How Kenyans in the US lived American dream

Unity and grit helped them overcome winter, racial bias and culture shock

In Summary

• Kenyans present during an exhibition in Atlanta, Georgia revisited their journeys  

• They toiled through difficulties before making it...

Kenyans living in America during a meeting with President William Ruto in Atlanta, Georgia
Kenyans living in America during a meeting with President William Ruto in Atlanta, Georgia

Leaving Kenya for the United States and becoming successful is a widespread but elusive ambition. 

Many have left the country only to end up doing menial jobs or just struggling.

But some have made it. In fact, they can now juggle between their homeland and the United States without feeling any kind of pressure.

But what exactly is the secret to thriving in the United States?

Samuel Ireri, a banker who hails from Embu county, has been in the United States since 2001.

Initially, he had it rough and almost gave up and returned. Through his challenges, he realised that many people do not have enough information to make it abroad. 

“I came here on July 28, 2001, wearing some baggy jeans and Timberland boots at the Minnesota airport,” he recalls.

Banker Samuel Ireri promoting Kenyan culture in Diaspora.
Banker Samuel Ireri promoting Kenyan culture in Diaspora.

“Those days the jeans were trendy and most of my clothes were baggy.”

When he landed, he only had his backpack.

“I thought America is where I was going to collect money everywhere. I did not want to bring any clothes, so I only had my Form 4 certificates,” he says.

Then reality hit. He would have to sweat blood and tears for money. Ireri started out with a factory job, where ignorance cost him. 

“I was building carton boxes and I went to the factory without gloves. Nobody told me I needed them,” he says.

“So I got a lot of paper cuts and when I went to the shower, I could literally cry my eyes out.”

I was being called that small, blackface boy and all that, but I was looking at the money, you know; $7 an hour
Samuel Ireri

“I did not have money to buy gloves, and after my first paycheque,  the first thing I ran to buy was gloves."

Ireri says racism was rife and dealing with it was not easy in the jobs he took up.

“I was being called that small, blackface boy and all that, but I was looking at the money, you know; $7 an hour, and my first paycheque was 5$ and 27 cents,” he says.

He then went to work at a nursing home, where he used to take care of old people.

“This gave me money but not enough to make a living out of it. I looked for other jobs and landed a real estate job, where I earned $10,000. I made close to 100 photocopies of that paycheque,” he says.

But even with this breakthrough, travelling was a costly affair. Ireri struggled to live in the United States.

“When I came here, I was fortunate to have relatives who had lived here for a while, but my problems began with the changing of the seasons,” he says.

Ireri arrived during summer and he was very excited. He had only carried light clothes.

“A few months later, it was winter and I thought of just going back home. The cold was very harsh,” he says.

“At that time, I was in the process of just making sure my papers were right and I was compliant. So I asked myself, should I really go through this process or just go back home?”

Samuel Ireri promoting the Kenyan culture in Diaspora.
Samuel Ireri promoting the Kenyan culture in Diaspora.


Ireri says what helped him through the season was interacting with other people living in the diaspora.

“I interacted with other students who were born here in Minnesota and they were looking forward to winter because they have winter sports like ice fishing, where all lakes freeze,” he says.

This inspired him to stay on despite the difficulties he had during the winter.

“It gets really cold here. For instance, if you boil water and pour it outside, it immediately turns into ice," he says.

“But then, they have the mechanism of making people adapt to that climate."

Another challenge was culture shock.

“My biggest one was financial culture shock. I think that's what led me to get to finance school and to become a banker,” he says.

When he went to the US, Ireri realised debt was king.

“You have to have debt to be financially successful. You have to use other people's money to make money,” he says.

“And we have the financial capability to borrow money and use that money that you have made to make money and pay back. So this intrigued me.”

He started questioning why people working in factories, or people sweeping the floors, could own a car.

“In this country, credit is basically two things: it’s about money discipline and commitment,” he says.

“This country opened my eyes in that way, and I looked at a few of the Kenyans who had really stayed here but never really understood the system.”

The banker says he is willing to hold the hands of Kenyans living in the diaspora on the system and how to manoeuvre without feeling desperate.

“When you understand the system, you become one of the fortunate people who can see a different world — in fact, a First World country — and I owe it to my people,” he says.


Another Kenyan, Edwin Odipo, says his life in Kenya changed when he got a scholarship to move to the States. 

The scholarship was to study and play football at the Midcontinent University. He had been a football player and was linked up by a friend who had also relocated to the States.

Odipo, 50, later founded an apparel company called Overcoming Adversity, which sells apparel written ‘Kenya’.

He sells them to American Kenyans at $30, but they are a hard sell back home.

“I have tried to sell them to Kenyans but they are complaining that it's expensive,” he says.

Edwin Odipo in Atlanta, Georgia during an exhibition that was attended by President William Ruto
Edwin Odipo in Atlanta, Georgia during an exhibition that was attended by President William Ruto

“That is why I sell them to Kenyans in America. But the quality is good and it does not stretch.”

Odipo went to the US on August 1, 2000.

“When I came, I felt lonely, and going to class and playing games was a struggle because juggling between the two became hard, but I managed to up my game," he says.

Luckily, there were other foreigners in the city, and Odipo linked up with them to help him navigate America.

“I remember the first time I borrowed a car and at an intersection, I went to the wrong side. I had to pull over because everything was just confusing,” he says.

He says he had to let someone else take the wheel, but this did not dampen his spirit.

“When schools closed, people went home and I was left alone. I had no place to go to and the winter was real. The winter nearly killed me,” he says.

Odipo had made some few friends who came to his rescue. They shared their heavy coats and clothes.

“The social life between Kenya and the US was different,” he says.

“In Kenya during Christmas, people go out with their families and celebrate. They even go to church. But in the US, people are just indoors.”

The culture shock was real. Odipo was stuck in one spot and was not sure what to do. 

“What was surprising was that during that time, when it reached 4pm, it was already dark outside and we were not doing anything,” he says.

A Kenyan in the apparel sold by Edwin Odipo
A Kenyan in the apparel sold by Edwin Odipo


Odipo says when he arrived, he was alone. He tried to get a wife but he could not imagine succeeding.

“I had to go back to Kenya and took my girlfriend whom I had been dating for a year, and I brought her to America,” he says, adding that her mother was his teacher. They have one child together now.

He says that the reason why many Americans do not have many children is because taking care of children is very expensive.

“When you have a child yet you still need to go to work, you can't leave your child with the neighbours here. You have to take the child to a daycare and pay $20 an hour. That’s like over $600 a week,” he says.

Odipo says they do not have a house manager to remain with their children.

“Even at work, when your child is sick, you have to go and take him or her. Nobody will pick him up for you. You can take the baby and go with him to the workplace," he says.

He says it's not until you leave Kenya that you will realise what you have.

Odipo was born in Siaya and grew up in Eastlands' Jerusalem Estate, where he attended Livingstone's Primary School and later Ofafa Jericho High School.

“When I go to Kenya, I just go to the village and ensure I take uji. I miss porridge, the fish… You just want to stay there for a while,” he says.

Odipo is currently a professor in Georgia, pursuing social sciences. 

Chebet Mutai is about to leave Kenya for the United States after she received a grant to open a leather shop in Denver.

“I manufacture leather goods, clothes. I have a brand called Waza Wazi. This is a huge market and I’m looking to expand to build a global brand,” she says.

“We want a market that has high consumption power. Big enough to absorb you that you’re so different. There are enough people here who appreciate diversity.”

Kenyan Chebet Mutai, who is about to open a business in Denver
Kenyan Chebet Mutai, who is about to open a business in Denver

Chebet’s vision is to be a bold ambassador for Africa by sharing its stories through her leather art. 

