Within 30 minutes of meeting two different groups of people, Zambian rapper Pilato’s satire of Donald Glover’s This is America, becomes a topic. Pilato, to those who don’t know him, is to Zambia what Bobi Wine is to Uganda. A musician and an activist. Except that Pilato, real name Fumba Chama, failed to get a seat in Zambia’s August house in the last elections. But he, like Bobi Wine, has been arrested for protesting against and criticizing the current administration. To one of my well-heeled friends, Pilato’s This is Zambia is a poorly executed, poor reflection of the nation because ‘there is so much more to Zambia than the Chinese doing business here.’ He should decide, my friend says, on whether he wants to be a musician or a politician because, at the moment, he is not doing either of the two well. To our cab driver Mich and his friend, it’s an honest reflection of the country. ‘Pilato talks the truth in that song,’ Mich says. ‘We shall soon be asking the Chinese for permission to live in our country because they own so much of us. And, we are also so desperate that we want quick solutions through these alleged prophets.’ Mich knows what he is talking about regarding the latter. When he hears that our next stop is Zimbabwe, he laughs and tells us how he did a spiritual journey to Prophet Magaya in the neighbouring country. ‘It was a waste of money. I sowed a seed from my savings and years later, nothing has come of it.’
The evening Mich picks us up from the Inter-City Bus Stop on Dedan Kimathi Rd is our first night in Zambia since 2016. Back then, the current President Edgar Lungu was preparing to be elected for the first time after having taken over the reins of power on the late President Michael Sata’s unexpected demise. This time, the only election that was on the cards was for the Mayor of Lusaka. Mich, a University of Zambia graduate who has been relegated to driving his mother’s car as a cab to earn an income and a strong supporter of the opposition, had already pronounced that whatever he wished, the candidate for the governing PF would win. ‘He is getting an endorsement from the President but even if he wasn’t winning, they would find a way for him to win.’ On this occasion, we are in Zambia for one night only. I shall return two weeks later for a writing workshop. The next time around, I will be in Zambia’s second largest city, Kitwe, in the Copperbelt Province. For now though as we depart for Harare, everyone in our party notices that the roads from Lusaka towards the border with Zimbabwe seem to be much better than those we have had to deal with from the Nakonde border with Tanzania. The reason is simple. Zambia and Zimbabwe do a lot of trade with each other and their capitals are a mere eight hours away from each other.
We take a little longer than we should at the border because Zimbabwe Customs want us to take all our luggage out and pay for any goods beyond a speculated number. The luggage goes through the X-Ray scanner after which we still have to stand by our luggage while a specially trained sniffer dog passes by each of our luggage. This is how my 13-year-old son ends up with four pieces of hair braids in his baggage. A woman who was seated next to us asked us whether we could please carry her braid pieces as she had eight and the maximum one can carry are four. It seemed a tad ridiculous, to say the least. The only other border where there is such curious attention to detail on what one brings in is at Beit Bridge border post as one enters or exits South Africa. When I return, I will notice that our bus just drives right through into Zambia after passports are stamped. It’s a great feeling.
I spend the night of my return in Lusaka with a Zambian writer friend before flying out. There seem to be many literary groupings in Zambia but so few books coming out which are competitive worldwide or even continentally. When I ask her why that is, she speculates that it’s because writing doesn’t pay but having the writer title is considered prestigious. So when people can have a little money on the side, they will write manuscripts and self-publish then have an author among their title while they continue with the daily grind of selling tomatoes or going to the office. I become apprehensive. What will I encounter at the writing workshop I am about to have over the weekend in Kitwe?
There are no flights from Lusaka to Kitwe so I fly to Ndola, hometown to Edgar Lungu and an hour away from Kitwe. I am on a small plane where we are not more than ten passengers. Flight time is a mere 45 minutes and this new airline manages to offer a snack and a drink on this short flight. On arrival, our flight attendant announces, ‘Welcome to Ndola Airport. We kindly ask passengers that they remain seated until Honourable blah blah has disembarked.’ Yet again I can’t help thinking how I absolutely abhor what I call a Mheshimiwa Complex that seems to be all over this continent. As I am leaving I ask the flight attendant, ‘Tell me. Why did you want us to wait for the Minister to disembark? Is he not a public servant and therefore should be waiting for the public first?’ The flight attendant is taken aback. He laughs. ‘You are not from here, are you?’ I answer that as a matter of fact I am. Baggage claim, in these sort of encounters, is the great equalizer. And so I take small delight in taking my bag before he does. However, as I am getting into a cab, I notice that the driver who came to pick up Mhesh from the airport is carrying his briefcase and his bag. Sigh. I arrive at my lodging in Kitwe an hour later.
