A Letter from a Kenyan Abroad

A response to Bikozulu’s “A Letter to Kenyans Abroad” http://bikozulu.co.ke/a-letter-to-kenyans-abroad/

For a long time I’ve fought the itch to respond to blogs, tweets, status updates and newspaper articles from Kenyans at home that bash Kenyans abroad for their accents and attitudes. I had decided it’s too trivial. Until today when “A Letter to Kenyans Abroad” arrived on my wall, twice, then twice again, demanding to be read. And I did. Time to scratch that itch.

Bikozulu starts off well, then degenerates into a rant of castigating Kenyans in the diaspora for being o-so-obnoxious. Some Kenyans at home have taken to carrying around a big stick canning their diaspora brothers and sisters at every turn for defiling a certain doctrine of Kenyanness. Thanks largely to Bikozulu’s letter, I have summed up their ten commandments for Kenyans abroad.

  1. You’re not allowed to have an American or British accent. 
  2. Don’t criticize your country’s dirty politics. That’s the way it is.
  3. Stop pointing out the crippling poverty in your motherland. That’s the way it is.
  4. It’s sacrilegious for you to speak of a foreign country as “home.” It turns your ancestors in their graves.
  5. Stop asking for quality time with us when you visit; we’re busy and we’ve moved on from you. 
  6. If you want to make a difference, come to Kenya. Stop that diaspora rights nonsense.
  7. You’re not allowed to use the phrase “when I was in…” or “back in…” with reference to a location in Europe or North America during conversation with a Kenyan at home. 
  8. We are allowed to insult you for flipping burgers and scrubbing toilets abroad because… remind us, didn’t you go to get a PhD?
  9. You’re not allowed to criticize a Kenyan at home for poor work ethic. That’s the way it is here, respect us.
  10. No matter how long you’ve lived in Europe or the US, maintain an authentic Kenyan accent. (A variation of 1st commandment.) 

So let me start with the 1st, 7th and 10th commandments, by far the most irksome to Kenyans at home when broken. A year or so ago, there was a news item about a certain white lady who had lived in Lamu for only a year and mastered Kiswahili perfectly, complete with the Lamu indigenous accent. What was interesting is how so many Kenyans in Kenya, including the journalists, were awed by her effort and achievement, holding her up as an example for other Kenyans whose Kiswahili is questionable. But a Kenyan abroad speaking excellent English with a decent command of the British or American accent is considered arrogant, false and somehow a rejecter of his/her African heritage.

The stuff of inferiority complexes by colonized minds still amazes me. It is what I see every time I see reactions to Kenyans abroad speaking with some degree of a western accent. Yes, some consciously work at it, either because in their workplace they bear an obligation to be understood (I’m a teacher, language is my tool, and to be understood is my responsibility), or because it simply makes life easier to do what the Romans do while in Rome. Some acquire accents overtime, subconsciously, in varied degrees. That does not mean they lose your identity. It is true that Kenyans abroad acquire a deeper pride in their ethnic and Kenyan identity, some speaking Kiswahili for the first time, and those who were born here learning their mother tongue with pride while Nairobi kids could care less.

Now, some claim, with a chest-thumping, that they don’t have an altered accent after living abroad for decades. False. Even a Kikuyu with the heaviest Kikuyu accent somewhere in Boston will subconsciously slip in a “tomayto” here, a “callege” there, a “Canerricat” (Connecticut) too.  There’s nothing to it. And if while in Kenya you slip into your diaspora-acquired accent, don’t ever apologize for it to puzzled Kenyans ready to write you off as a fake. You are the sum of your experiences. Because I’m fully aware of this attitude, before I visited Kenya after a long period of absence some years ago, I warned my family, “my accent is significantly tainted.” I’m also able to switch back and forth between accents, depending on who I’m talking to. I know a lot of diasporans have this dexterity. Did you study Darwin?

And yes, Kenyans do pick up accents from other parts besides Europe and North America. I can point you to Kenyan friends who settled in India, Nigeria and Tanzania and came back with the various accents. But Kenyans at home just choose not to highlight it. Go figure. You don’t even have to look beyond Kenya. My Taita aunts, married and settled in different parts of Taita, now speak with accents from that part of Taita. But do we tell them they’re being arrogant? No. Only if they settled in America and spoke with an American accent, then they deserve our wrath.

As for commandment 7, it belongs to the same category of inferiority complexes displayed by those who think it arrogant for a diaspora Kenyan to speak of foreign (read, Western) places in conversation. See, I’ve told so many stories starting with “when I was in Kakuma refugee camp…” and tell of what I learnt about bravery beyond human comprehension from the “lost boys” of Sudan, and never once did I receive a judgmental look. But the minute I start a story with “when I was in New York…” Kenyan noses are squinted upwards, eyes rolling back into insular heads as if I just farted nerve gas. C’mon Kenyans.

Commandment 2, 3, 6 and 9. Reading Bikozulu’s repetitive tag, “that’s the way it is”, as in, you have no right to change our status quo, is really telling of the “outsider” attitude directed at diaspora Kenyans. Kenyans abroad criticizing Kenya is seen as insulting someone else’s mother. Get over it, Kenyans, we’re Kenyans too, and we too have a fierce responsibility to hold our politicians accountable and our fellow Kenyans responsible for conduct that builds a country. The corruption sucks, the poverty stinks, the matatu menace is barbaric, the roads suck (don’t brag to me about Thika Superhighway, a mere 50 km stretch that leaves another 8,900 km of principal highways in need of similar upgrading, and 63,000 km of interurban roads crying for attention; we made one step in the right direction, don’t act as if we’ve arrived).

