They came ‘home’ for Christmas — to eat ‘real’ food, drink ‘real’ beer, hitch up a daughter or son of the soil and inspect development projects. They arrived with excitement in their hearts but flew back enraged, some in tears. These are Kenyans who live in perpetual distress overseas. They battle chilling winters, loneliness, racism, cultural and economic setbacks. They do anything and everything to put ‘development’ on the ground back home, only to get conned by relatives. That was never the case. In the days following Independence, our fathers left the comforts of their villages for Nairobi — to look for jobs. They religiously sent monthly cash remittances via clansmen who worked on commuter buses.
The money always got home and was prudently saved by relatives because within a short period of time, they could afford to pay dowry, buy pieces of land and sometimes build homes. Not today. Omari was born and raised in Mombasa. By a stroke of luck, he landed a valid working permit in the USA. Before he left for the States, his parents swiftly arranged a marriage for him to Fatmah, a pretty girl of modest education.
Upon arrival in the States, Omari landed a comparatively lucrative job that accorded him relative comfort and money to spare. He, however, experienced many moments of anxiety with his American line managers and colleagues who routinely made him an object of ridicule. In addition, he was subjugated by ethnocentric managers who verbally insulted him, wrote him memos with racist undertones and, on several occasions, denied him his official holiday leave. He endured all this and routinely sent part of his income to Fatmah, his wife in Kenya.
Apartments In three years, his contract was controversially not renewed. But he was not a worried man since he knew he had been remitting money to his wife regularly and that she had bought several plots in Mombasa and was now building apartments for rent. In fact, she had been updating him with photo images of the project. Last Christmas holiday, with no work and lots of time to spare, he packed his suitcase and travelled to Kenya. He was, however, shocked beyond imagination to discover that Fatmah had ‘invested’ his money in a tiny plot of land in the crowded Mishomoroni area.
Paraffin The piece of land had no title deed and the only legal ‘paper’ signifying land ownership that Fatmah had was an ‘agreement’ signed by a village elder. On the plot, Fatmah had built a Swahili house and had installed four tenants. In one of the rooms, she had set up her little duka selling groceries and paraffin.
Omari quickly realised that the Sh8,000 income from the tenants could not sustain him in Kenya. In short, the $250,000 (Sh21.8 million) he had remitted to his wife for investment had been misused.
Emmanuel’s story is no different. When I met him at a popular restaurant in Shanzu a week after his arrival, he shed tears as he narrated how his younger brother, Joseph, currently a Module Two student at a public university in Mombasa, had been using his money to “booze and patronise popular discotheques in town with women instead of developing my plot”. Worse, he needed to re-sit several papers, hardly attended classes and his fee was in arrears, never mind that Emmanuel had sent the money upfront. What particularly irked him — and others who have suffered similar fates — is the relative ease with which his hard-earned cash was thrown around in bars and flushed down the drain.
Unruly Charles teaches Mathematics at a state school in one of the poorer sections of USA. The students are rude and unruly. Last summer, while at the front of the class, he noticed two students chatting away, oblivious of his presence. He politely asked them to be quiet so that he could begin the lesson. But one of them hissed, “Hey, can’t you see we are trying to have a conversation here?” He swallowed his Kenyan pride and didn’t kick the young lad’s butt because he knew that would land him in trouble and that several people back home depended on his paycheck.
Charles, however, says, “It’s painful when you learn that a sibling you sent cash to pursue a degree course dropped out of college because of drug addiction. Or a daughter you have consistently supported used the money to entertain peers and is now pregnant. Or one’s spouse is in a relationship with a younger man on whom she showers your money. Not after the struggles we go through overseas.” Kimeu, a swimming Instructor in China, sent cash remittances to his sister in Nairobi. She bought a plot on his behalf and the two siblings settled on a structural plan from a reputable firm that looked perfect on paper. In a short time, the council authorities approved the building plan. Kimeu’s sister oversaw the construction of the house alright, but she cut costs by engaging cheap, poorly skilled labour and pocketed the balance.
Ugly patches When Kimeu came home over Christmas, the hot water pipes beneath the bedroom floor were broken, causing water to leak through the lounge floor. The cheap floor tiles had started peeling off, the ceiling in the house was basic and because the roof leaked, it was covered with ugly patches. Some of the rooms were ridiculously tiny and the locks, doors and fittings were cheap and tacky.
Worse, the neighbourhood had neither a sewerage system nor street lighting and roads were dusty and potholed. For a man accustomed to the finer things in life, Kimeu was hurt, disappointed and angry.
Other relatives just steal the money. Benea, who also resides in the US, bought a house in Nairobi and asked his brother to collect rent on his behalf. But when he came back, there was nothing in his bank account. It turned out that his brother had bought himself a matatu. What gulled him was that that notwithstanding, he found a horde of relatives waiting, arms outstretched for alms, including the same brother who had practically stolen his money. Holiday home But the saddest tale is of Maureen, a Kenyan lass who met and married a retired British engineer in Mombasa.
When they relocated to Britain, she convinced her husband that they needed a holiday home in Kenya (she wanted to have a base from which she could look after her ageing parents and siblings). Her husband gave her money, which she dutifully sent to her elder brother. Unfortunately, her brother began playing tycoon with her money — boozing and handing out large wads of money at every fundraiser.
He even married a second wife. In the meantime, he bought a plot from someone he met in a bar and paid for it in cash the next morning. He engaged workmen to dig up a pit latrine and fence up the premises. These were friends who were driven to the site in a taxi and who, after a day’s work, would be wined and dined in expensive hotels. When the latrine was up and the property fenced, the plot’s rightful owner turned up with policemen and evicted them. But in any event, even if the plot had been genuinely acquired, the lout had drunk and wasted the money meant for its development anyway.
You could, therefore, say Kenyans in the Diaspora are the latest cash cow in town. In some cases, people even simulate funerals to squeeze money out of them. Our politicians, ever opportunistic, have not been left behind. Nearly all presidential hopefuls are roaming all over America and Europe with begging bowls for a piece of the pie. They are seducing our brothers and sisters overseas to sow on barren rock.