30 Oct #OdetoYouth: Lesson 1 – Learn hard, Make a brave choice
I left Malindi, where I grew up for a major part of my life on January 6th 2000. I knew that moving to the great big city – at a time that my parents had different ideas of what I should do after high school, was scary. But I chose to still follow my heart and go. I came to Nairobi and after a stint staying with relatives in a Servants Quarter (a room at the back of a maisonette common in Nairobi Estates) that we shared and then I moved into my own.
My first job never paid me a cent in the 6 months I worked there. The agreed salary was 30,000 per month but I never received it once. They gave me bus fare everyday so that I could move around and sell the software that was made by the company to pharmacies in the city. I had to walk from pharmacy to pharmacy, neighbourhood to neighbourhood – often being told, “come back tomorrow” or the more merciful “no, we don’t need it.”
My SQ in Langata’s Southlands estate, which I have poignant memories of, was a small room with a bathroom. The toilet was the indian toilet (a ceramic hole in the floor). In the SQ, I had a PVC Carpet, a matress with a few sheets and a blanket, a table on which I had an old desktop computer, a parafin stove that I rarely used and a rack for my few shirts and pants. In that room, I had more than 450 books stacked. The books were my most valuable possession at the time.
I spent countless hours in that room reading the books and many more hours with my friend Doc, debating much of what we learnt and thought. I remember the great debates we had about capitalism and socialism. The impact of coup de dat on the governance of countries – we even wondered why certain dictators had not been assassinated and wondered how it could be done in Kenya if it was attempted and what the impact would be. I remember we concluded that Kenyans, for example, were wise not to have assassinated their dictator because countries just don’t sustainably recover from coups – if they are stable afterwards it is because they take on a new dictator. We debated God and religion and in doing so, clarified our beliefs. We analysed history and in doing so understood ourselves.
In those days, the internet was a costly affair – we had to pay Kshs. 3 a minute to go online – and one could only go online at the cyber cafe. Internet at home was just too expensive. So we would go for an hour or two, google all the knowledge we needed e.g. we’d google — Introduction to capitalism filetype:pdf — and google would yield thousands of PDF documents on the issue, which we would download into diskettes (later to flashdrives) which we would open at home and read.
I read diligently those days and I amassed all the knowledge I could. Remember, having rejected my mum’s direction to seek higher education abroad (which was all the rage those days), I could not afford college then. But I could learn things, and golly, did I learn.
Many of my friends spent their weekends out having a whale of a time. And I wanted to as well. I loved dancing and I did want a drink. I loved Karaoke because I am a particularly bad singer. But I was aware that my circumstances were not like those of other young people in Nairobi. I wasn’t part of an old-school club in Nairobi. I didn’t know which schools “Patch” or “Changes” were – I’m still not clear on them. I didn’t have family whose money and connections I could depend on. I had to depend on the value that I could offer and that was in my brain. So I invested in my brain – diligently and consistently.
Lesson 1(a): Learn like your life depends on it – because it does.
Whether you can afford school or not, whether you have family connections or not, find ways to learn things – anything. Read EVERYTHING voraciously. Build your knowledge bank on politics, economics, science trends, language, everything. Use what you have now – you have little money? well go onto the streets and buy whichever used books you can afford. I bought lots of Penguin classics on the streets and read Dickens, Copperfield, Tolstoy, Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Ann Radcliff, Tolstoy, Macchiaveli, Descartes, Boswell – anything I could get cheaply, I got and read. The only author I am yet to read and finish is William Shakespear – and I have tried.
My friend Doc, like me, could not afford college at that time and he really wanted to be a doctor. But that never stopped him from buying used medical books from the street vendors. We read Forbes, Business Week, the economist 5 months after they were published because we would get them for 50 shillings each. We read year-old Harvard Business Review magazines because we had to wait for the price to come down. We even read old issues of Monthly Review, when we could find them.
The result? My vocabulary improved greatly – and it wasn’t bad to begin with. I knew more things that I could apply to my talents and make a living from. I learnt to analyse, to synthesise, to reason. I could write and so I used that knowledge to hone my talents and turn it into a skill. I survived and traveled and did things, because of that skill.
I taught myself how to use Desktop Publishing applications – Photoshop, Illustrator and became a designer. I became so good at design that for a few months, I became a forger in Nairobi’s underworld – but that’s a story for another day.
Today, as an employer, I value people who have knowledge more than people who have papers to show that they went to school and got master’s degrees. After all, in that SQ, I was paid by Masters’ level students to do their projects for them – so I know that not all qualifications are bourne out of knowledge. If you can demonstrate knowledge and skill, you will prosper.
Lesson 1(b): Even if you are afraid, move out and take an honest stab at your own life – it’s yours after all.
My mummy loves me. She has always wanted the very best for me. So growing she taught me how to think. I remember her budgeting for our house with me so that I could see why there is no money for that bike that I so covet. She worked hard to make sure I got a good education – boy, did she sacrifice a great deal to do that. And so when it was time for college, she wanted to make sure that I succeed in life so she strongly suggested that I go abroad to Europe, go to college and make a life like many other Africans have. She really wanted me to carry a European passport because it meant opportunity and freedom.
But then she had taught me independence and because of the education that she had given me, I knew that it would not be the right move. I remember writing an article in 2000 on Mashada.com, a Kenyan discussion forum, that Europe would crash in 10 years and Africa is where opportunity would be – even though I didn’t really know why. I’m still trying to find that article in their archives. I wanted to be at the front of that opportunity. So I knew I needed to stay in Kenya.
That was not an easy conversation to have with my mum. It is not easy to defy a parent’s direction at 20. We really argued about it and eventually she shrugged and said, “it’s your life.” For years, I think she was very sad to see me struggle through life in Nairobi with no seeming end in sight and no seeming success. I imagine that she is proud of my accomplishments today.
I would recommend to everyone – people can only advice you based on their own realities and histories. Even this advice you are reading is rooted in my own history, my own path. Listen to everyone’s advice. Evaluate it honestly. And take a true, honest and hard stab at your own life – make your own brave choices, however hard they are and live with the consequences of the choices.
I think my mum would have welcomed me home if I had failed completely. She probably would even have still made the sacrifices that would have been needed for me to go to Europe and do what other Kenyans do there. Because she still loves me. But I had to take the choice to stay and stick it out and try my best to make it work.
Thank God, it worked.