In the morning, I shall meet the participants for the two day writing workshop. There are six writers in the workshop. I am particularly impressed by one young writer whose imagination, if he continues to write, would be perfect for the Arthur C. Clarke international science fiction award. The other writers are pretty impressive too and I understand why they may have been selected for the workshop. Only one writer worries me, although I say nothing about how I feel loudly. As I am giving them some different writing prompts, his pieces almost always conclude with a rebirth in Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It’s fascinating to watch the interaction between he and the sci-fi writer, a young man who could be his son and who is taking a gap year before starting university next year. I do not know whether the young man is too much for him, but he does not return on the final day.
In conversation with the writers who all seem to be from families that are not rich but fairly comfortable, there is a sense of uncertainty about their futures. As I listen to them during our breaks, I can’t help but notice that I have seen these youngsters in many countries on the continent. I have seen them in Kenya, in Zimbabwe, in Botswana, in Ghana and in Nigeria. Those who are employed, are doing some contractual work for some NGOs and they hope they can be there for a long time, donor funding permitting. A couple do not work but are university graduates still staying at home praying for something, anything, to come up. The gap year young man is the only one who seems to still have some hope that through sheer hard work, he can make it. For his sake, I hope Zambia sorts itself out before he graduates. Unfortunately, the manager of our establishment makes me lose a bit of that hope. On a drive into town, she tells me of the debt that the country now owes our friends in the East. In Kitwe, as in Ndola, I spot a large Bank of China. ‘Is this a big thing here, I have seen it in Ndola too.’ She tells me that Bank of China is not for the locals but for the Chinese investors. ‘If any of us are using it, it’s because we are in partnership with Chinese companies.’
When I return to Lusaka, I shall be with my well-heeled friends. It’s a day before a public holiday so people are ordering beers in pitchers at Keg and Lion, a pub in Eastpark, one of Lusaka’s malls. Perhaps there is uncertainty here but it’s not as visible as it was among the writers in Kitwe or in conversation with Mich and his friends. The patrons are well-dressed and talk casually of whether the best parties are in Lagos, New York or Joburg. They talk of international airlines they will no longer fly because of profiling and have a relative or two in London who they have bought groceries for while visiting. When they get ill, my well-heeled friends in Keg & Lion will be stabilized then fly out of the country to mend, just like the two Presidents of Zambia who died in office. It’s a different face of Zambia, a face with so few of the country’s population but unfortunately for Pilato and his fans, this too is Zambia. The connected Zambia that matters and is worth paying attention to -according to those who govern the land – except just before elections. In this way, Zambia duplicates many other African nations.
Your Dreams Are Not Valid Here
I came back to Kenya immediately after my studies, armed with a master’s degree from one of the world’s most prestigious universities – and two years later, I am worse off than I have ever been in my short adult life. I used to earn more as a student than I do as a grown-up adult, with a family and a daughter about to join school. By SILAS NYANCHWANI
This time of year, October/ November, is the season when the United States runs their Electronic Diversity Visa Lottery, commonly known as the green card.
Globally, 20 million people fill it, with the hope of becoming part of the tight short list of the 50,000 people who eventually receive the American Permanent Resident Card, and a ticket to pursue the fabled American Dream (sometimes a nightmare).
In my early 20s, I used to nurse dreams of living in America. Most of my friends who never qualified for university used various means, dubious and straight, to enter America. And soon they were building mansions and buying plots around Nairobi as I chased my bachelor’s degree. I remember one friend in particular who had been jobless in Nairobi and when the opportunity came, he left in such a huff, leaving with his small worldly possessions; a bag with three or four clothes, old shoes and nothing else. He has never stepped back 14 years down the line.
I joined University in the mid-2000s, when the Kibaki economy was booming. Sectors like higher education had expanded massively, opening doors to hundreds of thousands to access university education and creating employment and business opportunities such as never witnessed before. Local banks, hitherto operating as cooperative societies or community chamas, had become serious players in the industry. M-PESA had just been launched and Nairobi was being noticed in Africa and indeed in the world finance markets. Real estate was booming. The media was flourishing, both mainstream platforms and lifestyle magazines were making stupendous profits. There was money to be made if you had the right skills.
For my first ever newspaper column (aged 21, no less), I was given a cheque of KSh7,500, inspiring me to pursue journalism. In my four years in campus, I supplemented the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) money with the wages from writing for local newspapers.
There was an air of optimism everywhere.
