Getting lost and finding my ‘True North ‘
In my last year of undergraduate studies at the University of Nairobi in 2010, my friends and I would spend late evenings downing endless cups of coffee and poring over what fate had in store for us.
We plunged ourselves into a new world of possible excitement, now officially entering adulthood for the very first time and discoursing over the little thrills of earning a living, getting our own places with no parents and meeting the right ‘ones’.
Inevitably, life questions were slowly claiming their fair share of these contemplative coffee evenings. Would we be successful? Would we ever get jobs or were we likely to fall into the bottomless abyss of ‘tarmacking’ and ‘dropping’ CVs for years?
These thoughts bothered us so much because the worldwide statistics for joblessness kept going up. The world markets had crushed around that period and even workers in the financially strong continents, Europe and America were facing massive layoffs.
Thinking of it right now, I wonder why my college mates and I, even after studying a couple of units in entrepreneurship , never bothered to form a group and borrow the Youth Fund that was being lent out, interest free by the government. We wanted to be salaried folks, very fast.
The 4th year class was in frenzy those last few months. Being government sponsored students from all over the country; most vowed never to return to the villages. Everyone had the intention of staying in Nairobi and starting a life because the city offered ‘more opportunities’.
Endless hours were spent in the computer lab of the university. Curriculum Vitas’ sent to each and every employer whose address could be found online.
‘My African career.’, ‘my jobs eye’ and ‘Brighter Monday’ were the most frequently checked pages and not academic research sites. No one in my Bachelor of Education class wanted a teaching job, we all wanted ‘better’ corporate careers because we wanted to climb up the ladder of success fast; two steps at a time!
Some of us, armed with professional papers like CPA-k alongside their degrees were lucky to be called for interviews by big firms like KPMG , Delloite and Price water house coopers . The less lucky ones walked to the schools around and asked for BOG teaching positions that paid them 10,000 a month. Others called friends who worked for research firms and if lucky, were hired as casuals to carry out research projects.
As I ‘trans-nighted’ (read throughout the night) to ensure I passed those final units, I had no clue about the career path I would take.
For one, the Joint Admissions Board (JAB) had selected me to study a bachelor of education degree. That meant I was in university so as to become a teacher. I could never become a teacher ! I vowed.
When it came to subject selection, I couldn’t decide between literature and business studied.
Literature because I had an insatiable appetite for books and anything literary. I devoured books with the ferociousness of a lovelorn woman who’d gotten another golden opportunity to kiss her lover goodbye.
Business because I enjoyed development issues so much and I believed I had one of the keys needed for poverty eradication in Africa; (don’t all bright eyed over-enthused university students do?) Also, in my free time, I obsessed over Donald Tramp’s ‘Apprentice’. I badly wanted to crack impossible tasks and go to fiery boardroom meetings that got my adrenaline up.
Because one wouldn’t study literature and business together, I opted for Business studies and geography. I didn’t need a degree to read books, I thought. Even so, I went through my lectures utterly clueless career wise. (That Kenyan high schools never offer career training is a serious issue that should be addressed.)
I’d write love poems and scribble little notes in my books and note pads through the four years. I’d be fascinated by well told stories on TV and Radio. As my classmates partied, I’d simply curl up in my bed, reading a book, fantasizing about winning a literary prize and receiving it in Oxford and listening to ‘the strand’ an arts and culture program on BBC or interviews of award winning authors. Over holidays, I’d visit my grandparents and get lost in my grandfathers’ hefty collection of the ‘readers digest’(he subscribed and has been receiving them monthly since he came back from the USA in the early 1960’s). Or my uncles’ comical collections.
Even then, it never occurred to me that one could become a writer. That writing too was a pursuable career.
In second year, I volunteered at my local church to teach the children’s’ class. This was because I enjoyed children’s’ books, songs and movies so much and a part of me hoped to influence these children to read. Besides, bible stories were pretty amazing when read to a children’s’ audience. Even so, it never occurred to me that I was yet delving into my other passion, working with children and teens.
In third year, I immensely enjoyed the marketing class. Especially the psychology of marketing. The lecturer was superb. He always related the theories in the books with the real world happenings. I found immense scholarly stimulation from analyzing the advertisement on local TV and discussing them in class. And in all those theories about how music and color and pictures could be used sublimely; to advertise to an audience that wasn’t aware.
I walked skeptically in supermarkets, wiser now. Understanding why they put sweets and chocolates near the counter. Knowing why, with soft easy music in the background, I’d find myself spending more time in a supermarket and hence buying more.
I devotedly read Malcolm Gadwall’s books; Blink’, ‘Outliers’ and ‘The Tipping Point’ for case studies on psychology of marketing. I wanted to be able to tell when the tipping point of a product had reached , when , in the words of Shakespeare’ sellers had to take the tides while they were strongest so as not to lose the once in a lifetime opportunity.
I had a career , and I was going to become a name to reckon with in the Kenyan marketing circle.
In fourth year, I had a unit in development studies and economics. And yet another interesting tutor. Case studies of Malawi and Singapore. Books like How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Population versus economic growth, the gap between the rich and the poor. The world politics I so much loved to discuss. I was once more thrown into another deep end. I devoured political pieces with an endless hunger. I read the newspapers and listened to international news whenever I wasn’t in class.
I questioned and questioned the ideals of the ruling class in Africa.
I had watched a political transition of leadership while in form two, I had listened to tribal utterances and watched as Kenyans butchered each other and as the student body at my university (SONU)voted on tribal basis(there were unconfirmed rumors that this university elections were being funded by government politicians). I had sat with my campus mate George Oulu famously known as ‘GPO’ in a friends room in campus and had been fascinated as he passionately spoke about politics,leadership and the future of Africa.(GPO was later on killed on state house road in a mysterious saga that had something to do with the civil society, an outlawed group and the police. The representatives who attended his burial said that he, being of a humble background; had been the hope of his family…..
I decided that I badly wanted to become a developmental expert ‘. To be in the line up of those who fought for a better society and better leadership in Africa. I surfed the internet, and read about the UNDP, local NGO’s that were involved in development in Malawi and Singapore’s magic economic turn around. I watched the enthused Richard Quest, my favourite CNN business reporter of ‘Quest means Business’and imagined about an African Wall street. I had it. My African career.
I moved back into my parents house shortly after writing my final 4th year exam. I depended on them for money to move about town job hunting. I was very scared. I didn’t know where to look, or how. So I went to an international NGO I had volunteered with while in University and applied for an internship. A while later, they offered me an an internship and a very low stipend.
I was ecstatic. I had a job. A place to start.
I went round Nairobi and Central provinces. Recruiting and training volunteers for the high school entrepreneurship program the NGO ran. I supervised the students’ business projects and wrote reports on the same. I worked hard. Very hard. Because I wanted to get a ‘real’ job with them, and a good salary of course.
Three months later, and a week to the end of my internship. I got a call from a local blue chip. An insurance company. My friend had accidentally ‘dropped’ my CV there. They offered me a job . In the corporate branch, Customer service.
I was elated. I would actualize my apprentice dream and besides, the salary was much better than the stipend I received at the NGO. I walked confidently, head held high, into the glass doors that led to the boardroom of the firm. There, I had it, my first really ‘real’ job.