In the first quarter of this year, I received an email from someone named Tom Gitaa. In the email, Gitaa said he wanted to post one of my video stories on his website. I responded positively and that is how our friendship began.
Tom Gitaa is the publisher of Mshale News, a website and monthly print publication for African immigrants in the United States. www.mshale.com With it headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Mshale also has offices in Houston, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia.
The site features news about Africans in the diaspora and Africans back home. While in Chicago, I did a story on a Liberian-American soldier who was killed in Afghanistan. The story was picked up by several publications, including Mshale. View the story here: http://www.mshale.com/article/Features/Features/Remembering_a_fallen_LiberianAmerican_Soldier/18465
In April, Mshale picked up another one of my stories- one about Nigeria’s then Acting-President, Goodluck Jonathan, as he made his first visit to America to attend the nuclear summit in Washington, D.C. I researched Mshale News and learned that Tom is from Kenya, though he has been based in Minnesota for more than 20 years.
Later, I told Tom that I was planning to go to Kenya, but security warnings may prevent my school from allowing me to go. Immediately, Tom offered assistance, saying Kenya is safe. He even offered to talk with someone from my school to assuage their concerns.
Since I’ve been in Kenya, Tom and I have been in communication via email and two weeks ago, he said he was coming to Kenya for a family emergency.
I finally met Tom for the first time, last week, Tuesday. Upon seeing him, I immediately thought he looked Nigerian and when I told him this he laughed, saying that may be why he gets along with Nigerians and has so many Nigerian friends. We had a pleasant lunch at Java House on Koinange Street. After he finished his Swahili curry chicken meal and I had satisfied myself with a veggie samosa and a plate of rice, I pulled out my camera and audio recorder. I wanted to hear about Tom’s experience as a Kenyan in the Diaspora.
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Tom: I’m Tom Gitaa and I live in Minneapolis Minnesota. I’ve spent half of my life in the states now because I left Kenya pretty much immediately after high school. I left college, started working after college, got married, started a family. I’ve always been in the U.S. I come as often as I can, at the minimum, every couple of years. I think in the last five years, I’ve been here everywhere for a month or so. Some of it for business, some family visits.
There have been a lot of changes in Kenya. To be honest with you, I think in the last five or six years, it has actually been more fun to come to Kenya in the last five or six years than in previous years. A lot of things seem to work. Actually, it has been really nice to drive. I try not drive in Nairobi traffic, but when I’m going to Mombasa, the road is like driving from Minneapolis to Chicago because there are no potholes! (laughs) So it’s fun.
Chika: Is it safe to drive from city to city? What about bandits along the road?
Tom: This is the thing, since I’ve not been a victim myself, I’d say it’s pretty safe. Nothing has happened to me. I’ve always gotten from point A to B. I’ve heard things. Nairobi Mombasa road, especially as you approached Nairobi, near the airport from the Mombasa side, I know that used to be a really bad stretch. Of late I hear things have gotten better. They’re very open and happy that things are getting better. I don’t think we have what might be called the ideal government yet, but there have been strides to something better than what we had previously. I tend to find there’s a sense from a lot of people in government that things need to be better. Which is a big change from before.
The one thing I love is the internet. That has been a big change. I can normally do a lot of my business between here and Minnesota. At least I know when I’m in Nairobi or Mombasa, I can get high speed internet.
Chika: When did that come about?
Tom: Actually in the last three of four years. When I was here back in 2004, that’s kind of when the cellphone explosion was taking place. You could come here and I could not meet anyone who didn’t have a cellphone. When I came back in 2006, for unfortunate circumstances…that’s when we came back for my wife’s funeral. My wife died in 2006, so we were here in December again. So it wasn’t quite high speed yet, but you could do what you wanted to do. Go to a cyber café. And you’d find different classes of cyber cafes.
Fast forward now, I can come with my laptop and go to what I call a top-tier cyber café. I think the locals consider it expensive, but since I’m only here for a short while, I can pay for the high speed and the nicer, cleaner environment and conduct some business. Those have been fun developments.
Now, we just came for my father-in-law’s funeral and I’ve been able to keep up with my colleagues on the other side. I know what it going on in the office and what my writers are doing. You know I do a newspaper.
Chika: What do you think of the passing of the draft constitution?
Tom: You know I’m a diaspora guy, right? I don’t know any Kenyan diaspora guy that was a ‘no vote.’ All of us, well many of us, at least those that I know where in favor. You have to know where this is coming from. Some of this was in self-interest, obviously. One of the things in there is dual citizenship is finally being recognized. There used to be a thing called the Kenya Community Abroad which was sort of a lobby group of Kenyans in the U.S., Canada, but used to encompass a lot of Kenyans in the diaspora. You know, this is actually something for a long time they’ve been pushing for- the implementation of dual citizenship. So when it was passed, it was a realization for a dream of many. Because a lot of Kenyans [abroad] where forced to give up there citizenship. I know some Kenyans, for example, who have not taken up the citizenship of other countries. Because they say they are not comfortable giving up their [Kenyan] citizenship. So, it was a big, psychological thing, to tell somebody, ‘give up your citizenship.’ So, even from that perspective, I know there are other things, accountability to the people and the like, which we all love, but for a lot of diaspora people, that was like a key thing.
Chika: What are some of the myths and false perceptions that Kenyans have of those in the diaspora?
