‘I Am Not A Kenyan! I Am Sudanese!’ The Plight of Illegal Kenyan Immigrants in the West

African illegal immigrants take part in a protest march on the highway near Lahav junction in southern Israel on their way to Jerusalem on December 16, 2013 after they fled a detention centre in the south where they were being held. Many Kenyans would do anything to live, often illegally, in Europe. But what happens when the law finally catches up with them? AFP PHOTO/OREN ZIV

“It is confidential, but some of the refugees in France leave a trail of evidence. Our job is to make sure he goes back to Kenya. The immigration department does the investigations and hands over the file to the police.”

Many Kenyans would do anything to live, often illegally, in Europe. But what happens when the law finally catches up with them?

Dear passengers, Flight FL450 to Zurich will be delayed for 15 minutes,” the woman at Gate Five, Terminal Two of Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport announces. That is normal, I tell myself, and go back to my laptop.

“Attention, dear passengers, Flight FL450 will be late by a further 10 minutes,” the woman announces again after a few minutes. This time, there is a collective “naaah!” from the crowd of passengers waiting to board. I, too, am worried that I may miss the connecting flight to Nairobi in Zurich, Switzerland.

After waiting for what seems like an eternity, we are cleared for boarding. I rush to the front of the line, Kenyan style. You see, the matatu culture for which Nairobi is famous follows us everywhere.

I enter the plane first, only to be welcomed by yelling that was coming from the back of the cabin. My seat is in the rear, towards the source of the din. There is obviously something going on. I walk down the aisle and find my seat.

Opposite me, three people are engaged in a struggle between the seats. A young black fellow is sandwiched between two white men. The black guy is handcuffed and chained at the ankles. He is in dirty jeans and a grey shirt with several missing buttons, so that his lean chest is showing.

The mean-looking white men are having a hard time trying to force him to sit down. He is yelling at the top of his voice, the insults fast and furious, French and English. None of the three is fluent in the latter, so French dominates.

“You are idiots!” the young man shouts at his “tormentors”, who are obviously policemen.

“You too, but sit down…!” one of the Frenchmen shouts back.

“I want to see the captain! I have the right to see the captain! Wooooi! You are hurting me! Espèce de canard!” the black fellow shouts, telling his captors what he thinks of their brains before following that up with another volley of unprintable expletives.

The trio is creating quite a scene for the rest of us who had been cursing the delay. If this was what caused us those precious minutes, it was well worth it. I stop a hostess and ask her what the kerfuffle is all about.

“He is being deported.”
“Ahaaaa!” I exclaim. “Is that so?”

“And he is resisting. That’s why the flight was delayed.”
“What nationality?”

“I think Kenyan….”
Kenyan? I shoot up as if on a recoil spring and head for the scuffling trio. I do not know about you, but for me, whenever I am out there my “patriotisometer” tends to work a little overzealously. I reach the scene in — I think, but I might be exaggerating these things — one step.
“Where is he from?” I ask the harassed policemen.

“Kenya!” one of them responds, his answer triggering yet another bout of high-pitched yelling from the young man.
“Je ne suis pas Kenyan! Je suis Soudanais! (French for: I am not Kenyan! I am Sudanese!”

“You are Kenyan!” the policemen shout back in unison, but this just elicits more yelling.
Almost instinctively, I fish out my passport and flash it in the face of the black man.

“Mimi natoka Kenya,” I tell him.
And who says there are no miracles? The young man loosens up, lowering his eyes and slumping into his seat, much to the amazement of the policemen and staring passengers. His energy is spent. No need to fight. No need to yell. It is all over for the young tiger who has just been shouting, “Je ne suis pas Kenyan!”

“Sasa bwana, twende nyumbani!” I tell him, the words seasoned with that patriotism I just told you about.

Then the Soudanais switches into a torrent of Kiswahili. No, not Kiswahili, but Sheng as pure as it gets in the backstreets of Nairobi. This is funny and, unable to hold back, I let out a chortle so loud that the policemen and the mostly white passengers are taken aback, seeming to wonder at the turn of events. This helps, nonetheless, to relax the mood in the cabin as the aircraft taxis to the runway out of Charles de Gaulle.

