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Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, Sep 16 2005 (IPS) - Since gaining independence in 1963, Kenya has held four elections. But, perhaps the most decisive ballot of all has been cast by citizens who voted with their feet – leaving Kenya for countries that seemed more promising.

Concerns about corruption, economic decline and insecurity have prompted an exodus of teachers, doctors, nurses and other professionals.

“The economy has been badly mismanaged, reducing the purchasing power of highly trained and skilled people,” Michael Chege, an economic advisor to the Ministry of Planning and National Development, told IPS. “You cannot expect them to remain earning low salaries when their skills are in demand outside, and at a high salary scale.”

Chege himself is an exception to this trend. He returned to Kenya in 2003, five years after having fled political repression under former president Daniel arap Moi.

According to authorities, most skilled migrants head for Southern Africa, the United Kingdom (UK), Australia and the United States.

The results of a survey by the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) issued earlier this month (Sep. 7), showed that Kenyans made up the eighth-largest group of immigrants in Britain by 2001. After South Africa, Kenya sent more nationals to Britain than any other African country.

Kenyan officials say they do not have figures for the number of citizens working abroad; but, organisations which recruit professionals say these number in the thousands.

As those wishing to take up residence abroad frequently have to be screened for HIV, centres which test for AIDS also have an interesting tale to tell. Moses Otsyula, who owns the Nairobi-based Pathogen Diagnostic Laboratories, says he has screened as many as 2,500 professionals in one month alone – most of them nurses.

Salaries for nurses in Kenya range from about 200 to almost 530 dollars a month. In the United States, these medics can earn up to 6,000 dollars per month – perhaps even more, says Nancy Akinyi, an office coordinator for Hamsdel Professional Services. This agency recruits nurses from across the country to work in the United States.

In addition to being paid low salaries, nurses face a dispiriting lack of equipment.

“There is a shortage of resources at government hospitals, especially the ones in remote areas,” says Mary Muli, a nurse in Nairobi. “This is also part of the reason why nurses leave for other destinations.”

Similarly, lecturers who earn between about 200 and 400 dollars a month can earn 10 times that in South Africa, notes Chege: “The purchasing power of a lecturer in Kenya is estimated to have declined by 40 percent between 1980 and 2000.”

Others do not fare as well once they leave. The IPPR’s report notes that just under a quarter of settled Kenyan migrants in the UK are unemployed. For new migrants, this figure is about 40 percent.

Atieno Ndede-Amadi, who heads the Nairobi-based Africa’s Brain Gain, also warns that Kenyans living overseas may find themselves exploited.

“Once they go, they are on their own – they have no bargaining power,” she told IPS. “The pay they are being given might not be the actual market rate. It may be lower, and since these people are desperate they just accept it.”

Africa’s Brain Gain conducts research on migration issues. It also lobbies governments to find ways of assisting people who seek their fortune abroad.

As with migrants from other countries, Kenyans working in foreign countries send remittances home – although government does not know how much these amount to. The country’s central bank is now trying to assess this.

However, remittances mean little to patients who find there are too few nurses to care for them in hospitals – or to parents obliged to put their children in schools which don’t have enough teachers to give pupils personal attention.

This matter was brought into sharp relief recently during a tribal clash in northern Kenya, the worst to occur in the country since independence.

Almost 100 people were killed in the massacre, which took place in July when members of the Gabra ethnic group were attacked by the Borana clan.

Scores of severely wounded people were rushed to a district hospital after the incident. However, only one doctor was on hand to attend to them.

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