CAN KENYANS IN DIASPORA EMULATE INDIA’S DIASPORA – A DRIVING FORCE BEHIND THE COUNTRY’S CURRENT GILDED AGE?

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By Washington Osiro,

Last September shortly before the 2019 UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, India’s diaspora community gathered in Houston to accord their leader Prime Minister Narendra Modi a welcome so boisterous and warm that the media in Texas dubbed the event a “Howdy Modi”; a nod to the Lone Star state’s western/cowboy drawl/greeting.

A reported 50,000 Indians, presumably of all backgrounds and castes, packed the baseball stadium of the local Houston Astros team to welcome their PM. Along to introduce the visiting VIP was none other than his host US President Donald Trump. It also wasn’t the first time PM Modi had drawn massive crowds of Indians while visiting the US. In 2015, a crowd of 18,000 packed San Jose’s SAP Center to welcome him, and a year earlier in 2014, The Daily Beast wrote an article titled “India’s Modi Greeted as Hero in New York.” The PM was addressing Indians gathered in New York’s Madison Square Garden (MSG) – also ahead of the 2014 UN General Assembly.

By all accounts, the show of support for PM Modi during his Houston visit by a broad cross-section of Indians/Indian-Americans, some who traveled from as far away as the Bay Area, was impressive. It also belied the ethnic, religious, socio-economic and class differences India is notorious for. For some reason/s, Indians in America have been able to set aside their differences: Hindi vs. Muslim vs. Sikh; Men vs. Women; “Fair-skinned” vs. “Darkies”; Brahmins vs. Kshatriyas vs. Vaishyas vs. Shudras all the way “down” to Dalits or the “outcasts” – to put on a strong show of support the three times their prime minister has visited the US. Along the way, all 2,400,000** of them have become a certified force in their home country’s socio-political AND economic front while also sitting atop some of America’s blue-chip companies including Microsoft (Satya Nadella), Google (Pichai Sundararajan aka Sundar Pichai), and soon, International Business Machine (Arvind Krishna).

** – According to the Migration Policy Institute – who put the number of Kenyans in the US at 115K (“The Kenyan Diaspora in the United States” – Revised 2015)

The opposite end of the spectrum re: whether a country’s diaspora can unite and become a socio-economic and political force is evidenced by the backlash against a Kenyan group calling itself Diaspora National Assembly or DNA. A change.org petition denouncing DNA’s arrogation of itself as representatives of Kenya’s US diaspora appeared on social media just as quickly as the group’s public presentation of its credentials as representatives of Kenyans in the diaspora came to light. Compared to their Indian counterparts, Kenyans in the diaspora appear divided, disjointed, ethnicized, and powerless even though they needn’t be.

To be clear and to echo the salient point made by Mukurima Muriuki’s February 1, 2020 article titled “Criticizing ‘Diaspora National Assembly’ Without Providing An Alternative Only Mutes Our Voice As Diaspora,” the easiest thing for one to do is to criticize the efforts of others. However, the lead-up to the formulation of solutions for most problems involves asking hard questions and taking critical looks at both the current state (of affairs), competing solutions, and in socio-political issues, the agenda/s of those offering potential solutions.

Specific to the (current) state of Kenyan Diaspora stateside, a “Work-in-Progress” rating would be charitable. There is little doubt about the group’s economic muscle – based on the amount of their remittances ($2.546B according to CBK’s 2019 figure, of which ˜48% comes from North America). Despite their financial power, there IS an insularity and circling-of-the-wagons among Kenyans in the diaspora around the country’s various tribes that harken to the insularity and circling-of-the-wagons of the tribes back home. It is thus unsurprising that Kenyans in the diaspora coagulate around tribe and ethnicity – be it Luos, Kikuyus, Kisiis, or Kalenjins. 

“Sticking with your kind” is natural, i.e., birds of a feather do indeed flock together. There is also some security in being around things (and people) one is familiar with. However, circling-the-wagons around groups – tribal, religion, race, etc. – becomes a disadvantage when any inherent differences between the various groups cannot be set aside long enough to support the multiple groups’ collective symbol of national unity, i.e., their leaders AND in pursuit of the greater good – for the group writ large.

