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
Arrive in the country at some ungodly hour of the night and proceed to call up everyone you know to inform you are around
Find bearings. Get used to :
– Driving on the left
– Ever changing geography of Nairobi
– largely ignored highway code
Meet the family. Hug everyone. Give away the gifts that were limited by (in descending order)
b) Airline personnel
c) Customs personnel
Go to see the grand folks in shags
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
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.