The Diaspora Dilemma: Chasing the “Kenyan Dream” vs. the American Dream

Most of us members of the Kenyan diaspora came to America for further studies and to chase the American dream, just like most foreigners did when they came to this country. Over a decade ago, there was a major brain drain and many Kenyans left their home country to seek a better life overseas. However, in the past few years, the course seems to have changed and an apparent repatriation is taking place. We probably know of or might have heard about fellow Kenyan diaspora who have either moved back to Kenya or are planning to move back home in the near future. And this is happening in large numbers. For many of us, the thought of moving back has crossed our minds, but every now and then we start to wonder what it takes to move back and what life will be like living in Kenya. 

We hear a lot of buzz about Africa’s rising economy; that investors are now eyeing Kenya and other East African countries as attractive investment destinations. And then we hear about the people we left behind when we came to the U.S., and they seem to be happier because they are close to family and they live collectively.

While our friends, family and relatives that we left back in Kenya seem to be doing so well financially, we the diaspora, feel like we are toiling just to make ends meet here in America. Yes we get that nice paycheck, but it all goes to pay off bills and then we are left with nothing but to anticipate the next paycheck and the cycle repeats itself. Many of us rent our homes here whereas people back at home are building their own homes, and can afford to build large homes that would be out of reach here in the America. So for us in the diaspora, the grass starts to look greener on the other side. 

But then many of us are used to the American life and all the conveniences it has. For instance, there’s easy access to everything, the lifestyle, the “security”, convenient transportation system, and even the variety of food that you wouldn’t normally find in Kenya. Not forgetting the jobs that we have here, that may not necessarily be professional jobs but affords us a decent salary and living standard. The fear of the unknown is apparent and many of us start to think twice about relocating back home. 

After reflecting on this topic, and listening to others, I came to the realization that there are three perspectives to this dilemma of whether to repatriate or not. The first perspective is that of the Kenyan diaspora who aspires to move back home hoping that they will live their life in Kenya as comfortably as they did here in the U.S. They hope that they will find a well paying job with a MNC like GE, Google, Microsoft, Intel, the big 4; or with organizations like the World Bank, UN, USAID, and other NGO’s. They also hope that they will be able to make salaries that are comparable to the near six-figure salary that they made in the U.S., enough to pay for a large apartment, a good lifestyle, and still have plenty left over to pay down tuition loans that they accumulated while attending an elite private university in America. 

Then there is the perspective painted by the media, which sounds euphoric and everyone seems to be jumping on the bandwagon about Africa, “the land of untapped opportunities”.  We hear from the media that many companies have set up their regional headquarters in places like Nairobi Kenya, and that private equity companies like Carlyle and KKR are investing their funds in portfolios based in Africa. There is also hype about the Silicon Savannah, a tech city that is supposed to transform the ICT industry in Kenya. Then we hear about the booming economy, real estate properties, and that there is a lot of money to be made. Then there is hype about President Obama’s Power Africa and Trade Africa initiatives, not to mention Obamas ethnic roots from Kenya and talk about his upcoming Global Entrepreneurship Summit trip this month of July. All this sounds too good and we start to feel like we are going to miss out if we don’t act soon. We start to feel the need to move back and claim a piece of the “pie”. The one we sought after when we came to the U.S. 

The third perspective is the reality of what it is actually like to move back, this is based on the stories from those that already relocated back home. You hear all the stories of insecurity, the poor road conditions, power rationing, corruption, and just how hard it is to land a decent job that pays you a fraction of what you earned in the U.S. Security is at the forefront of their grievances, and that we might as well forget about the days that one can be out and about in town late in the night. Then we hear about how difficult it is to fit in and the people you once knew don’t seem to relate to you anymore and it’s almost like you speak a different language. And in reference to convenience, one might as well leave the thought behind before they leave the U.S. In Kenya, few places are open 24 hours, and the traffic is a nightmare. There are no traffic rules and everybody seems to be hustling and looking out for himself or herself. There is no order, and one might as well forget about courtesy or being polite to others. Basically, life is a whole lot different than the life that we are used to in the U.S. 

So then we Kenyans in the diaspora are left to ponder on the three perspectives, and wonder which one to accept and go with. Some Kenyan’s have even moved back to the U.S. after trying it out for a few years, and when asked why, they say moving back home just isn’t for everyone. Some say you have to have laid out a good plan first, before you make the move. Perhaps secure a job first prior to moving. Or perhaps save up enough money to start a business and have enough money to sustain you until you start to make a profit. Some say “Life is hard” plain and simple. 

So the question is, which of these perspectives makes good sense, and which ones speak to you? Will life be better by moving back home, or does one become complacent living in the U.S. and sticking with what they know best? So the dilemma is, which dream does one chase after? Should one start to chase the “Kenyan dream” or should you continue chasing the “American dream”?

Written by Caroline Kenduywa

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