“Someni vijana, muongeze pia bidii, mwisho wa kusoma, mutapata kazi nzuri sana. Remember that song?” She asks animatedly. I nod, instantly transported back to my childhood, the then ubiquitous track now an ear worm, Henry Makobi’s gravelly voice exhorting us to study diligently, extolling the virtues of the rewards that awaited those of us who heeded his words of wisdom.
“I was a kid of the system. You know that girl who always had neatly plaited lines, clean, perfectly ironed school uniform, shiny shoes, and covered books?” I nod, recalling my tomboy self at that age, and knowing I was definitely not that girl since being a tomboy and possessing lady-like tendencies at the tender age of six were mutually exclusive.
“Anyway, I was that kid. I was a rule follower, still was until very recently.” She pauses to take a big scoop of her hot sundae mint chocolate ice cream, examining it briefly before savoring it. “ Now I just do what feels good to my soul. I was the top student in my KCPE class, top ten nationwide. So I went to school in Kikuyu.” She says this in the same obnoxiously casual manner people use to say “I went to college in Boston” (Code for Harvard).
“Remember, I was a kid of the system, nose in books, no extracurriculars to speak of, no monkey business with Busherians. Not after my mother had scared me half to death by saying, and I quote, “If you play with boys you will get pregnant.”
So after four years of studiously devouring my books, dissecting frogs in the name of Biology, handling corrosive chemicals during Chemistry labs, enduring countless Physics theories, and suffering through many hours of chapel to help us walk in the light and save us from eternal damnation, I sat for and, naturally, aced my KCSE alongside many other bright girls, and that was the end of my four years at Alliance Girls High School.
From a very early age, I always knew I wanted to leave Kenya. One of my uncles had been part of the Tom Mboya airlift, spoke with a very American sounding accent, and shared inspirational stories of the endless possibilities in that land of opportunity for those willing to put in the work. I looked forward to his visits because he brought us fun toys, and once showed me a laptop and let me use it.I fell in love with computers then. The next time he came back to Kenya, he brought me my very own laptop. You don’t understand how excited I was. It’s literally the equivalent of…” She pauses, trying to find an equivalent, something that will capture the enormity of the moment. She comes up empty.
“Being given ten acres of land?” I venture a guess.
“Bigger!” she responds
“Winning the lottery?” I ask tongue in cheek.
We both burst out laughing, knowing that the odds of winning the lottery are lower than being struck by lightning while being bitten by a shark while wearing sequins.
“No, it was literally like discovering a whole new universe, one you had never heard of before, but you were intuitively attuned to. Fluent in their language, ingrained in their ways. That is what coding was to me. I was a natural.”
“Luckily for me, my uncle returned to Kenya to live there permanently, and I now had a coding tutor. It was later on that I found out the unfortunate circumstances of his return. A nasty divorce had rendered him almost penniless, and he had decided to return home, rather than be destitute in the United States. He was an inventive guy, hustling before it became fashionable, and soon, he had started a computer college just when they were becoming all the rage. When I was in form four, he told me about all these scholarships I could apply for, to study Computer Science. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for that man.”
“Where is he now?” I ask.
“He’s retired, his business was very successful, he got out of the computer classes business and went into selling land. Matter of fact, I buy most of my land from him. Original hustler,that guy. Still has a hint of an American accent after all these years. He married a Kenyan chic and their kids are in college now, matter of fact one of my cousins stays with me in the summer. Good people, that family.”
“So anyway, I aced my KCSE, got into UCLA, on a full scholarship, like everything paid for. Nakuambia, I am blessed. Very blessed.So there I was, a kid of the system, on my way to my dream degree, but still very sheltered. I land in LA, and head nose first into my books. My grades were great in my first year. Then I met them.” She pauses, a faraway look in her eyes.
“Them?” I ask ominously, are we talking about the white walkers?
“Oh come on, you know them. They are everywhere. She waves her hands for dramatic effect.
“The people who come here to go to school and hop on the party bus and never get off. That crowd that’s been here since God was a boy and have nothing to show for their time here.”
I nod, I know them, everyone does. Well, unless you are them, in which case, I wish you well.
“So I partied hard. For the first time in my life, I had freedom. Gai! I have never had that much booze in my entire life. Parents really shouldn’t let their kids come out here straight out of high school. Bad idea. And the more sheltered the kid, the worse they get. Luckily for me, my uncle had a good friend who lived in LA, and she sat me down and gave me a very stern talking-to. That woman saved me from dropping out of school and becoming one of them. She would also randomly drop in at my hostel to check on me. By the time I was in my third year I had met my coding tribe and was so deep into coding that no one needed to worry about me joining the partying hordes. Fast forward, two years later, cap and gown in place, I graduated, first with my Bachelors’, then my Masters, and then I went all in for Permanent Head Damage, or PhD, known in certain circles as ‘no class ahead’.”
