By Sue Henninger
Like many who immigrate to the United States in hopes of a brighter future, Philip Rodi Otieno remains committed to both his native and adopted homelands. While he maintains dual citizenship in Kenya, he also described his U.S. naturalization ceremony in 2016 as a “homecoming,” and both of these sentiments are genuine.
Born in Kenya, on the outskirts of Lake Victoria, Otieno lost his father, a well-respected, influential man, to malaria when he was 10. From a young age, the young man placed a high priority on learning.
“The only way to succeed is education,” he asserted.
As a teen, he entered an advanced high school where he studied geography, history, and religion in preparation for the test Kenyan students are required to pass to be admitted to a university. Unlike American standardized tests, this test can only be taken once. Otieno recalled ruefully that he was one point short of the score needed to continue on with his schooling. Instead, he went to work at Kenya Medical Research Institute, a world-renowned health research organization.
According to Otieno, in Kenya there are “right” and “wrong” ethnic groups to belong to when people try to obtain good jobs or higher education. Though he proudly identifies as a member of the Luo’s, the fourth largest ethnic group in Kenya, this group has a longstanding history of being on the wrong side of the Kenyan government.
“We’re enlightened,” he noted. “You can’t tell us what to do, without a good reason. We say ‘No, this is not how things are done’
“For example,” Otieno added, “there used to be only one political party in Kenya and it was the Luo’s who pushed for a multiparty system.”
In 1995, determined to further his education, Otieno, like many young Kenyans in that era, decided to try his luck in America. He obtained a student visa to attend Rockland Community College in Suffern, where he studied marketing. He subsequently received a partial scholarship to Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, where he finished his bachelor’s degree and earned a master’s degree in banking. After meeting his wife (originally from Germany) at a conference in Ithaca, the two married in 2005.
Otieno found that small towns and cities in upstate New York can be hard for people of color to find employment in, especially jobs that pay well.
“In Kenya, we are polarized along ethnic lines and in the U.S. it is color,” he observed.
Even with his advanced banking degree, he was only able to obtain a job as a teller in a local bank, a position he left when the management refused to allow him to have Saturdays off to attend religious services. He also worked at Sears Roebuck at the Ithaca Mall for a number of years and most recently at Cornell University in various positions. Having steady employment has been imperative for Otieno since he estimated that 40-50 percent of his income is sent to relatives in Kenya, which he said is a common practice among his countrymen. Not only does he contribute to his nieces and nephews school fees at the advanced high school he attended, Otieno also sends money home to his mother every week.
He believes that there would be more lucrative job opportunities suited to his skill set in a larger, more homogenous city, but his wife is a tenured professor and the two have made strong connections in the local community. Otieno is an active member of the Seventh Day Adventist church (which pleases his mother!), plays soccer, regularly invites other Kenyans in the area to his home to socialize, and belongs to the United Voice of Cortland – a group that is fighting a proposed jail expansion in Cortland.
“There aren’t many of us, but we’re vocal!” he contended.
Additionally he’s a registered voter and an active member of the New York African Studies Association, an organization for people who study African history which holds annual conferences at different colleges. According to Otieno, he’s presented 10 papers, chaired sessions, written reports, and even taken photos for the group. Additionally, his membership gave him the opportunity to meet many African writers, intellectuals, and social activists, including Chinua Achebe (Nigerian, now deceased) and Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenyan, University of California, Irvine).
Even with this busy American schedule, Otieno makes time to keep up with politics and current events and maintain strong social connections back in Kenya. Airline tickets are expensive, but Kenyans have embraced technology wholeheartedly. With the help of the internet, cell phones, and social media, Otieno communicates regularly with relatives and high school classmates, transfers money overseas through online banking, and even FaceTime’s his 84-year-old mother every week. Regardless, he still misses many things about his homeland, including fishing, tasty food, good weather, and the hospitable village life.
Negotiating his legal status in the United States, from various visas to becoming a naturalized citizen, did not go smoothly. Otieno estimated that the entire process took 10 years and cost $20,000, spent on legal fees and on paperwork. Was it worth it? Otieno thinks so. Having a green card wasn’t enough to protect him, he said, and becoming a naturalized American citizen was the only way to ensure his safety when traveling between various countries.
What advice would he share with fellow Kenyans considering immigrating to the United States these days? Visit first to make sure this is the country for you, Otieno advised.
“Realize when you get here that you will start from zero,” he said.
Regardless, he continues to view the United States as a land of opportunity.
“Once you live in America, you can’t live anywhere else,” he asserted. “Because you won’t have the same freedoms (in many other countries). You don’t have the level of corruption.
“Here you just do things like go apply for a driver’s license,” Otieno added. “In Kenya it isn’t that simple. You may need to bribe someone first. The system works here.”