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Prodigals abroad can transform this land

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is Kenya’s best-known literary figure. He is a novelist, playwright and essayist of worldwide repute. He is a professor of English and Literature, and has held positions in leading American institutions. He is the winner of an array of literary prizes.

Prof. wa Thiong’o chooses not to live in Kenya.

Ali Mazrui is a world-famous academic and prolific writer. His articles and polemics are read across the world, and he is credited with producing one of the only TV documentaries to trace Africa’s rich heritage in depth. He holds prestigious positions in universities across the world.

Prof. Mazrui chooses not to live in Kenya.

These are just two of the most prominent of Kenya’s sons scattered across the globe. Once, we rejected them; today, we offer them no reason to return. Below them, we have a huge number of Kenyan professionals who choose to live abroad: doctors, teachers, nurses, engineers, accountants, lawyers and managers. Not to mention hundreds of thousands of waiters, drivers, cleaners and labourers. Some estimates suggest that between half a million and one million Kenyans now live abroad, earning an income of between one and three billion dollars.

Can anyone blame these people for choosing not to live here? They are not “sellouts” or members of a nomadic band of Kenyan gipsies; they do not belong to any particular tribe, occupation or social class. They are your brothers and sisters, and mine. They are out there because Kenya ceased to offer them the opportunities to seek prosperity. They are out there because they cannot find a valid reason for living in the land of their birth.

If you are a Kenyan-born doctor, for example, what do you expect from a life in Kenya? That you will fight for the limited positions of standing in this country, and will struggle to break into the oligopolies created by a small clique of ‘name’ doctors who earn obscene incomes as a result? That your most likely position will be as a government doctor earning a pittance in a rural clinic with no equipment? That you will be far removed from leading-edge medical research and will stagnate intellectually? That one day, when responding to a patient’s call (as happened last month), you may be lying facedown on the tarmac, shot dead by carjackers who were unable to start your car? So why live here?

If you are a Kenyan-born secretary, what does life here portend? Again, that the average salary is absurd, and that only a select few can rise to the level of executive secretary or personal assistant? That your ability to break into that small group is often influenced by factors other than your ability: tribe or race, for example, or your willingness to engage in demeaning “extra-curricular” favours? That there are very few organisations that give even the vaguest damn about your personal development? That the shadow of rape now hangs menacingly over every Kenyan woman? So why live here?

Let’s be honest: when the average Kenyan gets the opportunity to go abroad, he or she is gone before you can say “diaspora”. Few ever return. At the beginning of last year, ever so briefly, hope fluttered again in many an exiled heart. After the rainbow, would the sun shine again on this battered land? Would sensible government herald the return of prosperity and new opportunities? Would brutish, everyday crime be a distant memory? Would professionalism in management become the norm rather than the exception?

The answers to those questions are known now, and they appear to be overwhelmingly negative. In fact, now that the rainbow coalition experiment has failed to yield positive results, the urge to leave appears to be stronger than ever before. More and more young professionals will tell you, if pushed, that they are looking at Canada and Australia and South Africa more keenly than ever.

There are those amongst us who would say “good riddance”. In my experience, these people belong to one of two camps: those few who have made it big in Kenya in their businesses and professions, and who find it very agreeable to keep the amount of competition for their income as small as possible; and those hypocrites who do it to draw attention to their own phoney patriotism in continuing to live here. Put both groups to a simple test: find out where their children are studying, and what plans they have for their return to engage in “nation building”. The results may startle you.

This state of affairs is untenable. If the priorities of the entire next generation lie in distant shores, we will soon become a country without a future. We need those Kenyans out there. We need the skills and expertise they have gained in more advanced economies. We need their observation of the wider world and the learning they have obtained as a result. We need them in their sheer numbers to come back and introduce the much-needed competition that this country is screaming out for. We need to break the enterprise-sapping monopolies of yesteryear, in business and in the professions, once and for all. We need their investment power, so that we can the escape the withering grip of donor dependence.

Make no mistake: they need us too. Wherever Kenyans live abroad, they spend a large proportion of their time and income seeking out their fellow exiles, looking for Kenyan products and scouring Kenyan newspaper websites. They yearn for the smell of charcoal fires at dawn and the sound of crickets at dusk. They drink Malt Tuskers in small huddles, often with tears of reminiscence in their eyes. They think about their mothers’ cooking and their fathers’ idiosyncrasies all the time. Their spirits dance from the chance encounter with another Kenyan at a busy airport. I write from experience; I have been there.

We can bring them back, with the stroke of a pen. The granting of dual nationality presents a huge opportunity to transform this country. It would grant legal recognition to our sons and daughters overseas. They could choose to live and invest directly in Kenya again, without forgoing their precious Green Cards and EU passports. They would not need work permits and visas to reside in the bosom of their motherland. Their emotional bond would be given legal endorsement. India and China, two of the world’s fastest growing economies, have fuelled this growth through the granting of dual nationality to their people abroad. We cannot afford not to.

Let our MPs continue their senseless political battles, but let them complete just one visionary act for us. Dual nationality is one of the few keys we have to unlocking a vibrant future. “Life’s a voyage that’s homeward bound”, said Herman Melville. Some of us do indeed choose to live here. We must join hands with our brethren abroad to break the mould of failure in this country. Change will come when enough people make meaningful investments – in time, money and determination – in the transformation of their nation. Then, someday, our most distinguished sons and daughters will once again reside within our borders.

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