‘Organize Yourselves’, Odembo Advises as Ambassador’s Council is created

Ambassador's Council- H.E. Elkanah Odembo, the new Kenyan Ambassador to the US(back row, center, blue shirt), poses for a photo with a group of Kenyans in Massachusetts during a dinner event last Monday at the Best Western Hotel in Woburn. At the end of the dinner, the group of Kenyans was appointed to be come the new Ambassador's Council- New England Chapter, charged with the duty of advising the new Ambassador on ways to organize Kenyans in New England into a united, cohesive group. H.Maina/AjabuImages

By Harrison Maina, Ajabu Africa News, posted September 19, 2010

WORBUN, Mass. , _He may be the new Kenyan Ambassador to the US but H.E. Elkanah Odembo is not a new guy in town.

In fact, Ambassador Odembo came to the US for the first time in August 1975 as a high school student; meaning he has lived, studied, survived and moved in and out of the Diaspora for the last 35 years.

He also wants Kenyans to get organized into groups to enjoy the fruits of togetherness in America.

The surprising details came out during an evening dinner party last Monday for the Ambassador hosted by Bishop Joshua Wambua of Rapture Harvest Mission International church and at which a group of at least 15 Kenyans were invited.

According to Bishop Wambua, the goal of the special meeting was to introduce the new Ambassador to the issues facing the Kenyan community in Massachusetts, a day before the envoy was poised to address a public forum at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, on the New Kenyan constitution.

The dinner took place at the Best Western Hotel in Woburn.

Inviting the Ambassador to talk to the group of Kenyans present, the host, Bishop Joshua Wambua told Hon. Odembo that there was a disconnect between the Kenyans in the Diaspora and the Embassy at Washington DC.

“When new students come here, they fall into a hole and drop out of school shortly. Investors in the Diaspora have lost a lot of money when they send money home to invest, lamented Bishop Wambua.

Bishop Joshua Wambua of RHMI church describes to Amb. Odembo the disconnect existing between Kenyans in the US and their Embassy in Washinton DC

He said that recently, one Kenyan in Boston lost over Ksh4 million after investing in a business deal that turned out to be fake, yet the lawyers engaged to vet the deal had assured that investor that the investment was safe.

“Kenyans in the Diaspora want to meet their leaders closely to discuss these matters, so we welcome the opportunity to meet you tonight,” added the pastor.

Other Kenyans present at the dinner also expressed several frustrations with the Embassy in Washington D.C., saying that there is little or no contact between the Embassy and the Kenyans here. They said there is lack of information flow.

As a result, the Kenyans said, most of them are by far and large left groping in the dark to survive in the American system, usually lying low as much as possible and suffering unnecessarily in the process. 

“When we came here long time ago as students, we were required to report to the Embassy, and the government of Kenya used to give us $2,000 each to supplement our tuition,” said Thuo Karugu, a long time resident of Boston. 

“I think even today that money is still there,” added Karugu, shocking other Kenyans who have never heard of that.

Another Kenyan present at the meeting, Mercy Maina of Afya Njema organization, wondered why the Kenyan government does not follow up with the whereabouts of Kenyans in the disapora like the US does, even one single US citizen get's into trouble in a foreign country.

Responding to the various concerns of Kenyans representing their communities at the dinner, the Ambassador said that he sympathized with the situation where young students arrive in America and due to the complicated nature of the system they fall into cracks and drop out of school, and eventually into trouble with the law.

“According to credible information I have just received recently from the American Embassy in Kenya, the Embassy issues between 7,000 and 9,000 student Visas a year to Kenyans.” Most of these students come here and face serious challenges that force them to drop out of school after roughly one year,” he lamented.

He said that the biggest contributor to the problem was that these students have no family to guide and support them in America, hence the need for Kenyans to come together and organize themselves in local chapters which would be able to lobby the government through their embassy on their various needs. 

He said that according to statistics available, an estimated 2,000 young Kenyans are in jail at any given moment in the USA.

“They leave their friends in Kenya at a very young age, and also experience a disconnect with Kenyans who have been in America for long, yet the government of Kenya does not know where they end up once they get their visas”. 

“I survived because I had this American family looking out for me,” he revealed.
He shocked those present by telling them that he came to the US way back in 1975 as a high school student on scholarship for one year and his family had to fund raise to get enough for an air ticket.

He almost got emotional when thanking his uncle who was present at the dinner for insisting and impressing upon his clan to hold a fund raiser to get enough money for his air ticket to study in America 35 years ago.

“This man here, Uncle Sande, did a lot for me. It is my first time to meet him in America in more than 10 years,” said Ambassador Odembo.
Odembo said that with the help of the family that had invited him from Kenya for the scholarship, he went to Andover High School in Andover, Massachusetts, and later to Bowdoin College in Maine for his Bachelors Degree.

Mzee Sande, Amb. Odembo's uncle who insisted on fundraising for an airticket for Odembo 35 years ago.The vision paid off.

He then went back to Kenya and taught high school for several years before returning to the US for a post graduate degree in Houston, Texas.

Feeling home sick and getting many inviting opportunities, Odembo then returned to Kenya after completing his studies to work with African Medical Research Foundation (AMREF) and other NGO’s in local resource mobilization.

“I am very new to the government. I have worked more in the non profit sector in local resource mobilization than in governance,” he told the group of Kenyans.

He told Kenyans in the Diaspora that the new constitution that was recently enacted has reformed a lot of things that were going wrong in Kenya, including setting up a new foreign policy that fully recognized the importance of the Kenyans in the Diaspora to the development of their motherland.

