What you need to know:
- Grace Wairimu Weirich opted to work as a nursing aide, a job that hundreds of Kenyans are doing in assisting the sickly and old.
- The Certified Nursing Assistant has set up organisations that could help other Kenyans pursue careers in caregiving abroad.
When Grace Wairimu Weirich travelled to the US for the first time four years ago, she intended to visit family and friends, and then return home.
Her life was in Kenya and so were her children.
She had worked in Kenya for more than 25 years as a lecturer at Mount Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) and Kenyatta universities, teaching health records and information management.
But visiting the US opened her eyes to better opportunities and she found herself thinking of migrating in search of a finer life.
"I had just gotten a permanent teaching job in 2018, after teaching since 2006 when I completed my Master’s degree in Information Systems. Before that, I had devoted 11 years of my career as a nutritionist at Kenyatta National Hospital," she says.
But being a lecturer, reliant on projects and part-time teaching, was not financially fulfilling.
"Covid-19 pandemic had taken a toll on both my finances and my mental well-being. As a lecturer, our financial stability largely depended on projects and part-time teaching opportunities, which became scarce," she says, "I came back to Kenya, but by December 2020, I decided to go back to the US. I told myself I would spend a year or two there to figure out my next steps."
Lady luck was on her side. She met a man and the relationship led to love.
"I crossed paths with a remarkable man whose presence in my life became one of the primary reasons I chose not to return to Kenya," she says.
However, in the US, she had to chart a new career path.
She had gotten comfortable in lecturer halls in Kenya, but had no formal qualifications necessary to pursue a similar career in the US. She opted to work as a nursing aide, a job that hundreds of Kenyans are doing in assisting the sickly and old.
But the profession required some training. She did a 75-hour course in caregiving.
"You are taught how to feed, dress, change diapers and assist an elderly person. However, as you wait for your work permit which may take even six months, you can be cleaning people’s homes, cleaning their washrooms, cooking for them, changing their diapers..." she says.
"It was a humbling experience because I had to start as a volunteer, performing tasks as diverse as cleaning, cooking, and providing personal care," the 48-year-old adds.
While at it, Grace discovered the depth of compassion that the profession demanded.
"I realised that, regardless of one’s level of education, or wealth, there comes a time when you will need to be taken care of, and assisted in doing daily tasks," she says.
Her list of clients includes the sick, elderly, recovering, and those in their dying days.
"It is emotionally taxing, yet deeply rewarding," Grace says.
Later, Grace pursued a Certified Nursing Assistant course, providing her with the skills and knowledge to secure higher-paying jobs.
She soon got better jobs in hospitals and nursing homes, still doing the feeding, changing diapers and providing emotional support but in a structured environments and at good pay.
"But it is not an easy job. It is physically demanding and emotionally draining. You work long hours and end up with back pains. Sometimes, it is back-to-back shifts. Sometimes, you have to deal with verbally abusive clients. The insults hurt, and you get teary, but go on with your work. The most challenging aspect of this work is that in an eight-hour shift, there’s no respite – no time for personal calls or breaks. The work environment is often devoid of casual conversation; just silence," she says.
However, the money she earns is way better than what she used to get in Kenya as a lecturer and dietitian. It can afford her a comfortable life in the US and to take care of her family in Kenya.
"Upon arrival at the facility, I do the same thing that I did yesterday and the day before, with only a 15-minute break scheduled after every two hours. Daily, I attend to the needs of nine people, and I am compensated on an hourly basis. The remuneration is generous. You are paid from $15 (Sh2,284) per hour onwards," she says, "There is a huge demand for nursing assistants. There was a night I took to take care of 20 people."
Her decision to stay in the US for love and greener pastures meant leaving her children behind in Kenya.
Her firstborn was a 19-year-old university student, her son was 16, and her youngest was just 8.
"I was a single mother. It was a difficult decision to be away from my children. I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and cry. I thought about them daily, but I was comforted by the fact that I had left them in good hands; my relatives. But also, for the first time, I felt like it was my time to rediscover myself," she tells Nation Lifestyle.
The four-year sacrifice is paying off and now she has managed to support her eldest child to go study in Canada.
"I am also in the process of reuniting with my two younger children, I want them to join me in the US as well," she adds.
Living in a foreign land also comes with loneliness and you miss ordinary African things, like someone visiting without prior notice or talking for three hours.
"I miss the vibrant culture, the joy of spontaneous visits to relatives’ homes, and the happiest nation I have ever known. While my life has taken me far from my Kenyan homeland, I remain deeply connected to my roots," Grace says.
To cope with the emotionally-taxing job, she had to start journalling. One day, she hopes to share her experiences of working abroad in a book.
The tight-knit community of Kenyan caregivers living in the US also support it.
The US, she says, is a land of opportunities and with upskilling, more chances come your way.
In 2022, Grace applied and got a scholarship to study a Women Entrepreneurial Leadership course in Washington.
The course inspired her to establish her own agency called Zuri Staffing Agency. The agency connects individuals in need of caregiving services with suitable facilities and homes.
Her entrepreneurial spirit has also extended to Kenya, where she founded another agency in 2023 called Moss International Educational Services.
This agency helps young Kenyans access opportunities to study abroad.
She also partnered with Anderson College in Canada to facilitate educational opportunities for Kenyan youths.
Reflecting on her unconventional journey, Grace encourages others to seize opportunities that come their way.
"Travel broadens your horizons and leads to opportunities that you would not have gotten," she says.
A 2018 Bloomberg report put the number of Kenyans who legally live and work in the US at 120,000, and ranked them as the third most industrious foreigners.
However, the number of Kenyans living and working in the US could be higher as others are illegal immigrants.