The insecurity on city streets we once walked is still unacceptable, even more now that we have experienced greater safety in foreign countries. We want the good socio-economic experience we’ve had abroad to be available in Kenya too; uncongested transportation, social services for the poor, clean neighborhoods…and for the well-off Kenyans to care enough about the lives of slum-dwellers in their backyards. Yes, we will tweet and blog and status-update from our diaspora perches until you hear this. Even as we have in our own diaspora midst shameful incidents of tribalism of the worst kind, our failings and foibles do not allow you to exclude us from the privilege of being part of Kenya’s journey, in critical speech and action.

And while we’re on this topic of criticizing each other, there really ought to be a deodorant revolution in Kenya. Why is it that the minute you land in Kenya, the foul smell of human armpits hits you? You walk about the streets or ride a matatu and wish you had a gas mask. Or if an elevator full of people somewhere in the US is reeking of stale sweat, I’ll bet you all my diaspora remittances the culprit is definitely the newcomer diaspora African at the corner. Our collective reputation is fouled up. Yup, I said it, yes I did. My African peeps, man. Style up. Please don’t tell me about poverty and choosing between soap and food. Dignity is important. Martin Luther King actually made such a call to his people, told them to stop stinking, that working hard for long hours with little pay does not mean neglecting personal hygiene, and to date, you won’t find any black person all funky, even in the heat of summer, the poorest of black folk in America smell good! Heck, Richard Pryor probably said it best, “Don’t just wash you’re ass hole, wash your whole ass.” Let’s take care of the total package of who we are, not just one aspect.

On commandment 6: The world is now a kaleidoscope of each other’s influences, and claiming you don’t want “American” solutions is myopic while America itself seeks all kinds of ways to get stuff from Africa for its own growth, from culture to human and material resources (yup, they harvest human brain power through the green card “lottery” every year). The Romans built their civilization upon a borrowed Greek culture and a borrowed foreign faith that later became Christianity. So diaspora, go ahead with your exposed selves and influence change for the good of our country. And yes, Mr. Bikozulu, I can actually sit in Starbucks and effect change. It won’t come in one tweet, or one blog, or one electronic transmission of funds to Kenya from my cell phone. It will come from a concerted effort of using all the tools I have in the diaspora.  In fact, diaspora has contributed to change and continues to do so.

On commandment 8: Kenyans go through a lot in the diaspora, few have it easy all the way. Don’t gloat over those who go through flipping burgers and scrubbing toilets while working towards their school fees or just to pay rent. It’s these very same Kenyans that send money home, haba na haba. Some have made a business out of it, no kidding. You can find Kenyans running cleaning businesses that have done so well they’ve bought homes. I speak of people I know personally. A Kenyan banker I spoke to recently left his “big” job for a taxi-driving business. Labor which Kenyans at home consider menial can be turned to gold. It’s attitude that counts. It’s time Kenyans at home kicked the habit of equating success with white collar jobs. And yes, some of succeed, some don’t. Such is life. A little encouragement would go a long way.

Finally, a touchy one for me, is commandment 4. About calling a foreign country home. I’m a transnational citizen. Kenya is my home, my birth country, the land of my family, extended family and ancestors. I also have a home in the US (not a house, a home). I very easily and naturally, without skipping a beat, speak of “going back home” when I’m in Kenya, referring to the US. I have no apologies for that; I and millions of other human beings for whom the concept of home is not limited to your ancestry, the origin of your name, the sound of your accent, or a certain cultural definition of “home” that is held sacrosanct by your people. We know that in Kenyan cultures, even the cities are not your home, only your ancestral land qualifies for the title. I understand where Bikozulu’s emotional but unenlightened chastising is coming from. Brother, some of us long released ourselves from the shackles of that cultural straitjacket that does not allow you to belong anywhere outside of your ancestral home or country of birth.

Kenya is still the abode of my constant agitation. I will care about what goes on there till the day I die. My spirit will continue to roam around the hills of Taita all the waking days of my life. Yet none of this stops me from staying active in my neighborhood committee in Baltimore. This is home. I seek solutions to crime, overgrown sidewalks and career opportunities with as much passion as I do for Kenya. This is home. I cared about the Trayvon Martin case, the Ravens winning Super Bowl, and wonder loudly if Mayor Rawlings-Blake really cares for inner city Baltimore. This is home. I take the train to Washington DC to teach, attend countless meetings and socialize. This is home. America has nurtured me, annoyed me, loved me, grown me. In most likelihood, I will be buried here. This is home. Don’t tell me not to call it home just because Kenya is home too. And should my family move to Italy or Rwanda or China, I refuse to live a suspended existence of non-belonging because I’m not “home”. I will plant and harvest the crop of my dreams there too and make a home in that country. That, my friend, is quintessential diaspora experience. I treasure it.

First published Aug 26, 2013 at https://mkawasi.blogspot.com/2013/08/

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