By Boniface Mwangi
I have been coming to America almost every year since 2008. I travelled here for the first time to cover the 2008 US elections while working for a local newspaper. Since then, I have travelled extensively within the USA. I have met wonderful people and made life-long friendships.
My trips have taken me to institutions of higher learning such as Yale and Duke University. Others are University of Delaware, University of San Francisco, and Rutgers University; I also went to Occidental College where former US President Barack Obama schooled.
In the past year, while publicizing my book, I had the privilege to visit great cities. They include Atlanta, Alabama, Arizona, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Jersey City, Seattle, and Sacramento. Others are San Francisco, Minneapolis, New Brunswick, New York, Oakland, Worcester, and Washington DC.
I achieved this with full financial support from fellow Kenyans who came together to make it happen. This support from the people in the diaspora made me admire what the unity of a people can do.
Kenyans migrate for different reasons: education, money, love, family, and even safety. Some go to America straight from the village and others come from big towns and cities. Most of them face an America that is different from what Hollywood and American TV shows portray.
They face an America that is very unforgiving to anyone who does not have a job or money. Through my trip(s), I have been a witness to a dark side of diaspora life. This side threatens the survival of many legitimately. I speak out to such hoping that sharing this will help unite us even more.
Kenyans in the diaspora live in tribal cocoons
The way most Kenyans settle in America is similar to the way others settle in Nairobi slums. The latter settle in places where their tribes dominate. Just visit any slum in Nairobi and you will find large groups of people from the same ethnic community living together. The same scenario plays out in America.
For any new immigrants, America is a strange land where things happen very quickly. To fit in, they look for something familiar, such as language, food, or church. Such familiar things remind them of home. They seek and reach out to fellow Kenyans. This familiarity draws them to states with high population of Kenyans.
Practically, that is what many Kenyans would do. However, once you meet them, you realize quickly that Kenyans in the diaspora organize themselves into different groups. These groups are tribal largely. This situation is very evident and many Kenyans I spoke to validated it.
Now, there is nothing wrong with tribe. I once heard a speech by Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o where he said that we stop viewing ourselves as tribes but rather as Nations. Therefore, I say your nation is part of your identity. It is an inheritance of the rich culture and history of your people, and a unique language. This is not our reality though.
We choose though to identify ourselves as tribes and there lies everything wrong with tribalism. Tribalism is the poison that the British imperialists used to colonize Kenya. It is a tool of oppression they used to divide and rule us. The British colonial government introduced most of the stereotypes we have about tribes in Kenya.
Politicians have used tribalism to destroy Kenya
People documented the methods the imperialists used to divide communities. Our leaders have used and continue to use tribal propaganda to harm our unity as a nation.
Politicians use tribalism to cover up for their looting of this country. Some of the poorest people in Kenya come from communities that have held power or had their sons and daughters in powerful government positions since 1963. Individuals steal, but people blame their tribe because these individuals run and hide behind the cloak of tribe.
Politicians have used tribalism to destroy Kenya. We have believed their lies foolishly and become their tribal foot soldiers. We are more tolerant to a politician accused of stealing our resources in billions that cause the deaths of many, than to a chicken thief. The outcome is that we become more tribal. This is something we have exported beyond our borders.
Not all of the most toxic people online live in Kenya. Some are in the diaspora and they share the most disgusting things you can find online.
Some Kenyans in the diaspora promote ethnic hatred
They use the distance, and their tribal identity, that gains strength from their daily interactions in self-made cocoons. This helps them insulate themselves from the danger that results from their words. Their social circles applaud them, and they never get to see the impact of their statements on the society back home.
After the 2007 general elections, tribalism became so bad. Kenyans in the US turned against each other. They exchanged terrible accusations. Some of them reported fellow Kenyans who lacked valid status to the immigration officials. They wanted them deported out of tribal hatred and cared less about upholding the law.
Hitherto, tribalism in the diaspora is worse and any existing tolerance is turning into hate. I saw it everywhere. It is in the pulpit, in the streets and at the work place. Churches have turned me away because of my activism. Some people said openly that they could not attend my events. They said there is nothing important a person from my community can tell them.
I have seen people on the verge of violence as they speak to me. They accuse me of not “being Kikuyu” because I call out the corruption in our leadership. I learned that in some states, different tribes even hold different national holiday celebrations on the same day. They cannot even celebrate Kenya’s freedom together.
There was a proposal to provide a consulate to the thousands of Kenyans in Dallas. Because of tribal infighting, the idea collapsed. Some Kenyans in the diaspora do not interact with other “tribes” at all.
Kenyan diaspora needs to address tribalism
The diaspora is critical to the Kenyan economy and the lives of Kenyans. In 2016, Kenyans in the diaspora sent home KSh177.34 billion ($1.72 billion) according to the Central Bank. Diaspora remittance is Kenya’s largest source of foreign exchange earnings for three years in a row. It beat the tea and horticultural exports. Clearly, they are integral to the survival of many.
We need to look beyond brand names that colonialists imposed and that thieves propagate. Harboring hate only has one consequence, which is destruction. Kenyans in the diaspora need to heal. They need to have a diaspora dialogue on tribalism, confront this issue, and see what it is doing to our unity.
They may not live in Kenya but they should be proud of their motherland. Their unity can help them accomplish far much greater than they can think and much more. Together, they can influence policy when it comes to foreign investment and their right to vote.
Back home, some have swindled many of them, and the government has ignored them. The government is looking into taxing them even before giving them the right to vote. They cannot articulate these issues properly as long as they remain divided.
I have a message to Kenyans in the diaspora. We need your voice to help us elect good leaders and shape opinions. We also need your voice to encourage unity and healing. Therefore, use your voice well. Make amends with the people you fell out with because of tribal politics. Let your love flourish and your wounds to heal so that Kenyans back home can learn from your unity.
Every year, thousands of Kenyans converge for Dallas Memorial and in Vegas for Rugby. I would be happy to see as many Kenyans in the diaspora come together for dialogue on tribalism. They should also come together to dialogue on how to heal and resolve our differences.
A divided Kenyan diaspora community will only make things worse in America and at home. Yet, a united diaspora will help us all.
(First published by Boniface Mwangi. Edited for clarity).