Lawn & Garden

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Sharing Journeys of Promise: Conversations with Kenyan Immigrants Living in the United States

A KWR Broadcast [featuring Rev. Priscilla Nyawĩra, Mary Waturi, Alice Waithera, Ngotho wa Njũgũna, and Chef Daniel Wainaina].

There are myriad reasons prompting Kenyans to immigrate to the United States —from aspirations for higher education to the pursuit of professional opportunities. Transitioning from life in Kenya to establishing a foothold in the U.S involves intricate processes. In recent months, Kasisi Kĩriakũ wa Kĩnyua through Kĩriakũ Waves Radio broadcast, held insightful discussions with guests who included, Mary Waturi, Alice Waithera, Rev. Priscilla Nyawĩra, Ngotho wa Njuguna, and Chef Daniel Wainaina.

These are individuals who have made the bold leap across continents in search of betterment, fulfillment, and the American dream. They share their personal immigration stories and the various challenges and opportunities they have met since moving to the US. Through their stories, we get to experience the complex tapestry of an immigrant life and the relentless pursuit of success in a foreign land. The narratives tell of personal resilience, faith, and of community support to overcome inherent challenges. They offer nuggets of advice and encouragement for others who might consider similar journeys.

Rev. Nyawĩra, is a minister with the Presbyterian Church of East Africa who shares her experiences on Kĩriakũ Waves Radio as a Kenyan immigrant studying at Fuller Theological Seminary in the United States since September 2018. She discusses the highs and lows of her journey, and her decision to pursue a Master of Theology influenced by prayer and conviction. She also talks about cultural shock of encountering racial diversity and individualism in America, contrasting it with Kenyan communal values.

On his part, Ngotho tells of his immigration journey from Kenya to the United States in the late '90s (watch the full interview here). Having arrived as a young man to attend Orange Coast College for business administration, he reflects on the significant cultural shifts and the sense of community he found in Southern California.

Mary arrived in the US in 2000 with her husband Johnson, who was a student, and their two children. As a student-dependent on an F2 visa, Mary initially could not work or study, which presented early challenges. However, she eventually pursued nursing, a decision that significantly opened up her world and opportunities for career advancement, community service, and personal growth.

Alice immigrated to the US in 2004 after winning a green card. She recalls praying for a better life for herself and her children, and how a stranger's help led to her winning the green card. The transition to life in the US was challenging, with Alice facing cultural shocks and the demands of managing family life, education, and work. She also journeyed through different roles in nursing, including caregiving and directorial positions, before working for the government in California.

Chef Daniel Wainaina, known to many simply as Chef Wainaina, equally speaks of his experience as an immigrant in the United States (watch the full interview here). Having arrived in the US over two decades ago, Chef Wainaina reflects on the complexities and gratitude of his journey. He initially planned to enter the computer sector but found his true passion for food reignited after engaging with the Food Network. With roots in Boston where he spent 18 years, Chef Wainaina notes that the culinary industry is now growing within the Kenyan community and hopes more young Kenyans will pursue culinary arts as a career.

We gather from the guests the significant role of faith and community in overcoming challenges such as racial discrimination, financial hardships, and keeping legal immigration status. For example, Priscilla (watch the full interview) reflects on the struggles of adjusting to American norms, including the different beliefs regarding her ministerial role. She emphasizes on the value of grounding oneself in faith and identity. Priscilla also details the stark differences between life in Kenya and the US, noting the importance of self-reliance, the availability of opportunities, and the need to actively seek them out.

Mary and Alice on their parts discussed the challenges unique to Kenyan immigrants, such as cultural shock, financial strains, navigating the US healthcare and education systems, and the lack of a familiar support network. They touch on the difficulty of integrating into American society due to language barriers and different societal norms. Parenting in a new culture is highlighted as a particularly tough aspect, with different expectations and less support than what they had back in Kenya.

While formal support systems specifically for Kenyan immigrants seem lacking, both Mary and Alice underscore the importance of community support. This includes emotional support, financial help, and assistance with settling in and finding resources. They suggest that more established Kenyan immigrants could do more to help newcomers navigate the challenges.

Ngotho recalls challenges such as adapting to American timekeeping, food differences, and initial language barriers. He also shares concerns about the challenges faced by young immigrants, especially those transitioning during critical developmental stages without adequate parental understanding or community support. He advocates for better preparation and support for young immigrants to help them navigate their new environment successfully.

Addressing the misconception that immigrants only work low-tier jobs in the food industry, Chef Wainaina clarifies that the food sector is broad and offers opportunities for growth, especially in fine dining. He encourages aspiring chefs to attend culinary school and stresses the importance of creativity, management skills, and adapting dishes to the local context for success.

