Mukila Maitha, Senior System Analyst with Waukegan’s Cardinal Health Medical products and services and President of United Kenyans of Chicago could pass you by unnoticed. Quiet and easy going, he carries Kenyans in Chicago along.
He spoke to Joseph Omoremi, editor of The Chicago Inquirer at a Starbucks coffee shop in Rosemont on a mild Monday night where he spoke on many issues, including the U.S. senatorial race in which Barack Obama is contesting. He canvassed reasons why Africans in Chicago must vote Obama. It is an exciting reading.
Inquirer: What is the vision behind United Kenyans Organization you are heading?
Maitha: The Kenyan association is called the United Kenyans of Chicago, a non-profit organization which was started in February last year. The idea behind the organization is to bring Kenyans together to create a conducive Kenyan community in Chicago and to have the means by which we can share information on how to help each other. Also we intend to be active in specific development projects back home, especially in health, education and so on. We also want to relate and work with other African communities in Chicago.
Inquirer: Do you have other Kenyan organization across the country?
Maitha: There have been Kenyan community organizations in Chicago in the past. Right now, this is the only community organization. Although there is a professional association of Kenyans named Chicago Association of Kenyan professionals. In different cities across the country, they do have their own Kenya organizations.
Inquirer: What are the plans for the people back in Kenya?
Maitha: We do intend to let people back home know what Kenyans are doing here and also be able to contribute towards small projects like schools. By supplying school materials, pencils, books and major projects like drinkable water and to help the displaced and homeless residents in Kenya with clothes and other basic materials.
Inquirer: How have you fared in doing that in the short period of your existence?
Maitha: It has been slow and steady. There have been many challenges but we decided to take time first to plan what we are going to do and let the organization grow slowly. We have a small core group and we had plans to build the organization around them but we find out that there are lots of cynism in the community towards this kind of organization. They want to know where the organization goes before they come on board but we have been pushing steadily. We are trying to run all our programs professionally and doing a good job so that people can come on board.
Inquirer: Have you performed some functions?
Maitha: Yes. We celebrated our independence day and had some barbeque event for the community during the summer time.
Inquirer: What is the relationship between the United Kenyans of Chicago (UKC) and other African organizations?
Maitha: Right now because we are still in the early stages of the UKC formation, that relationship has not really existed but we were invited to participate in the United African Organization (UAO) leadership summit and we are going to be there and active. We do hope to join hands with them because there are some things that does not make sense to do as Kenyans but as African community.
Inquirer: Like the elections coming up where Barack Obama, a Kenyan decent is in the U.S. senatorial race?
Maitha: Right. We do have Kenyans involved in the grassroots mobilization for state Senator Obama. However, we do need the support of all Africans for Obama. They should unite behind Obama.
Inquirer: Is UKC directly involved in fundraising and organizing rally for Obama?
Maitha: The association per se, a non profit organization, is not directly involved but we do tell Kenyans that this is happening in our community and our members as individuals, including myself, have been attending rallies and joining hands with Kenyans who are pushing for the election of Obama.
Inquirer: How active is Obama in the Kenyan community before the on-going election?
Maitha: He knows some of our community members but a lot of Kenyans don’t really know him until the election started. It has been a struggle to get people to understand the importance of what his election means for Kenyans here and back home and for Africans in general. Until the story ran in the East African Standard, most people didn’t shown interest in the race but now I do see more enthusiasm.
Inquirer: Kenyans are now geared-up for the race?
Inquirer: What does it means having Obama, a first generation African immigrant in the U.S. Senate?
Maitha: It gives us motivation in whatever we are doing and that somebody can come here and rise to the top. Also, the fact that Obama did not reject his African roots is a reminder that we come from somewhere just like those that came from Europe and should be ready to give back to where we come from. He understood our challenges and the kind of problems we had and he should be ready and willing to help. Our governments from home, if they play their cards right and build a relationship, they could have a friend in the senate if Obama eventually wins.
Inquirer: In areas like U.S. foreign policy towards Africa?
Maitha: Yes. Issues like AIDS/HIV, investment, good government and debt relief are areas Africa could benefit substantially.
Inquirer: What kind of support do you expect from Africans here to give to Obama towards winning the primaries in March and eventual election in November?
Maitha: Financially, they should support him before the primaries in March 16. This is the time when he really needs the money and they should go and vote and should tell their friends and families about the election and the need to participate.
Inquirer: Can you talk more on the networking aspect you just mentioned?
Maitha: There is an African committee for Obama in Chicago that brings together Africans to get him elected. That is one good way. The other one is in the Kenyan community where one of our members did create a small ad and flier which we told all Kenyans to send out to any other Kenyans they know. People are being encouraged to volunteer in the campaign offices. They are sending e-mails and getting the message across.
Inquirer: What message do you have for Africans and African Americans about the senatorial race?
Maitha: He is very aware of the problems in our community and the state. He has been pushing to help as Illinois senator and he will continue pushing those issues in Washington. Just because he is a second generation African, he is still an African American also and we should all support him.
