alexa In the land of opportunity, African immigrants veer closer to the poverty trap - Daily Nation

In the land of opportunity, African immigrants veer closer to the poverty trap

Monday November 2 2015

More by this Author

I was in America this past week, and being a former member of the Kenyan diaspora, I was curious to find out what has changed and how Africans in America are doing.

Listening to Africans, I got the impression that things indeed have changed.

The divorce rate in some parts of America with high concentrations of African immigrants is skyrocketing, young males are dropping out of college at a high rate, and second-generation African immigrants are increasingly becoming guests of the state in prison.

Unlike other immigrants, the American dream for Africans is turning into a mirage and a nightmare. What went wrong?

Research tells us that first- and second-generation immigrants excel in their host environments. Political scientist Everett Hagen rejected the notion that economic theories can adequately explain the trigger of change for communities that have experienced historic shifts.

Instead, he favoured a general model of the social interrelationship among the physical environment, social structure, personality and culture in explaining successful shifts.

Advocates of cultural theories point out that entrepreneurship, which is often the key driver of change in economic status, is a product of culture.

Entrepreneurial talents come from cultural values and a cultural system embedded into the cultural environment. Economist Berthold Hoselitz, for example, explained that the supply of entrepreneurship is governed by cultural factors, and culturally minority groups are the spark plugs of entrepreneurial and economic development in many countries.

He emphasised the role of culturally marginalised groups like the Jews and Greeks in medieval Europe, and Indians in East Africa in promoting economic development.

Wherever Jewish and Indian communities migrated to, their first and second generations excelled globally, becoming industrialists, scientists, writers, creative artists and more.

Although African immigrants have succeeded somewhat, their success is a far cry from that of Jews and Indians. Among African immigrants, there are no equivalents of Lakshmi Mittal (40 per cent owner of global steel conglomerate Arcelormittal), Satya Nadella (CEO, Microsoft), Lawrence Ellison or Sheldon Adelson (some of the richest Jewish people, who make up 48 per cent of billionaires in America).


The cultural theories advanced here are consistent with local observations of the Kikuyu.

After their displacement by the colonists, a majority of the Kikuyu became virtual minorities in several parts of the country. This acted as the spark plug of entrepreneurialism. The Luo migration to the coast, too, created a similar outcome.

More recently, the Kisii shift from traditional rural set-ups also has had a similar impact. The Indians, after they were denied access to land and confined into urban areas, which amounted to a withdrawal of their status, became extremely ingenious.

This is explained by Hagen as the factor responsible for the emergence of the entrepreneurial personality among Indians. In America, the free movement of people around states has made the country more entrepreneurial than any other.

When one is away from home, one tends to feel insecure. Consequently, such a person works hard to create some sense of security. This, coupled with looser family ties in host countries, enable immigrants to focus more on economic security, and in the process, a good number succeed.

The culture of hard work continues to even the third generation before settling to routine family ties, as insecurity becomes less felt.

If significant amounts of resources are not accumulated in the early stages of immigration, it sometimes becomes difficult to break through the poverty ceiling, forcing immigrant families into perpetual poverty.

In essence, it is much more difficult to succeed where the social networks are more pronounced. To put it more bluntly, it would be very difficult for me to succeed, for example, if I moved to my birthplace in Kisii.

If I did, within no time, I would be the chairman of everything from the cattle dip to fundraisers, leaving very little time for any type of business.

These are responsibilities the society would expect you to undertake, failure to which you would be disowned.


There is evidence that the African immigrants' (voluntary immigrants) success gap in relation to White Americans has significantly narrowed, whilst that of African-American immigrants (involuntary immigrants) is widening.

Abdi Kusow’s 2014 paper, African Immigrants in the United States: Implications for Affirmative Action, confirms the assertion that first- and second-generation voluntary immigrants are more educated and economically successful than their involuntary counterparts.

Kusow also established that voluntary immigrants are benefiting from affirmative action more than African-Americans, without having been the direct objects of slavery and historical discrimination.

The success of voluntary African immigrants has not gone without notice. Henry “Skip” Louis Gates Jr, himself an African-American and a professor at Harvard has publicly complained that most of the minority scholarships meant for involuntary African immigrants are going to voluntary African immigrants.

