Stories of anguish behind rising diaspora remittances

Friday April 13 2012

 

By ANTONY KARANJA in DALLAS, TEXAS

Kenyans living abroad have been sending money home in record amounts of late, and the remittances are expected to rise even more in the coming years.

According to estimates provided by the Kenyan Embassy in Washington DC, there are about 500,000 Kenyans living in the United States while the Foreign Affairs ministry says there are about three million.

These remittances are intended for investments, school fees, hospital bills and providing a cushion for relatives back home against the rising cost of living.

Kenyans in the diaspora remitted $103.98 million (Sh8.65 billion) in February this year and, according to figures by the Central Bank of Kenya, those abroad sent in a total of $891 million (Sh75.7 billion) in 2011.

Most of the remittances are used for their intended purposes, with development projects springing up in almost every major town. In fact, the Kenyan diaspora was credited with aiding in the rapid rise of Nairobi’s luxury real estate prices, according to the World Wealth Report 2012.

However, it is becoming increasingly evident that not all the remittances are being used for the purposes originally intended.

A good number of Kenyans living in the diaspora have fallen prey to their own relatives, who have taken to swindling them.

Deep resentment has resulted, with some in the diaspora severing communication with those they once held dear. These include cousins, uncles or aunts together with fathers, mothers and siblings who seem to have found themselves an easy way of milking those abroad.

It is, therefore, not surprising that many in the diaspora have a good reason to believe that money trumps family relationships in some cases.

Ms Wangari knows this only too well. She is a registered nurse in Texas, USA, and a single mother of one boy. She has been in the US for 16 years. In 2009, she felt it was time to return to Kenya.

However, before she could move back, she needed a house for her and her son. She discussed with her father the idea of constructing a house on a piece of land she already owned in Ruiru, near Nairobi. They agreed that her father would send her a list of building materials required and the estimated cost, and she would send him the required money.

To make sure she had enough money to fund the project, she hired a live-in babysitter for her son and got a second job with a nursing agency. She started working on weekends, spending less time with her son as he would be asleep when she returned home from her shifts. It was all worth it as they would have more time when they moved back home, she thought to herself.

Construction of the house started in earnest in June 2010. Her father estimated that she would need to send him at least $1,250 (Sh100,000) a month to ensure uninterrupted construction. Wangari wanted to make sure her father had the money every month.

For the next three months, her father would send her photos of the house as construction progressed, and she was satisfied that everything was going according to plan.

Her father made sure the photos emphasised the size of the kitchen and the boy’s room as she had requested that the rooms be specially done to her specifications.

In December 2010, her best friend, who lives in New Hampshire, informed Wangari that she would travel to Kenya for Christmas holidays.

The two friends had met while they were in high school in Kenya, and had been in constant communication. Wangari shared photos of the house with her friend every time her father sent them.

Since the two friends had gone together to see the plot the last time they were in Kenya in 2009, Wangari asked her friend to take some time and go over to the construction site and take more photos of the house.

A couple of days after her friend jetted into the country, she set out to see the house before she embarked on a trip to Mombasa. She knew the location of the plot, so she did not have any problems getting there.

However, she was shocked by the sight that greeted her when she got to the plot. It was overrun by shrubs and it did not seem like anyone had tended to it in years. Something was wrong here, she thought.

She wondered whether Wangari was talking about a different piece of land from the one she knew. Knowing Wangari’s cell phone number off head, she dialled immediately to clarify.

She reached Wangari as she was heading off for her evening shift. She asked her whether she owned another plot close by. Wangari confirmed that she only owned one, which is the one they had visited earlier.

Getting increasingly confused, she told Wangari that she was standing right by the plot and there was no construction going on. Wangari laughed, thinking her friend was just joking. She even asked her friend to go a step further and take a cell phone video of the interior of the house.

Her friend, realising she thought it was joke, insisted she was not joking. There was no house. Parked outside her house, Wangari turned off the car and insisted that her friend was pulling a bad prank on her. Her friend insisted she was not.

While they were on the phone, her friend walked over to nearby pharmacy and asked them whether there was any new construction going on nearby.

She figured they could not have missed trucks going in and out with buildings materials coming in from Thika Road as there was only one path to get there. No one at the shop had seen any such activity and, in fact, there had been no such activity for over three years.

Wangari overheard the whole conversation on the phone. She was dumbfounded.

How could this be? Her father had even sent her photos of the house. There had to be some mistake, she thought.

She asked her friend to stand by as she called her father to ease her anxiety. When she reached him, he heartily greeted her, telling her that he was at the house and it was coming up really well.

She asked her dad to walk over to the pharmacy nearby and meet her friend, who was clearly “lost”. There was a deep silence. “Where is your friend?” he asked her. She replied that she was next to the plot and she wanted her to see the house. Another long silence ensured.

Then the phone went dead.

Wangari tried calling back, but there was no answer. She knew something was terribly wrong.

She called her mother, in who lived in Kitengela, and who had been ailing weeks before, and asked her about the house. Her mother had not seen it, but her father had been giving her updates every evening.

Wangari told her that her friend was at the plot but could not see the house, and she could not reach her father. Her mother promised to go over in a couple of hours and check it out for herself.

When her mother reached the pharmacy, where Wangari’s friend was still waiting, they set off together to the plot.

There was no house.

The area had not been attended to in ages.

She then tried calling her husband several times but his phone went unanswered, which was unusual. She called Wangari and confirmed what her friend had already communicated to her, but telling her there was a mix-up of some sort.

Wangari was devastated.

Her mother waited to confront her father but he did not return home that night. He, however, showed up the following morning and attempted to offer an explanation.

He called Wangari and profusely apologised saying that he had huge debts after borrowing money from his bank, and he knew that Wangari would not have sent him the money if he had told her the truth.

He wasn’t done dropping bombshells. He confessed that the bank was holding Wangari’s title deed as he used it as security to obtain the loan.

To date, Wangari does not know whether the deed is in her name or not, as her father had collected it on her behalf from Ardhi House.

There are many such instances where Kenyans living abroad have entrusted their parents with construction work, only to find out later that the projects never took off the ground, or that they were simply performed below par with substantial funds being pocketed.

Many have believed that their parents would never betray them, only to go home for holidays and discover the exact opposite.

Kevin, a pharmacist in California, had been funding his brother’s education at a private university in Nairobi. He would send his brother the money for his tuition dutifully for two years, and also paid for his hostel stay in Nairobi, where he would go every day after his classes.

In December 2010, Kevin decided to visit Kenya as he had not been home since 2006. He decided that while at home, he would drop by the university and pay his brother’s fees for the following semester in person. He figured that would save him the fees associated with sending the money through a global money transfer service.

A couple of days before he was due to return to the US, Kevin visited the university cashier’s office and provided his brother’s name and student ID number, which he had been given.

No student existed by that name in the institution. They tried interchanging his last two names, in case it was recorded incorrectly, but still yielded no results. His brother had never been registered in the institution.

Still hoping it was some kind of mistake, he called his brother telling him that he was at the university and they could not trace his records. His brother started mumbling some incomprehensible things.

Kevin realised that the $4,000 he had sent his brother over the last two years was all for naught. His brother had squandered the money.

Tension between Mike and his father had been sky high for the better portion of 2011. He had been unable to meet some financial demands his parents had been making, and they had turned on him, accusing him of abandoning them now that he was in America.

Mike, who came to the US in 2007 as an undergraduate student in a Florida college, has been struggling since he set foot in the US. He did not even have enough tuition fees for his first semester, and his hope all along was that he was going to gain employment and be able to pay his way through school.

He quickly found out that the days when students could easily gain employment once they landed into the US were over. He realised that it was not going to be a cake walk raising about $8,000 (Sh640,000) per school year required for international students.

A fellow Kenyan student who is a permanent resident (on a green card) pays between $5,000 (Sh4,000) and $7,000 (Sh560,000) over the same school year, depending on the institution.

Though Mike was lucky to win some scholarships, which reduced his fees somewhat, he was still not able to have any savings to his name.

In 2009, his parents asked him to help them in building a new house as theirs was old. Mike knew he was not going to be able to help out at that moment in time. He asked his parents to give him more time so that he can complete his studies and have some money to spare.

As an international student, Mike was legally allowed to work for only 20 hours a week at a rate of about $9 (Sh720) an hour, and with the tight immigration enforcement rules looming large, he could not seek alternative employment to supplement his small income.

This explanation did not impress his parents. They accused him of lying to them and that he was probably wasting his money on women and drugs. Mike was at a loss for words.

The situation got worse when their next-door neighbour, whose three sons are also in the US, demolished his old house and constructed a large mansion.

“That was the source of my problems,” Mike said sadly. “I did not even have enough to eat yet I was expected to build my parents a new house, just like our neighbour’s.”

Mike noted that his parents did not realise that the neighbour’s sons were not enrolled in school and the fact that they were three meant they could send large sums of money to their parents, which he could not.

Unfortunately for Mike, his father passed away in November 2011 before he could make any sort of amends with him. Mike almost suffered a depression, knowing what his father thought of him. He did not have enough Kenyan friends to turn to during this time, and he could not raise the air fare to travel back home for his father’s funeral.

Though Mike knows he was honest with his parents, his mother still accuses him of “killing” his father and not even bothering to attend his funeral, even as Mike explained that he did not have anyone to help him raise the $2,400 (Sh192,000) air fare as he was in a community with barely any Kenyans.

He has always second-guessed himself, wondering whether he should have just dropped out of school in order to help his parents build a new house, which would have left his heart at peace but probably landed him in trouble with the US authorities.

Most Kenyans cite “competition” among parents with children abroad as one of the major factors that strain relationships with their parents.

Some say their parents always want to match their neighbours step by step, and therefore demand more from their already stretched relatives abroad. They tend to forget that circumstances are not the same for everyone.

Legal Kenyan immigrants are more likely to land much better employment positions than those who have lost their legal status as US companies seek to comply with immigration enforcement requirements, such as verifying that all employees hired are eligible to work in the US.

Over 25 Kenyans scattered across the US shared their experiences with this writer, and all of them held the belief that what most parents and siblings back home do not understand is that life abroad is not as glamorous as it appears on TV. Most immigrants have to labour hard.

Despite the US being “the land of opportunities,” those opportunities are hard to come by sometimes, especially with the battered global economy. With the rising cost of living in the US, Kenyans here all agree that it is becoming increasingly difficult to accumulate decent savings.

The situation is further aggravated by the high cost of living in Kenya, which has resulted in more cash requests for assistance to help cushion their families against the resulting effects.

Many, however, lament that their families at home have a tendency to round off their cash needs to the nearest Sh20,000. Some will also exaggerate the severity of emergencies, hence getting more than necessary.

Some abroad have gone home only to realise that what was quoted for them as school fees had been inflated by almost Sh10,000 per sibling.

The strengthening of the Kenya shilling against the US dollar has also meant that those in the US who send a set amount periodically have to send more in terms of dollars just to maintain the same amount in shillings. They say that they sometimes have to work two shifts, which means they start off at 7am and leave work at 11pm.

Many have learnt that entrusting relatives to collect rent from their properties back home is an easy way of self destructing.

Wangari has decided to stay put here in the US. She has never forgiven her father, nor has she talked to him since the incident. As she looks through the copies of remittance receipts which serve as a sad reminder of a father’s betrayal, she has vowed never to trust anybody blindly again.

Kelvin is now funding his younger sister’s education at the same university his brother claimed to be attending, but he now pays the fees into the institution’s bank account.