Then tech came calling. I was a nerd in a sea of nerds. My friends back home think I lead a very flashy life. I mean, here I am, a single successful female, making what seems like a bazillion to people back home. I have achieved everything I ever wanted professionally. I lead teams at work, I travel internationally, I can vacation anywhere I want. But something is missing. My mom thinks she knows what, or should I say who, is missing. A husband. Now, there’s something I knew I never wanted. Marriage just doesn’t make sense to me. I am in my twenties, meet this guy, and promise to love him forever? I don’t even know what I want to wear next week, how can I promise to love someone forever? Plus I like my space, and I like my house silent. This society and its KPIs.”
“KPIs?” I repeat, as I have never heard it used socially.
“You’re in corporate America, you know KPIs.”
I nod, waiting for her to continue.
“Go to school and make good grades. Check. Don’t play with boys. Check. Go to university. Check. Get a good job. Check. Where is your husband? Huh? At what point should I have met this husband while not “playing with boys”? Also, why must I have a husband? Awino, this world is a hard place if you are single. People automatically assume I am defective. Let’s not even get into the 50% divorce rate in these United States. Or the stranger than fiction stories I hear from back home of spouses competing to see who can sleep with one half of Nairobi before the other one sleeps with the other half. Or the domestic violence cases globally. But you know what I like? Women of our generation are not taking responsibility for failed marriages. Or sitting down and pining for errant husbands. They are not going the prayer warrior, fight for your marriage route. If marriage is war, then weddings should be at army boot camp training grounds, not in church. Some men are on the receiving end too. They are beaten, cheated on, stolen from, it’s a jungle out there. By the way, do you listen to Patanisho?” She asks.
I burst out laughing. This is the second time in as many months that that show has been recommended to me. A friend of mine recommended it a couple months ago. Yes, I am now a Patanisho addict. It is hilarious, it is heartbreaking, it is life. Ghost Mulei’s laughter gives me life.
“Yes, I listen to it on YouTube, usually when making dinner for my family.” She high fives me. Two Kenyans far away from home, connecting on having found a piece of home, courtesy of YouTube, whose offices are less than an hour away from where we are having this conversation.
“What do you tell your family now? When they ask you about marriage?” I ask her.
“I tell them the truth. That I need my space. That I don’t want a husband in my house. That ‘leave me alone’ is my love language. Motherhood is not something that appeals to me. The way I see it, my nieces and nephews stand to inherit all my money, so what’s the problem? More for them, right?”
“I finally found the missing piece after I called myself for a series of small meetings. I want out of corporate America. It is financially great, but it is a grind. So I will keep at it for a few more years, then I will quit and go teach coding to kids. That’s what I really want to do. Once I identified it, I felt at peace. Now I do it once a week and it brings me so much joy, way more than the job that pays me a ton of money. I told my family back home and they thought I had lost my marbles. But I am not living my life by anyone’s KPIs anymore. I’m doing me.”
We finish our ice cream pensively, two Kenyan women so far away from home, having taken somewhat similar career paths, but diametrically opposite relationship paths.
She asks me if I always wanted to be a mom. I nod emphatically. I didn’t know much about what I wanted for my future, but I knew that I definitely wanted to have a child.
“Oh, one more thing,” she adds, “can you believe that with all the education we strive to attain, no one stops to tell us to invest our money and generate wealth? Like, no one. It’s a travesty, I tell you.” She says emphatically, as I nod vigorously.
“Some might even call it an abomination.” I chime in.
She continues, “and that’s why we have so many high income cliff spenders, they make a ton of money but are living paycheck to paycheck. It is tragic, if you ask me. Richness and brokenness are two sides of the same coin. Both are temporary, both can become permanent poverty or wealth. I love this quote “The rich invest their money and spend what is left; the poor spend their money and invest what is left”.
I chew on that for a minute. It makes perfect sense. She drops another one, “We Buy Things We Don’t Need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”
As a voracious consumer of investment articles, I am always appreciative of finding kindred spirits when it comes to investment ideas. One of my favorite quotes is “Would you rather look rich but be broke, or look broke but be wealthy?” And so we spend some more time talking about the almost mandatory land purchase that every Kenyan investor feels obligated to make, trading notes and contacts.
“What would you tell your younger self?” I ask her.
“Can I swear?” she asks
“Sure, why not.”
“To hell with the KPIs. And to hell with those who think less of my accomplishments because I don’t have a Mrs. in front of my name. Life is short, live it unapologetically.”