Fahamu (Oxford)

5 September 2013

Kenya Is Rising and Needs Her Brains Back

opinion

The constitution allows Kenyans in the diaspora to vote and there is adequate evidence of the diaspora's active involvement in national development over the years. What is more, the African Union now recognizes diaspora as its sixth region. But still this writer has his reasons for urging Kenyans overseas to return.

Recently I posed several questions to my countrymen living in the diaspora as to whether or not they are considering relocating back to Kenya. The reasons for their extended stays are varied but the typical response is at best some version of an unsure and forlorn affirmative. Usually based on the accomplishment of some shifting future goal such as settling first, getting work experience, getting the elusive "papers" or finishing the next level of school. Around the same time while waiting in line in a government office, I overheard a Kenyan bitterly complaining about his daughter being a doctor overseas yet he had poor healthcare and it served him no purpose.

Way back when, going into the diaspora used to be exclusively about getting a good education. The only Kenyans who saw the lands yonder were top performing students who were bound to return by scholarship terms or the very affluent who could afford to send their children to college abroad. The prestige in those days used to be in returning home unlike now. In time with the proliferation of the harambee (community support) movement middle income families would devote all their resources to send one of their own overseas with the promise that once there, they would return on the investment. Then came the economic downturn of the 1990s during the waning years of the Daniel arap Moi regime where disillusioned Kenyans left in droves as economic refugees south of the border to Southern Africa, West to the Americas, North to Europe, East to Asia and into far flung Australia

In the new century, a new crop of ambitious young Kenyans has maneuvered into top universities, research labs, hospitals and corporate board rooms the world round where they continue to distinguish themselves. Tenacious Kenyan athletes have run themselves to glory on the world stage. With every passing generation the numbers and reasons for the exodus keep piling. To date conservative estimates put the Kenyan population living overseas at over 3 million. Nearly 10% of our population. Which is alarming because among these are some of the best and brightest Kenyans who are not returning. And, in time it becomes less likely to return as they settle into their adopted homes. The most common reason is that there are no incentives to return compounded by the fact that the developed world provides comfort and security few are willing to give up. The solution most compromise into is to try and get the best of both worlds by visiting regularly or doing short term projects at home. Which is commendable but how much impact can you have as a "voluntourist" or intermittent visitor?

Which leads me to call my previous question as to the prospects of returning to contribute directly to the development of Kenya? Many in the diaspora place the prerogative upon the government to provide the enabling environment for them to return. Which is reasonable only to the extent that Kenya is a government of the people by the people? Whereas government cannot solve all our problems it is self defeating if the collective aspirations of the best among us exist on the outside. The lack of certain progressive ideas within Kenyan society is due to the truancy into greener pastures thereof of the very thinkers in whose minds these bright ideas sit. By being absent or partially absent we have sent some of our best thoughts into exile. It is a self depriving cycle where the more Kenya's brains are drained the less it has the capacity to achieve its potential or provide the opportunities to keep her citizens satisfied - So they leave. The original idea was that returning emigrants would renew the country's collective intellect.

To have a real impact on Kenya you have to be in Kenya with Kenyans. The Developed World where we seek comfort is as such because they have had no choice to seek refuge but to stay and fix their societies when things went awry. One can hardly alleviate poverty, illiteracy, environmental degradation or develop human capacity and infrastructure remotely. Kenya's problems are deep rooted and will only be solved collectively by entrepreneurs, environmentalists, engineers, teachers, technocrats, politicians, lawyers, farmers and doctors who are here, on the ground working to build this country from the ground up. Kenya's battles need foot soldiers. The most one can do in the Diaspora, is tweet and complain about what is wrong with Kenya to little consequence.

Admittedly, the Diaspora does a lot outside the grid to support their families. Many a students have been educated and many a homes built on remittances. The problem with this type of financial aid though is it creates a dependency which can have the effect of disempowering communities. Also for the broader effort of building a society it does little because for Kenya to achieve its development goals infrastructure needs to be built, citizens need to be enabled, communities need to be empowered and jobs need to be created. So my clarion call to those living abroad is that this is our country and this is our time. Who will teach and mentor Kenya's children if not you? Who will build the next banking mega-success story if not you? Who will protect Kenya's forests, wildlife, wetlands and waterways if not you? Who will develop Kenya's ICT potential if not you? Who will lead Kenya into the next generation of prosperity, peace and progress if not you? Who will protect the democratic gains that have been made so far if not you? Who will rebuild and reinvent this great country if not you?

It cannot possibly be done from without. Kenya needs her best and brightest brains to raise her by her bootstraps. The fierce urgency of now beckons.

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