Inquirer: What message do you have for congressman Bobby Rush who Obama contested against in the past and is now endorsing another opponent?
Maitha: I appeal to Bobby Rush to change his support towards Obama in the overall interest of the community. Obama stands a better chance of pushing the interest of African Americans in the U.S. Senate than any other contestant.
Inquirer: What message do you have for Africans just relocating to America from Africa?
Maitha: The central idea behind that question has been brought up in the Kenyan community. Personally, I feel that it will be a good idea for the African community to come together either through the United African Organization or whatever means and do something.
Inquirer: Can you talk more about the idea that came up in the Kenyan community?
Maitha: It is just an idea that has been thrown up that we need people to be committed to be together and doing things together. The senatorial race which Obama is participating is one thing that can and should bring Africans together. I also think the fact that some groups of African community leaders are working together from different African countries is a good step in the right direction. After the elections, we should see what similarities we have, acknowledge our differences and find a way to consolidate the relationship we have on ground. Back at home in Africa, a lot of us are not brought up to be Africans. We are used to our ethnic groups and maybe our country.
Inquirer: How do we rectify that?
Maitha: It boils down to the leaders. The leaders themselves in the African community should set good examples that will not fuel the conflicts and begin to work with others to show that we can truly come together. Immaturity in leadership should be addressed. First of all, the African community leaders should know that they should deliver. Their primary duty is to deliver a community and help a community prosper. Giving advantage to your brother should not come at all. It breeds underperformance when other groups feel cheated.
Inquirer: Nationals of many African countries here want to go it alone and independent of others?
Maitha: It is okay if they want to maintain their identity but they should try and participate at a small level with other people. We need to show them the advantages of working together as a group. Again, it comes from leadership.
Inquirer: Many believe it was because of the disunity in the community that we don’t have a bank, a community center, shopping center like Walgreens and Dominicks that could empower our community?
Maitha: The community has to become more organized and work with each other. It is then we set priorities, we know who the Africans are, what we need and begin to work towards those needs. We Kenyans are spread all over the state, right from Chicago to South Indiana, to Rockford. Dekalb, Iowa everywhere. We have a feeling but don’t know what everybody needs or wants and what will make everybody come together. It is a slow process.
Inquirer: What do you see in the African community in the future?
Maitha: Looking at the positive side, some of the initiatives that have started now, some of the groups are trying to be more organized and bringing their community together. I see those efforts gathering strength. I also see the Pan African effort, if they are well led and managed, doing a good job in bringing the society together as a community. The younger population of Africans, as they become mature and have families and children, will bring another set of demands and we must be ready and be prepared for it.
Inquirer: There are still wars, poverty and bad government in Africa. How do people here turn things around for the Black continent?
Maitha: We could change the fortunes of Africa for better either at the higher micro level or lower micro level. At the lower level is by pinpointing specific areas like when a civil war breaks-out, refuges, we could mobilize people from here to donate goods that could be taken over there be it Sudan or Liberia.
The other way is to create a way of exchanging information for people back in Africa. Now that there is internet, we could make available what we learn here could be made available to people in Africa. Also, we could have seminars and workshops to bring decision makers from Africa here to interact with people here and get ideas they could take back home to implement. All these take a lot of work and planning.
Inquirer: Unemployment is still a major issue in the African community. How do we address it?
Maitha: That is a major issue. Some of us came on visiting visas that don’t give the same opportunity to somebody like citizens or green cards. Our governments should try and get some concession for us in the same way the Mexican government is doing for a lot of Mexican community here. Our community organizations later on, can take it up as an issue. There is also the issue of under-employment where very qualified people from back home and here are doing things that don’t match their level of qualifications is another problem. Retraining could help a little bit to re-certify our professionals.
Inquirer: In the example of the Mexican government cited earlier, what should African governments ask the Bush administration to do for Africans here?
Maitha: Easy access to legalization and re-training to enable them fit into the society.
Inquirer: What is going on in Kenya?
Maitha: We have a new government and the leaders and a lot of the judges are trying to take a strong stand against corruption. President Kibaki had a road accident just before the election and that has been affecting him lately. The last few weeks, we have a transport system in Kenya causing road accidents. They drive very, very badly and nobody thought they could be controlled but the government came up with traffic rules. They went on strike, thinking that the government will step-down and allowed them to continue in their old ways but the government stuck to its gun that the transporters have to obey the law.
Inquirer: Can they do something similar to corruption?
Maitha: I think that is their plan. If they keep showing that they can put their foot down, slowly, it will happen but in Kenya, corruption has become a way of life.
Inquirer: Former President Arap Moi was to be tried recently but the government thought otherwise?
Maitha: They have been talking about him testifying before a commission of enquiry
Inquirer: What other things would you like to talk about?
Maitha: I like to see Africans abroad become a world player. It may take a long time, generations before it happens but that should be the goal, to see Africa prosper again. They did in the past and it will come again. We create obstacles for ourselves that we can’t do this or that, we have to put those things behind us.