He noted that more than 50 percent of such scholarships have gone to recent African immigrants.

Gates has also argued that Africans should also pay reparations. In his 2010 op-ed in TheNew York Times, Gates disagreed with most of his contemporaries as to who should pay reparations to African-Americans.

To him, the enemy of individuality is groupthink, and here he holds everyone accountable.

He reminds everyone that the folks who captured and sold blacks into slavery in the first place were also Africans, working for profit. "People wanted to kill me, man", Gates says of the reaction to that op-ed. "Black people were so angry at me. But we need to get some distance from the binary opposition we were raised in: evil white people and good black people. The world just isn't like that."

Gates perhaps doesn’t know that many of the voluntary immigrants are getting into the poverty trap. While other communities stay close and leverage their numbers to raise significant amounts of resources to invest, African immigrants export their cultural backwardness into the land of opportunity.


The ethnicity that has been the bane of our economic progress has been exported by immigrants to their new settlement. Voluntary African immigrants now want their own food, clothes, churches and restaurants, to mention but a few things; all dependencies that serve to alienate them from the host.

When an African dies in the United States, fortunes are spent to transport the body to Africa for burial no matter how many years he or she has lived in the US. Even in death, Africans have failed to assimilate.

When Jewish people started to immigrate to the US, Bela Vago noted, their leaders of the time urged assimilation and integration into the wider American culture, and Jews quickly became part of American life.

During World War II, 500,000 American Jews, about half of all Jewish males between 18 and 50, enlisted for service, and after the war, Jewish families joined the new trend of suburbanisation, as they became wealthier and more mobile.

The Jewish community expanded to other major cities, particularly around Los Angeles and Miami. Their young people attended secular high schools and colleges and met non-Jews, so that intermarriage rates soared to nearly 50 per cent.

Unlike Jewish immigrants, African immigrants settle in one place and rarely move out of there. After sometime, they build a community engaging in the very practices that have held us back here on the continent.

Their affinity to African socialism gives them a false sense of security and obscures the glaring opportunities in capitalist America.

Many are in denial that the shift from Africa to the US is a significant transformation that requires constant discourse to enable smooth integration, and it is this friction that brings separation of families, leading to devastation of children, a good number of whom are ending up in American jails.

Most immigrants pride themselves on their role in building their mother countries through remittances, but the money, when traced to its final uses, is found to have ended up in consumption or some dead capital.

Very few of the remittances end up in viable economic projects. Instead, these resources should perhaps be invested in new American start-ups that might end up becoming global corporations.

If the remittances sent to Africa when Google was founded had been invested in the start-up or in its formative years, we could be having African billionaires today donating more into Africa than the remittances.

Remittances are temporal and no country ever receives them from second-generation immigrants.


Africans in the diaspora have a greater opportunity to succeed exceedingly by avoiding the subsistence nature of success we are experiencing now. A successful diaspora can indeed play a key role in the development of their mother country.

This happened in India, where the diaspora has been credited with the transformation in that country. They were able to help their mother country because of their great success in Silicon Valley, in medicine, arts and creativity.

We need more Lupita Nyong’os, Edi Gathegis, Djimon Hounsous, Dikembe Mutombos, Kofi Boahenes and similar African exports to one day transfer their knowledge or money to Africa and change our status.

What the diaspora perhaps doesn’t know is that no matter how good they become out there, we don’t seem to want them back home. Take Kenya, for example.

Despite the fact that we wanted diaspora Kenyans to get dual citizenship, we gave them a raw deal. While Article 16 of the Constitution states that "A citizen by birth does not lose citizenship by acquiring the citizenship of another country", Article 78 (2) negates their leadership role at home.

It states, "A State officer or a member of the defence forces shall not hold dual citizenship". In other words, we need their money but they cannot become state officers though many of them have enormous knowledge and experience out there.

The current President of Estonia was a one-time member of the Estonian diaspora in New Jersey and his experience has propelled the small country into global recognition as one of the most ICT-compliant.

Our sincere hope is to see our diaspora succeed such that their success will one day translate to Africa’s success. Assimilation will help reduce our differences with African-Americans.

There is wisdom in bringing together the true African diaspora. This, I believe, is what leaders like Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X and Nelson Mandela envisaged in their dreams.

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s Business School. Twitter: @bantigito