The interviewees agree on the support within the Kenyan and broader African immigrant community, like the financial and emotional assistance, and the vital connections offered by churches. Priscilla notes the lack of an established support system but suggests that community connections often lead to vital resources such as food banks. Despite the many hurdles, Ngotho found a sense of belonging through communal gatherings, especially on Saturdays, where Kenyans would share their experiences and support each other. Post-9/11, Ngotho experienced a change in the social climate, noting increased suspicion and hostility towards immigrants due to heightened fears of terrorism. He had to navigate this shifting landscape while maintaining his sense of identity and purpose.

Highlighting the need for community, Chef Wainaina indicated that he has purposefully participated in community events and charity work, especially around holidays - he often cooked for the homeless in the Boston area. He particularly mentions Jane Kimani, a friend who runs Uhai, an organization that advises communities on various issues, including immigration.

For Chef Wainaina, maintaining cultural identity in the U.S. revolves significantly around food. He believes that while traditional Kenyan dishes like ugali and nyama choma are essential, there's room for culinary innovation. He advocates for reinterpreting classic Kenyan dishes by incorporating locally available ingredients in the U.S., which he feels can help elevate Kenyan cuisine to the international stage.

We note from Ngotho the emphasizes on the accelerated learning of culture and language that college life offers immigrant students. Both Ngotho and Priscilla share insights on student life, including the academic workload, the necessity of maintaining grades for scholarship eligibility, and the strict limitations on work for international students. They encourage future immigrants, urging them to embrace the journey, staying true to their reasons for immigrating, and trusting in God's guidance through the challenges.

Ngotho discusses the work ethic in the U.S. while countering the stereotype that everything in America comes easily. In his own words, “each dollar earned is the result of hard work!” He also touches on the ample opportunities for business, education, and employment. He fondly reminiscent on his venture into the business world despite the challenges of starting a business with insufficient preparation. Ngotho equally reflects on the profound differences in societal values, particularly regarding the elderly and the role of family. He notes the lack of support for seniors in the U.S. compared to the reverence and community involvement the elderly enjoy in Kenya. Furthermore, he speaks passionately about his love for reggae music and how it connects him with a broader diaspora community, sharing common experiences despite geographic distances.

On their advice for future Kenyan immigrants, Alice and Mary emphasize the need to be open to learning, to be patient with the process of building a life in the US, and to work together as a team, especially for couples. They urge individuals to embrace their unique journeys without comparing oneself to others. They also call for the establishment of structured community support systems to guide new immigrants. Rev Nyawira advises new immigrants to thoroughly research before coming to the US, highlighting the reality that there are no freebies, and success requires hard work. As for advice to potential immigrants, Ngotho encourages seizing opportunities while being prepared for the hard work required to succeed in the U.S. He suggests taking advantage of the land of opportunity but cautions against unrealistic expectations.

Chef Wainaina advises those considering moving to the U.S. to be prepared for challenges and to start possibly a step down in the culinary industry to learn the ropes. He emphasizes the importance of hard work, skill, and timing for seizing opportunities. Chef Wainaina offers his wisdom to others interested in the food industry, inviting them to reach out to him on social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram for advice and culinary inspiration. He remains passionate about sharing his expertise and fostering appreciation for diverse cuisines.

In summary, the discussions on Kĩriakũ Waves Radio paint a picture of resilience and adaptability among Kenyan immigrants in the US, while also calling for greater community support and shared knowledge to ease the journey for those who follow. The interviews paint a comprehensive picture of the immigrant experience, from the initial move and adjustment period to the creation of a life and community in a new country. It also touches on the nuances of work, education, cultural retention, and the evolving identity of an immigrant in the United States. They offer unique pathways, uncovering the shared struggles, the victories, the cultural assimilation, and the indomitable spirit of the Kenyan diaspora in the United States.

Through these conversations several themes emerge that may help in future discussions:

  1. Immigration Motivation and Arrival Experiences:
    • Personal reasons for migrating to the US, such as following family or winning a green card.
    • The initial drive and aspirations that lead to immigrating to the U.S.
    • The vision of the U.S. as a land of opportunity.
    • The emotional impact of moving to a new country.
    • Enriching experiences and demoralizing moments.
  2. Cross-Cultural Exchange, Innovation, Cultural Integration:
    • Adjusting to the individualistic and permissive culture in the U.S. in contrast to the communal African lifestyle.
    • Initial culture shock upon arrival and the realization of the significance of race in America.
    • Fusion and reinterpretation of traditional Kenyan dishes in the U.S.
    • Encouraging a global appreciation for diverse cuisines and innovation in food preparation.
    • The challenges and opportunities of regaining personal identity.
    • Adjusting to new societal norms and language differences.
    • Differences in daily life practices, such as eating habits.
    • The challenge of speaking English constantly in a non-academic environment.
  3. Academic Pursuits, and Career:
    • Opportunities for career development and economic advancement for the immigrants.
    • The opportunities, importance, and impact of further education in the US.
    • Maintaining immigration status and the importance of adhering to immigration regulations.
    • Accelerated cultural learning opportunities from international student communities.
    • The challenges of navigating the American education system and the rigorous academic commitments required.
    • Transition from initial career plans to pursuing one’s own passion.
    • Growth and development within the culinary industry in the U.S.
  4. Parenting Challenges:
    • Difficulties of raising children in a new culture without an extended support network.
    • The role of immigrant parents and the experiences of their children in the US education system.
    • The challenges faced by young immigrants and the generational gap.
    • The struggle of Kenyan parents raising children in an American cultural environment.
  5. Healthcare Navigation:
    • Accessing healthcare and understanding the American healthcare system.
    • Challenges specific to immigrants in obtaining healthcare services.
  6. Financial Struggles:
    • Financial burdens faced as international students, including expensive education and the cost of living.
    • The difficulty of acquiring scholarships and managing transportation without a car.
  7. Racism and Discrimination:
    • Encountering racism and consciousness of one’s own identity in the U.S.
    • Impact of racial discrimination, personal experiences and interactions in public spaces.
  8. Misconceptions and Realities of Immigrant Work:
    • Myths about immigrant jobs in the food industry.
    • The reality of working conditions and legal issues for immigrants.
  9. Legal and Immigration Challenges:
    • Legal issues faced by immigrants, such as documentation and potential family separations.
    • The strict limitations on work for international students and the reality of on-campus employment.
    • Debunking myths about the ease of gaining employment and the notion of 'freebies' in America.
  10. Social and Professional Integration:
    • Adapting to the expectations of American professionalism and punctuality.
    • The necessity of being self-reliant and proactive in seeking opportunities.
    • Challenges faced in integrating into American society and the workplace.
    • Differences in culture, societal norms, and the process of assimilation.
    • Stereotypes encountered as an African and how these perceptions shifted after 9/11.
    • Maintaining Kenyan cultural identity through food and social gatherings.
    • Dealing with the reality versus expectations as an immigrant.
    • Navigating and advancing in the food industry as an immigrant.
    • The significance of culinary education and management skills.
  11. Community and Support Systems:
    • Finding emotional and financial support within the Kenyan and Christian communities.
    • The value of Kenyan churches as community hubs.
    • The role of churches and fellow Kenyan ministers in providing a support network.
    • The role of community in providing emotional, social, and sometimes financial support.
    • Lack of formal structures within the Kenyan immigrant community for support.
    • Reliance on relatives and the Kenyan community for support.
    • The unity and shared experiences among Kenyans in Southern California.
    • The support systems available in Kenya compared to the U.S.
    • The differing values placed on the elderly and retired individuals in both societies.
    • Role of family and Kenyan community in the transition process.
  12. Advice for Prospective Immigrants and Community Development:
    • Recommendations for Kenyans considering immigration to the U.S.
    • Encouragement to pursue culinary arts and the necessity of self-advancement.
    • Suggestions on how to approach life in the US, including embracing one's journey and being prepared for challenges.
    • The need for establishing support systems for new Kenyan immigrants.
    • Hopes for a smoother transition for future immigrants through community effort.
    • Researching, understanding the costs involved, and preparedness for the realities of life in the U.S.
    • The importance of following legal pathways and maintaining proper immigration status.
    • Encouragement to seize opportunities while being prepared for the hard work ahead.
  13. Business and Entrepreneurship:
    • Ngotho's experience running a Kenyan restaurant.
    • Comparisons of business practices and meritocracy between Kenya and the U.S.
  14. Cultural Preservation Through Cuisine:
    • Maintaining Kenyan cultural identity through food.
    • Sharing Kenyan cuisine and cultural practices within the immigrant community.
  15. Charity and Community Service:
    • Participation in community events and charity work.
    • The role of food in community gatherings and networking.

These themes encapsulate immigrants’ personal and professional journey in the United States, providing insights into the challenges, opportunities, and joys of living and working in a new cultural context. Each of the themes represents a different aspect of the Kenyan immigrant experience, showcasing the multifaceted challenges and triumphs of adapting to life in the United States.

Report prepared by Kasisi Kĩriakũ wa Kĩnyua.

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Sharing Journeys of Promise: Conversations with Kenyan Immigrants Living in the United States

A KWR Broadcast [featuring Rev. Priscilla Nyawĩra, Mary Waturi, Alice Waithera, Ngotho wa Njũgũna, and Chef Daniel Wainaina]. There are ...