In Kenya, remittance means money sent from those living abroad to those in Kenya. But emphasizing foreign exchange erases far longer histories, beginning in the early twentieth century. Early urban centers such as Nairobi (established in 1899) provided young women and men with opportunities to create new networks away from, and sometimes in concert with, the demands of their ethnic communities and kinship obligations.
African sex workers were at the forefront of creating commercial ventures in Nairobi, accumulating property and becoming landlords. As property owners and capital accumulators, these women sent money to their rural-based kin, helping to build and sustain networks of obligation across space. Indeed, these women established urban-rural remittances as a key feature of Kenyan urbanization.
Urban-rural remittances produced new gendered possibilities in colonial-era Kenya. Although women had played key roles in rural-based economies as traders and farmers and caregivers, and while some women had greater control over their domestic economies, the patriarchal structure of most Kenyan communities dictated the disbursement of property and, ultimately, favored men as guardians of household and community goods. Women in urban-based communities transformed their relations to accumulation, and, in the process, reconceived gendered relations of dependency. In urban centers, young men deferred to women, who taught them how to navigate urban spaces and practices of sociality and provided relations of care as economic transactions. Remittance economies helped to transform Kenya’s gendered relations and economies in progressive ways.
Telling the Kenyan history of remittance means reckoning with the importance of sex work to Kenyan urban and rural relations. While rural families may have been glad to receive financial assistance from sex workers, sex work was roundly condemned by young urban men and old rural men. Both groups warned that women who engaged in trade and, especially women who traveled to urban centers, would soon be swept into sex work. Even though sex workers provided material benefits to their rural-based kin, their actions were condemned by the very kin who enjoyed those benefits.
An early pattern was established in which the source of remittance was not questioned and the welfare of those remitting was not considered by beneficiaries. Instead of being considered a gift, remittance was transformed into an obligation. If you remitted money regularly, your methods of getting it were not mentioned. But if you failed to remit, then you became an object of censure: you had squandered your money on your immoral lifestyle. The economies of remittance were financial and moral. This history shapes how remittance functions in Kenya today.
A 2018 article in the Kenyan media announced, “Over the past three years, remittance by the Kenyans in the diaspora has become the largest single source of foreign exchange.” According to the article, “Over three million Kenyans live in the diaspora. Majority of them in African countries and others in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Asia, and the Middle East.” But, remittance is a problem, the article states, because only 25% of it goes into “investment,” while the rest is spent on “personal consumption.”
This distinction between investment and personal consumption is strange. But investment generates more money while personal consumption does not. Investment is good, because, if successful, it generates for the future. On the other hand, personal consumption is wasteful: it adds nothing to the collective pot for the future.
In Kenya’s popular imagination, Kenyans abroad—the diaspora—do not have lives or futures abroad. They do not rent or buy homes, take public transport or buy bicycles and motorcycles and cars, grow or buy food, suffer injury and navigate medical care, fall in love and date, join cultural and political organizations, or adopt pets and children. And, even when we do acknowledge that any items on this list are possibilities, we demand—implicitly and explicitly—that care should be extended to home before it goes to diaspora. At home, we have more pressing medical needs and education needs and rent needs and dating needs and family needs. The language of remittance strips those who live abroad of needs and responsibilities. The language of remittance views those abroad as workers whose income is always an available surplus for those at home. In this way, the contemporary language of remittance extends that established early in Kenya’s history.
In 2011, when I was in Nairobi, I met a family friend who had recently returned from New York, burned out from working on Wall Street. When I asked about him in 2016, I was told he had left Kenya to work elsewhere. A family friend recounted similar stories about her children who had worked in D.C. Inspired by the promise of the Kenya advertised abroad—a place full of opportunities—her children returned home, with their upper-management CVs. Doors were shut all over, and, finally, they returned to the U.S.
Such stories circulate regularly among friends, but they are absent from Kenya’s media. Remittance creates futures for those in Kenya, but it is not supposed to create futures in Kenya for those abroad.
Remittance is framed purely in terms of money. As a result, those abroad are rarely consulted on politics or culture. Despite numerous promises from the government, Kenyans abroad are, for the most part, unable to vote. If we assume that two thirds of the three million Kenyans abroad are eligible to vote, that’s two million votes, more than enough to secure a majority for a presidential election. During the past few election seasons, Kenya’s leaders have traveled abroad to market their ideas—and probably to solicit money. They have made vague promises that those abroad will be eligible to vote, but have rarely followed through. And even the few voting centers abroad would require Kenyans to travel massive distances. During the 2017 presidential election, for instance, voter registration in South Africa was only available in Pretoria, effectively locking out other Kenyans who could not travel there.
While Kenya is proud to celebrate high achievers abroad—Lupita Nyong’o, Wangechi Mutu, Micere Mugo, the late Wangari Maathai—those achievements rarely translate to Kenya. Kenya may ask distinguished Kenyans to visit and lecture and, more often, donate time and money, but these visits are understood as formalities. Those who visit are not expected to advise on institutional cultures and practices or to offer opinions based on their expertise. We may call them distinguished Kenyans, but we consider them visitors. We humor those with money and prestige because we want their money and to share their prestige.
Instead of inviting Kenyans abroad to share their experience and expertise, most Kenyan politicians and civil servants prefer to travel abroad on “benchmarking” trips. As far as I understand, benchmarking consists of traveling abroad to see how systems are created and implemented so that existing systems at home can be modified to be more successful. Yet, benchmarking must take as a working assumption that no Kenyans abroad have the knowledge and expertise to create and implement in Kenya the systems they have created and implemented abroad. We want money from those abroad, not ideas.
While remittance cannot secure a future for those abroad in Kenya, it can secure a burial in Kenya. A more macabre way to put this is that one’s dead body is the final remittance.
Kenyans who die abroad are routinely buried in Kenya. Those used to receiving remittances from abroad will fundraise to ship dead bodies back to Kenya, regardless of what the deceased may have intended. This final remittance confirms that Kenyans who remit from abroad do not have futures in Kenya. Only funerals.