“After the 2007 chaos, we were looked at as a failed state,” said the Odembo.
He lambasted Kenyans in the Diaspora for resorting to their tribal cocoons during the 2007 general elections.

“In 2008, I heard that Kenyans in the Diaspora behaved worse than those in Kenya during the elections. “I will say shame on you everywhere I go so that this does not happen again”.

“But now this is history. Now people have hope,” he consoled.

He said that with the success of the constitutional review process that brought a new constitution, there is an opportunity and a moment that Kenyans in the Diaspora need to take”.

He told those present that the level of political and constitutional awareness in Kenya was very big, and challenged Kenyans in the Diaspora to read the constitution to know what it means for their future.

“Don’t forget this is also the time we have a Kenyan in the Diaspora sitting in the White House,” added the Ambassador to thunderous applause.

He praised President Barack Obama for serving as a great role model to young Kenyans in the Diaspora, and who has taken the trouble to know more about his roots in Kenya.

He said that Obama caught him by surprise recently when he (Odembo) went to the White House to present his credentials as a new Ambassador.

“When I entered the oval office, Obama stood and greeted me in Swahili saying “Karibu Balozi” (Welcome Mr. Ambassador). Then he asked me if I wanted some Ugali,” said Odembo, again surprising the group of Kenyans who had no idea Obama knows any word of the Kenyan national language.

"Karibu Balozi"- President Obama tells the new Kenyan Ambassador to the US , HE. Elkanah Odembo, recently as Odembo presented his credentials at the white house. Pic from Kenya Embassy website

Odembo therefore asked Kenyans not to forget their roots and to realize the weight of the moment and the opportunity present right now, so that they don’t waste it, when many Kenyans back home are counting on them.
He told Kenyans that having worked extensively in the non profit sector in Kenya, he saw that most Kenyan children in the villages do not even have desks where they can study comfortably, while many Kenyans in Nairobi and other Kenyan cities spend most of their time drinking the funds that could have helped buy simple desks and stationery for children.

“This business of Kenyans sitting and drinking Tusker all the time, when there is so much to be done, pains me a lot,” lamented the envoy.

He therefore asked each Kenyan in America to invest in the small things to help their children in their own villages and not wait for the big funds. 

“Let’s first and foremost invest in our children. If our children do not have desks, books and computers, then all we have done here in America and all the direct investments we are sending  home amounts to zero,” he  said flatly. 
He said that with the new duo Citizenship provision in the new constitution, Kenyans anywhere in the world can be able to retain the original citizenship of Kenya even as they become citizens of other countries.

He said that Kenyans in America constitute of the biggest group of members of the Diaspora from Kenya, and they are highly disorganized.

“People are busy fighting each other while others like the Moroccans have come together and succeeded in getting much for their citizens in America”.

Amb. Odembo, center, expresses the urgent need for Kenyans in the US to organize themselves

He added that with the largest number of Kenyans in America being youths between ages 21-23, and going to school, Kenyans here need to create a structure and a system to enable the Embassy engage them especially now that the Government of Kenya regards them highly.

He congratulated the efforts by members of the Kenya Welfare Association that is trying to come up with a solution to take care of members of the community who die in America while not insured.

“I commend the efforts that you people are trying to make to solve the problem of deaths. Even in Nairobi, people are tired of these fundraisings. They are contributing Ksh 200 a month (about $2.50) for burying dead people,” said Odembo who recently came from Kenya two months ago to begin his term as the new envoy.

Questioned directly on the specific role of the Embassy when a Kenyan dies in the US, the Ambassador said that other issuing travel documents and facilitating the repatriation of dead bodies back to Kenya, the Embassy has no other responsibility on this matter due to lack of sufficient resources.

After much deliberation, the group of Kenyans present at the dinner meeting was endorsed to become a think tank that will coordinate the efforts of the Ambassador to create a structure that will bring together Kenyans in New England area for the purposes of  lobbying  with the authorities on various issues affecting the community.

The advisory think tank was fittingly named the “Ambassador’s council- New England Chapter”, which will serve as a template for the Ambassador to organize Kenyans in other states as he travels around to meet them.

The new council suggested that an umbrella organization for Kenyans in the Diaspora be set up after other states organize their own chapters, so that Kenyans can hold annual common events in different states on rotational basis.

The umbrella organization, it was suggested, should allow other already operating organizations to continue maintain their identities, but bring them together when national events deem it necessary.

The council agreed to start scheduling regular meetings to work out on the modalities of the organization, and said it will communicate details to Kenyans as soon as they become formulated.

Among those present at the meeting included Bishop Joshua Wambua  and his wife, Dorcas Wambua of Rapture Harvest Mission International, Mercy Maina of Afya Njema organization, Chris Kibathi from Worcester, Peter Karugu from Lawrence, John Sande from Roxbury, Josphine Mogire from New Hampshire, Omondi Owera from Peabody, Owen Njuguna from Lawrence, Samuel Njenga (Big Mbugua) North Billerica, John Kamau from Springfield, Peter  Kariuki from Boston, Lisasa Opuka from Wakefield, Joseph Mithiga from Everett, Ben Mbugua from Natick, Paul Waithaka of the Kenya Monitor, from Brockton, Patrick Inyagwa from Methuen  Harrison Maina of  from Malden and Waithera Njuguna, the chief of protocol  at the Kenya Embassy in Washington DC.

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