By martin mbugua kimani
Every week, in one newspaper or the other, I read of a conference to decry the migration of Africans to the West as the latest neo-imperial plot to bring down long-suffering Africa. When they are not after your gold or oil, they are after your mind, goes the wail of the unreasoning do-gooders who are now gathered at the donor-founded Biannual Research Workshop in Nairobi. It should be called the Biannual Begging Workshop for the Undignified.
I wish they would just shut up, start a business or get some real work done that increases Kenya’s wealth and security. Instead, they prefer to play the old ‘White Guilt’ game of joining with the West’s liberals – who make up the bulk of the aid industry – to call for regulations to stop the flow of hopeful people who are trying to do right by their families and themselves. The argument goes something like this: African professionals have been costly to train and are now moving abroad to pursue their professions thus benefiting the West, rather than their home countries which are now suffering the consequences of this migration. What nonsense.
In 2004, Kenyans abroad conservatively remitted at least $600 million(Sh45 billion) to their relatives through official channels such as Western Union. This is only a tip of the iceberg as a lot more dollars are sent home through informal channels. In 2003, the World Bank estimates that remittances by migrants to their (overwhelmingly poorer) countries exceeded $93 billion, twice the level of worldwide official development assistance. There are other estimates trying to account for informal remittance networks that put the figure at $120-$180 billion a year.
Unlike development assistance transfers — which mostly pay for luxurious NGO lifestyles and line corrupt politicians’ pockets — migrant remittances go directly to family members. They are available to the recipients to use according to their priorities and are used to finance basic consumption, education, health, purchasing or building homes, starting businesses and funding retirement.
My mother was a nurse in the United Kingdom nine years before she returned to Kenya last year. She had initially trained as a nurse in the early 1970s, worked at a succession of government hospitals — paradoxically managing to get poorer with every year as the cost of living got more expensive and her professional opportunities shrunk. After a decade of this grind, she went into business and eventually ended up competing for small government tenders. Every procedure was fraught with either red tape or dishonesty, and with her capital constantly tied up in an insanely convoluted government procurement system, she decided to pursue a different course.
The decision to migrate to the UK was a difficult one: She was not cash-rich and had two children, not to mention members of her extended family, who depended on her. Nevertheless, in her mid 40s she went to Kent in the UK, with kids in tow and started at the very bottom of the rung.
She was forced to work 80-hour weeks for lowly wages, while worrying about Britain’s youth culture destroying her children. Few were the moments that were not stressful.
Opening the mail was a nightmarish affair; A receipt demanding more money and too rarely a cheque in her name. But through these travails, she scrimped and saved, and took advanced nursing courses to qualify for better paying work. Eventually, having been offered a part-time postgraduate place at one of the better universities, she was finally able to stand on her two feet.
The hours remained long but in the final four years before she happily returned to Kenya, they had become more lucrative.
She was now earning £20-30 an hour working for nursing agencies. This enabled her to buy a London property to rent, paid her mortgage in Kenya and put my brother and sister through university.
The former studying astrophysics with a dare-you-doubt-me intention of being the first Kenyan to go to space, while the latter reads international relations with giddy plans to change our country’s political landscape.
But my mother’s heroic achievements were not limited to Britain’s shores. She invested her money in Kenya by buying land, supported her mother and brother and provided financial assistance to many friends and relatives during her nine years away. This, we are supposed to believe, represents a brain drain and a sort of imperialist plot. If it does, then I am all for brains drain with all speed and would love to hug imperialism.
The alternative discussed in the myriad conferences bemoaning the brain drain is that my mother should have remained in Kenya, get poorer, perhaps as one of those trades-people that the government treats like criminals when it is not taxing them punitively. The idle types in the all-knowing aid industry would have the government that made my mother’s hopes untenable in Kenya and forced her to seek greener pastures abroad to be responsible for ‘encouraging’ less braindrain. Every such pronouncement draws a bitter laugh from me.
They make the case not because they believe it, but because they are paid to. A friend of mine recently pointed to the arrogance of the idea. Its proponents’ assertion that those who have left are Kenya’s best made her wonder what it means about the 30 million left behind; Are they the ‘dregs", the unchosen, the leavings, not good enough?’ she asked. Yet every day Kenyans are reaching for the sky only to be brought low by a government that never saw a small trader it did not want to hit with a rungu. The Kenyan state has routinely devalued and destroyed the aspirations of its citizens.
It is akin to the colonial State that we supposedly got rid of 41 years ago but remains, now staffed with black faces whose mouths spout hypocritical nationalism that enriches them at the expense of those like my mother.
That is why they are willing to face the humiliation of the visa process, the cold winters, the racism and years of loneliness in countries where they are not welcome. The obvious response to the sentiments
I have expressed is that African governments paid for the training of professionals so people such as my mother owed the system something.
This argument ignores the fact that most professionals who leave do so after years of trying to work at home. And finally, shocking news to the brain-drained developmentalists: You have failed.
Four decades of your beggary, paternalism and poverty of ideas have only built on equally vacuous colonial legacies and reduced many people in Kenya to a brutish existence that does not reflect their effort, flexibility and hope. Stop bemoaning the brain drain and start thinking of how to use your brain better.