I cancelled my wedding to travel abroad: Why Kenyan students studying overseas are coming back
In the past, when many Kenyans got a chance to study abroad, especially in the West, they would disappear into the Western capitals, working or dodging immigration officials to eke a living.
However, in recent years, more and more foreign-educated young Kenyans are coming back home.
Younger people are more optimistic about the continent than ever before.
This is partly because of the increased democratic space and economic growth in many African countries, which is more attractive than the stagnating economies in the West that has seen immigrant antipathy grow, giving us Brexit and Donald Trump.
Four Kenyans who came back home after obtaining their master’s degrees talk about why they returned, the reverse culture shock and the pain of getting a job after their sojourn abroad.
Name: Joan Barsulai
Course: Master’s of Arts in Journalism
Institution: Columbia Journalism School, New York, USA
Barsulai came back immediately after graduation. She had no intention of returning home when she went to the United States to study.
“I had everything figured out: I would finish school, get a job, build a career for myself, get married and settle down in New York,” she says.
But once in America, she realised she had been unprepared for the culture shock. “There is an element of isolation and individualism that is so profound in the West that you don’t really see in the movies,” she says.
She was mostly alone, even in a room full of people. She could not adapt to the culture.
Besides, as a children rights advocate and community developer, she had projects she was running in Kenya, including street children rescue and placement as well as educating poor rural and slum youth in community colleges. This haunted her constantly.
She figured that the American system was already working. She came back to make a difference.
Settling back home has not been easy. But she has managed to achieve what brought her back home: working with poor communities and providing education opportunities for poor children. Despite possessing an Ivy League degree, she has learnt that it doesn’t mean much here.
“I assumed that with my papers and experience, I would immediately land a great position at a non-governmental organisation. That hasn’t been the case,” she says.
She cannot go back to what she used to do. She can’t write what she used to write. The avenues to publish are limited. She cannot have the same conversations she used to have because her thinking has been transformed.
“I find myself gravitating towards either people who have had the same global experiences as me, or people just willing to have an open mind and are curious about learning new things,” she notes. This is a common feature many returnees encounter.
Whereas coming back home was a personal choice, she cannot advise anyone to come without paying attention to the current economic situation in the country. “I wouldn’t encourage anyone to sacrifice great opportunities for the greater good,” she says.
“Do what works for you and is good for your future. If that means remaining in the West, so be it.” But she admits that there are better opportunities in the West.
“Unless you feel passionately about being back home or you have responsibilities to take care of here, you might be tempted to never return,” she says.
Name: Daniella Maroma,
Course: Master’s in Environment and Natural Resources Management
Institution: University of Leicester, United Kingdom
Maroma obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Economics from the University of Nairobi’s Upper Kabete Campus before her sojourn abroad.
She did not even think twice of staying behind in the United Kingdom after her graduation: “I was sad when I left because I had created friendships and it wasn’t easy leaving them behind,” she says.
She came home because she missed home, family, friends, Kenyan food and the familiarity of the streets of Nairobi.
But she also came back as part of honouring the pledge she made to come back home after her studies when she accepted the Chevening Scholarship. And more importantly, she says: “I wanted to put my skills into use right here in Kenya for the benefit of my country.”
And she has enjoyed her stay so far, especially all that she missed.
“I can access my family and friends, eat ugali and sukuma wiki anytime and it feels so at home walking on the streets of Nairobi,” she says.
But she has had to undergo a reverse culture shock, something she says she handled very well.
On career, it has not been rosy.
“Finding a job that matches my values and skills hasn’t been easy,” she observes. She is still weighing her options and hopes to settle in a job that matches her skills soon. In the meantime, she is finding “innovative ways to put her skills to use”.
Name: Abednego Osindi
Course: Master’s in Agricultural Science (Forestry Option)
Institution: Kochi University, Japan
Osindi went to Japan because he wanted to study abroad and the scholarship came in handy.
He came back because there was a requirement by the sponsoring organisation that his stay abroad was limited to the period of his study and internship. It has not been easy settling back home.
Other than the reverse culture shock, the most difficult moment was securing a stable income. He left Kenya a year after graduation before securing a job.
“Returning to Kenya, I thought I had better qualifications and skills to get gainful employment but it never worked.
However, I have been able to overcome job-hunting stress by diversifying into freelance works and some entrepreneurial activities,” he says.
But he has not regretted a moment coming back home because “the experience I gained is helping influence other people’s lives positively, and most importantly, I wanted to reconnect with my family and friends,” he says.
He is currently working on his career path, focusing on research gaps in Kenya for his doctoral thesis. Given a chance, he would love to go back to pursue doctoral studies in the same field.
For those abroad who want to come back, he has this piece of advice: “They should be sure of a clear work plan for sustaining themselves in back home.”
“They should have a job or are sure of securing one or have some investment projects to run,” he says, “Otherwise, one should find a job abroad and accumulate some financial muscle before coming back home.”
Name: Nicholas Mutiso
Course: MSc in Environmental Engineering
Institution: The University of Nottingham, United Kingdom
Before going to Nottingham, he obtained a BSc in Water and Environmental Engineering in 2012.
He chose to study abroad because he had to resign from his job for at least two years because usually Kenyan University rarely offer part-time master’s classes in engineering. He applied to Universities in Netherlands and the United Kingdom and was accepted by both with scholarships. He chose to go the UK.
“UK was more appealing for the duration of short stay, our long-shared history, world reputation and above all being an English-speaking country” he says. He spent 15 enjoyable months, admiring the British way of life and their education system.
But the scholarships came when he was about to wed, thus he had to put off the wedding until he graduated and came back.
Like Barsulai, he wanted to be part of the human resource in Kenya, hence he came back. He wedded after returning home.
He did not have difficulties getting a job. He came back in December in 2016 and by February 2017, he had resumed work with his previous employer.
He had resigned in good terms with World Vision Kenya and when he came back, they sent him to Baringo as a field officer.
He remained there until recently when he got a job with the United Nations, which brought him back to Nairobi to be closer to his young family.
He would have wished to remain in the UK. It is very hospitable, despite the cold. But his loyalty is with the motherland. Mutiso says returning home is an individual decision.
If one can get a good job in Kenya, he or she should return home.
“I had an opportunity to work abroad, but I can tell you it’s more comfortable for a mid-level professional to work here than in Europe.
With the high cost of living, it would be difficult to sustain a large family in the UK as opposed to living in a developing country” he says.
Since it is also easier to secure moderate jobs with better credentials, he says, returning home may make more sense for individuals like him.
But for those focused on higher academic degrees like PhDs, coming back home is not ideal.