My last day of high school was a Thursday. My mother, one of several accomplished hoteliers and caterers in our family, had arranged that I would start apprenticeship at the Tropical African Dream Hotel in Malindi. Apprentices at the hotel were essentially being given practical training for them to become hotel managers. One had to spend a month or two in each of the hotel’s departments learning on the job.
I started out in the kitchen. I had to report every single day at 6am (assuming I wasn’t part of the breakfast team, who had to report at 4am). The team that arrived at 6am had to clean the kitchen and then start preparing lunch for the hotel’s guests – who normally in those days, were in the hundreds. In my 6 weeks there I learnt to chop, cut and dice; I learnt the difference between a baton cut, a medium dice, a small dice and a brunoise dice. I learnt that stock is not soup and minestrone is not stew. I learnt CAYG (Clean as You Go), which I’m afraid I practice little when I cook today.
Malindi is a hot place (28ºC – 35ºC) on average days and that kitchen did not have Air Conditioning. We had to be in full kitchen regalia which involved heavy wooden clothing the entire time. The Chefs were so tough they would have caused any military trainers to run away in tears. They shouted at us and insulted us and pushed us. In the same way I have seen military training in movies, they were hell bent on getting us to quit. We were made to applaud and ululate every time a trainee quit in a huff.
At lunch time, we changed our uniform and went to the front to serve the buffet. Lunch was 3 hours. In the time from 6am, the only breaks we could have were when we snuck into the massive walk in fridge for 30 seconds of cool respite – and the chef better not catch you. From 6am to 3pm one had been on one’s feet the entire time.
We would take a ninety minute break until 4:30pm when we would start making dinner. Dinner was served by 7pm and we ended our day at 10:30pm (unless you were part of the wash up crew – which was punishment of whichever misdemeanours one may have been caught doing. The clean up crew left at midnight on a goodnight and they still had to be at work at 6am the next day – bright and sharp.)
My time at Tropical African Dream saw me spend almost a year going through the restaurant (18 hour days as a waiter – I learnt to carry 7 plates in one hand and walk just short of a sprint), as a room steward (I had to clean 10 rooms every day between 7am and 3pm), in the laundry, and in the reception (my favourite place).
Fast forward a couple of years after coming back to Nairobi. Around 2002, I went to work as a graphic designer for the Media Institute, which was founded and headed by David Makali. My job was to lay out MI’s weekly newspaper, then called Expression Today. I had a strong talent for writing which I had honed by writing 1000 words every day. So when I started working for David, I asked to join the other 7 or so journalist trainees so that I could learn to write. David’s position was simple: you learn how to write by writing. So we would write and then take it him as the executive editor to review and edit. “Are you writing a love letter to your high school sweetheart?” he would often demand and then throw it back to you. “Go write for public consumption!”
Most of the trainee journalists quit and left, angry at the way David would speak to them. I stuck it out to the end and today, I credit David Makali for teaching me how to write. A year later, when David was managing editor for the East African Standard (now The Standard), I wrote a column every Sunday (often a two-page spread) and I was always gratified to note that the editors nary edited a single word of what I submitted those days. I later became the Managing Editor of Mambo magazine – a short-lived idea that we tried with Oakland Media in 2005 for a positive-stories only magazine.
Lesson 2(a): Learn how to sweep a floor
Often, especially those of us that received tertiary education, we eschew doing menial work. When you are starting out in life, embrace menial work. Learn how to sweep a floor perfectly and take a year or two and practice doing basic things. By embracing the basic, you will know how to be a boss. As an employer, at my company, we are biased against employing junior employees with degrees. We have found that often graduates have an attitude that they are too good to do menial work – so they do it badly, half heartedly and without commitment to excellence. They believe that they should be paid a premium for their time because they sat in class. We instead prefer people who have passion to learn and will do a wide range of the most basic tasks. Between these two, guess who gets into leadership positions?
Lesson 2(b): Pressure turns carbon into diamonds – and it takes time
“Most natural diamonds are formed at high temperature and pressure at depths of 140 to 190 kilometers (87 to 118 mi) in the Earth’s mantle. Carbon-containing minerals provide the carbon source, and the growth occurs over periods from 1 billion to 3.3 billion years (25% to 75% of the age of the Earth).”
You want to be a successful person – however you define it. You want a lot of money, a lot of fame or to be at the top of your class. Choose the people who put you under pressure, those who criticise you – even if they don’t do it politely. Growth is not an easy process. It is painful and it is more painful the faster it happens. Be ready to take time, to be away from your fun-having friends, to be in the office all night long working on something that you are struggling with until you get it right. Never take short-cuts – ever.
Most of all, be unrealistically optimistic and hopeful.