Stealing from relatives living abroad:
the new get-rich-quick scheme
When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed.
However, some people do not accept gratefully which makes the giver less cheerful and no one gets any blessings.
I’ve often heard people in the diaspora bewail over ungrateful relatives whose demands for money get bolder as they age. Some of these relatives are so spoiled that they look down on the presents they receive because they prefer money. Some others are so bold in vocalising the disapproval that they have no qualms saying it out loud, “Shoes!! You bought me shoes?! Am I supposed to eat shoes?!!! Send me money instead!” They disregard the fact that for you to send them good high-quality expensive shoes you wear old boots year in year out. But that doesn’t bother them. They are unapologetic in their demands, shameless in their guilt-tripping and ungrateful because of entitlement.
However, that situation, though excruciatingly painful and annoying, is nothing compared to the situation I narrate below.
I’ve also heard epic rants by people sick to death of educating other people’s children, of building other people’s houses, of funding other people’s dreams, of doing anything and everything financial for everyone and anyone – with no or little gratitude - and worse through a con. This narrative needs to change.
The sad thing is that some of these situations have left many people filled with anger, hate, and regret, which can lead to serious mental health issues. One of many things I’ve heard over the years. It is time to uncondition that belief that just because one is abroad that you owe your relatives. It makes the genuine desire to help difficult, and a genuine need for help impossible to differentiate.
Disclaimer: this is a real story that happened to a real person. To ensure anonymity and maintain confidentiality, names have been changed.
Steven, a Kenyan-born man in his fifties lived in the US for over thirty years. Now, he lives in a rented room in a slum East of Nairobi. This was not his dream: his dream was to work hard in the US and retire in Kenya and live off the fruits of his labour.
However, a self-serving relative had other ideas.
It all started a few years ago. After working countless menial jobs and countless applications for a green card, Steven decided to start a building project in Kenya where he’d build a house for himself, relocate and start a lucrative business. Since he couldn’t travel, he decided to enlist the help of a trusted closer-than-close relative. They spoke endlessly on the phone of the said plans.
The trusted relative, Catherine, promised to facilitate the project and Steven promised to compensate her handsomely. Catherine joked lightly, “that will not be necessary.” In hindsight that was a red flag, but Steven had always believed what his grandmother used to tell him, “there is nothing more important than family, and family should be there for one another!” He decided he would compensate her regardless.
In Kenya, Catherine went beyond the call of duty: she found a piece of land for sale in Steven’s desired location: she found an inexpensive surveyor who proposed a comprehensive design for the home for a fraction of the market price. In retrospect, Steven wished he sought a second opinion because things were going too well too quickly to be believed. She advised him to open a bank account and deposit the money there so it would be easier for expenditure and accounting: “What a lady!” It also made sense, and this fortified the trust between them – “someone who wants to steal from you does not advise you to open an account for accountability!” he consoled himself as he emailed scanned documents of his identity. Within days Catherine emailed him the accounts details. They were good to go.
For the next several years he wired thousands of dollars to this account – of course, he’d authorised Catherine as a signatory and every few months she'd email him the accounts balance and detailed accounts of how the money was spent. It all looked legitimate. She not only sent documents, she sent pictures - pictures of everything about the project and its progress - from the barren land to the fenced land to the first dig on the foundation to the first stone on the house - to the beautiful flowers all over the place. Steven was more than impressed.
When the house was complete, he exported the bathroom suites and kitchen units from the States for installation – he only wanted the best. He envisioned himself living like a King in his castle.
And then Trump happened, so Steven decided with renewed certainty that Kenya was where he’d spend the rest of his life. He spent the following two years working round the clock - at one point he had 3 jobs.
He bought furniture, furnishing and all the cushy things he’d need in Kenya. He also bought his dream car to ship when he was ready to move. Meanwhile, Catherine was putting the final touches on the now perfect home. The last picture she emailed was of her and a lady who she said was the interior designer, posing next to a fountain in the front yard. It was perfect and Steven was dazzled and couldn't wait to move in.
In mid-2018, Steven was ready to leave rainy Seattle for sunny Kenya. He shipped his car which would arrive a few weeks later. He emailed Catherine, ‘Hi Cath, how are you? A friend of mine is coming to Nairobi in a few weeks. I’ll send her some stuff. Would you mind meeting her at the intercontinental to collect, please?’
She replied almost immediately, ‘of course, give her my number.’
What Catherine didn’t know was that there would be no friend. Steve would be ‘the friend’, laden with expensive designer dresses, handbags and shoes, and assorted gifts for her. He was happy and impressed with what she’d done for him, he’d spend the rest of his life making her happy.
On arrival at JKIA, 'hello sunny Kenya', he texted Catherine using a number she wouldn’t recognise. ‘See you at the hotel..’, she texted back.
At the hotel, Steve checked in and waited at the bar for Catherine. She did not show up. He called her number numerous times and every time got the ominous message, ‘Samahani, mteja hapatikani kwa sasa [Sorry the mobile subscriber is unavailable].
For the next several days, he tried every number of every relative but those who answered had no idea where Catherine was: some said she was out of the country, others said she was dead. The excitement was turning into a nightmare he’d never wake up from. Was it possible he’d been duped? The thought was too dreadful to entertain, but he had to consider the possibility.
His next stop was the bank. He was informed, to his horror, that the account was closed a few days before.
“By who!” he asked incredulously.
“By you and Miss Catherine X.” The bank manager looked confused.
There were legal-looking documents to prove the fact. Steve collapsed into the arms of the bank manager who was also at a total loss. The realisation that he’d been conned and swindled by his beloved was like a kick to the guts. He retched air.
Now Steven is in Kenya still looking for Catherine with the help of some people and the police. He has no money or home, no faith in humanity and absolutely no way of returning to the States. He is in serious mental health state where he is contemplating suicide and none of the people he'd helped over the years seem to care.
So now, when I hear about the new COVID millionaires in Kenya maybe this problem is not confined to families, but an inherent problem in our Kenyan culture: people getting rich by taking from others, by any means necessary.
Kenya and almost all of Africa is inundated with overt corruption – no one has any shame in taking what doesn’t belong to them. Isn't it high time we change this narrative by making an example of such perpetrators?