out that we are living more or less the same situation. The difference is that since some events (9-11, attacks in London, migration laws in France), many Tunisians are leading back home, adding many fiscal adavantages and targetted services offered by the gov to skilled expatriates to start their own busineses here. Of course the situation i s not perfect and many of us are still dreaming to “fly out” but building Kenya (Tunisia, Africa, etc) must be a joint will between the diaspora and the country of origin.
    it’s very difficult to leave your cosy flat in NYC, your super rewarding working environment, the daily challenges that gives a taste to your life and go back somewhere where we don’t value your skills and qualifications (happened to a Tunisian professor who used to teach in UCBerkley) and where nothing is meant to keep you there beyond any other consideration of high wages and benifits.

  8. You know the reason why this happens?
    (i) Africans are base people, leaving a 19th century mindest in this 21st century
    (ii)Africans are not samrt people: presented with problems, they run away, not solve them
    (iii) Africans have no sense of self worh: no matter how much they protest, they believe the white man has solutions to all his problems: if not, how come you go west?
    (iv) Africans have a “give me give me” mentality: blames the governments for not creating jobs, and seeks what someone else has created, instead of creating one.
    (v) Africans are cowards: seek comfort in the west, instead of swating out a solution home
    (vi) Africans are dim: they cannot realise that the mzungu is not his bossom buddy.

    If the above is not true, i pray, do tell, what ails Africa?

  9. What the blog writer is saying is “STOP THE DELUSION!!”

    As is obvious, nobody can force the diaspora Kenyans to come back home and and build the country, but they must realize what they are doing is irrelevant in the bigger picture. Besides how do they think the high rises, the road networks and superior technological advances in US and Europe were made. By research, dedication, investment etc NOT by somebody wiring money every month!

    Thinker is right, you cannot have your cake and eat it!! This problem would be solved by requiring all who proceed to emigrate for flimsy reasons to leave their national identity and citizenship at the door. Proceed to live “feed yourself” and “take care of immediate needs”. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.

    This is not an issue of patriotism, it is an issue of common sense! An analogy: if you spend all your time cleaning other people’s houses, using extraordinary “next generation” cleaning agents, then neglecting your own house, then complain that nothing is getting done in your own house!! Who do you think will do it?? Jeez!! If it is a problem of technology and resources, complaining about using “outdated” cleanign agents will not help, since you have been exposed to these fancy Western gadgets and technology, apply the same in your own house.

    Now extrapolate this situation to whatever sector is of interest to you, the economy, technology, academia etc. The Kenyans who have studied abroad are in a position of great advantage in that they have been exposed first hand to the mechanisms in the Western commerce and industry and if motivated enough can reproduce this knowledge and creativity in their home turf.

    The comment(s) equating this mass emigration of Kenyans (for flimsy reasons) to foreign (usually Western countries) to rural-urban migration is incorrect. It is apples and oranges. The relatives one has in Siaya, Kerugoya or Mtwapa are all citizens of Kenya, any economic or structural growth benefits them, albeit not immediately. The gains and advancements made in research, technology etc done in foreign countries using their resources are the property of those sovereign countries.

    People just need to stop the delusion. The masses will continue to go abroad, some will achieve great heights in their careers, others will be doing low level jobs for decades on end. Others still will come back home, secure excellent jobs in MNC, parastatals and private companies, and yet others will come back home, find their skills are not applicable and suffer massive frustration. All these are possible outcomes. Nothing in life is a guarantee. However, the delusion must stop. Wiring funds from abroad at regular intervals is NOT building the country.

    Final thought: There is a vicious cycle set in place in Kenya. You have all seen/heard/met the token expatriate high level manager in many companies. Some are qualified, others grossly underqualified. I do believe, with the exception of some multinational companies and any underhanded politics aside, there was at some point a shortage of native Kenyans with the requisite skills/experience/education in some sectors. However, that was then, this is now, with graduates from both local schools and those abroad having advanced degrees in fields like Engineering and IT, there is no excuse not to hire local. BUT with all the good qualified folks running away, what option do they have but…..drum roll please…bring in yet another expat.

    What happens next, pockets of students and grads in America, Europe and Asia whine on end about their employment prospects back in Kenya. How only foreigners get the top level juicy jobs. It is a vicious cycle people. Only we can stop it.

    So either come back home, roll up your sleeves and get to work or stay wherever you are, wire back your weekly/monthly/annual remittance but do not expect a collective show of gratitude and appreciation from Kenya and Kenyans as a whole.

  10. Happy Holidays Wakenya!
    Quotable quotes of 2006 by M: 1)Relax a little. Smell the oxygen.hahaha! 2)Relax. Take deep breaths.hehehe!…this made my day..
    Amongst all the mishales(na mikukis) flying swiftly across the globe on this blog, some soundly landing with deposits of real topical issues,while others seemed to aim and somehow land amiss, it has all made for not only food for thought but a hearty gooood laugh!
    Thanks for allowing the diasporians to express their heartfelt maonis on our beloved HOMELAND!

    Your are a Top man!

    Insipirational poem I came across;

    “If you think you are beaten, you are,
    If you think you dare not, you don’t.
    If you like to win but you think you can’t,
    It is almost certain you won’t.

    “If you think you’ll lose, you’re lost,
    For out in the world we find,
    Success begins with a fellow’s will-
    It’s all in the state of mind.

    “If you think you are outclassed, you are,
    You’ve got to think high to rise,
    You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
    You can ever win a prize

    “Life’s battles don’t always go
    To the stronger or faster (wo)man,
    But soon or later the man who wins
    Is the (wo)man WHO THINKS HE/SHE CAN!”

  11. It is kinda late to be reading and commenting on this article but it is absolutely brilliant. Can I publish it?

    I am in the States but I think anyone who sends money back home to support people there does nothing for the economy. As a matter of fact, it is an insult for the government to be trumpeting the KShs 65 Billion being sent from the Diaspora. You mean to tell me you have done such a bad job in building the economy that remittances are the leading source of foreign exchange in the country?

    I think we need to have programs where actual solutions such as helping families gain real wealth through entrepreneurship or investments or the like. This will build the economy while providing families with real sources of income. To keep sending money is to keep training people to rely on you for ever. The only way to solve our problems and progress is solve the root cause of sending money – poverty. That by the way is solved by giving the poor a chance to make their OWN money, not yours.

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