By RASNA WARAH
ON A FLIGHT BACK FROM London last week, I found myself surrounded by Kenya’s newest tribe, variously known as The Kenyan Diaspora, Kenyans In The Diaspora, or simply The Diaspora. Most were young, with spouses and small children with British accents in tow.
You could tell they were first generation immigrants by the look of hunger and accomplishment etched on their faces. (You know, the one that says “I made it, but I need to make more.”)
Most carried huge suitcases, no doubt filled with presents for people “back home” as they call it. The expressions on their faces suggested they were happy to leave the bitter cold winter of Britain and their even colder hosts, even if it was just for a few days.
Kenyans expect a lot from their Diaspora. One, we expect them to send regular remittances to the motherland. Two, we expect them to acquire foreign nationalities so that they can become eligible to sponsor relatives who want to join them.
Three, we expect them to lead the finest of lives, with posh cars, big houses and the latest gadgets. And last, but not least, we do not expect them to come back home for good.
And the Diaspora has not disappointed. It is estimated that Kenyans living abroad remit approximately $1.6 billion to Kenya each year.
According to a recent Africa Recruit Survey, remittances are mainly used to support and subsidise family members left behind, to invest in property or businesses, or to build a retirement home.
The financial clout of members of this group is so significant that every aspiring presidential candidate has attempted to woo them.
Unlike many other immigrant communities who forget their countries of origin as soon as they arrive on foreign soil, Kenyans in the Diaspora do everything they can not to forget where they came from.
I am told nyama choma (roast meat) and Tusker parties are held regularly in Diaspora strongholds such as Atlanta and Boston.
In Britain, Kikuyu is becoming as commonplace as Cockney. Apparently, you can take the Kenyan out of Kenya but you can’t take Kenya out of the Kenyan.
It is not clear how many acquire foreign passports or how many come back once they leave. We also don’t hear much about those who fell by the wayside or failed in their careers.
Do some of them become “one of the hundreds of Africans who come to America with stars in their eyes which get progressively dimmer in the years and years of scrubbing toilets and washing dishes”, as the US-based Andia Kisia, Kenya’s unsung literary heroine, put it?
DO OTHERS NEVER COME BACK home because they are too embarrassed to admit to their families that they have, in fact, not made it, and are leading working class lives in bad neighbourhoods?
Life in Britain or the United States is not as easy as we would like to believe, and has become even harder for people of colour since 9/11.
In societies that are extremely colour-conscious, the arrival of a black- or brown-skinned person in the workplace or in the neighbourhood is not exactly welcomed. Even those who manage to cross the colour line and make it as successful professionals are constantly reminded in subtle and not-so-subtle ways of what they are not – white.
Because these societies tend to be individualistic, capitalistic and consumeristic, Kenyans living abroad find their lives revolving around work, with little time for social or cultural activities.
Kenyans living in London, for instance, will hardly ever visit the world-famous West End to see a musical or visit family or friends on weekends.
To keep up the appearance of a good life, most are heavily in debt, paying off car loans and mortgages that they can barely afford.
Many lead lonely, empty lives. But few will get onto the next plane to come home because the hopes of an entire village or an extended family are pinned on them.
Many Kenyans also dread coming home because their relatives here expect them to distribute wads of bank-notes to them upon arrival.
Many Kenyans are not aware of the high cost of living in Western countries and don’t realise that some of our brothers and sisters out there skip a meal or do two or three jobs just to get by.
As a result, many suffer from depression or from a permanent state of apathy.
But as their numbers grow, and as more become aware of the fact that the quality of one’s life is more important than the amount of wealth one can accumulate, I will not be surprised if many Kenyans in the Diaspora plan to come back home for good.
Unfortunately, many may realise that once you leave home, you can never really come back home again.