Kenyans in the U.S. have come far despite homesickness and other challenges. Tumetoka mbali kweli! Thus, every once in a while, it is proper to reflect on our journey, celebrate it, and count our blessings.
Musician David Amunga, who never actually traveled to the U.S., made good use of his U.S. social connections to compose and record this 1964 immigrant anthem (ji-enjoy, it's in English!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qMjjUHZAmiQ. Aside from crooning about Amunga's happy “stay” in the USA, the song reminisces about “his” homesickness, and provides “his” reasons for choosing to return to Kenya. Remarkably, the song is silent about the harsh socioeconomic conditions of blacks in the U.S. in the 1950s and 60s. Nonetheless, I wonder if he knew that his song would one day become a classic that would speak to many future generations of Kenyan-Americans and immigrants in the USA.
At the time, few Kenyan immigrants in the USA planned to live here permanently. Yet, despite their brief (and for some, extended) sojourns, they left a mark and helped to lay the foundation for Obama’s current presidency. Moreover, they helped to initiate the strong relations that Kenya enjoys with the U.S.
Many of the first generation Kenyan immigrants to the U.S., including President Obama's father, Barack Obama Sr., were part of the Kennedy-Mboya airlifts of the 1950s and 60s that sought to train and prepare Kenyan Africans for the task of running their soon to be (or newly) independent country of Kenya. Although Kenya has been independent for over 5 decades now and has one of the most educated populations in Africa; the spirit of the Kennedy-Mboya airlifts lives on in Equity Bank’s Wings to Fly program, Dr. Susan Mboya’s Zawadi Africa Education Fund, and in the many thousands of Kenyan immigrants who have since then “airlifted” themselves to the U.S.
Regardless of whether or not the 1950s’ and 60s’ generation of Kenyan immigrants in the U.S. returned to Kenya after their studies; they all felt the sting of homesickness much like their current counterparts. Some of the early immigrants who returned to Kenya include the late Barack Obama Sr. (one of the first Kenyans to get a PhD from Harvard University), James Karugu (independent Kenya's second Attorney General and a 1962 graduate of Bowling Green State University and one of its top 100 alumni), the late Professor Wangari Maathai (the first African woman recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize and the first East and Central African woman to earn a PhD) and the late Dr. Julius Gikonyo Kiano (the very first Kenyan to ever earn a PhD). Even so, this high flying generation of Kenyan immigrants to the U.S. were themselves following in the footsteps of Mulungit, the first Maasai and Kenyan African to travel to and to seek higher education in the U.S. in 1909.
From this early trickle of immigrants, Kenyans in the USA have, especially since the 1990s, become one of the largest and most educated African immigrant groups in the country. Their college educational attainment, though less than that of the insanely educated Nigerians, is still one of the highest in the U.S. and is significantly higher than that of the general American population regardless of race or ethnicity. Kenyans, and other African immigrants, have now replaced Asians as America’s model immigrant minorities.
Even so, this large Kenyan immigrant population continues to contend with homesickness although it is now significantly moderated by "cheap" international calling, fast and affordable jet travel, email, social media (Whatsapp, Facebook, and FaceTime), the Internet, and other space-time compression technologies. Nonetheless, these many decades later, Amunga's song continues to comfort the current crop of Kenyan Americans and would-be-returnee Kenyan immigrants in the U.S. and beyond.
The power of this song lies in the fact that our problems and challenges are quite similar those of our past and present immigrant friends, family members, and neighbors. It is true then that "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). As Harry Truman would have it, "The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know." Fortunately, neither our homesickness nor our many other problems are permanent for "... Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning" (Psalms 30:5). So, hang-in-there until tomorrow comes. In the meantime, try to enjoy the journey of life since “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans” or are busy preparing for it.
By Dr Kefa Otiso. Dr Otiso is a Professor of Geography at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, USA, and President of the Kenya Scholars & Studies Association.