By the summer of 2005, my work in Mississippi, in the Deep South was over. Dissertation written and successfully defended, it was time to leave. It was time for a change.
The South was a difficult place to live with questions like “Are you going back home” repeated every day. I felt a stranger where I should have felt most at home. After all, Mississippi is the “blackest” of all the USA states.
My first job offer was at Meridian College, 150km from Jackson in Mississippi to the East along highway I-20, the road to Atlanta. I had all qualifications but could not convince the administration that I had the right papers to work in USA. Remember this was after September 11, which made life of students and employment harder.
It is good to have marketable skills. I soon got another job offer for an economics/quantitatives assistant professor at Kentucky State University. The university is in Frankfort, Kentucky, which is the State capital. This brought my days in Mississippi to an end.
In the next two weeks, I prepared to Leave Mississippi. I packed all that I could into a Honda Civic which had been sold to me for $200 after the Dodge Plymouth “died.” I headed north to Kentucky. It was a 10-hour journey taking me through Memphis and Nashville (home of Music Country) into Kentucky, famous for racing horses.
A Nigerian working at my new university hosted me before I got a one bed roomed apartment for $700 per month. I was ready to start off classes in August 2005. With my four courses, I was busy throughout the week. My classes were different from what I found in Mississippi, they were about 50 per cent African American, the rest white Americans. They were mostly undergraduates. Some classes were during the day but some at night. Without prejudice, I found the two communities very different.
I travelled back to Mississippi in September to graduate, visiting New Orleans in the aftermath of the devastation of hurricane Katrina. I also carried the few personal belongings I had left behind. Kentucky was a different place. There was greater diversity, less abandoned buildings and more dynamism. There were less of ghettos and segregated residences.
Frankfort was a small town by the Kentucky River. It gave one a feeling of homeliness. There was less resentment to my presence. For one I was in the American system, with a salary, paid every fortnight. The employment system in US universities is not on permanent and pensionable basis. I was on a yearly contract. After a few years and after proving yourself, you get tenure, which is close to being on permanent and pensionable basis. Was my American dream nigh?
I quickly made new friends; there were few Kenyans except one Kenyan Indian who had been there for 37 years. Nigerians as usual were everywhere. I learnt to respect these West Africans. In hospitals they are medical doctors, the rest of Africans love being nurses and nursing aides. In Universities they are professors and administrators. I think unlike Kenyans, Nigerians go to USA on a one way ticket.
Kentucky did not have as many places to visit as Mississippi, which had a coastline. There are Appalachian Mountains to the East neighbouring West Virginia and Virginia, famous for coal-mining. To the West were Missouri and Illinois; Tennessee to the South and Ohio and Indiana to the North.
There were attractions from parks, the river, Louisville, Kentucky derby, and lot of golf courses and friendly people. For the first time in four years I felt at home in America. I saw the American dream within reach. I had time to watch news on cable TV, hire cars to drive around, watch American football, and dine in restaurants. I had time to reminiscent on my younger days, growing up in the countryside, walking to school and coming to school in Nairobi in Form 1.
By the end of first year working in USA I had a good understanding of what America is all about, not the USA in movies or textbooks. I paid the taxes and tasted the cost of living. The money you think is a lot is not that much and you spend it pretty quickly because it is given to you regularly; every two weeks.
But I noted another blot-monotony. Life in USA lacked the spontaneity of Kenya; bumping on to old friends, sharing a beer with strangers and breaking a few rules like over speeding, making noise in matatus or starting a day without planning for it. USA is about rules. I found that all I did was go to class, go shopping and go home to sleep.
Occasionally, I would go to play golf in a small course near the school. But my routine was predictable. Is that what I wanted to do for the next several years? I made money and consumed it. If I had to invest, it was in Kenya.
I was losing control of my money. USA was about consumption; rarely did we talk about investment. No one informed me of a plot on sale somewhere. Having other sources of income was not American. I started feeling that if I aged in USA, it will be boring and end up in a nursing home, away from my loved ones.
By the end of the first year working, it was clear in mind that despite all the bad things we say about Kenya, it is still a beautiful place. Foreigners see something good in Kenya, we don’t get absorbed by politics. And believe me; you can make lots of money in Kenya without being corrupt. I had a chance to compare and contrast with USA. I realised from my stay in USA that I will remain on the peripheral of the American society.
That was not part of my dream. In Kenya I will be ndaani…kabisa. I decided that after my contract ended in May of 2007, I would not renew it. I made a reconnaissance trip back to Kenya in December of 2006. My university had threatened to sack me because I had overstayed. Many believed that like other Kenyans before me, I would disappear.
My lasting connection
On one occasion I met a number of Kenyan government officials including ministers in a conference in Kennesaw, Georgia. I noted they are usually friendly and approachable while abroad. Tell me what happens when they return home.
In the summer of 2007, I prepared to leave. I had a few summer classes. I did not sign my next year’s contract by May 31, 2007. I still have it. I informed the university I was leaving. Many were surprised. On June 1, 2007, I took my flight back to Kenya. My six years sojourn was over.
But before I left, I immortalised myself; I left genetic imprints and hoped that like Obama senior, I had done the right thing. Now aged 11, she represents my lasting connection to the land of opportunity and the home of the brave.
— The writer is a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi.