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The allure of leaving Kenya to reside in Europe or the US is a bug that bites young people quite aggressively. But if they knew the reality of living in these foreign lands, most would shelve the lofty ideas of paradise in developed countries.
Despite these countries’ meticulous planning, an efficient transport system that is out of this world and planned buildings, those who have lived there know the ugly side of Eden. They have seen homeless people who live in the streets and die of cold during winter!
Recently, we interacted with Kenyans living in Italy where they went many years ago with great hope and pride of having “arrived” only to be jolted by reality that it was all vanity. While the number of people who have made it in these countries cannot be underestimated, there are others that find it hard to cope. Yet others strongly feel that despite times being difficult, they cannot come back home. That what they have there is far much better than what they will get in Kenya.
Maryanne Akinyi, who has lived in Italy for more than 20 years, is part of the over three million immigrants who live there. A report by a Catholic body Caritas and Fondazione Migrantes in late October stated that three out of every 50 people in Italy are foreigners. The middle aged woman lives in Turin to the North West of Italy. Akinyi, whose father was a publisher in Kenya, says she went to Italy because the family was being persecuted by the regime of the day in the 1980s.
Akinyi dropped out of a school in Nairobi after what she terms untold violence which she protested leading to her expulsion from the school. “I came to Italy when I was 26 years old and settled in Turin where I have lived ever since,” says Akinyi. After three years, Akinyi took her daughter over and set up a cultural centre which she calls From Nile. Over the years, Akinyi has seen life in Italy take a turn for the worse for both citizens and non-citizens. “The economic downturn started about ten years ago and the first people to lose their jobs were non-citizens. The citizens thought they were safe only for them to be next as the economy plummeted.” Akinyi says the citizens of her host country have “a closed mind, a mind that does not recognise that there are other races or culture” as they have no respect or regard for non-citizens.
This attitude pushes non-citizens to settle for undignified jobs; and only when available as everyone is dashing for the few jobs available.
“Two decades ago, there were jobs in factories and those who worked in these factories were immigrants who were generally underpaid. Now even those underpaying jobs are no more,” says Akinyi. When the loss of jobs started, citizens started blaming immigrants for the predicament and as the situation worsened, hostility continued to grow by the day.
Akinyi says she has seen better days when non-citizens had permanent and pensionable jobs; some would even buy houses but now, the cost of living has just hit the roof and most immigrants are considering going to other countries with better economies like Britain and Germany.
But Akinyi is staying put; she is neither going back home nor relocating to those other countries to look for opportunities.
Another Kenyan living in Turin is Maryanne Ng’ethe who has been there for more than 25 years. She says that what is happening between citizens and immigrants can be termed as an act of war. She says that it has spread to immigrants fighting themselves because those who arrived earlier believe that those coming in now are causing more problems for them.
Ng’ethe, like Akinyi, is not coming home either. She argues that Kenya is worse off economically, plus she has gotten used to the hustle of living in a foreign country. The two women say it is better to suffer outside Kenya than face the same challenges in their own country.
Some of the problems that they contend with include poor housing, harassment and racism which, they say, is at its peak because Africans are accused of causing the economic meltdown and hence most of the society’s problems.
With the situation growing even more dire each day, another Kenyan, Kevin Musau, who has lived in Italy since his teenage years says Africans go through a lot of trouble to make money in the country. The living conditions of most of the immigrants who have no jobs is like that of a shantytown dog, according to Musau who hails from Yatta in Machakos County.
“A number of immigrants who have no houses and can’t afford accommodation live in deplorable conditions in rundown, abandoned buildings,” he explains. When winter sets in, those living in such houses suffer from the cold because they cannot afford to pay for electricity to heat their houses.
When an illegal immigrant, a person who is smuggled into the country without any documentation, dies, they are buried in cemeteries and that is where their life story ends. Their families back in Kenya are never informed.
The three Kenyans says there is no organisation that can help fight for the rights of Kenyans. When you are in Italy you are on your own. You are caught in the web of working your fingers to the bone to stay afloat and it is difficult to nurture social networks.
Martha Acosta, an immigrant administrative practitioner who works to help immigrants get the documents that are needed to live in Italy, says that before the desire to move to Italy was rife but times have changed. She says that the fact that there is no all-inclusive organisation to protect all foreigners is a major problem. “Times are so difficult that even those who have lived here and have established themselves also want to leave and go to other countries where they will most likely start their lives afresh due to language differences,” says Acosta from Peru.
The global economic downturn has really turned lives upside down.