Kehinde Ayeni is a Nigerian physician working in the U.S. A published novelist, Dr. Ayeni is also a keen observer of African affairs, and especially those involving Nigeria and Nigerians. We got to talking recently about the problem of talented people leaving Africa, and not returning to work. This exodus, the subject of so much anxiety from so many perspectives, has complex roots in recent history. Here are Dr. Ayeni’s fascinating, and surprising, observations:
“For political reasons and as it crazy as it sounds, I know for a fact that Nigeria doesn’t like to retain doctors trained in Nigeria and they prefer to export them. And I think that it is a throw back to some un-mourned aspect of slavery, I will not say this to anyone else, if I did, they will think I have lost it but I strongly believe it.
Most of the people I grew up with and went to school with are in the US or England and the rest are all over the world. I know someone I grew up with in almost every country of the world! Young people graduate from college in Nigeria and hightail it out of there as if the devil is chasing them. And the parents like it! The few times I would go back home to visit my parents and other relatives, I used to be met with “Kehinde, what have you come back home for, why are you here?” It used to make me so angry and I would say, ‘But this is my home, are you saying I cant just come home on a visit?” and once my father said to me, “Wouldn’t it be better if you stayed in America and you just send us money, instead of wasting money on air plane tickets to come visit us, the money would be better spent if you sent it to us.” So Africans continue to sell their children. So the brain drain and migration of young people out of Africa now is just humane slavery, one where they pay you very well.
This is the reason that I made that statement, at the time that the brain drain phenomenon first began in the 1980s and a lot of our doctors who were originally trained in England in the late 50s and early 60s and following our independence from the British (the majority of our professionals went to England for college education and most of them returned to establish hospitals, universities and take over from the English staff who were in place).
But then in the 1980s, when the economic situation started to deteriorate to the extent that doctors and college professors were not even able to feed their families, a lot of them just dusted their diplomas and applied for jobs in the Arab world and their was a massive migration of doctors, who were our teachers in medical school, out of the country at the time. And they were being paid the equivalent of the salary they would have earned in Nigeria in two years in just one month.
And the rest of us realized that we needed a foreign diploma along with the Nigerian one to really be respected as doctors anywhere in the world; and so those of us in medical school at the time started to apply for and take the American and the British medical board exams.
Prior to the 80s, Nigerians were hardly migrating, people would go abroad for one thing or the other but always returned home and the national spirit was that we had to make our country great.
But then with the recurrent pillaging by the military, it became such that uneducated people with good connections, and the military were the highly rewarded ones in the country and the more education that you had, the more at a disadvantage that you were.
Another reason was that the Nigerian government did set up a commission at the time to look into brain drain and see what they could do to curb it, but they returned after a year of traveling all over the world to investigate what was attracting young Nigerians out of the country and concluded that it was good for the country. They never did go into details at to why it was good for the country, and so the government didn’t put anything in place to attract young people to stay in the country but rather things got worse and a lot of us started to leave.
Those of us who came to the US for our residency training did come on Exchange Visitor’s visa – a J1 or J2. And the condition of that visa is that on completion of our training, we must return to Nigeria for a minimum of two years before we could apply to re-enter the US. This was an agreement arrived at by the WHO/UN to ensure that poorer countries do not lose their physicians to rich countries. But then if you don’t want to return to your country, you could get a letter from your home Ministry of Health stating that they don’t need you and that if you returned there would be no job for you, and with that letter, you can then apply for a waiver job in the US and then the US will send you to an underserved part of the country to work.
The Nigerian Ministry of Health was issuing these letters to us in droves, they didn’t want us to return to Nigeria to work for Nigeria. And this is doubly sad because we all went to college free of charge, we didn’t pay any tuition.
So that is how we were able to stay in the US.
Most of us did have tried to return to Nigeria to work, for say a month a year or so. I have applied to many of the medical schools to teach free of charge, but you know, the reception is always hostile. There was a time that I had an agreement with my medical school and did go there to try to establish a program…. The residents were very excited, but the faculty was very hostile to me, and they didn’t make the residents and students available, they would tell me they were busy with this or that but the residents later told me they were not.
And this is the experience of a lot of my friends.”