Walking among the clucking of incomprehensible voices in a foreign country and hearing someone speak Kiswahili could almost make you jump out of your skin.
For a moment, the image of home, familiar spaces, friends, food, music, weather all become symbolised by that single person for Kenyans working in the diaspora.
For years they live plotting how to come back, and when an opportunity presents itself, they grab it like the image of a good dream when the alarm clock chimes. But as it turns out, it’s just a dream, it cannot be grasped by the harsh realities.
Munir Ahmed had spent over a decade as a banker at Standard Chartered in London and Johannesburg when he got an opportunity to return home.
Initially, he worked briefly for Standard Chartered before he made a move he will live to regret, joining government-owned National Bank of Kenya.
“When you are out there you always want to come back, where your parents are, the friends you grew up with. Out there you are also pursuing your own interest but when you come back you feel you are building something for your community and country,” he said, smiling at his own apparent naivety at the time.
The returnees have a lot to catch up with upon landing home. Sheng, the informal lingo that evolves by the day, is probably one of the ways one gets to know they are back.
Central Bank of Kenya Governor Patrick Njoroge still struggles with Kiswahili syllables probably because he thinks in English first before processing it in his second language.
The holder of a PhD in economics from Yale University has probably learnt more Sheng and improved his Kiswahili from the rounds he has made over the past couple of months talking to ordinary Kenyans on the currency switch that would fit into a memoir.
Most of the diaspora came back to work for their country after the era of President Moi, believing that the period of favouritism was over, and they could use their knowledge and experience abroad in a country that had turned over a page.
Mohamed Wehliye, an adviser with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority, had been part of the wave that returned with a firm belief in systems and meritocracy when he applied for the position of head of the Capital Markets Authority (CMA), which he says he cannot consider again even as the position became vacant on Paul Muthaura’s exit this year. With hindsight, he thinks the hopes were dashed.
“For us in the diaspora, we got used to working systems and we do not want to go through all the lobbying nonsense that comes with jobs in Kenya. I have worked in Australia, Japan and the Middle East and I am used to meritocracy. But it was a good experience to test the Kenyan system and definitely my impression was not good,” said Wehliye.
Munir said he was encouraged by the fact that National Bank had advertised the position of managing director for the first time, and in August when he applied he got the job, setting himself a five-year target to grow NBK into a regional bank.
He found a bank with virtually no systems, no controls or IT security, no mandates. Management was using systems that ran with manufacturer passwords and his predecessor told him he could pretty much do anything except sell the bank. (His successor, Wilfred Musau, was incidentally forced to turn it over to Kenya Commercial Bank for next to nothing.)
Munir wanted to bring in the culture of the private sector, so he set out creating a structure, drawing 40 policies. He sought to cut cost-to-income ratios because the bank was simply paying salaries and providing for bad loans.
The board used to meet 60 times a year, and since management had to take almost two days preparing for the meetings, it ate 180 days out of a 240-day calendar year just meeting. He sought to cut that.
But it is the culture of corruption and ethnicity that quickly isolated him as the mzungu, as the grapevine would say, pretending not to know how things are done.
“At one time, a board member called me over for coffee and told me to my face what benefits we could get out of there. I remember he said our children will not forgive us if we let the opportunity go,” he said, adding that he could not comprehend how to even react.
“I wanted to create a culture where I recruit from inside first before looking for talent outside, so an executive opening comes up, I make a recommendation on someone and the board splits right in the middle — half support the move the other half want their own and for months nothing can be done,” he said.
“At another time, a high-ranking official calls and asks about a teller — how does the CEO know about a teller? He says he has been transferred and does not like where he has been taken,” Munir said.
And while in the private sector you would be called and asked to leave quietly, when the board became hell-bent on cutting him loose, they launched a witch-hunt, a public lashing that damaged his reputation and makes him regret ever taking up a job at the State-owned lender.
After the move, auditors revised statements for the year he was accused of cooking books. Investigations by the regulator, CMA, and the Directorate of Criminal Investigations were launched into his dealings at the bank and he was bundled out together with other top managers.
“I was dragged off a plane and then two days later they tell me its okay you can travel, no charge is proffered, its pure intimidation,” he said.
He is not the only moth that got too close to the light and got burnt.
“Soft-spoken gentleman of the Treasury” Kamau Thugge moved from the comfort of the office of principal secretary at the National Treasury, spent a night in a police cell and was later whisked to court as an economic crimes suspect for the Kimwarer and Aror dams scandal in a matter of three days.
The Johns Hopkins University-educated economist had cut the image of a technocrat, steering the Treasury as the second in command when Kenya dared abroad to the Eurobond market, perhaps giving confidence to foreign investors as he could talk their language.
Thugge did not sit with us for an interview, but from interactions up to the time he was ran out of office he had been a man comfortable in his space.
“We are very busy trying to conclude the budget, but I can spare a minute,” he had told this writer in June before the presentation of a new budget he would not oversee.
Another erstwhile professional who soiled his stellar career was Ethics and Anti-Corruption chairman Phillip Kinisu.
Most of the top Kenyan professionals who worked including Munir and Mbuvi Ngunze found Kinisu at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).
The certified public accountant and a fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales was tapped for the accursed EACC seat.
With a vested interest in clearing candidates for election, the deep state managed to dig up a trail that linked Kinisu to the biggest corruption case at the time, the National Youth Service scandal.
Esaki Ltd, run by his wife Mary, was a beneficiary of an NYS tender.
Although he pleaded innocent and claimed he had resigned, it did not stop petitions that sought his removal. Kinisu finally resigned in August 2016, a stain in his stellar career for flying too close to the sun that is Kenya’s public service jobs.
Hassan Wario had never imagined he would have to stand and listen to Imenti Central MP Moses Kirima accuse him of being a shisha addict. Nor would he have expected his personal life, including his divorce from Kaltum Dima Guyo, would be fodder for public talk about him.
Before joining the government, the most well-known part of his life was that he was the first African curator to be appointed by the British Museum.
But after serving as the Cabinet Sscretary for Sports and ambassador to Austria, what came to define him was the Rio de Janeiro Olympics scandal, for allegedly misappropriating Sh88 million.
But few have tangoed with the State upon their return and got off with a sore foot at worst. Dr Njoroge’s navigation of the Kenyan banking sector seems to slip fluidly, but this has not always been the case.
During his vetting, members of Parliament were more interested in his marital status than his credentials to handle monetary policy. He would soon find out why.
Another survivor, Auditor-General Edward Ouko ended his tumultuous years in office last month but not without a stain after Emanuel Mwagambo wrote to the Finance Planning and Trade Committee accusing Ouko of gross violation of the Constitution by failing to submit timely audit reports to Parliament, skewed employment and violation of procurement rules.