Each of her items tells a unique story, from the vibrant colours reminiscent of Maasai beadwork to the sleek, modern designs that appeal to a global audience. 

“I want a market that is supportive of entrepreneurship. Denver City gave me a brand without even knowing it. So what I can tell entrepreneurs is know and connect with people. Network and find your circle,” she says.

Chebet says it is a new market and she will need enough capital to make it work.

“Finding a new market and convincing total strangers that you have all they want and are a natural partner, finding your tribe is a big challenge,” she says.

“Understanding cultural nuances is another. You know there is a huge difference in culture, accessing capital without some papers. It’s also litigious.”

Chebet says her strategy is to find support and have a firm base that believes in what she is doing.

“People who already believe in me. Using and leveraging their network, using social media to market. Having the store in a high-end environment,” she says.


Diaspora Governing Council chairperson Charles Ndonga says their mandate as an institution is to make sure new people travelling to the US have enough information.

“People struggle here because they are not willing to share their information,” he says.

The chairperson Diaspora Governing Council Charles Ndonga.
The chairperson Diaspora Governing Council Charles Ndonga.

“I had a meeting with 18 students who came to Washington DC to do their PhD at the end of last year and this is summer. Most of them are working at school after summer break, they don't know what to do.”

Ndonga says the people who struggle are the ones who don't want to seek help.

"For example, when you get here with your Visa, do not let it expire,” he says.

He says the first thing a Kenyan should know before travelling is who is hosting them.

Be somewhere and just socialise. Interact with Kenyans because they will give you information, they will tell you what is bad.
Charles Ndonga

“Do they attend church? Do they go to the mosque? Because what I do is I talk to pastors and Imams to know if they have a newcomer who has showed up,” he says.

It is in those sacred places that Ndonga gets the Kenyans who have arrived in the United States.

“The church is where we capture most of them. After that, we give them a form to fill with their details and we also give them our contacts in case of emergencies,” he says.

For those who do not go to church, Ndonga says socialisation is the key to a successful stay in the US.

“Be somewhere and just socialise. Interact with Kenyans because they will give you information, they will tell you what is bad,” he says.

He says as a council, they have a WhatsApp group, which has more than 9,000 people. This is not a single group but nine different groups.

“And they are more maybe because most of them are not on WhatsApp. Right now in all diaspora, none of the missions has the total number of Kenyans because most Kenyans are under the table,” he says.

Ndonga says one key thing that is affecting Kenyans living in diaspora is mental health.

“This year, we have lost five teenagers who killed themselves. They shot themselves,” he says.

“They walked into a supermarket and bought a gun and because they were going through tough times, they killed themselves just like that.”

He says he is championing for the diaspora to go for counselling to avert such misfortunes. 

“We are encouraging the entire diaspora to do counselling. Men, call the young boys, have a barbecue, have a mbuzi somewhere, tell them about the culture,” he says.

Ndonga says if schools close, the children should be sent to Kenya to visit their relatives.

“For those who are able, we request them that since the summer is too long, they should go back to Kenya to visit," he says.

He says the undoing of many Kenyans is a get-rich-quick attitude.

“Most of the people who get here are students. They drop out of school because one thinks he can drive a truck and make a lot of money; he thinks he is wasting time in school," he says.

“After a while, they are arrested and you end up in jail."

As he walks through Pennsylvania Street, Ndonga says another challenge is that most Kenyans in the diaspora love unhealthy competition.

“You see someone with a car and immediately you want the same. You don't know what someone went through to get there,” he says.

He says most of them would come and say they want to be engineers, yet they are not even good in math.

“I keep telling them that if you see what I'm driving, don't go take it. If you see my house, don't take it because probably you won't be able to pay the mortgage or you won't be able to live the standard,” he says.

"You'll be suffering, maybe sleeping empty. I always tell people to live within their means."

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