Why Africa Has a Rare Chance to Reverse Its Major Brain Drain of Skilled Workers Who Left for Rich Countries

In the fall of every year, thousands of African students begin studies in colleges and universities in the United States. Family and friends celebrate the achievements of such students because, for a young African, it's a great opportunity to be able to study in the U.S. because of the potential education has to alleviate poverty in our families. We celebrate because for many of us it's hard to even believe we've made it this far.

Three years ago, I became one of those students when I enrolled at California State University, East Bay. Apart from the birth of my daughter, nothing gives me more joy than going to college. Most of us go through unimaginable hardships in pursuit of education. I was never supposed to graduate from high school, let alone attend a university.

I was born in Narok, Kenya, a daughter of the Maasai, who are some of the most culturally conservative people in the world. If you were a girl, chances were your family was going to marry you off soon after undergoing female genital mutilation, which occurred at the first signs of puberty. That's what happened to many of the girls in my village. Maasai girls were discouraged from enrolling in schools, and the few who did were rarely supported to go beyond primary level and pursue careers.

That's the path I was supposed to follow. In fact, I had been looking forward to the "cut," which would make me a real woman and therefore desirable to men—even though I was only 13. Today I'm thankful I chose to resist the practice and stay in school, thanks to my mother, a devout Christian, who took me to witness a girl being cut. I was so terrified I vowed never to undergo the barbaric ritual. When it came my turn, I defied these traditions and chose the path of education.

Because my father felt disrespected, he refused to pay for my secondary education. But I was determined not to end up like my three older sisters. I started menial jobs at 13 to pay for high school. Also, I had to overcome the ridicule and discrimination that came with being the girl who refused to cross from girlhood to womanhood.

I remained steadfast and graduated. After high school, I wished to do more than just free myself from the oppressive customs of my people. I wanted to use my story to show other girls that it’s possible to challenge such customs and become an advocate of the rights of young girls. I left home to enroll in a trade school in Nairobi to study journalism, after which I started writing on women’s and girl’s issues for a leading daily newspaper, a job I held until I came to the United States in 2009.

I would like to think my story is unique, but I know it's not. Most Africans who come to the United States have overcome major obstacles including violence, both domestic and institutional. Even those who come from countries where it is relatively easy to graduate from high school find themselves hopeless because opportunities for higher education are rare. In Kenya, for example, there are only 22 public universities to serve a population of 45 million people. (In comparison, California, which has a population of 38.8 million, has 33 public universities and 113 public community colleges.)

Because of the scarcity of university spots, the government raises the minimum requirement for admission (a standardized national exam) so high that most students are locked out. In fact, many of us studying abroad "failed" that class exam and were written off as incapable of achieving academic excellence.

But the reputation of the African student in the United States is one to be envied. According to a 2013 study by Migration Policy Institute, "38 percent of Sub-Saharan [Africa] immigrants (ages 25 and over) had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 28 percent of the total U.S. foreign-born population and 30 percent of the native-born population." We are also "almost as likely as the native born to be employed in management, business, science, and arts occupations," the study says.  

It's at this point, when we have become successful, that African leaders begin pointing to us as examples of how brain drain is impeding the continent's progress. Their argument is that if all those intelligent Africans working in Western countries could contribute their skills to the continent, it would solve the problem of lack of high-skilled professionals.

If African governments are serious about wanting to reverse brain drain, they should invest more in their institutions of higher education to make sure that very few students have to leave the continent. They should also make sure that most of those who leave to study abroad have a reason to come back and contribute to the growth of the continent.

In fact, there are many Africans abroad, me included, who want to return home. As disappointed as many of us are in the way our homelands have treated us, we still long to go back because there is no place we feel safer than around our families. Every African I have spoken with, including those from war-torn countries, longs to return home. This urge to return intensifies as declining economies continue to make life in the West more difficult for African immigrants.

Some Africans are trying to reverse brain drain on their own. I know a few who've moved, and others who are planning to go in the near future. Many are choosing to move back quietly and start small businesses that try to create jobs in the villages they come from.

"Africans understand the beat of their continent better than anyone," a Kenyan woman, who has already resigned from her job and will be moving back home in December to be an entrepreneur, told me. (She wanted to remain anonymous to keep people from flocking her home thinking she's brought a lot of money with her.) 

This would not be the first time she'll be moving back. She spent two years there in the past, doing what she calls "homework" in preparation for the big move.

But there are a few like Ledama Olekina, who think that while it's important to change villages, some of those returning need to join politics and try to change policies that have held the country behind.

"In Kenya, politics have been about lining own pockets," Olekina said.

He said he wanted to contribute toward creating a Kenyan political system that focuses on social and economic issues, rather than on ethnicity and money. In 2013, he ran for governor of Narok, his home county. After losing, he decided to file a lawsuit challenging the results. This year, a court ruled against him and ordered him to pay legal fees of Ksh. 4.5 million (approximately $45,000). But he is undeterred.  

"The recent court rulings against me have only reaffirmed by commitment to continue fighting for justice," He said. "There is no justice in Kenya. It's all about money."

African leaders need to realize that no country can achieve economic success without encouraging its citizens to contribute knowledge toward tackling its challenges. For an African country, tapping into the experts in the diaspora will be key. Until then, they have no right to cry brain drain.

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