David Ngaruri Kenney

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Born in the 1970s in Kenya, David Ngaruri Kenney had many conflicts with his family, especially his brothers who would often isolate him. In 1992, Kenney led a “peaceful farmer’s boycott to protest certain exploitative agricultural policies that Moi’s government had imposed on him and his fellow tea farmers."1 Because of this contribution to civic unrest, Kenney was tortured and placed in solitary confinement for several months. Upon his release, Kenney was placed under heavy surveillance and feared for his life, ultimately fleeing to the United States with the help of Peace Corps volunteers and pursuing an asylum case. Kenney is also the co-author of Asylum Denied: A Refugee’s Struggle for Safety in America.


David Ngaruri Kenney was a tea farmer in Kenya, and Kenya’s policies concerning tea were oppressive and prohibited farmers from planting, removing, or destroying tea bushes without the permission of the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA), which effectively made it impossible for farmers to switch to a more profitable crop. Stating that “farming tea under the KTDA’s rules made us no better than slaves,” Kenney suggested a peaceful boycott to force the government to give farmers more money or release them from their current contracts.2 The boycott was a success and brought tea production to a standstill at the center of Kenya’s tea industry. After refusing a deal that would give Kenney certain creature comforts but not assist with tea farming, David Ngaruri Kenney became a target of the government. Kenney was arrested, subjected to severe water torture, and placed in solitary confinement where he refused to reveal other members who were involved in the boycott. After his release, the government placed Kenney under severe surveillance and it became difficult for him to function as a normal citizen.3

While in Kenya, David Ngaruri Kenney became friends with several members of the Peace Corps, who helped him figure out how to escape to the United States. Taking a page from the film The Air Up There, the volunteers were able to secure a basketball scholarship for Kenney. Life in America proved difficult for Kenney as he wanted to focus on school but was derailed at several points. Kenney received his associate’s degree in business administration and was accepted into the business finance program at the University of San Francisco. When Kenney was ready to start school in California, he received a letter from his brother stating that he was in jail and needed help. Kenney traveled back to Kenya and helped his brother appeal his case and ensured he would no longer be in jail.4 This visit to Kenya would make Kenney’s future court cases extremely difficult. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, he was only able to stay in America for one year, and after that he would be forced to return to Kenya. Kenney’s friends urged him to apply for asylum but his first request was denied. Kenney stated,

         “I was upset about not being believed, but I could also see Craddock’s point of view. She had 
          to make judgments on hundreds of asylum applications every year, and some of the people she 
          interviewed were probably frauds. It must have been very difficult for her to imagine that a 
          protest dreamed up by Wash and me, two peasant farmers with no organizing experience, could 
          mushroom to the point of threatening a major export crop of an entire nation. Such a thing 
          probably could not happen in the United States.”5

Kenney needed assistance and ended up at the Georgetown Law School Clinic where he met Philip G. Schrag and began his asylum case. Schrag was not surprised that Kenney was initially denied asylum because there was no substantial documentation about his history in Kenya. Kenney experienced severe post-traumatic stress symptoms when trying to recount his experiences to Schrag’s staff, which led him to a therapist to try and work through his memories. The biggest problem encountered by Kenney was his recollection of dates. Kenney’s legal team compiled every document that was deemed important for the case including affidavits of Kenyan people, Peace Corps volunteers and expert witnesses. They also included photographs and any documentation concerning the boycott. During these various legal battles, Kenney enrolled at Catholic University of America’s law school in Washington D.C.

David Ngaruri Kenney enrolled in the immigrant visa lottery, and was selected to apply for an immigrant visa. However, the application process included a personal interview and the State Department scheduled that interview at the American embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.6 Kenney’s asylum appeal was still being reviewed by the Board of Immigration Appeals, and leaving the United States could have caused a myriad of problems. Kenney returned to Kenya and had a difficult time proving his arrest and was not permitted to acquire a visa. Making the situation even more complicated, Kenney’s asylum appeal was denied, but his voluntary departure was extended for an additional thirty days.

Although the process was arduous, Kenney filed another appeal with the federal court to stay in the United States both to remain in law school and spend time with Melissa, a fellow law student with whom he had begun a relationship and married on Halloween in 2003. The Fourth Circuit appeals court was one of the most conservative courts in the world and had a reputation for refusing asylum cases.7 Kenney’s 1997 return to Kenya to assist his brother was his downfall and his request for asylum was denied again, and the three judge panel also ensured Kenney would not be allowed voluntary departure.

After a fierce battle with his various asylum cases and appeals, Kenney and his wife now have two children, Mackenzie and Denali, and Kenney currently works at the Montgomery County State Attorney's Office in Maryland.


David Ngaruri Kenney is the co-author of Asylum Denied: A Refugee’s Struggle for Safety in America, which was published in 2008 by the University of California Press.


(1) Kenney, David Ngaruri and Philip G. Schrag, [[Asylum Denied: A Refugee’s Struggle for Safety in America]] (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 5.

(2) Kenney, Asylum Denied, 26.

(3) Kenney, Asylum Denied, 46.

(4) Kenney, Asylum Denied, 85.

(5) Kenney, Asylum Denied, 92.

(6) Kenney, Asylum Denied, 171.

(7) Kenney, Asylum Denied, 205.

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