I could quote a hundred or so peer reviewed journal articles, hundreds of theses, books and other academic works regarding adapting to life in a foreign country. But I will speak as one of the millions of people who took a conscious decision to pack my bags, board a Swiss Air jet at JKIA, and off I left for the unknown to seek for opportunities. I thus joined a long line began by Adam and Eve after leaving Aden, Abraham after leaving Ur of the Chaldeans, and millions of others since antiquity who did just that; move.
No doubt that the very act of leaving the known to the unknown is wrought in anxieties, stress, periods of depression, and uncertainty. It is not an easy decision to make. Take it from me! If you ever left your village after class 8 to go to boarding school, or later to the university, or later to your first job in far off Lamu, or Busia, or wherever you found your first job, moving is not easy. Let nobody lie to you that getting into that bus, matatu, nduthi, boat, or airplane and probably seeing your village for the last time, comes as easy as ABC.
Many questions abound.
Will I be accepted by my new environment? What do those people eat, who and how do they worship, what about their language? Manner of dress, their social interactions? Will I be the first black person kids in that environment see for the first time? Will the said kids be following me around the market to see if I have a tail? Will the adults be curious to touch my kinky hair? Will they keep asking me if I have ever killed a lion? Or whether I have ever showered? And yes, these are some of the issues and questions a new immigrant gets to be asked by the natives of the new environment.
It never gets any easier. As soon as an immigrant lands in a new country; be it the Middle East, the Far East, Down Under, South East Asia, Middle, South or North America, Russia, Europe, wherever an immigrant lands, one is inundated by newness. With the newness comes a perceived and actual naivete. One is a virgin to the new culture. It is a difficult moment.
Of course those who never left the village wonder why those who move out end up being crying babies. Cut them some slack! The emigre, as it is, may have made the decision to move. Most of the time, that decision is made for them by fate. It may be due to civil wars, or unrest, or religious and tribal persecution. Millions leave the peripheral to the center due to financial and economic reasons. The same reasons compel one to leave their village to the nearest town to sell mandazi, or to the city to drive a matatu, or do whatever their hands finds to do. A million reasons exist as to why people get pushed from one corner of the world and/or gets pulled by another corner of the good blue planet.
Be that as it may, one of the most talked about issue among new immigrants is mental health. How does one negotiate life in the new environment? Getting papers right to get the first job is not a walk in the park. I have met in these streets men and women who were top kahunas in Africa reduced into doing the humblest of menial jobs. Guys who had their own coveted corner office overlooking the beautiful City in the Sun reduced into bus drivers, night guards, nurse aids, name it. People who, in their previous lives were senior government officers, top corporate suits, reduced into sleeping in strangers couches, or sharing small rooms with fellow immigrants from West Africa or from the Caribbean.
Much has been said about African men, who, in their previous lives were the Simba that roared in the house and everyone else had to coil their tails between their hind limbs. Then, slowly but surely, their hirtheto dependent spouses become financially independent, actually making far much more than the old Mufasa. What should Mufasa do?
There are no easy options here!
It may appear that children adapt faster than their parents, which in most cases is the truth. This too brings conflicts in immigrants homes. The innocent baby girl or the little prince gets to school and one of the first things he or she learns is to call 9-1-1 incase an adult, parents included, tries as little as to lift the pinky finger against the child.
The children are often the first to come face to face with a large number of the native population at school. The child learns quickly the accent of the region the family has settled, they get used faster to the food, manner of dress, speech, the freedoms and rights offered by the system to children. They hit the ground running. Before long, they will be speaking in a version of english that mom and dad will find difficult to understand. The same child you were teaching how to pronounce basic english words, now has the audacity to teach the parent to pronounce words “correctly!”
Meanwhile, back home, the immediate family, friends, and village mates are waiting for the foreign currency to start flowing into people’s M-pesa accounts. Every third contact in social media will ask for financial assistance even before the new immigrant gets the first job. Woe be unto a new immigrant with kids at school or college back home. School fees must be made available as soon as yesterday.
The new immigrant must immediately begin to uplift the living standards his folks back home, support the parents to put up a better house in the village, help the third cousin to start a propane gas supply business, or milk vending bizna, or any of the myriad small biznas that rarely celebrate their first birthday.
Student sojourners require an entire afternoon to tell their story. Bottom line, it is not all roses being a foreign student. Number 1, 2, and 3 priorities for any college student is balancing between maintaining good grades, finding next semester’s exorbitant college fees, and at the same time watching that they do not violate their visa conditionality of working the maximum allowable hours per week earning the minimum wage! Failure to meet the minimum requirement and renewing the visa will be akin to milking a porcupine.
And so we end up where we began. Moving and settling in a new environment is mentally challenging. Different people cope with the changes differently. Some find solace in drugs, alcohol, crime, church, sports, volunteering their services and talents and et cetera. Others decide to calmly and slowly retool to fit into the new environment. Others go back to the junction of life and relocate back to their home countries. To a few others, the pressures of life end up being too much to take and end their lives prematurely.
By Peter Gaitho (firstname.lastname@example.org)