Thursday, March 08, 2007

Overseas Filipino Workers in Africa

The earliest overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) on record were the laborers recruited to work in sugar plantations of Hawaii in the first decade of the 20th century. The next exodus was when President Marcos late in the century promoted the concept of overseas employment to supplement local jobs. But a decade before this development, three Filipinos went to Kenya in East Africa as managers in a pioneering venture of Delmonte, USA. DelMonte International Division formed a task group selected from its Mindanao operations unit. The group, headed by an American, was tasked to assume management of a small food manufacturing factory established by British farmers to serve the local market and for export to the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.). The arrangement was a contract to run the factory (producing canned pineapples and a dozen or so canned vegetables) with an option to purchase the property on or before the five-year expiry of the contract.

The Republic of Kenya is a country in Eastern Africa. It is bordered by Ethiopia to the north, Somalia to the northeast, Tanzania to the south, Uganda to the west, and Sudan to the northwest, with the Indian Ocean running along the southeast border.

I was a member of that trio. Top honcho was an American, Charles Hall (now deceased), as Managing Director. Next to him and top ranking Filipino was Vicente (Ting) Lim Jr. (son of famed Gen Vicente Lim) as Factory Manager. I was his lieutenant as Superintendent. The fourth, a Filipino named Alex Limena was an expert on pineapple machinery. The families of the top two joined later. I came with my wife Josie, and Limena brought along his family.

The time was early 1965. Two years earlier, Kenya gained independence from Britain after a bloody struggle by a group called the Mau-Mau, an insurgency led by the Kikuyu tribe The Mau-Mau was born in 1947, taking its name from the Kikuyu's cry of war or an acronym for "Mzungu Aende Ulaya — Mwafrika Apate Uhuru". a Swahili phrase which translates in English to, "Let the white man go back abroad so the African can get his independence.",. In the 1963 elections, Jomo Kenyatta's (a Kikuyu freedom fighter released from jail) KANU party obtained absolute majority with 83 seats out of 124.. On the 1st of June, Madaraka Day, Jomo Kenyatta became Prime Minister of the autonomous government of Kenya. From the start, Kenyatta requested the European settlers not to leave Kenya, since he knew that only they could keep the farms profitable for boosting economic development in the country. On December 12, 1963, Kenya took control over foreign affairs, fulfilling the process of independence. During the solemn ceremony for celebration of independence at Ruringu Stadium, the last Mau-Mau fighters handed over their weapons to Jomo Kenyatta.

The factory was located in Thika, 30 miles north of the capital, Nairobi. Flame trees marked the town described in a book “The Flame Trees of Thika”, Elspeth Huxley's novel portraying the stirring account of her childhood in Kenya growing up among the Masai and Kikuyu people, discovering both the beauty and the terrors of the jungle, and enduring the rugged realities of the pioneer life and of the destructive forces of colonization. The book was later adapted into a British BBC television series of seven hour-long episodes in 1981.Thika, Kenya is home to the Chania Falls and the Thika Falls, while Ol Donyo Sabuk National Park lies to its south east and lies 50 miles south of the equator. The elevation of over 5,000 feet above sea level makes the weather deceptively cool but sunburn is inevitable if exposed to the sun. The high elevation also discourages mosquitoes from breeding and thus a natural protection against malaria a disease endemic in the country.


Fossils found in East Africa suggest that primates roamed the area more than 20 million years ago. Recent finds near Kenya's Lake Turkana indicate that hominids, possible direct ancestors of modern Homo sapiens, lived in Kenya. Many discoveries were made by famous paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey

In the centuries preceding colonization, Kenya was part of the region used extensively by slavers from the Muslim world to find slaves. Initially these slavers came mainly from Arab states, but later many also came from Zanzibar. The main language is Swahili, a Bantu language with many Arabic loan words, developed as a lingua franca for trade between the different peoples and also spoken by neighboring Tanzania and Uganda.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore Kenya, followed by the Arabs and their flourishing slave trade, and then the British who expelled the Arabs.

Retired Olympic and Commonwealth Games champion Kipchoge Keino, who helped usher in Kenya's ongoing distance prominence in the 1970s is currently Kenya's most famous sportsman. A Filipino boyhood friend Daniel Aguila visited Kenya to interview the famed athlete. Daniel was my house guest and I drove him to the Army camp where the interview was held. (While having drinks and Josie was preparing dinner, Daniel whipped out a pad and pen and started scratching on the pad. Just as Josie announces dinner is ready Daniel hands over his scribbling --- a caricature of Josie and me, a nifty.)

When Ting Lim, who held the position of Philippine honorary consul in Kenya (the Philippine Embassy was yet to be established), went on vacation, he unofficially left the responsibility to me. At about this time, a Filipina doctor (from Iligan) passed through Nairobi from her place of work in Lesotho southern Africa, and I was pleased to do the hospitality honors. Some years later, she again visited Kenya, but this time tagging along a Belgian husband named Emil Baeyens. Two other Filipino families worked in Nairobi. Reyes with the WHO, UN, and Gus Mendoza (son-in-law of Sen. Tolentino) worked as branch manager of defunct Pan Am airlines. Other OFWs who joined later were four teachers, a young married couple and a pair of singles who later married in a Nairobi wedding. The growing Pinoy community was joined by a mixed family, a Filipina wed to an Irishman and their two children, and a middle-aged married couple working for the UNESCO. And there were other houseguest transients, one was later appointed an ambassador to Japan (Domingo Siason), an Air force colonel, another who became the CO of the Air force, a Bayanihan dance troupe, and a lawyer friend from Cagayan de Oro, Atty Paul Reyes. And, not to be outdone, President Marcos and Imelda came bringing an entourage of two planeloads chartered from PAL, courtesy of Pinoy taxpayers. The latecomers to the Pinoy community were the diplomats of the Philippine Embassy headed by Ambassador Baradi. The embassy released info of newcomers, Pinoy technicians employed to assist the budding sugar industry of Kenya, and of a tourist on safari who got ill and died of the deadly cerebral malaria. It is notable that the OFW traffic in East Africa, without much publicity, is significant even as early as four decades ago