Then came the 2007 elections, followed by the post-election violence, coinciding with the 2008 global financial crisis, from which the world has never really recovered. In Kenya, we had barely started picking up the pieces from the post-election violence when a youthful duo came into office, who promised heaven and but have delivered hell, to the point where our economy is now in the doldrums.
But I remember that through college and the ensuing years, we were proud of our country. The roads became better, Internet connectivity improved immensely, mobile technology grew, and Nairobi could afford anyone the best things in the world, barring traffic and pollution. Those of us in university hoped after graduation, we would get the six-figure salaries that our predecessors (classes of 2004-2008) were getting.
At the time, few of my friends had any ambition of leaving Kenya, save for those who were headed to graduate school. There were many reasons to stay. Many among those who traveled for further studies, or for whatever reason, did come back. And my Kenyan-American friends, advised me, “If you make at least KSh80,000 as net income, then you don’t need to come and struggle in America.”
It was a piece of advice we heeded, and after college, we were all looking for jobs that will guarantee KSh100,000. That was during the post-college euphoria, and by this time my obsession with “flying out” had diminished significantly. I started to believe I could ‘make it’ here in Kenya.
As a single young man, I enjoyed good income from my newspaper columns, and ultimately I got a permanent job with a local media organisation and decent pay nearly two and half years after graduation. People around me had more mixed fortunes. My spouse got a job after waiting for nearly three years after graduation. Most of my college friends waited longer, some in between jobs, more underemployed, others dropped through the cracks. The devolved government did rescue a few with jobs in the counties, but in my estimation only about half of the graduates in my year have been in steady employment or business.
Two years into my employment, the company I was working for laid off 300 workers, nearly a quarter of the workforce, in a purge that spared no one, from the young, to the middle-aged to the older folks. It was devastating. I only escaped the axe because I won a scholarship to graduate school that saw me spend a year in New York.
When I left for America, my entire clan accompanied me to the airport, knowing that the path to prosperity had just been opened. Their palpable excitement was understandable.
“Don’t ever come back, fetch your family and stay there,” they insisted. There were many more people who asked me to stay in America than those who advised me to come back – unlike just a few years before.
While in America, even with the telltale signs of a diseased and decaying economy, my acquaintances in US were all of the idea that I should play the system (basically marry my way into citizenship), or use whatever trick to stay there. But I was determined to come back, armed with youthful chutzpah and the idealism that my master’s degree from one of the world’s most premium universities will guarantee me a better life.
I came back immediately after my studies – and two years later, I am worse off than I have ever been in my short adult life.
There are no jobs in the media, and or in my Plan B, academia – that has been ruined too.
The other day, for the first time since 2010, I went to a cybercafé. I hadn’t gone to browse – who does that anymore? I had gone to take the quality photo necessary filing in the DV-lottery, and I sat down and applied for the green card. And in the last few months, along with other friends, I have been visiting placement agencies that advise skilled adults on how to settle in countries like Canada or Australia.
When was the last time you passed near Nyayo House? You have probably seen the impossible crowds. One can safely assume that those looking for passports want out of the country for various reasons.
I happen to have worked with a few agencies that send Kenyans abroad, from low-skilled workers (to Dubai, Doha and other places in the Middle East), to high skilled labour (to Western countries mostly). So many of my folks, given the limited farming opportunities in the village, have moved to the Middle East and America, where most of them work on low-end, but better paying jobs that anything the country can offer.
It is not just the manual labourers who want out of the country. Increasingly, people with university education are moving out of the country, reminiscent of the exodus witnessed in the 1980s and 1990s during the repressive regime of Moi, compounded by the Structural Adjustment Programs that saw the economy shrink so badly in the 1990s.
It is a quiet exodus.
One of the best things that come with age is the shattering of youthful idealism. You learn sooner than later that not all dreams are valid. You discover the ideal house you visualized, your dream car, and the neighbourhood you wanted to live in can be decidedly elusive. And as you grow older, you constantly adjust your expectations, adopting a cold-hearted selfishness, and pragmatism, for yourself and for your family.
I know at least six other friends who left the US and the UK, and at least four of them have had it so tough, the last I checked, they are at advanced stages of going back abroad to pursue a Ph.D. or looking for work as skilled immigrants. Never before I have ever been inundated with links for job applications and advice on how to emigrate to some of the better countries in the West; UK, Netherlands, Belgium, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the Scandinavian countries.
Yet the timing couldn’t be worse. In the West, the rise of right-wing governments spurred by collapsing or stagnating economies has inspired a wave of xenophobia targeting foreigners, and dark-skinned immigrants are especially not welcome.
