International Migration and Brain Circulation
By Kenneth Okoth, director of the Council on International Educational Exchange Study Center at the University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), founder of the Children of Kibera Foundation, and member of the board of trustees of St. Lawrence University
I was born in 1978 to a single mother who had just migrated from rural Kenya to the city of Nairobi. Growing up in a family of six children in the fetid slums near downtown was not easy. Finding a reason to believe in oneself and see oneself as a valued member of society was almost impossible. But thanks to two generous scholarships from American universities, I earned my bachelor's and master's degrees and have been able to choose my path in life.
My American education, in contrast to my humble beginnings, had an empowering effect. The knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes I gained in college and graduate school shape my life and work every day. This summer, I took the next step in my migratory journey, returning to East Africa after twelve years in the United States. Now, as an international educator, I connect American students to Africa while also advocating on behalf of vulnerable children in Kenya.
A vibrant civil society in which free citizens can participate in shaping their economic and political destinies is fundamental for democracy. Sadly, in most of post-colonial Africa, the path to stable democracy has been elusive. In my view, a key reason for the strife in African countries is the enormous disparity between the elites and the rural and urban poor, against which a fragile middle class cannot serve as a stabilizing force. I believe that educational opportunities that provide a path to liberal learning for marginalized citizens are indispensable to curing many troubles rooted in class disparities.
When American universities like those I attended look to countries like Kenya to identify talented potential leaders from peasant, nomadic, urban poor, and refugee backgrounds, they can play a priceless role in international development. By circulating intellectual and social capital abroad as well as within the United States, they make vital contributions to the growth of civil society, democracy, and stability around the world.
My undergraduate alma mater, St. Lawrence University, illustrates how even smaller colleges can make a vital contribution. Since the 1980s, St. Lawrence has offered two full scholarships for Kenyan students. Several alumni of this scholarship program have been from Kenya's most marginalized rural communities and nomadic societies. Without St. Lawrence's intervention, their dreams of upward social mobility were not guaranteed.
Today, two St. Lawrence graduates from the arid northern districts of Kenya serve as elected members of parliament, representing the views of their communities at the highest levels of policy making. Other beneficiaries of St. Lawrence scholarships have become leaders in medicine, scientific research, academia, the performing arts, business, and philanthropy. The brain gain they bring to Kenya has empowered them to create jobs, save lives, nurture ideas, and change their communities after migrating back to their home countries.
Without my American education and work experience, I would never have traveled from a tin-roofed mud slum hovel to my current role as an administrator and faculty member at universities in the United States and Tanzania. Without spending twelve years in the United States, it is doubtful that I would have started an international charitable foundation that provides scholarships and extends educational enrichment programs to vulnerable children from the slums where I was raised.
My foundation and its supporters enable the children we serve to attend quality schools that will allow them to forge their own paths out of poverty and become successful members of Kenyan society. Perhaps some will receive scholarships to attend college in America, continuing the cycle of international brain circulation, and bringing back to their communities the knowledge, skills, ideas, values, attitudes, and leadership that I and other returning migrants have been able to bring back to Kenyan business, politics, academia, arts, and philanthropy.
To learn about the Children of Kibera foundation, visit childrenofkibera.org.