Visiting Sen. Tolentino posing with daughter and my wife Josie

Amb Baradi (left), moi in center, Frank Ho (w/glasses)

Sweat and Toil

The workforce at the old factory was mostly Africans with a few Asians (the collective name given to ethnic people from the Indian sub-continent). In spite of the recent cessation of the revolution, the locals did not exhibit overt animosity against the remaining colonizers nor were the Kikuyus domineering the minority tribal groups. Employee discipline was no problem. The only worker anxiety I sensed was the worry caused by the news of a new factory to be built on another site and the consequent transfer. The widespread fear of job insecurity was allayed only after repeated assurance of no layoffs and provision of transport to the new site. The actual construction of the new factory was smooth. The transition was more hectic, what with the pressure of unrelenting harvest from the expanding pineapple plantation which demanded long work hours to move the machines from the old to the new location. But one more Filipino arrived to help, Frank Ho, an engineer from our Mindanao DM Plant facility.

Safari is a Swahili word meaning a hunting expedition and adapted into English. Most safaris today primarily concerns tourism, guide tours into wildlife parks to watch wild animals in their habitat. This was also a work benefit for us in Africa --- weekend visits to the park lugging a lunchbox. The drive to the park could be a hundred miles or so along straight roads without seeing any people or houses, but keeping a wary eye on elephants crossing the road (they not only have the right of way but also are a formidable obstacle that is unwise to challenge). The national roads at the beginning were not asphalted, and vehicles would raise huge dust clouds. Timid drivers learn to eat dust whenever overtaken. In such circumstances, long distances and dust clouds demand speed. I learned to drive at the normal speed of the locals, a hundred miles an hour, although navigating the roads in the left-hand-drive vehicle and system took a bit of awkward adjustment at first. But the roundabouts are friendlier than traffic lights.

There are more than a dozen large parks in Kenya, the largest being Tsavo Park, my favorite. Starting at daybreak, the 2 ½ hour leisurely drive of the 200-mile distance from Thika to the Park allows the excursion to be completed in one day, spending 5 hours

watching rhinos, hippos, giraffes and other wildlife, from the relative safety of the car. The only precaution is to avoid coming too near the elephants (which irritates them into attacking), and keeping the windows closed (with just a crack for ventilation) to foil the sneaky monkeys from reaching in and grabbing the sandwich you’re eating. We’re back in Thika by twilight.

The young government of Kenya kept the European bureaucrats in their government posts, but eager to train Kenyan replacements soonest. Part of the program included the free college education of bright students which we were interested in as a source of localizing the workforce. This did not turn out too well as many of the youngsters became swell-headed and made unreasonable demands from government. (Shades of U.P.!!!). Kenya Canners Limited hired instead a few Kenyans trained in the USA.

After five years stabilizing operations (by this time I was Factory Manager, Ting Lim having returned to the Philippine operations, and his replacement promoted). I felt my job was accomplished, and asked for repatriation. An Asian was appointed as my replacement.

I stayed in Kenya almost 12 years, taking breaks to tour Europe and the USA or visiting relatives in the Philippines. Of course, as all OFWs should, I remitted money home, sending $600 (in today’s dollars) monthly to my widowed mother. And as a true-blue balikbayan OFW, that qualifies me as a modern hero by government fiat.

More on Exporting Kenya:

Kenya Canners Ltd.


Grace said...

Hey dad, how come the picture won't show?

luis said...

Have read your piece weeks ago and am cognizant that there are others like you who somehow is less fortunate to have the skill and objectivity in presenting your cause (like the others who have been left out)At one point in time I had the urge to send this piece to the awareness of the concerned government agency.But this would just be an exercise in futility considering the slow pace of measured dole out services from our government is only apparent if you happen to be in their party or have voted for them during elections. As you well know this kind of "voice" could only be attended to as "payback "and not as service obligation to the society that put them to power.Such is the present state of our country and society - so corrupt.Election time again and the charlatans are on the roads duping anybody in their path.And the voting public who is more than willing to sell his vote/soul for fifty bucks.I perceive we are living in a time of "social prostitutes" that open their legs to the highest bidder (if you may excuse me).I share your sentiments. But there are much more lost souls in their agonal financial states against the astronomical cost of health care(medicines included)barely surviving and waiting for their cognizance as World War II Veterans and be helped "pro rata" for their spilled blood during the War for a country to be peacefully livable by the future genarations. And what we got?-Congressmen with querridas, smugglers,gunrunners,coddlers, man in uniforms/officials alike as drug/tiangge protectors.I could cite a litany of these but for what kind of readers?- whose mind is so obtunded by his carnal and power hungry aspirations too? Please continue
your advocasies gleaned from your other dispatches.A "toothless" old dummy like me never miss it if only to satisfy my ego that am diffent from the rest. MORE POWER.

Manila Bay Watch said...

Hi Orly,

Thanks for dropping by...

I like this post of yours. Do hope you can post other stories.

Btw, just curious, are you already back in Pinas?