Strange Ways Of Diaspora Returnees
Every time some Kenyans come back from abroad, expect some comedy. Suddenly they have forgotten directions and their mother tongue and need local guides and interpreters to find their way around. And as a village teacher who is slightly literate, I have had the privilege of acting interpreter to some returnees.
“Tell Mom that my system cannot handle this kind of food.” I translated this with relish, implying that everybody should know the dangers of some local vegetables that the chap and I had been brought up on.
In my social roving, I see many returnees wearing dark sunglasses irrespective of the weather. Perhaps they are winter guys and girls, used to the glare of snow in their adopted countries.
Some of them often demand alien things in the average Kenyan cafÈ like milk shakes, pizzas, herbal tea, hot dogs and diet coke, to the bewilderment of all within earshot.
And they often ask prices in dollars or euros, if you are able to decipher their accents.
And have you noted that their gestures and body cues are frequently western to a fault? When talking to us they keep a wide personal distance that can be misconstrued as antisocial to our African sensitivities.
The men are given to a little pomp when shaking hands and hugging. The women often shake off dreads or imaginary hair from their foreheads, just like wazungu.
Our brothers and sisters coming from abroad are always amazed by small things, like birds and insect and issue a stream of dizzying words to express their appreciation.
“Oh Gawd (God) how beautiful, splendid, cool, terrific! Absolutely!”
When these people bring their children along, they often confound their local kin with a totally foreign style of parenting.
For we have to quickly incorporate these brats’ interruption of adult conversations.
“Dad, this woman looks so black and old,” a brat may say about his grandmother.
And as often happens in such situations, everybody pretends not to have heard.
The children may take fright at the sight of cows and shenzi chicken and question the wisdom of coming this far in the jungles.
“Let’s go back home, dad!”
Some returnees may have left as shy village boys and girls on scholarships or green cards but they come back strutting, boisterous, and full of democracy and civil rights. They bring a strange rowdiness with them, commenting on every issue.
“This cannot happen in America, man!” They preface all their complaints this way when vehicles stall in traffic jams or local functions take too long to start.
Comically, they may demand a lawyer at every minor brush with the police.
People are often amazed at how quickly they have forgotten our old and frequently chaotic ways.
At social functions, these people are often annoying as they suggest solutions to all of Africa’s problems.
“I have seen many community based projects in Adelaide, British Columbia and Cardiff,” they will often say and outline novel development agendas. But they are nowhere to be seen when the time comes to donate money and take action.
In my social wandering, I often gather many anecdotes of how some Kenyans living abroad take incredulity to new levels by staying in five star hotels in Nairobi when they visit.
So, their rural kin adorn matatus with banana twigs and journey there to meet them, singing: “Anaweza Bwana anaweza….”
Others hire 4WD vehicles, hung binoculars and video cameras around their necks, stash mineral water bottles in their pockets and venture to their rural homes in daylight.
But they are back in urban centres for the night long before our witches and night runners come out. Yet many Kenyans living abroad venture back to the village quietly, with no trumpets blaring.
As I sign off to gather more social comedy, please cut out the concert when you return from abroad; you are not from heaven, yet. Absolutely, man!
John K. Kariuki
I couldn’t help but laugh aloud while reading this article because the author is spot on in describing some ‘Diasporans’ who return to Kenya with pomp and style all the way from JKIA to their rural homes. I must admit that during my trips back home, the few returnees I have met in this category have mainly been from the UK and USA. They are normally loud, rude and authoritative (which they mistake for being confident), with a tendency to brag about their material possessions.
A few years ago, a London-based Kenyan man clad in a three-piece suit, visited a friend who was hosting me at his house in Mombasa city. He did not seem uncomfortable in the December heat while for me in my t-shirt, it was like sitting next to a furnace. I had just returned to town from the countryside and bought some cans of Tusker beer which I sipped to cool off. I offered his group (two women and two men) the beer but they politely refused my offer. A few minutes later, my host returned home and introduced me as a ‘Stockholmer’ and believe me, my social status was elevated immediately. Why? Because they had just realized I was not a ‘local’. I suddenly mattered then, because they eventually drank the same Tusker they had rejected earlier. If a returnee drinks Tusker, then it is a “classy” drink.
From my experience, the few Scandinavian-based returnees I have met in Kenya are normally low-key and hardly display ‘bling’. I have often wondered why, but I think the humble nature here in the cold North shaped by years of widespread social equality, might be an influencing factor compared to the class societies prevalent in the UK and USA. In Stockholm, there is a sense of “I don’t care about what you own because I can buy it too”. Of course there are other forms of inequality which could make another topic.
During the early 1980s, a veteran Kenyan reporter known as Leonard Mambo Mbotela at then Voice of Kenya (now KBC) once took a swipe at the mannerism of Kenyan returnees during his famous Swahili radio program called “Je, huu ni ungwana”? (Is this friendliness/kindness?). He talked of “acquired accents” by these people when speaking Swahili. For example, instead of saying ‘chapati’, a returnee would say ‘chapatai’ or ‘yu-galai’ instead of ‘ugali’. He also chided them for rejecting those very traditional dishes they had enjoyed while growing up, etc.
I once visited some relatives in Nairobi who had spent a full day cooking traditional dishes for two returnees they had invited to dinner. They had been away in the US for two years and had very interesting stories. However, as they ate their way through the meal, one commented that they were merely “eating starch with starch”.
Some returnees don’t travel to their rural homes simply because of the so-called ‘primitivity or backwardness’ of the folks there. Some just fear the darkness at night because there is no electricity, while others don’t go there because they fear cockroaches and other bugs which ironically used to be part of their diet while growing up. They are a ‘lost lot’ because if Senator Barack Obama (the American presidential candidate) took his wife Michelle (as a fiancé then) all the way to his late father’s rural home in Kogelo-Siaya and both slept on a mat at night, why would some Kenyans who were born in penury, become snobbish after acquiring bits of Western culture in the Diaspora?
I do stay at hotels during my trips to Kenya because I dislike being caged in with relatives that have restrictive habits which infringe upon my freedom to move and stay out as long as I want. I do wear dark glasses to protect my eyes from the scorching sunlight and dust. I also like to carry a camera discreetly as I travel around, to capture memorable images. However, I am never loud though get angry at incompetent staffers within various institutions that waste a lot of time twisting me around, expecting bribes for services that they are paid for. I do advice my rural folks to do certain things differently for the sake of benefiting, otherwise I remain respectful to them.
In my opinion, the worst culprits are the Kenyans based in Kenya, particularly the so-called upper class — the well-to-do, who ride roughshod over the lower class groups. Some are former Diasporans now holding top positions or own very successful businesses. They still speak the English language ‘laced’ with accents from their former Diaspora regions combined with local ‘shrub’. Many of them have forgotten the freedom(s) they used to enjoy abroad and have joined the status quo of denying their poor employees basic human rights. They act with impunity knowing that the Kenyan legal system never favors the poor masses. See how they treat their maids and servants, then you will agree that let the Kenyan returnees be boisterous for a few days or months, then return to the Diaspora.