By Mukurima x. Muriuki
When Derek Methu recently visited Kenya, it was his first time in his motherland since migrating to America with his parents 28 years ago. Out of this trip, all that Derek wanted in Kenya was to experience the true taste of being a Kenyan in Kenya.
For Derek, all he knew about Kenya was based on information passed to him by his friends in Kenya and from Kenya, his research about Kenya, and talking with his parents who had (and still have) a more advanced knowledge about Kenya. Derek, in his own words, shares his story about life in America and an unadulterated Kenyan experience.
“My parent relocated to America in 1987. I was a little boy back then and I did not understand what this transition meant. While in America, I, for the first time, experienced interacting with a white person, Asian, and Mexican. This was new to me. I don’t think I really understood the difference until I went to school and there were other black kids, who made it clear they knew I was different. I honestly didn’t realize how diverse my environment was until I got much older. At 6 years of age, I was yet to fully grasp that I was now a world away from what I had been used to. I was in a different continent.
My parents wanted my siblings and me to transition well, but I think in reflection my father did not want me to get used to the American culture. My parents would surround me with Africans, Kenyan’s mostly; honestly I didn’t know that difference when I was young. It was in these formal and informal gatherings I would learn, hear, taste and come to know my heritage. Through socialization my parents taught/exposed me to Africa, I was always reminded that I was Kenyan. The reminders made me feel different, it made me aware that even though I was in America, I was not an American. I was an African in America, and the expectation was that I had to conduct myself in life with that understanding. I remember on instance where this was clear, I was invited to a sleep over and a weekend trip by one of my schoolmates and neighbor and I could not go. I didn’t understand why, but recall being told, ‘we don’t know them and if anything happened you would be treated different. I had no clue what that meant, I didn’t see a difference between myself and my friends. So for most of my youth there were no sleep overs for me with my friends, not unless the friends were members of one of the churches we worshiped.
In reflection my early years in school were very challenging, but I was shown that we are not supposed to complain, we are to endure. The values of hard work, doing your best and going to church were the staples of my foundation. What came with this was a splash of fear and it rubbed me the wrong. By the age of 14 I was conditioned by my immersion into being an American whereby fear is viewed as a vice for the weak and as such un-American. Trying to adhere to my Kenyan passiveness with my American boldness produced a number of contradicting approaches to life. I was to not ‘let them put me down’, but I was not to be arrogant or show off. I was to be academically outstanding, but not stand out too much. I was to be focused, but be humble in going after what I wanted. I was to know where I came from and what I stand for, but not to speak out too loud and cause any problems. It is in high school where I became aware of the difference between being an American and being a Kenyan and decided to be more American.
My junior high and high school years were a mix of awkwardness, adventure, rebellion, self-awareness, and confusion on where I belonged. Do not get me wrong. I always knew that I was African, but I was not a black American. Those around teachers, coaches, and classmates constantly reminded me. I was told it was because I spoke differently, I had a different temperament, I dressed differently, and my last name sounded different. The expectations attached to an “African America” did not tie with my character. I was not their stereotype kind of guy. I always avoided talking about my citizenship because for the longest time I was not sure what it was and why it mattered. To me I was your average teen, playing; football, basketball, track & field, like everyone else. Equally, I did not know my status or that of my parents. In any case, I did not think it was something that I needed to know.
I graduated high school with the best memories and friends. I transitioned to the college track, first attending and graduating from Rancho Santiago Community College, then transferring to San Diego State University, with a focus in Kinesiology. I loved the experience I had with sports in high school and running track at the community college level, but I was not going pro, so I decided Kinesiology could be the best option to stay close to sports and I would make a career out of it. However, after the 9/11 attack on the Twin towers in New York, I became conscious of the fact that there were events in the world I had no clue about, specifically world politics and why people hated America.
At this point in my life I identified as a Californian and couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t like ‘us’. I knew of racism as being the biggest problem, but that was normal white people being scared, not everyone was like that. I realized there was more going on in the world and I had no clue. I felt a strong desire not to stay ignorant, so I changed my major to Communications and Political Science. It’s safe to say, my immersion to America was a success, I had been blinded by the American exceptionalism philosophy that I did not care so much about what was happening around the globe or even in other states here in America, and that needed to change.
