Thousands of Kenyan students come to the UK for studies. Many gain qualifications and return home, but others fall on hard times because of finances and immigration rules. They also fall prey to British conmen, often being forced to do things against their will, writes SHAMLAL PURI.
When Kenyan students come to the UK for further studies, they have dreams of a successful life after completing their degrees, but many end up falling on hard times, a situation that also worries the diaspora parents here.
The plight of one Kenyan student was revealed in a London courtroom drama on July 19, in a case involving Mark Lancaster, an employee of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). He had exploited a female student desperate for financial help.
Lancaster, 40, a top-level computer consultant, was jailed for 16 months in connection with a “pitiless deception” in which he sought to con hard-up students into having sex with him in exchange for falsely offering to pay their university fees.
Lancaster, of Horndean, Hampshire, was exposed by the London newspaper The Independent, following an undercover investigation into the website sponsorscholar.co.uk and a fictitious business he established.
The 18-year-old Kenyan woman fell victim when Lancaster duped her into travelling to a rented flat in Milton Keynes, 87 kilometres from London, where he filmed her using four secret cameras before having sex with her.
Appearing at the Southwark Crown Court, the pornography-addicted father of two admitted a charge of voyeurism and another of trafficking.
The Kenyan woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, had found Lancaster’s website on the Internet while desperately searching for a loan to finance her studies. The website offered up to £15,000 (about Sh2 million) in return for four meetings a year with non-existent “sponsors”.
The woman came from a single-parent family and faced a university course fee of £11,000 (about Sh1.5 million) starting in September last year, and a further £5,000 (Sh670,000) for accommodation. The prosecution said the Kenyan wanted to “reduce the burden on her mother”, who is a nurse.
Although she became aware that the site was soliciting sex, she sought a meeting with Lancaster to find out about his offer.
In spite of her plan to control her involvement, she was overwhelmed by Lancaster’s personality and the situation.
Afterwards, when she did not hear back from Lancaster, she contacted him and was told that her “application” had been unsuccessful. He gave her £60 (Sh8,000) and invited her to re-apply in future.
Her world was torn apart — she was humiliated in front of her friends and forced to miss a year of her studies
Lancaster was sentenced to 16 months for voyeurism and the same for trafficking, to run concurrently.
The case serves as a warning to students, from Kenya and elsewhere, to watch out for these kinds of scams.
British universities have a long tradition of welcoming students from Kenya, but there is need for financial preparation, either through family or scholarships.
A joint international report by the British Council, Universities UK and IDP Education Australia, notes that in 1998, there were 2,200 Kenyan students in UK universities. By 2003, the number had increased to 2,800.
The report forecasts that 39,000 students from sub-Saharan Africa will study in UK universities in 2020. Of these, 5,200 will be from Kenya.
Finance is the biggest pitfall for Kenya’s students. Some female students who leave home with the best intentions end up becoming escorts and offering sexual services to earn money. They are afraid of returning home without degrees due to the social stigma. Others drop out of school to continue working as escorts because the money is good.
Some students work as part-time car washers or waiters as the law allows foreign students to work 20 hours a week.
Kariuki, who washes cars in London, told me: “I do this part-time to pay for my tuition and accommodation. It’s the only job I can get because there is a lot of racism among employers.”
Some universities employ foreign students to do part-time cleaning at night, leaving little time to rest or prepare for the next day’s lessons.
One owner of a cleaning company says 30 per cent of his workforce consists of university students.
Kenyan students who do not have family to support them find themselves in a financial straightjacket; unable to meet their accommodation and food costs. They end up living in crammed houses inhabited by up to 15 people at a time, sharing bed space and barely able to pay rent even for that. Some students get involved in scams and 419 schemes to bring in money.
London Borough of Barking Councillor Elizabeth Kang’ethe, a popular Kenyan and a community leader, sympathises with the students’ plight because she experienced similar problems when she came to the UK to work as a teacher.
“I had to go back to school to study the British education system, convert my qualifications and get a qualified teacher status.
“There were hurdles to jump and lots of discrimination. Getting schools where I could go for placement as I studied was hard. Most head teachers would turn down my application even if I offered my services for free, just to gain experience.
“When I graduated, getting a job was difficult as they judged applicants by accent, not what they offered. We are better teachers than they judge; my current school does not want me to quit because of what I offer. I’ve been at the same school for 11 years.
“I’ve dealt with many cases of young students from Kenya who came here with high expectations, but failed to achieve them, resulting in breakdowns, depression and even mental problems,” said Elizabeth.
One case involved a Kenyan girl at Cambridge University: “She almost had a mental breakdown because of lack of money, loneliness and missing home.”
Some students have dropped out because they cannot cope with studies. They look for jobs, but have no resident visas.
Elizabeth cautions against sending very young students to study in the UK, because they are not mature. It is better, she advises, to get a first degree in Kenya then pursue a Master’s or doctorate degree
“But it is not all doom and gloom; there are success stories of young doctors who have studied here and climbed the ladder. ”
Wambui Njau who attended University of Hertfordshire recalls, “The company I worked for paid my university fees, but I know many students work more than 21 hours, in breach of student visa rules, to make ends meet.”
A Kenyan student was deported in his final year of study because he had violated these rules, she says.