Capital FM (Nairobi)

11 January 2013

Kenyan Diaspora - Bitter Sweet Home Coming

Aaah, December in Nairobi is the winter bunner season! This is the time when hundreds upon thousands of our fellow Kenyans from the diaspora come back home for the holidays! This past December was no different. The diasporans came with plenty of dollars, pounds or Euro's, ready to spend at any provocation, derailing us locals with daily bar hopping, partying and traveling. We locals enjoyed their presence, as we rarely have to dip in our pockets while they are around, and we're willing to sacrifice sleep to keep them entertained in the short time they are around; a small price to pay. That's for as long as the foreign currency lasts of course. Then by end December or January, they vanish, leaving many fond memories, massive hangovers, a few broken hearts, and sometimes a bitter taste in the mouths of many locals.

You see, Kenyans at home and Kenyans from diaspora have a complicated love-hate relationship. Some of us locals believe our diaspora brethren are show-offs flaunting foreign currency, snobbish, spoilt, fake twenging, condescending folk, who cant seem to remember Kenyan landmarks anymore, complain about too must dust, poor customer service, and everything else wrong with our country. Our diaspora brothers and sisters on the other hand also perceive many locals as lazy and always expecting hand-outs, inefficient, corrupt, unambitious, used to lower standards, not aggressive enough in demanding better services, and so on. Some of the above may be harsh but these are the extreme and real perceptions that do exist.

I interacted with a number of our Kenyans from abroad in December and in January- friends, friends of friends, and acquaintances. After some prodding, they shared some of their perspective of how it feels being back home, even for a short period.

As much as it is may be sweet being back home, they feel a disconnect somehow. This is due to a number of reasons. One is sometimes their memories of home and the realities when they do arrive are worlds apart. When they are abroad they reminisce about Kenya, almost like their stuck in a time capsule. When they come back home though, people have moved on, young cousins have grown up, their former popular hangouts are not the hotspot's anymore, and even their beloved topaz is no longer the fast-food place of choice to go to at 6 in the morning! They feel lost and out of their comfort zone.

Then there is the reception from the Kenyans at home. Family and friends welcome them with open arms, celebrating their return. The rest of us may not be as welcoming. They feel we still treat them at times like foreigners in their own home-land. We keep them at arm's length, never really taking the time to acclimate them to the developments, politics, or sheng/slang or the day. They feel like outsiders looking in, not able to fully participate in the conversations and debates in bars or at home, because after all what do they know? Their ideas and contributions are dismissed as ramblings of people who are out of touch, and can't relate with modern day Kenya. They are not even able to vote in elections, and therefore they are seen to have no voice in the way things are run in Kenya.

The culture clash is also a big issue. Straight from first world countries, they expect things to operate like clock-work. They have got accustomed to efficiency, excellent customer service, schedules, systems and procedures that work. In Kenya things tend to be handled differently. We do not always keep time, we do not always honor appointments, we use short cut where need be, and things don't always work the way they are supposed to. What we consider as the norm is highly perplexing and frustrating in their eyes.

Their deep accents don't help. They can't even bargain at Maasai market anymore. Now they have to deal with tourist prices wherever they go. Locals struggle to understand what they are saying, reminiscent of the same challenges they faced when they first left our shores.

These are some of the challenges Kenyans from the diaspora experience when they come back home. Some brave ones are able to return home and adapt to the Kenyan setting and even do very well for themselves, while most still fear struggling to fit in and reclaim their homeland, and would rather continue to struggle with life abroad. Out there the systems are clear cut-if your work hard you can live a fairly comfortable life-while in Kenya there are too many unknowns and uncertainty.

I believe Kenyans living in Kenya should try our best to be more welcoming, more patient, and more understanding of our diaspora brethren when they come around. We should not be too quick to judge them because of their accents, their dress code or different way of seeing and doing things. Diasporans should also humble themselves a bit more when they come home, and not expect everything to be like they are in the first world countries they now reside in. Let's respect and embrace our differences, because at the end of the day Kenya is where we belong.

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