After my undergraduate degree, my initial goal was to go full throttle into politics. For this reason, in 2005 I moved from California to Washington DC, the capital of politics. The prospects of entering the political field was difficult and required I interned, work for free. My parental unit was not sold on that idea, so I had to make changes. I was fortunate to get a job with The Washington Post, first working as an assistant in the real estate advertising department and within 9 years working my way up to an Account Executive handling the national retail accounts. My goals for transitioning to DC were actually to just visit family and find my way to New York, where within a few years of work I would go back to school and earn a master’s degree. Those plans changed once I spent some time in the ‘chocolate city’, I was hooked.
I was lucky to find 3 great roommates from Zimbabwe, who turned me on to more high level thinking on politics and Africa as whole. In DC, surrounded by more ethnicities than I have ever encountered, for the first time being African and American felt normal, even special. I made every effort to surround myself with people who were focused on African culture, travel, world politics, local politics and African music. By 2011 I did decided to go back to school and earned my master’s degree in Public Communication at American University, class of 2013. My thesis’ focus was on African identity and how it was shaped by others and not by Africans, through narrative film. In attaining the strategic communication focused degree, experiencing my father’s 60th birthday (where people from all aspects of his life came to celebrate him), I decided I needed to do more with my life and I wanted whatever it was to be tied to Africa.
In 2015, I decided for my birthday I wanted to be in Kenya, so after 28 years of being away, I traveled back to Kenya. I spent the month March vising both sides of my family (Kikuyu and Taita) with a sole mission to just reconnect with the extended family. While I was in Kenya, my maternal grandmother passed on and my parents had to fly home from America to attend the funeral. This was the first time my parents and I were in Kenya together, since the 1987 relocation to America.
My one-month in Kenya taught me a lot. Growing up I honestly didn’t know there was a difference between my family from my dad’s side and family from my mom’s side. Both sides seemed to know each other and never echoed a difference. I came to learn though; there was a difference in Kenya when you tell people which tribe you are from. When I met new friends in Kenya, there was that question that would not go away; “which is your tribe.” I decided after a few times I did not like answering that question, I didn’t understand in this day and age why that was important. In terms of the tribes, I had a limited understanding and was aware of the stereotypes: The Kikuyu know about making money and the Luo are fishermen. This was very limited in my African community back in America, the tribal affiliation was never a ‘thing’.
After a month staying in Kenya, seeing more family than I could count, I went back to America, but I felt there was still some unfinished business that I needed to take care of. I decided to make another to visit to Kenya, and this time it had to be for much longer, 7 months to be exact. I began to polish up on my Kiswahili, continued to learn more about Kenya, began a startup that was oriented towards doing business in East Africa and put together a plan to strategically experience East Africa.
My first experience back I volunteered for 8 weeks as an assistant teacher, in Likoni Mombasa. I was saddened by the number of poor people in Kenya. Poverty in Kenya is different from poverty in America. In America there are institutions in place to help those in need, but in Kenya it seemed like there was nothing in place, except the muzungu organizations that provided aid. It was also very clear that though there were over 100 non-profits, the need was too great to serve all areas and all needs. There was not one answer to problem.
My second experience was traveling within Nairobi and the coastal cities. I found the two areas very distinct and with their own pro’s and con’s. On the business front my experience was like herding cats. A lot of the vibe that I got is that Kenyans back home actually do not like it when the diaspora go back home, unless they are coming to give out money. They like it when we just send the foreign currency, but not when we go back, either to visit or returning home permanently. I believe this is because we do not consider how it actually looks from their perspective. We return with plans that do not enhance their personal station or income level, just our own. I feel this is why there are so many failed attempts to do business and transition successfully.
My dream for Kenya is that we can all earn the trust of one another. I hope that days of the person helping you in the name of Christ and smiling with a hallelujah, and still being the person most likely to rob you, will come to an end”
In an effort be part of Kenya’s future, Derek launched his consulting firm GMMBrandConsulting.com. Its mission is to create a platform where trust and reliability work hand-in-hand, when investing in East Africa. Please feel free to visit his website and fill out this survey.