Why expatriates in Kenya refuse to leave when their tour of duty’s over


kenyas kibera slum is one of the largest inafricaBy RASNA WARAH

Widespread corruption, poor infrastructure, slums, bad roads, insecurity, presence of internally displaced persons and refugees, group grievances, mounting demographic pressure, human rights abuses and uneven economic development.

These are some of the factors that the US-based think tank, Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine, took into consideration when they declared Kenya to be among the top failing states in the world.

This year Kenya came 16th ahead of Somalia, DR Congo, Haiti, Pakistan and Nigeria, among others, but behind Ethiopia, Niger, Uganda and Eritrea.

However, some residents of Kenya are not too bothered by these grim statistics. For them, Kenya is the closest place to paradise, and they are in no hurry to leave. Nor are they put off by the alarming travel advisories about terrorist threats.

They are what the June edition of New African magazine refers to as “Europeans and other expatriates” who “refuse to go home when their tour of duty ends”.

Included in this group are the former US ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger, who despite being a leading government critic has decided to retire in Kenya, Tom Wolf, an American who came to Kenya as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1960s and never left, Wolfgang Fengler, a German economist who is currently the World Bank’s lead economist for Kenya, former Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph and Lamu resident Leslie Duckworth who has been living in Kenya for the last 33 years.

These expatriates don’t care about poor governance, corruption or potholed roads. Even if they do, these do not deter them from making Kenya their home.

What is it about Kenya that got these expatriates hooked? New African interviewed some of them to find out. Most said they loved the country’s natural beauty and climate.

Fengler used his knowledge of econometrics to rationalise his decision to make Kenya his home:

“If you created an index of natural beauty per square kilometre, Kenya would probably come at the top of the list,” he said.

Indeed, there is no doubt that Kenya’s physical beauty is unrivalled, but surely, wonders of nature cannot be the only reason why expatriates choose to not only work in, but also permanently live in the country?

There are many other countries that are similarly endowed (South Africa, for instance, and even parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan), so why this fascination with Kenya?

Could the reason be that Kenya is a particularly expatriate-friendly country? Expatriates — especially diplomats — get special services.

When I worked for the United Nations in Nairobi — a place dominated by expatriates — I could call a special number to reach the police, who would respond to my complaint immediately. Now that I am a “civilian”, I can barely get police to answer the phone!

Expatriates also tend to live in the posher parts of Nairobi, away from the slums and potholed roads, so their experience of the city is somewhat rose-coloured.

Those who live on ranches in Naivasha or Laikipia or in villas at the Coast do not have to encounter the Kenya that you and I face daily. Kenyans’ fascination with white skins also helps them in demanding — and getting — better services, not just in restaurants, but elsewhere.

In a recent essay published in the Guardian, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina satirised this type of foreigner who loves Nairobi because “there are regular flights to the nearest genocide and there are green lawns, tennis courts, good fawning service.”

He echoed Paul Theroux, who once described Tarzan as an expatriate. “The realisation that he is white in a black country, and respected for it, is the turning point in the expatriate’s career,” he wrote years ago in Transition magazine. “He can either forget it, or capitalise on it. Most choose the latter.”

Of course, not all expatriates in Kenya enjoy fabulous lives. Nor are they here just for the scenery or the househelp. Some have stayed to do risky work in difficult environments.

Many stay (and I know a few) because they feel more useful in this country and can’t bear the thought of going back to a country where their skills are no longer needed.



*Published in the Nation-Kenya