For Kenyans in Sweet Home Alabama, There is Always Something to Remind You About Home


By Mukurima X. Muriuki and Carmen B.

Set in the foothills of the Appalachians, Alabama is known as Alabama the Beautiful – for good reason. From the Appalachians to the Gulf Coast, this state offers a varied mix of terrains, ecosystems and natural wonders. The climate is unique in that it allows one to truly experience all four seasons during the year.

The only season that seems shorter than the others is spring, which is a favorite to many.  It is here, and gone in the blink of an eye. If that is your favorite season as well, North Alabama allows for truer spring weather. The winters in the Yellowhammer State are mostly mild, but on occasion there may be 2 to 3 inches of snow or an ice storm. One thing is for certain – Alabamians are never truly prepared for winter weather. When the first snowflake falls or the first icicle is formed, panic ensues and there is a run on the supermarkets where milk and bread are the first items to go. If you are delayed in getting to the grocery store to prepare for the ‘winter storm,’ the site is apocalyptic. Ironically, the snow usually melts in a day or two, milk and bread magically reappear on the store shelves, and all is happy again in Sweet Home Alabama.

Because of the weather and the terrain in the Heart of Dixie, there are plenty of activities for those who love the outdoors. Although Alabama is not known for its snow skiing, there is a small ski-slope in Mentone, AL for beginners and for those who want to practice before going to ski the mountains up north. However, the majority of Alabamians head to the beaches of South Alabama or to the many lakes for fun in the sun. Gulf Shores and Mobile are the most popular destinations in the state for beachgoers. Not only is Mobile an entertaining port city, it is host to the oldest annual carnival celebration in America – Mardi Gras.

Alabama’s history is rich and diverse. Birmingham is home to the Civil Rights Museum where Martin Luther King is celebrated and remembered for his life’s work in breaking down racial barriers in this nation. This state has come a long way since Dr. King, and it still carries his dream for all people to come together and live in peace. The most notable civil rights leaders from Alabama are: Rosa Parks, John Lewis and Dr. King. Because there is a church on every corner, a newcomer to this state can see the love Alabamians have for one another as people of all colors come together to worship in spirit and in truth.

If you are a foodie, you cannot travel through Alabama without tasting its delicious cuisine. Barbeque is a southern staple, and some of Alabama’s best is found at Birmingham’s Dreamland Barbeque. It was born in a small shack in Tuscaloosa. When word got out, long lines formed outside of the tiny shack with patrons waiting to get a slab of ribs, a stack of white bread to soak up the sauce, and some homemade banana pudding. Their motto is, “Ain’t Nothin’ Like It Nowhere.” However, if barbecue is not your passion, there is seafood aplenty down at the coast. Coastal Alabama is known for its royal red shrimp and some of the best are found at Fisher’s at Orange Beach.  Many locals refer to them as baby lobster tails because of their sweet flavor.

When looking for quality higher education the following schools are the most popular in the state: the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, Auburn University, Samford University, and Troy University. The University of Alabama at Birmingham is the second largest employer in Alabama. Because healthcare is a major part of the state’s economy, it is natural for students from all over the world to attend UAB. One such student, John Gitau Wairimu of Kenya, became one of only four scholars in the USA to earn a master’s degree in Nuclear Medicine Technology. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Health focusing on epidemiology from UAB. He is pursuing his PhD in Healthcare management this Fall. Wairimu’s goal is to use his knowledge and experience to assist professionals in the healthcare industry in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Gitau Wairimu

As in most of America, there are immigrants from all over the globe living in Alabama. The largest city, Metro Birmingham, is home to many natives of Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, and Nigeria. Africans have come to America and the Magic City for education, family, and employment.

Hellene M., migrated to America from Kenya’s Central Province 15 years ago, together with her family. In Kenya things had grown tougher-economically. As she was one of the main breadwinners in the home, her age prevented her from going back to her corporate job. Nevertheless, she accepted an offer to come to Alabama as she already had many relatives living there. She quickly learned that the Alabama/Kenyan community was well established and very diverse. According to Hellene:

“The hospitals in Birmingham know the Kenyans very well because if one of us is sick we flock there to pray. We gather at weddings because they are usually open invitations. We raise funds for almost every social need. We come together for spiritual, emotional, financial and physical needs. We not only contribute to those of us here, but if a death occurs to a close relative, we help too. We also have a co-op where people pay monthly so that if there is a need that person is given immediate cash.”

One aspect of Alabama that  Hellene loves is the weather. It reminds her of South Kenya. She says the Alabama summers have a hot and humid feeling exactly like the coast of the Indian Ocean. Although the Gulf Coast is considered a fun vacation for her, she enjoys the various lakes around Birmingham and  surrounding counties. According to her, the drive to Smith Lake is beautiful because of the countryside that envelops you. Cows, chickens, quiet country lanes and the smell of fresh air remind her of her Kenyan home. One destination in Alabama that she still longs to visit is the birthplace of her namesake, Helen Keller.

From the foothills of Appalachia to the beaches of Mobile and Gulf Shores, Alabama offers a lot more than a newcomer might expect.  Mild weather, long growing seasons, delicious cuisine and friendly people continue to attract visitors who decide to stay.

Suggested Read: Kenyan Immigrants in USA Among Most Educated