This nice, substantial house is being built next door to our house. The owner is a Kenyan living in the United States. His uncle is the person who is managing the project. It is still not complete. Clearly the owner sends funds for each phrase of the project. When the funds are used up, work stops until the owner sends additional funds for the next phase. At the moment it is nearly complete needing only window glass, painting, electric connection, and other detail work. Perhaps the owner is planning on moving to this house when he returns (retires?) from the United States. Perhaps he is building it for his parents or other family members. I’ll have a better idea when the house is completed and someone moves in. As a rough estimate, I would think this house is costing around $75,000.

Remittances to Kenya from Kenyans working overseas through official channels was $2.75 billion in the year ending March 31, 2019. This is about 3.5% of the GNP of Kenya and the largest foreign exchange earner for the country. This amount was up 26% from the previous year. About half of this foreign exchange comes from the United States. Other major countries sending remittances are United Kingdom, Tanzania, Canada, Uganda, Australia and South Africa in that order. In addition there is an undetermined amount of informal transfers, for example, cash or goods (sometimes for resale) brought into the country by Kenyans visiting home.

US foreign aid to Kenya this year is $259 million. If half of the remittances to Kenya came from the United States or $1.37 billion, then remittances are over five times the amount of foreign aid Kenya is receiving from the United States.

Astoundingly almost 10 per cent of working age Kenyans work in foreign countries. Our daughter-in-law, Maria, just returned from Jordon where she worked for four years. A former pastor of Lumakanda Friends Church worked in Saudi Arabia for five years. Gladys worked in Zambia for two years, Pakistan for three, and then the United States for twelve where we met in 1995 at Bethesda Friends Meeting.

Since in the 1960s and 1970s there was not much higher education in Kenya, many bright Kenyans, such as Barack Obama’s father, came to the United States to attend college. Many of these early immigrants to the United States did very well academically since they were the cream of the crop and highly motivated to study hard. Some like the senior Obama returned to Kenya to play their part in the development of the newly independent Kenya. Others stayed in America, many becoming college professors and other professional occupations, others married Americans, and others just hung around doing what they could to survive.

Most of these Kenyan immigrants to the United States, as soon as they had a decent income, began sending funds back to Kenya to help their family. Frequently the funds were used to support the parents, pay school fees for relatives, help with emergencies such as illness, buy land and build houses for relatives, assist relatives to start businesses, and invest in agricultural improvements.

Economists dislike this type of mostly consumer expenses as they want these funds to be used for development projects as an alternative to foreign aid. I disagree. First Kenyans working overseas are much more likely to want to send funds to support and improve the conditions for their family than invest in some money-making activity. Frankly if they want to invest, they will do better in the United States than Kenya with a lot less risk. Second those funds sent back to the family are used in Kenya and circulate not just in the money capitol of Nairobi but spread out throughout the countryside, thereby supporting the rural economy.

When I lived in the United States, I knew many Kenyans and other Africans. Some came to the US never to return. Others stayed in the United States but continue to be very involved with Kenya. One example is Makau Mutua, a law professor and former dean of the law school at the University of Buffalo, who writes a weekly column for the Standard newspaper. Others stay in the United States for some time and then return to Kenya. Often this is on retirement where US social security goes much farther in Kenya than it does in the United States. I have also known Kenyans who come purposely for a short time to make money in order to return to start a business. I once knew a Kenyan who came to the US for about two years, worked two or three jobs, lived as frugally as possible, saved his money, and then returned to Kenya to start a taxi business. I have also known illegal Kenyan immigrants who work as house servants or in retirement homes. I knew one Kenyan in St. Louis who won a lottery green card and came to the United States; interestingly after a number of years she returned to Kenya.

The Kenyan community in the United States, with an estimated 130,000 to 300,000 immigrants, in itself is strong, although unfortunately often based on the tribal lines. When we lived in the United States, each year Gladys would attend the meeting of members of her Maragoli sub-tribe for a weekend get-together. Through this she kept up with what was happening in her home area. One activity that the group did, if someone died in the US, they would raise the necessary funds, then at least $10,000, to return the body to Kenya for burial; this is an important duty of Kenyan culture for someone who has died.

In the 1970s and afterwards I looked disapprovingly on Kenyans I knew who did not return to Kenya after their education to help with Kenya’s development. I have now changed my mind as I realize how important the Kenyan diaspora is for the economy of the country. In addition with the much lower cost of travel, the ability to easily talk to people in Kenya including through WhatsApp and Skype, and the use of the internet to keep up on Kenyan news, overseas Kenyans are now much “closer” to home and much more involved in their home communities.


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David Zarembka

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