Last year, the University of Nairobi School of Business hosted some rare visitors, a group of African-American ladies seeking business opportunities in Kenya.
One of the ladies (third left in the photo) was so mesmerised by Kenya, that she had even changed her name to Wakesho Akinyi. The graceful ladies were from Charlotte, North Carolina.
It turned out that their trip, rarely to Africa among African-Americans was driven by the year of return, 2019, which commemorated 400 years since the first slaves landed on the US soil.
What followed were years of slavery and wealth accumulation. Any economist or accountant knows that labour is the highest cost of production. Make it free and you are in the money.
The pattern of extracting cheap labour was replicated during the colonial period in Kenya. While we have written enough about the politics of colonialism, not enough justice has been done to its economics.
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In the year of return, African-Americans tried to retrace their roots in Africa by visiting the continent.
Ghana capitalised on this year, considering that some slaves came from there. The tourists brought lots of dollars.
Our visitors went a step further, they were not just tourists, they wanted to establish businesses, they wanted to invest in Africa and create a lasting link to the continent.
One of the paradoxes of our time is that black Americans, who prefer to be called African-Americans have almost no connection to Africa beyond curiosity. White Americans seem to know about Africa than fellow African-Americans. It’s more about travel and exposure to the media.
Even scholars shy away from studies on the relationship between Africans and African-Americans.
A good example; why have historians not investigated the extent to which the American civil rights movement was inspired by the Mau Mau?
How many know of 100 or so Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that educate lots of African-Americans?
Some suggest a closer link between Africans and their American brothers would create a powerful block that would upset the current balance of power across nations and regions.
Back to the year of return. After 400 years, the echoes of slavery are still heard. I spent six years in the Deep South, four years in Mississippi, the “blackest” of the US states.
I saw the cotton plantations where the slaves once worked, now replaced by machines. More importantly, I interacted with my African-Americans both in class and outside the class.
I noted that slavery’s greatest impact was injuring the self-confidence. Colonialism did the same. You still see and feel that injury in your interaction with African-Americans.
That is perhaps why African-Americans rarely travel abroad. How many African-Americans have you met beyond movies, music and sports?
That has led to a misunderstanding about their identity.
Living, working and schooling with them gave me rare insights into their culture beyond stereotypes.
Some black Americans openly say they can’t fly because they believe a plane is not real! Could that explain why some bus trips in the US cost more than air tickets?
Could returning and seeing the achievements of their brothers and sisters left behind in Africa raise their level of self-confidence?
That is most likely to happen if they invest and make money in Africa, like their white compatriots.
The year of return was low key in Kenya because of our rare interaction with African-Americans.
I rarely hear of our Kenyan dignitaries making trips to the Deep South, to see and feel firsthand the legacy of slavery. It is not as cool as visiting New York or Washington DC. A rare window was opened when Barrack Obama became the US president.
I did not see a flood of African-Americans visiting Kenya during his term. The election of Barrack Obama to US presidency must have raised the spirit of African-Americans.
By the way, if Obama is black, what colour am I?
Maybe we should also have travelled to visit our “brothers” in the US during the year of return.
The truth is that we can learn a lot from them. One is how to handle the aftermath of years of subjugation.
After the civil rights movement, the African-Americans could now vote. But they are still behind the rest of America in social-economic development. After many years of subjugation, it is not easy to turn around.
Their status is comparable to South Africa after apartheid.
You can’t undo years of being on the receiving end overnight. We have the same problem in Kenya after our uhuru. Why does corruption still stalk our free nation? Why is economic growth and development so subdued?
Yet our subjugation from Britons lasted only 68 years. For South Africa, it was more than 300 years.
Why are we unable to put our house in order 56 years after Union Jack was lowered? Yet there was no Covid-19?
One more lesson from Deep South is on the family.
In some African-American communities, more than 70 per cent of the kids are born to unmarried mothers. Central Kenya is not far behind. Unstable families are the soft underbelly of the African-American community.
I worry in the middle of the night that women empowerment will one day get us there as an unintended consequence.
We can avoid that tragedy by visiting the African-American communities and learning from their hard lessons first-hand. We too can host and listen to their experiences. Movies are not enough. The year of return passed us silently; we had other things occupying us from BBI to locusts.
It is not too late to reflect on those 400 years and derive some lessons for the current and next generations.
The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi.