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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

What does Kenya's US based diaspora need?

Meetings with several Kenyan Americans this week left me present to the potential, still yet untapped of power of the diaspora. As State House prepares to have dinner with the Bidens in May, it is worth re-imagining how this community and their allies in Kenya could harness this possibility to develop stronger Kenyan American ties.


In an earlier decade of my life, I was also member of the diaspora. As a teenager, I saw the impact of racism firsthand. I was arrested while walking black in London and left Black alone in a class as the English education system mis-educated 60 per cent of black kids out of employment opportunities. Later as a father, I saw my children try to hide their Kenyan identity in Maryland in the wake of the September 11 attacks on America.


Just over 500,000 Kenyans, a population the size of Embu County, live in diaspora communities across the world. Roughly fifty per cent live in the UK and USA and the rest is evenly spread across Uganda, Tanzania, Canada, Mozambique, South Africa and elsewhere. If all these citizens could vote and voted as a block in the last General Elections, they alone, could have determined the outcome of the Presidential election. Tragically, only a fraction, 10,444 to be precise, were enfranchised.


The diaspora remitted Sh 610 billion in 2022 and remittances could have reached Sh 667 billion in 2023. Two in every three shillings remitted comes from America. More directly, exporting human beings is more financially beneficial to the economy than exporting tea.


Their latent economic and electoral power has led to these communities being instrumentalized. Political aspirants tapped them for those 2022 rally handouts and campaign logistics. Successive governments have used them to shore up a globally uncompetitive economy and bail out wasteful national and county administrations. Kenya Kwanza’s labour migration policy is currently intentionally positioning the most skilled workforce as Kenya’s best export for other economies.


Meanwhile, four diaspora generations have emerged in the United States of America. Organised airlifts by Tom Mboya and Julius Kiano during colonial oppression created the first generation in the 1950 and 1960s. Political instability, corruption and no jobs drove several Kenyan professionals to migrate in the 1980s.


This second generation seeded the third generation of US citizens with at least one Kenyan born parent. This generation is multi-ethnic, educated and are investing in Minneapolis, Seattle, Texas, Maryland, Georgia, New York, North Carolina, and Washington D.C. Among them are elected representatives, state officials, IT professionals, millionaire businesspeople, musicians, runners, and even wrestlers. Most their children are now naturalised citizens lawfully residing and studying in American schools. Two in five homes are homeowners.


After several false starts over two decades, a dynamic Foreign Affairs Ministry State Department for Diaspora Affairs (although not the Ministry promised) is actively defining state obligations to this population. Recently, over 1,170 Kenyans have been evacuated from countries in conflict and with gross human rights violations such as Sudan, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates.


This week left me struck by how many hold both a sense of patriotism and pessimism. There are more than twenty diaspora associations and SACCOs currently recognised by the Government and a few patriots are preparing to celebrate Professor Ngũgi wa Thiong’o in June 2024. Stories of fraudulent lawyers and architects and siblings all too ready to steal from them laced our conversations. With no progress on electoral reforms, this community remains bitterly disenfranchised. The absence of bilateral tax treaties that could reduce double taxation and high remittance transaction costs makes home investments expensive. With no clarity how to transfer skills learnt and social and health benefits earned, older persons will not retire in Kenya.


As the Rutos plan to meet the Bidens in May, US diaspora voices must take centre stage. Despite rising anti-migration xenophobia and the cost of living abroad, Kenya must also offer clear assurance that it is a rule of law society governed by a constitution or lose this key population.


This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard,  24 February 2024.


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