“Sasa hawa makarao wa France walinishika kwa barabara. Bwana nimeacha thau mia tatu kwa nyumba. Na vitu vyangu vyote. Nitasema vipi nyumbani?” (These French policemen arrested me as I was walking in the street. I had left the equivalent of Sh300,000 in my house. I don’t have anything. What will I tell my people back home?)

“Twende nyumbani,” I tell him and give him the thumbs up. Let us go home.


“He is alright. Remove the handcuffs please. He is ready to go home,” I tell the policemen once we are airborne. They oblige.
“Now, young man, where do you come from in Kenya?” I ask my friend as the plane hurtles towards Zurich.

“Kiambu,” he answers after some hesitation, the embarrassing situation affording him nothing but the three syllables: Ki-a-mbu.

Kiambu? Ahaaa! I assume if he comes from Kiambu he must be a Kikuyu, and so, to ease the tension and probably make him feel more “at home” with me, I switch the dialogue to Kikuyu, and then ask him his name.

“John… John Mwangi,” he answers, again hesitantly and shamefacedly. I can see that, although he is obviously Kenyan, he is lying about his name, which he would later admit aboard the long flight from Zurich to Nairobi.

I try to dig up some information from the policemen, who have to accompany the deportee aboard the Nairobi-bound SwissAir flight to Zurich and make sure that the aeroplane takes off with him on board.

“The idea is to make as much noise as possible to attract the attention of the passengers and the pilot,” one of the policemen tells me.

“The airline has no obligation to have him on board. If the captain finds him to be a nuisance, he can refuse to have him on board. Then we would have no alternative but to take him back to the police station and produce him in court. The court then releases him back into the streets and we hunt for him again, take him back to court and get an order to deport him…. and then negotiate with an airline to take him back to Kenya. Long process. That’s why we thank you!”

“So how did you know he was Kenyan and how did you arrest him?
“It is confidential, but some of the refugees in France leave a trail of evidence. Our job is to make sure he goes back to Kenya. The immigration department does the investigations and hands over the file to the police.”

“Will you take him up to Nairobi?”

“What happens to him back in Kenya? Will he be arrested?”
“No! He has not committed any crime in Kenya. He was only in France illegally!”

At Zurich airport, I see the trio minutes to boarding. The young man holds firmly to a plastic bag with a Carrefour supermarket logo. The French policemen hand him over to the flight crew, sign some papers, and off we go.

After lunch, I stroll down the aisle and trace the young man at the rear of the cabin. He looks tired, red-eyed, and dishevelled. I sit on one of the empty seats beside him.

“Tell me, Bwana… what happened?” I venture.
“Long story.”

“How did you end up like this?” I encourage him. The pilot announces that we are overflying Sicily and that, if we look outside, we can see Mt Etna. I crane my neck but see nothing. We are cruising 10 kilometres above the Mediterranean when the story begins.


“Like any other youngster, I dreamt of going abroad. I did not qualify for university and I did not want to go to some college.

I really wanted to fly out. My uncle had emigrated to Britain in 2008 and, after a short time, had sent money to build his mother a good house in Kinoo. He soon invited his brother, my agemate, to join him. I asked them if I could join them. They said it was okay if I could find my way to Britain.

“They further fired my imagination, telling me that there were so many jobs, I would be spoilt for choice. I felt very lucky because many of my friends wanted to go abroad but did not have such crucial contacts. If only I could find my way to Britain!

“That was the only invitation I needed and vowed to find my way to Britain. I shared my dream with my mother. She was supportive and enthusiastic. She even prayed about it and, in 2004, gave me some money to apply for a visa to the UK.

“The embassy in Nairobi, unfortunately, rejected my application. Someone advised me not to bother applying again if I did not have the necessary documents to support my case.

