Coming to America as a 13 Year Old Kenyan


I still recall when I was only 13 years old, on a cold Saturday morning, my mom said to me; ‘Wash your face we are going somewhere..!”   You know back in the day you could not ask your parents too many questions. The best answer was compliance. I did as asked.

Soon I would find myself at the airport. I had never been to an airport before but now I stood within touching distance of a jumbo jet!  My initial thought was that my mom had brought me to see the planes, maybe as a birthday gift! Or so I thought.

Before the enormity of the plane could sink in, and before I could find answers to my weird and wild questions of how such a huge object as a plane could fly in the sky, I was being ushered into the airplane! It was then that my mom told me we were headed to America. I was excited, yet, at the same time shocked. America..? Really?  I had never dreamt of going to America. It was too big of a dream for me. It was surreal feeling. I could not believe it was happening to me. I thought of the friends I had left back in the village. I wondered if I would ever see them again. There was no Facebook or Social media. The prospect of communicating with my friends looked dim. But these thoughts were drowned by the castles that started to build in my little mental sheets.


I had thought of America as a country where everything was so easy. The name America, to me, meant simplified riches.  I thought I would be a millionaire in two weeks, even though I was just 13 years old.  I saw myself owning a nice car, buying a big house, and doing other crazy things. For the first time I was dreaming!

But America would give me a surprise I had not anticipated. All the things I had hoped to achieve in a few weeks, a 13 year old, soon became an illusion. I soon realized nothing came easy. One had to work extra hard. It is a shame that in the beginning I did not think in terms of how I could expand my education but I would realize that in America, education is the key to anything you want to access.

I enrolled in High school and it was pretty easy compared to Kenya. My disadvantage was that I had a deep accent that made it impossible for fellow students to understand what I was saying. When it was my turn to read in front of the class, I would feel shy as I did not want the students to laugh at the way I was talking.  This made it difficult to make new friends. However, I got better with time.

The strange thing is that most girls loved my accent. They would ask me so many questions about Africa. Some of them thought I was born into a kingdom. To make up for the embarrassment I would feel because of my accent, I would lie that I was the son of a king, just like in the movie “Coming to America.”  Some students would ask me if I had killed a lion, or if our family owned lions as pets.  I would soon realize that our education system in Kenya is very detailed and you would not find a Kenyan back home asking a foreigner such silly questions because in Kenya we learn so much about other countries and communities!

I did not take time to integrate with the locals and also to adopt the busy aspect of a developed country. I wish those coming to America, especially students, can find a local mentor to guide them and be a point of support. It helps guide a student in the right direction and also increase the student’s ability to look at things in a broader sense.

My name is James Ngunjiri, and that is my story of coming to America as a 13 year old.  Years have gone by and I currently reside in Orange County, California. I am proud to be a Kenyan and as a young person I want to contribute to the development agenda back home. I could not be who I am without Kenya playing a part in my life!

Are you an African in Diaspora and want to share your Diaspora experiences? write to me