Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that Erastus Mong'are works for a Delaware insurance company. He works for AmeriCorps, the national service organization. The article also incorrectly said that there are no credit cards in Kenya. It should have said that credit cards are rarely used in Kenya.

U.S. Downturn Drives Immigrant Professionals Back Home to Africa

In Kisumu, Kenya, home town of former Texas trucker James Odhiambo, traffic jams involve bicycles as often as cars.
In Kisumu, Kenya, home town of former Texas trucker James Odhiambo, traffic jams involve bicycles as often as cars. (By Dominic Nahr For The Washington Post)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

KISUMU, Kenya -- With the U.S. economy in turmoil, his job as a truck driver no longer secure and his upwardly mobile life in the Dallas suburbs in jeopardy, James Odhiambo decided it was time for a change.

He wanted a healthier lifestyle for his family, less anxiety, fewer 14-hour days. So he recently traded his deluxe apartment, the pickup truck, the dishwasher and $4.99 McDonald's combos for life in a place he considers relatively better: sub-Saharan Africa.

"Right now I'm no stress, no anxiety," said Odhiambo, 34, relaxing in his family home in this western Kenyan city along the shores of Lake Victoria. "Think of it this way: When I was in the U.S., I was close to 300 pounds. Now, I'm like 200. The biggest thing for me was quality of life."

While that may seem counterintuitive to Americans accustomed to bleaker images of Africa, recent studies have documented the flight of immigrant professionals from the United States to their home countries. Chinese and Indian workers increasingly say they see better opportunities and lifestyles at home. And diaspora associations of Nigerians, Ghanaians, Kenyans and other Africans say their members -- mostly from middle-class backgrounds -- are joining the exodus, choosing life in the land of slow Internet connections and power outages over the pressures of recession-era America.

"I personally know many people who are going back," said Erastus Mong'are, who works as a program manager for an insurance company in Delaware and heads an association of Kenyans living there. "The people I know here work two or three jobs just to make ends meet, while in Kenya -- despite its problems -- people seem more happy. They seem to be getting more time with family. More relaxed. Here, if my neighbor sees I've parked in his spot, he becomes so upset."

In a broad sense, the return migration to Africa is in line with studies suggesting that despite persistent poverty and civil unrest in places such as Congo, Somalia and Sudan, much of the continent has been buoyed in recent years by a sense of optimism driven by economic growth. Pew Research Center studies tracking global attitudes have found that people's level of satisfaction with their quality of life is rising across much of Africa, while it has stayed level or decreased in the United States. For Odhiambo, disillusionment with the American way of life grew more or less with his waistline.

As a lean young man, he moved to the United States to attend a community college in Upstate New York, an idea nurtured by images of American life he saw on television growing up in a middle-class family in Kenya: "Diff'rent Strokes," "The Six Million Dollar Man," "Beverly Hills, 90210."

"You'd see all these manicured lawns, all this organization," he recalled on a recent day, while having a long lunch at an outdoor cafe without once looking at his watch.

He arrived in the mid-1990s with a sense of possibility in a land promising immigrants a better life. After college, he moved to Texas and worked as a long-haul truck driver, crisscrossing the country delivering auto parts, televisions, soda bottles and big containers from China. He marveled at innovations such as the car cup holder; he was inspired by government efficiencies that made it possible to get a driver's license in one day. And as his pay improved, he and his wife moved into a luxury apartment complex outside Dallas called Sonoma Grande at the Legends.

"It was really nice," Odhiambo recalled, noting that it had a pool, a Jacuzzi, a gym and other treats unheard of in Kenya.

But as his workdays grew longer, he hardly enjoyed any of those amenities. He worked 14-hour shifts trying to keep up with his $800 monthly rent, payments on a new Ford Ranger pickup, health insurance that did not cover a pair of tinted prescription glasses needed for long hours at the wheel, and bills driven by must-haves such as air conditioning.

"I couldn't get any exercise at all, and I was restricted to truck stops for food," he said. "I'd go for the buffet -- meat with gravy, fried chicken -- or fast food. I didn't have time for my daughters. In the movies, they only show one side of America."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company