Owino Odhiambo left his tiny Kenyan village less than a decade ago to immerse himself completely in American culture. Equipped with American citizenship, two degrees, and five years experience working as a dedicated graphic designer in New York City, Owino is currently unemployed.
"My entire village sponsored me to come to America. In turn, I am expected to support them but now, without work, I can hardly support myself," says Owino, the oldest of ten siblings and first in his family to travel outside his village.
Village sponsorship for a promising young student like Owino is common in sub-Saharan Africa, where networking between families boosts limited financial resources. In Owino's case, every family pulled together what few shillings they had for more than fifteen years before Owino could afford to buy a plane ticket. With just a few dollars a month, Owino helps pay for school fees, books, uniforms, and shoes for his village, where many walk barefoot on one meal a day.
Marginal status in a poor village was the driving force for Owino coming to America in the first place. The village reasoned that an obviously gifted student like Owino would go unnoticed if they didn't intervene as a community to ensure a more promising future for a young man with his talents. Without help from the community, Owino and his family would have to rely on government-sponsored initiatives, which rarely trickle down to the poorest of the poor.
But America's cultural emphasis on individualism, self-reliance, and self-empowerment meant Owino could shape his own destiny based on determination and hard work rather than government initiatives. Now, with an 8.6 percent unemployment rate in New York State, Owino has ironically turned to the government for help.
When asked to explain recent tension between his parents now that Owino has stopped wiring money, he says, "It's ridiculous. How do you tell someone who can't afford shoes that you can't afford to help them financially when you're here in America, the world's richest country? It makes no sense to them. How could it?"
His initial anxiety and skepticism has yielded to optimism, albeit a low-key kind.
"It's not where I expected to be at this stage of my life," Owino admits. "I never thought I would ask the government for help but I receive benefits. I'm enrolled in a state-sponsored work program where I search sites, apply for jobs, clean up my resume, always dress to impress in case I get called for a chance interview. I have to stay positive and trust this will work out for us all in the end."