But even so, we want to leave. Because the economic prospects for men and women of my generation look dim. According to a Pew Research Center study in March this year, 54 per cent of Kenyans wanted to relocate. They cited corruption, the high cost of living, poor living standards, and search for better housing, healthcare and education opportunities. Life has become unbearable.
And SAPs 2.0 are about to hit harder, as thousands of employees are set to lose jobs when the government sells 26 parastatals. With inflation, and the slow death of affordable public health care and education, the timing could not be worse.
I used to earn more as a student than I do as a grown-up adult, with a family and a daughter about to join school. Public schooling is in ruins, higher education in an irrecoverable mess, so much that middle-class and upper-class parents have totally lost all the hope in public schools and send their children to expensive private schools, the better if they run a different “international system”. But private education is so expensive that kindergarten annual tuition fees in some of the average schools is more than what a university student pays for their tuition. And many millennial parents are not going to afford it.
For healthcare, half of the WhatsApp groups we are in are for fundraising for sick or deceased folks since families cannot afford to pay for their relatives’ healthcare in decent hospitals.
We know the Kenyans in the diaspora are often homesick. Given a chance, many would return. Indeed, their remittances tell a story of unshakeable faith in their motherland – in 2017, Kenyans remitted over $1.9 billion from the diaspora – but the government hardly accords them any significance.
“Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spares time when he goes abroad to meet Indians living in that country. President Uhuru Kenyatta rarely does it. But this helps build a connection between migrants and the motherland,” says Mukurima Muriuki, a Kenyan conflict resolution expert based in California, USA.
The same can be said of countries like Lebanon that keeps a database of professionals abroad. Or Ireland that taps into the potential of its expansive diaspora network. Israel too.
Similarly, the growth in industrialization as well as the information and technology rapid growth of the Asian tigers has been credited to returning immigrants, and the sustained ties ensure that both the host country and the motherland benefits.
In Kenya’s case, it feels like contempt towards those in the diaspora is always on constant display. Like the recent launch of direct flights to America that hardly involved members of the diaspora who ordinarily would make the bulk of the users of the flight.
But because we mostly send low-skilled workers who end up in menial jobs, there is little exchange of skills that can transform the country. More individuals end up in middling jobs, with no way to really contribute back home, beyond building an ancestral home (essentially, dead capital) and buying more meaningless pieces of land for lack of alternatives.
High skilled individuals often gain citizenship to the host country, and their brains end up benefitting the host country more than the mother country. Think of the late Professor Calestous Juma, a celebrated international authority in the application of science and technology for sustainable development worldwide, who was at Harvard University at the time of his death last year. If he stayed in Kenya, he probably would never have risen through the ranks – and would never have ascended to the status that Harvard afforded him. One can think of the top Kenyan academics, thinkers and writers who spend their lives in the Western institutions because their country has spurned them.
This country loses so much in terms of skills and ideas. And worse because we are not creative enough to utilize the diaspora beyond just remittances. We could use more transfer of skills and ideas.
Still, I am starting to think that when your country does not love you, you have no obligation to love it back.
You Only Leave When Home Is the Mouth of a Shark
Back then harambees were festive occasions. The soon-to-be voyager stood coyly at the front, maybe draped in shiny tinsel, perhaps holding out a kiondo into which their donations were danced forward and dropped into. But then it became harder to be generous as the economy sank lower and lower. By WANJERI GAKURU
For some reason, we only ever seemed to climb up to the waving bay at the airport at night. Crowding around the large windows, a gaggle of bundled up pre-teens up way past their bedtime. We’d stare at the rows of shiny metal birds; miracles of science, about to leap into the inky blue skies. We imagined our kinfolk nestled within one of those bellies. The grownups were scattered around us chatting among themselves; recalling a similar journey, as prayerful escort or terrified traveller.
The parents were a picture of sadness and pride. Soon, they’d choose a plane for us to wave at. Pressed together with strangers we’d mark its confident ascension, high and bright and pulled by an invisible chariot of fire until it became a tiny speck. It didn’t matter that it likely wasn’t the right aircraft we cheerfully sent off. Going down the dark stairwell afterwards, we were all countrymen saluting folks who would likely not return.
We didn’t know it then, but it had all begun years before. In 1980, Kenya took its first Structural Adjustment loan from the World Bank. After nearly two solid decades of independence and relative economic stability, Kenya replaced the import-substitution policies it had pursued since independence with an open, liberalized trading regime. It was intended to “stabilize” the economy, which was under the pressure of debt repayments.
Did it work? The short answer is: no.