Specific to the Kenyan group DNA, a google search sends one to a page with “The Diaspora National Assembly Mission Statement” dated January 30, 2020, by “kenyanblog2019”. The same google search links to a “Kenyan Parents in USA” page. Additionally, the page links to seven (7) pages, including “Kenyan Menu,” “Diaspora Menu,” and “Video Shows.” The first two pages have drop-down menus to newspapers and news sites – of interest to Kenyans, while the page “Video Shows” links to shows that have a decidedly tribal bias in their offerings. The other four pages are stand-alone – linking to “Home,” “Kenyan Embassy,” “Events,” and “Contact.”

Maybe there is a legitimate explanation for the regional focus and biased amplification of one (tribal) voice, as reflected in the shows offered on the “Video Shows” page. However, this is a misstep that could have easily been avoided had DK Gitau, the group’s “president,” and his team done basic due diligence and outreach – to diverse individuals and groups in the diaspora. Maybe I wasn’t among those the group DNA reached out to, but the push-back against its public unveiling was near-immediate – including a change.org petition that rejected its claim that it “articulates issues affecting Kenyans in the diaspora…..”

The disparate numbers between Kenyans and Indians in America notwithstanding, Modi’s three visits stateside highlight differences in (a) how Kenyans and Indians in the diaspora relate to one another, (b) how Kenyans and Indians in the diaspora respond to their visiting leaders, (c) how Kenyans and Indians BACK home (in Kenya and India) interact with their diaspora community and (d), how either government thinks of their respective diaspora community. 

Indians stateside have somehow managed to set aside their differences when it comes to welcoming their visiting leaders, including one who is arguably just as polarizing at home (in India) as some of Kenya’s leaders are at home (in Kenya). And unlike the Kenyan public AND the Kenyan government that only seems to tout the monetary contributions of their diasporan counterparts, the Indian society and their government see their diaspora as ambassadors of and for their country writ large.

Modi’s government does not see “brain drain” as the problem most developing countries (including Kenya) see the phenomenon as. Instead of decrying the often contentious trend, i.e., smart, accomplished, and mostly young nationals choosing to build nest eggs/raise families AWAY from the motherland, Modi has increasingly pushed back against the argument by characterizing “brain drain” as “brain gain” and “brain deposit.”

In his 2015 speech before the thousands gathered in Silicon Valley, the PM offered the view that the country’s diaspora is “…..rich with smart gems, with new brains coming up every day……(and) looking for an opportunity to do something…..”. (“10 things from Narendra Modi’s speech at San Jose” – Sept. 2015). 

This view was codified in the country’s Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) and boosted the role/voice of the country’s diaspora around the world. MOIA was eventually folded (back) into the Ministry of External Affairs, i.e., Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but a vital function of the ministry remained Diaspora Services. This decision/policy position has enabled Indians to flourish – home AND abroad – the former as ostentatiously documented in James Crabtree’s 2018 book “The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age” even as Kenya’s diaspora struggle to have a voice in their country’s elections and others appoint themselves “president” and “cabinet ministers” of a “national assembly” without the knowledge of those whose interests they supposedly represent!

All told, the challenges facing Kenyans in the diaspora, the groups that claim to represent them such as DNA, KDA, and importantly, Kenya’s policymakers, are multi-variate:

– All sides should realize that while the country’s rich diversity is part of its beauty and charm, there is strength in unity – especially when away from home – where few can tell the differences between one tribe and the next. DNA’s claim of being a “national assembly” is tenuous if not laughable when its offering of media programs is decidedly regional, i.e., Mt. Kenya/Central,

– The many groups that claim to represent Kenyans in the diaspora should set aside their tribal/ethnic differences long enough to accord their visiting national leaders the warmth and respect commensurate with their offices – unless the leaders don’t deserve warm and respectful welcomes. Unfortunately, regardless of the interactions between folks in the diaspora and their leaders from home, the rest of the world takes note of such interactions – for future use,

– Kenya’s diaspora should leverage their financial muscle to effect political change back home and abroad, much like Indians and Israelis have done in their respective home countries. Kenya’s diaspora has yet to fully realize the resource-multiplier effect that available were they to pool their resources towards a common goal/purpose.

– To put it mildly, Kenya’s diaspora, as a political force, is near non-existent. As meekly offered by Mukurima, all they can do is “hope” to “one day participate in their home country’s elections – a tall order given the country’s erratic conduct of elections AT HOME! This is unfortunate given the economic might of these same diaspora groups.

Finally, there is nothing wrong with being the proverbial Tenth Man, i.e., the “devil’s advocate” who challenges the (offered) conventional wisdom – even when they don’t provide alternatives. Stress-testing mission statements and objectives like the ones offered by DNA can only make them better.

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