Thursday, April 19, 2012

The diasporan cash cow

Kenyans living abroad who keep abreast of the daily papers back home are accustomed to seeing articles that portray them as hedonists, living amoral, aimless lives in the land of plenty. Without fail, those articles adopt a scandalized tone and imply that the 'traditional' values of purity and innocence have been replaced with materialism and a dog-eat-dog ethos. Many have learnt to smile and shake their heads as they read those articles, for they know that they hardly scratch the surface of the diasporan experience.

Life abroad is characterized by challenges that are often impossible to relate to the people back home. In addition to these challenges, some have the unenviable burden of supporting entire extended families on their meager wages, often having to work at two or three jobs to send back enough money for school fees, medical care, construction expenses, etc.

Unfortunately, the frequent reward for taking on those responsibilities is that one ends up perpetuating a vicious cycle of dependence. Sometimes that's just the way it is: there is real need in the extended family and the daughter/ son/ nephew/ niece/ grandchild/ cousin/ brother/ sister living abroad is the only one who can help. Other times, there are other options, but because dependence has come to be the easiest of them all, these other options are not explored.

Whatever the situation back home, the Kenyan living in the diaspora continues to send money home whenever the request is made, even if he or she cannot afford to, because he or she is encumbered with guilt of one form or another: guilt that the amount sent last time wasn't enough, guilt that he or she didn't make it home for the last funeral, guilt that he or she hasn't lived up to the family's expectations. The list goes on and on.

Now, the thing about the Kenyan family set up is this: stereotypically, the interests of the extended family (as they are defined by some authority figure) supercede those of the individual. This is a completely different scenario from the American stereotype in which individualism is idealized and the individual's rights are often elevated above those of the larger community. This explains why a significant number of Kenyans living in the diaspora end up struggling to make it through each day in the so-called land of plenty while those whom they are supporting back home live enjoyable lives.

The diasporan Kenyan might be working three jobs, subsisting on four or five hours of sleep daily (because there isn't time to sleep), eating a meager diet (because there isn't time to cook or buying decent food would be 'wasteful') and spending little time with his or her kids (because there's no time for the kids). In the meantime, those back home are receiving support from their relatives abroad, so they manage just fine. They are in their own country, so they don't have to worry about the immigration rigmarole, and whenever there's a crisis, they can always really on Musa/ Tabitha/ Mwangi/ Akinyi in America/ Sweden/ Australia/ the UK to save the day. The families back home also have meaningful social lives with family and friends around to give them emotional support. Ultimately, Kenyans living in the diaspora could easily end up living lower quality lives than those whom they are supporting, not just in material terms, but also emotionally.

One Antony Karanja has taken the time to write about this state of affairs in an April 13th, 2012 article in the Daily Nation: "Stories of anguish behind rising diaspora remittances." The article is brutally honest in its assessment of the financial pressures that Kenyans living abroad are subjected to by their relatives, and it focuses specifically on those whose families have been merciless in their exploitation. Here are some excerpts from his article:

Most Kenyans cite “competition” among parents with children abroad as one of the major factors that strain relationships with their parents. Some say their parents always want to match their neighbours step by step, and therefore demand more from their already stretched relatives abroad. They tend to forget that circumstances are not the same for everyone. (. . .)

Many, however, lament that their families at home have a tendency to round off their cash needs to the nearest Sh20,000. Some will also exaggerate the severity of emergencies, hence getting more than necessary. Some abroad have gone home only to realise that what was quoted for them as school fees had been inflated by almost Sh10,000 per sibling. (. . .)

The strengthening of the Kenya shilling against the US dollar has also meant that those in the US who send a set amount periodically have to send more in terms of dollars just to maintain the same amount in shillings. They say that they sometimes have to work two shifts, which means they start off at 7am and leave work at 11pm.
The article also includes detailed anecdotes, presumably narrated to the writer by those whose families have exploited them.

The article is unusually critical of Kenyans at home, and the reason for this soon becomes apparent: the writer of the article is resident in Dallas, Texas. Clearly, this is a case of the Kenyan in the diaspora responding to years of misrepresentation. Articles that critically examine Kenyan norms and mores in this way are rare. They tend to be condemned for 'washing our dirty linen in public.' Perhaps because they are so rare, they tend to stand out when they are written.

A glimpse at the comments that follow the article reveals the degree to which its message resonates with readers. Many of the comments suggest that the exploitation of family members has been so normalized that it is no longer remarkable. To me, the article also reveals something else: the curious fact that those who fall victim to their families play a part in enabling their family members' behavior. The article does not dwell so much on this, but it is in fact a big part of the problem. There is a certain naivety on the part of many victims of exploitation: an assumption that if they look out for their families, their families will automatically look out for them. In an ideal world, this is exactly would happen, but, in reality, not everybody has the desire or the capacity to live by these ideals. This naivety will have to be addressed at length someday because the victims (and enablers) of the exploitation are really the only ones who have the authority to put an end to it.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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