Sunday, June 23, 2024

Diaspora Homecoming: Most recognizable, celebrated Kenyans in diaspora

This week, hundreds of Kenyans living abroad and those who have returned will congregate at the Ole Sereni Hotel for the fifth Diaspora Homecoming Conference.

One of discussions will be on the potential for a recognition scheme for outstanding members of the diaspora.

Apart from inspiring Kenyans at home and abroad, the scheme can further boast Kenya’s fledging diaspora diplomacy.

So, who are some of the excelling Kenyans? In terms of award-winning and recognition, at least three groups can be distinguished: legacy icons, established living icons and, the emerging icons.

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In the legacy icons category — those now deceased — at least two stand out: Ali Mazrui (1933-2014) and Calestous Juma (1956-2017).

Mazrui had a huge array of works traversing African, Islamic, south-north/south-south studies, global and area studies, cultural studies and literature.

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He dabbled in the media most notably with the seminal 1986 BBC documentary, “The Africans: A Triple Heritage”.

He was a controversial figure too in part because of his eloquent denunciation of both capitalism and socialism.

His academic career spanned over 20 universities on all continents of the world, most notably his alma maters: Manchester, Columbia, Oxford and formal employment institutions Makerere, Michigan, Jos (Nigeria) and State University of New York.

He was chancellor at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. Among the countless awards, he was feted as the 73rd most intellectual person in the world in 2005 and the 2000 Millennium Tribute for Outstanding Scholarship by the UK’s House of Lords.

Juma, an alma mater of Sussex University in the UK, left a solid legacy undergirded by the connecting of academia (theory) and practice, leveraging technological innovations for sustainable development.


He was a Harvard University professor and was elected to prestigious organisations such as the Royal Society of London, the US National Academy of Sciences, Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), the UK Royal Academy of Engineering, the African Academy of Sciences and the New York Academy of Sciences.

In Kenya, he founded the African Centre for Technological Studies (ACTS), an important science and technology think tank.

Juma was a notable public intellectual with a knack for breaking down difficult concepts for the comprehension of everyday people.

He made the list of the New African magazine 100 most influential Africans consecutively between 2012 and 2014.

The established living icons diaspora category of award winning or recognised Kenyans is perhaps the most challenging to nail.

This is because this group is peopled by a lot more personalities representing diverse fields.

However, any selection process is likely to include two icons: Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Lupita Nyong’o.


Ngugi, an alumni of Makerere and Leeds universities is truly an émigré.

He went into exile in 1982, first in the UK where he taught literature at Bayreuth University with film studies stint at the Dramatiska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden (1986).

He eventually settled in the US at the universities of Yale, New York, Amherst, and California (Irvine).

He has maintained a frenetic fiction and literary writing pace, the bigger number of his works produced abroad.

His, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), is currently experiencing a surge in interest and with his other works being required texts in schools and universities around the world.

That he has been mentioned as a potential Nobel Prize in literature winner goes to demonstrate Ngugi’s iconic status.

Ngugi has been feted with several awards, the latest being the Park Kyongni Prize (2016) in South Korea.


Honorary degrees have come from places as far apart as Auckland (2005) and Bayreuth (2014) universities, the latest being from Yale (2017). For many, Ngugi’s defining contribution is the promotion of African languages.

Unless she falls from grace to grass, 35-year-old actress Lupita Nyong’o is a shooting star, her iconoclastic days seemingly lying ahead of her.

A great example of the Kenyan diaspora, Lupita was born in Mexico City. Fame was secured for role in the film 12 Years a Slave for which she won the US Academy Award’s Best Supporting Actress.

Ever since the Academy Awards break, the film studies graduate from the Hampshire College and Yale University, Lupita has secured roles in big budget productions such as Black Panther (2018).

The emerging and budding icons category is much more slippery to consider, requiring perhaps a much more rigorous selection or nomination procedure than the legacy and established icons.

These would be either budding award winners who may not enjoy as much name recognition as the heavy hitters.


Although 56 years old and with an extensive CV, American University professor of Anthropology Chapurukha Kusimba would qualify as an emerging icon thanks to his May 2018 induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) alongside former US president Barack Obama.

Kusimba’s work links directly with Kenya’s cultural diplomacy in that his expertise is in on the genealogy of the Swahili communities and ancient Kenya generally.

Also promising as potential all-time-achiever is Washington Ochieng, an engineering professor at Imperial College in London.

Ochieng’s name popped up recently when Nairobi was beset by a huge traffic problem.

He is credited for leading the design of transport systems in Europe and especially so, the London transport system.

In 2013, Ochieng was elected to the Royal Academy of Engineering in recognition of his sterling contribution.

Gaps are visible in the award-winning-abroad narrative. The scales are heavily tilted towards US and UK, the list is male-dominated, generally older people, and, interestingly, the sciences seem to trump the arts.



These representational gaps would have to be addressed as the award scheme is mulled.

The writer is a media and geopolitics scholar at University of the Witwatersrand and can be reached at bo*******@gm***.com. This article is part of a research project on excelling Kenyans as diaspora diplomats.

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