We took a second loan in 1982, same year as the attempted coup. The latter had an especially profound effect on how we were governed from then on, intensifying paranoia and tribalism in governance. But even ambitious economic plan, which looked good on paper, was designed to hurt the most vulnerable. SAPs required poor countries to reduce spending on things like health, education and infrastructure, while debt repayment and privatisation were made the priority. In effect, the IMF and World Bank demanded that poor nations lower the standard of living of their people.
Around that same time, Kenyans also suffered through the 1992 elections—where the government borrowed heavily from local banks and caused inflation—and the 1993 Goldenberg scandal, in which 10% of the country’s GDP was squirreled away. To where? We didn’t know. But we knew it was bad.
No wonder my late father worked it out so that my eldest sister got on a plane to Germany to work as an au pair for a year. It was 1999 and at least one of us in the family would enter the new millennium with hope. To raise money for her departure, we circulated pledge cards, secured the family’s most generous friend as guest of honour and held a harambee. These fundraisers were a common practice among the middle class for travels abroad. We still hold them today but largely for funerals and medical reasons. (One day we need to unpack why churches somehow manage to remain bankrolled through whatever hardships. The same goes for wedding committees).
But back then harambees were festive occasions. The soon-to-be voyager stood coyly at the front, maybe draped in shiny tinsel, perhaps holding out a kiondo into which their donations were danced forward and dropped into. Folks were so generous; they didn’t just support academic trips. Sometimes it was to aid a lucky Green Card lottery winner. Only 50,000 US immigrant visas are available through that national lottery. It seemed that Kenyans snatched up quite a number. I was always either a raffle ticket seller (where the grand prize was something like a large towel) or I sold handkerchiefs at inflated prices. All to send so-and-so majuu.
However, it was harder to be generous as the economy sank lower and lower. The cold eyes from the portrait that bore down at us from the walls of our offices and schools and at the start of news bulletins were unrelenting. That is, until the opposition parties created a rainbow and pressed Moi into retirement in 2002. Nonetheless, my family—now a battered middle class—was still plotting how to send more people out there. Within a year we scrimped and saved and shipped off a cousin to America.
She was the last of us to go this way.
Yoked here by the fallout of economic distress of yesteryears, my family, like many other Kenyan households found studying abroad a luxury. It was still possible but even the brightest amongst us could not summon the harambee spirit. By the mid-2000s folks had to secure full or partial scholarships, and still finesse church, work and society trips to cross the Atlantic Ocean. That is, if they could jump through the many hoops needed to even secure a visa, and the irony of sitting for an English proficiency exam in a former British colony.
When it was my time to enrol in university, Uganda and Tanzania were my best options for an alternative higher learning experience. By then I had just become an orphan and that’s what literally pulled on the purse strings and got me into a journalism class.
Today, my 20-year-old nephew’s best bet at a good education is turning to the Internet. It has become the salvation of the jaded millennial, myself included. Sure, folks can attend local colleges and polytechnics but the World Wide Web is the best university they can attend, it holds all the books they cannot buy and has become the employer, the platform and marketplace they seek.
Maybe flying out isn’t such a big deal when information is pouring out of your phone and laptop. The ability to viably contribute to the web has turned everyday people into celebrities and birthed new occupations. Not forgetting the hundreds of dollars made monthly from vaguely suspect pursuits (online writing) to the definitely illegal (selling of pirated DVDs). Young people are somehow finding a way to make it in these harsh economic times.
If nothing else, the Internet has made the strongest assault against the almighty lawyer-engineer-doctor trifecta, but it can’t save everyone. An impossible wage gap, brutal unemployment and perilous short-term kibarua jobs still persist. To quote poet Warsan Shire, “No one leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark.”
For those who still try and make their way out, Middle Eastern nations offer the lowest barrier of entry but at a terrible price. What are advertised as opportunities for domestic workers too often are a mask for modern-day slavery. Many, like Happiness Chweya, Mwanakombo Athman and Melsa Adhiambo Makhokha, return home in coffins. Those who narrowly escape recount tales of physical abuse and sexual depravity.
Yet hundreds still flock the fraudulent job agencies, thousands more have their passports seized and cannot return home. Their desperate pleas secretly recorded circulate on Facebook and Twitter as horrific vox pops.
Equally stuck are the waving bay generation, those who left. No doubt they have it much better – at least financially (?) – than their counterparts across the seas but what does it mean to long for home for 5, 10, 20, 30, 40 years? To be torn between renewing an expired student visa and risking deportation, and sending home payments received under the table, miserly as they are. It means watching your father’s funeral through the small window of a smartphone thousands of kilometres away and sobbing and sobbing because home is still the mouth of a shark.
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