“Despite the setback, my determination to emigrate increased. Then one evening my mother came home beaming. She had found someone who could help me get a visa. She explained that since it was difficult to get one to the UK, the easiest option, she had been told, was to make sure I entered Europe through Germany using a Schengen Visa (a document used by 25 European countries. The UK is not a member)
Took loan, sold cow “Of course it would cost money. We were required to raise Sh250,000. My mother was hesitant to start raising this kind of money but I reminded her that it would be worth it. I would pay back every single cent and more once I got a job in the UK.

“She applied for a Sh400,000 emergency loan from Mwalimu Sacco and even sold a cow and a small-scale business she was operating at Uthiru, near Nairobi. In total, we raised about Sh700,000. That was enough for the visa bribe, air ticket, and pocket money.

“We paid the visa broker, then the waiting started. My mother was particularly worried. The thought of losing all her savings took a toll on her. I kept encouraging her to be patient, that all would be well, but days turned into months. I almost lost hope and, to forget it all, kept myself busy as a part-time tout along Waiyaki Way.

“Almost three months later, my mother came home shouting ‘Kamaa! Kamaa!’ The contact was ready with the ‘goods’, she told me.
“At last!

“The following week we went to meet the man in a hotel in downtown Nairobi. As we sipped tea, the stocky middle-aged man engaged me in casual banter. He did not allude immediately to the visa and I was getting a bit agitated and impatient. I reduced my answers to his irrelevant questions to ah, eh, ooh grunts.

“‘You are a lucky man,’ he suddenly said, quickly fishing a thick brown khaki envelop from his left breast pocket. ‘Here it is!’

Newly recruited machinist

“I held the packet and froze for so long that my mother asked. ‘Don’t you want to see what is inside?’
“I slowly opened the package and the blue Kenyan passport slid out. I quickly flipped over the pages. I had never seen a visa in my life, but the page with the document seemed to open on its own. There it was: The Federal Republic of Germany: Schengen Visa. A six-month stay in Germany!

“Then the broker opened a black folder and removed a sleeve of papers from which he selected two. ‘Go through these,’ he ordered. The first had the letterhead of an international company headquartered in Nairobi. It said that I was going to Munich for training, that I was a newly recruited machinist and needed further training.

“The second had a letterhead in German. The subject was ‘Letter of Invitation’ and assured that my accommodation and upkeep would be catered for by the inviting company.

“Then his face turned grim and serious. He straightened his tie. ‘Now,’ he began, ‘what I am going to say is of utmost importance if you want to stay in Europe. Once in Frankfurt, you will take the train to Paris.

“In France, you will get into the Eurostar train that goes to Britain and alight at the entrance of the Eurotunnel, in the town of Calais.

“‘Now, you have to do the following once in France. That passport and these letters must be torn into small pieces and thrown away. You must have nothing to show where you have come from when you arrive at the Eurotunnel. There you will look for the camp called Sangatte, two kilometres from the tunnel, to get food and a place to sleep. You will find many people waiting close to the tunnel that leads into the UK. I repeat, you will have no document with you. Clear?’

“By this time, I was awestruck by the man’s knowledge of the geography of those far-flung places. It looked as if I was going to be a member of the cast in some kind of high-drama espionage film.

“‘You will no longer be Kenyan,’ he continued. ‘You will say you are from Sudan. You will invent a story. You will be called John Gok from Sudan by all your friends and contacts. Even if you call home, you must be John Gok. Only you will know where you came from. And use only public telephones.

You must not get arrested

“‘Now, over Christmas there is very little traffic in the tunnel. Your major challenge will be to enter the tunnel and walk the 25 miles (about 40 kilometres) from France to the UK. You will meet people who will to assist you at a fee. And, remember, you must not be arrested while trudging inside that tunnel… because you will be jailed.”

“For the first time since I met this man, I began to have doubts. However, I played along for the sake of both my future and my mother’s. After all, she had taken a loan and sold a cow for me to walk through that tunnel into The Promised Land.”

Dr Patrick Mbataru teaches agribusiness at Kenyatta University.

– Daily Nation