“Dear me, you are silly,” she [a goose] said. “There are no boundaries among the geese.”

“What are boundaries, please?”

“Imaginary lines on the earth, I suppose. How can you have boundaries if you fly? Those ants of yours – and the humans too – would have to stop fighting in the end, if they took to the air.”

From the Once and Future King by T. H. White, end of chapter 18.

In 1979 my parents, two siblings, and I visited Golina, Poland, where my father was born. There we met a relative who had migrated to the United States before the beginning of World War I in 1914. He lived in Chicago and worked for decades as an elevator operator, that old occupation before self-selecting elevators became the standard. When he retired, he moved back to Golina. One reason was that his social security payments went much farther in Poland than they would have in the United States. My great grandfather, Mathias Zarembka, came to the United States to work for seven years in the 1880s until he returned to Golina. My grandfather, Frank Zarembka, migrated in April 1914 to the US as did five of his six siblings. In those olden days people could just go anywhere in the world they wanted without restrictions. Of course in 1910 the population of the world was only 1.7 billion people. On the other hand travel and communications were much more difficult than they are today. Then we had the “One World” where everyone was free to go wherever they wanted and return “home” where they were born whenever they wanted. WWI led to drastic restrictions on immigration which have become increasingly more onerous as the years pass by.

Before we moved to Lumakanda, Kenya, in 2007, I was taking a flight from the US to Kenya on Ethiopian Airlines. In Addis Abba, I missed my connection so Ethiopian Airlines put me up for the night in a small 24 room hotel owned by an Ethiopian. I had a pleasant night because the owner of the hotel had spent about thirty years living in Boston and was a great Red Sox fan. While living in the United States, he had earned and saved enough money to build the hotel and moreover had acquired sufficient skills to successfully manage the construction and administration of the hotel. He, like my Dad’s relative, had left home for decades, but then returned.

As I will explain below, Kenyans have a very different concept of the world than the nationalistic Americans and Europeans, where the concept of the sanctity of the nation state developed in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia.

While I was in the hospital in Nairobi, I noticed that all the staff, including the doctors, nurses, and support staff, was quite young as all seemed to be well under forty years of age. I asked one nurse how old he was and he responded, “Twenty-five years old.” Why was the staff so young? If a young person does well on his or her secondary school leavers examination, he or she can be admitted to one of the good medical training institutions in Kenya. If they have the ability to pay the fees and schooling costs, do well in the training, become qualified as, for example, a nurse, they can then obtain a position for five years. With that training and experience, he or she is able to move overseas to the United States, Britain, Australia, Middle East countries, or elsewhere to a much more lucrative and satisfying career. When I lived in the United States, I met many Kenyan nurses. Due to their friendliness and, especially in nursing homes, their respectfulness for the elderly, Kenyans are seen as superb employees in the health field.

In academic and political circles this is looked upon unfavorably as “brain drain.”  But it is not. When a nurse leaves Kenya for a better position overseas, there is always another qualified, unemployed Kenya nurse to take his/her place who is happy to go through the cycle of gaining that five years of experience and then perhaps going out of the country. In most cases the funds the nurse will send back to Kenya will be many times more than the earlier cost of his or her training in Kenya.

When Kenyans go overseas to work, they don’t see it as abandoning Kenya as they still see the world as “One World”. As noted often in Kenya, Kenyans identity as “Kenyan” is very weak. Their identity to tribe, sub-tribe, and local area of birth is much stronger. When they go away, be it to Nairobi, London, Washington DC, or elsewhere, they are just sojourning. Their loyalty is back in their original homestead.

 At any one time almost ten percent of the Kenyan working population is working outside the country. When Kenyans leave Kenya for better opportunities, they send funds home to support their families. Remittances at $2.7 billion in 2019 now are the largest foreign exchange earner in Kenya. Remittances are more valuable than other foreign exchange earners because a hundred percent of the funding is available for use in Kenya. With tea growing, for example, another major source of foreign exchange, some of it is used to grow, process, transport, and sell the commodity so that the net result to the country is much less than the total received by the proceeds from the sale of the tea leaves. In short, going overseas for a secure income is very valuable to the individual, the person’s family, and the Kenyan economy.

Think of it this way. What if a person living in New Jersey who worked in New York City had to obtain a work permit and go through border security every day to go to and return from work? What if they had to go through an obstacle course in order to obtain a better position in California? Kenyans still see the world as the New Jersey person sees work in New York City. In these days, the Kenyan needs to negotiate the extremely difficult and byzantine obstacles of the nation state, but Kenyans are persistent and creative and often are able to work the system to their benefit.

Moreover today with new methods of communication including cell phones, email, Whatsapp, and so on, it is now much easier to communicate with people at home than the old letter writing system. Air travel is now much more frequent and cheap. I am now spending less in US dollars (usually less than $1000) for a round trip between Kenya and the US. In 1964 when I first came to Africa, the flight cost $1200 and there were only seven people on my first flight. One of the pleasant aspects of flying with Ethiopian Airlines from Addis Abba to Washington, DC is that there is always an elderly mama or two on the flight. When she gets through customs at Dulles Airport, she is always met by a large contingent of relatives and friends who welcome her with great joy and many flowers. One time when I was on an Ethiopian Airline’s flight, I had to help one of these elderly mamas from Burundi who was going to the US because she did not know English so I had to explain to her what to do in Swahili.

In the 2010 Kenyan constitution revision, Kenya acknowledged this cosmopolitanism by allowing all Kenyans to have dual citizenship. If a Kenya immigrant to the United States obtained US citizenship, which would be to his or her great advantage, he or she could also continue with his or her Kenyan citizenship. This therefore becomes one of those work-arounds to the current nation state system,  in this case officially sanctioned by the Kenyan state.

This is the attitude in seeing the world as “One World” that allowed Gladys, when she first attended Bethesda Meeting and was asked if she had family, could reply, “No, I don’t have any family members here, but you [the Quaker Meeting members] are my family.” 

A person can look at the world through the nationalistic lens or can see the world as a whole and consider the nation state as just an obstacle to work around and overcome. In these days xenophobic politicians in too many countries play the nationalist card to seize and maintain power. It seems to play well in so many various situations, but then there are always those people who oppose this xenophobia. To my way of thinking, we need to return to those pre-WWI days when the world was consider as One.


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David Zarembka

Email: davidzarembka@gmail.com

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