By Marjory N. Kimani
In Kenya, the conventional wisdom is that life is much better abroad, especially in the developed countries in the west. Many people, especially the unemployed, the ambitious and the optimistic believe that life abroad must offer much more promising to their home country. This is the reason why some people will go to any lengths to acquire a visa and other travelling documents in a bid to leave the country at the earliest opportunity.
We have heard the harrowing stories about the plight of Kenyan women who are employed in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. There have been numerous cases of travel and other documents being confiscated by employers, low wages and women being locked in residences and being turned to sex slaves.
But that is a story for another day. In this article, we will concern ourselves with Kenyans’ expectations, experiences and the realities of life in Western countries, specifically the United States of America and the developed countries of the Western world. Some of the Kenyans who travel abroad, especially to America and Europe usually go there with unreasonably high expectations. This is partly due to lack of awareness, not doing enough research before migrating to downright ignorance or desperation back at home.
After enduring the poverty and low expectations of fulfillment back home, they imagine that they are moving to a land of milk and honey, an Eldorado where life is smooth, jobs are available and where one can achieve beyond their wildest dreams. America: the land of opportunity where everything is possible. This is the common understanding by people who have not seen the reality of life in the US. Not that the belief is entirely misplaced, no. There have been many success cases among Kenyan immigrants, but the sob stories almost correspond with number of successes. The problem lies with the misconceptions that people have about life in the west.
Then there is the issue of the green card, which enables people to move to America and become citizens. In Kenya, there have been numerous cases of people’s lives changing for the worse after winning this elusive card. Many people do not understand the ramifications of winning the green card. They imagine it is their key to a new prosperous life, and they embark on the migration to America without doing thorough research and without any preparations apart from hope and prayer. (And some amount of myopic and misplaced bravado, quoting Eleanor Roosevelt’s “there is nothing to fear but fear itself” line). In short, they plunge into an unknown world and hope or believe that things will work themselves out once they have settled in America.
Cases have been heard where people who have won the green card cut off all roots to their homeland in the believe that they are going to start a new life and, as it were, turn over a new leaf and wash their hands of a regrettable origin and past. They sell all their property, resign from their jobs, withdraw children from school and generally cut all links to their lives in Kenya. In some extreme cases, some people have been known to tell their friends, foes and family members the unflattering truth about what they really think of them. In short, they burn their bridges since they are leaving, forever.
Wrong move, as they come to realize amid regrets later on when the cold reality sinks in. First, there are the hidden costs, financial or otherwise, of their actions. Moving self or family is a very expensive exercise, which many foot with their savings or the proceeds from the sale of their property. For those who have no relatives, friends or contacts, many arrive in the United States virtually broke. No home to live in, no job, no information about where you are going to settle.
What many people don’t know is that once you step out of the plane after arrival in the US after winning the green card, you are literally on your own! The American government does not provide any freebies at all to immigrants and woe unto you if you arrive without a plan for survival. Some people are lucky to get a place to stay in after they arrive. However, other realities sink in, and very fast. Your certificates and papers may not be recognized. You might think that you will become a teacher since it was your job back in Kenya, only to realize that the education system in America is very different and has no place for you.
Due to this misconception that one can automatically get a new job similar to the one they used to have at home, many frustrated Kenyans end up doing lowly jobs (compared to their previous ones). That is why we get people who have degrees doing such menial jobs as dishwashing, toilet cleaning, serving in the homes for the elderly and such other things that they would not have thought of doing in Kenya. In this time of a world recession, even more Americans are finding themselves out of jobs. What chances are there, therefore, for an immigrant Johnny or Jane Foreigner?
Then there is the culture shock. New climate, new culture, new mode of living, new expectations, new rules, new everything. If one have no friends or family tocaution him or her against this culture, it will take a long time, if ever, to get over it and start living. This culture shock and lack of orientation has led to various problems including depression, drug taking, suicide and generally being a nuisance to friends and family whom you find there.
Cases of immigrants to America juggling two, three or even four casual jobs are commonplace. This is because life is very expensive in America and in Europe, and even putting food on the table is a major challenge. So one might come across an unhappy Kenyan, doing a job they don’t like and generally living unhappily and in frustration.
There are Kenyans who moved to America and European countries and, many years later, their families back home do not know their whereabouts. There are some who are beggars and homeless, and there re other qualified and specialized people who are doing menial jobs that they would never have contemplated back home. Some have died and been buried abroad as paupers.
Some people, when faced with the harsh reality that their dream was but a mirage, are reluctant or unwilling to return to Kenya. This is because they feel they have failed the expectations of their people, and are ashamed to go back even poorer than they left. This is more so of those who won green cards and burnt their bridges back home. They feel that they will be the laughing stock once they go back. This is because many people leave home with wild expectations of getting rich. They host ‘farewell’ bashes where talk of a new prosperous life abroad is spoken.
Many relatives of the person who is moving try to put in a good word for themselves, o that they are not forgotten when the famous “Diaspora wealth” is being remitted to relatives in Kenya. Amid such great expectations from relatives, some opt to stay put in America, living their unhappy lives and even cutting contacts with the people back home. Until the new constitution allowing dual citizenship in Kenya was passed, many people who had won green cards and given up their Kenyan citizenship were in a dilemma. They were living lives they did not want to live in a country they did not like. They were also missing their relatives and the uniqueness of Kenya and Kenyans, but they could not go back home.
It is imperative to conclude with a little advice to would be immigrants. If you are leaving to look for a better life abroad, do not burn your bridges as you might need them to walk on when things don’t work out and you have no option but to go back home. As the cliché goes, “East, west, home is best.” Many are those who have realized its truth after harrowing experiences abroad.
Source:Micii-ini iitu Magazine / Marjory N. Kimani - Editor in Chief