Tom: There are two things actually. One of the biggest things is they tend to think people in the U.S. have lot of money; that we are not struggling like everybody else; that we have a bottomless pit of resources that we can type into. I think of late, more and more Kenyans have been getting a correct perspective of what happens in the U.S. But there are still a lot of people, most people that you pull on the streets of Kenya will tell you they don’t mind going to the U.S. I have a few friends, they try to give advice to a parent to save their money they say to send their child to a Kenyan university. The parent will say, ‘you, you have already gone so that is why don’t want my child to have the same benefit.’ So that is what they still say.
Of late, especially in the last 10 years of so, Kenya has been considered an emerging market. A lot of people have come back. Business has been booming. A lot of people say, ‘You people in America…’ It’s kind of dual thing. Some people think America is glamorous, but some have dimmed view. They say ‘all you guys do is odd jobs,’ so there is also that perspective. But over the years, I think the local people have realized that the diapsora plays an important role in the society.
Especially since the Kibaki administration came into office, there has been an aggressive pushing of Kenyans in the diaspora. They have sent ministers. I remember a few years ago they sent a minister to a conference we were having in Atlanta. They were encouraging Kenyans in the diaspora to invest. Especially in real estate. When you exclude the Somalis that have been investing a lot here, the other biggest investor in real estate in Kenya is actually diaspora Kenyans. So there has been that perception. There has been a slow evolution to say diaspora people are very important in the economy. We send a lot of money and there has been a question of if that money has been used properly. But lots of progress has been made. There’s this big project that is being done in northeastern Kenya. It’s a big project. It is the biggest project that the diaspora community has ever been involved in. And part of those efforts actually came when the government started attending our conferences.
Chika: What are some of the misconceptions Westerners have of Kenya?
Tom: Oh, it’s a lot, a lot. You know Westerners, not all, but a good lot, there perception of Kenya and Africa in general is that, nothing works in Africa. They have heard the stories of you know, if there mind is not still in the stone age then, you’d be eaten by lions and whatever, it’s either ‘oh you know Africa man,’ ‘will I be robbed? Will I come back in one piece? Corruption?’ Yes, there’s corruption but there’s also a lot of Westerners making a lot of money here as you might have seen. I think that is the biggest misconception.
I’ve met some people who do not know there are big cities in Africa. But you have a choice. You can choose to say you want to see the old Africa, which is still there. If you want to get attacked by lions, we can arrange to go somewhere and they can eat you. (laughs) Or if you want to stay in the urban environment and experience the modern life, then all the conveniences are there. What you can get in America, London, Lagos, Cairo, Johannesburg, all of that is there. A lot of people don’t know such big cities exist in Africa.
Chika: My last question, in Nigeria there is something called ‘colo-mentality.’ Do they have such here, where you praise white people? I’ve noticed that where I live here in Nairobi, the guards don’t greet me, but they will greet the white person behind me. Is that mentality prevalent here? Preference for lighter skin and that sort of thing?
Tom: A lot of Africans are brainwashed. It’s a legacy that continues to haunt our people, especially people who have not left this country. For example, I was at Safaricom. When I landed here, I landed on Thursday night and the funeral was Friday. I went to one of the Safaricom outlets to get a sim card for my phone. So, you know me, I don’t jump the queue. I go line up and this other person comes. A black person comes, attempts to jump the queue and ask the clerk a question. You are not supposed to jump the queue. You are supposed to ask the guard if you have a question and he will direct you. I know the procedure so I lined up. Two three black Africans came and they intended to go straight to the clerk. I think they had a quick question but you are not supposed to do that. The guard stopped them right there and said, ‘hey hey hey, you need to line up.’ This white person, light skin, I think he was half and half. You know a mixed person. He comes and does the same thing the other guys were trying to do. He tries to go to the clerk, straight without lining. And the guard hesitated. He’s not as aggressive with this person as he was with his brothers. You see? So he hesitates until even the mixed person asked the guard and that’s when he realized he should be equal to everybody.
When I come, sometimes I stay at the hotels. When I go to Mombasa, you know that’s the tourism capital for Kenya because of all the beach hotels and the like. So when you go to the beach hotels, that is when you will see the brainwashing in full force. I’ll approach the gate. You know they try to make these beach properties very exclusive. They see me, they automatically think I am not staying at the beach hotel. You see? When I’ve already maybe paid full fare. And I even have white people working for me. (laughs) See our people don’t know this. They try to stop me. They have to go the extra step to verify, ‘are you really staying here?’ So you will experience the blatant brainwashing, colonial mentality. You’ll normally experience them in the service industries: hotels, airports. You know you have some people in the airport who try to help with luggage. I come with my children and you sometimes see the helpers falling over themselves trying to help the white people that we just rode on the plane with. You know things like that, it’s very unfortunate. But, we are hoping that our people will realize that this is our country. We are not saying that you should treat blacks better than whites. Treat all people the same. If a black person approaches, you don’t know what it there. For all I know, he could be the one owning the beach property or could be your boss. I could be the one owning 50% of that property. You never know.
Chika: Are white women highly prized?
Tom: I think they are, especially older white women. We have what they call, I don’t know what they call them now, but back then, we called them white sugar mommies who come here for what we call, sex tourism. At the coast it’s very prevalent. At the coast they are highly prized. In fact, in some of the newspapers even here, if you look at the personals section, you will see people directly, plainly stating, ‘white man’ or ‘white woman.’ Sometimes you can just read between the lines.
I came back, for a sad occasion, but it’s always good to be home.
Tom’s sister, Moraa, later joined us. His sister is a writer, a nominee for the Penguin Books Awards in the fiction category, and featured in the July issue of the East African women and lifestyle magazine, True Love. I’d been trying to interview her, so it was great to finally meet her face to face.