Ivy Amase

Maureen Asiyo’s day had been disastrous to say the least. She had not met the month’s sales target and her boss had not hesitated to call her out for it in front of the entire sales team.

“You come to work dressed like you’re going for a fashion show, and yet you can’t close a simple sales deal with a customer who is usually so easy” he had bellowed at her cruelly.

By easy he had meant that the client in question always tried out new products. He was the easiest close for the company.

As she left the warehouse where their products were stored for their pick-up every morning, she was thinking about a pair of peep-toe heels she had seen earlier in the week. They were six inches, made of patent leather material, and absolute heaven for a shoe-lover such as herself. She had held off purchasing the shoes because she was trying to be frugal as she saved for college. However, the voice of her boss going off at her just a few minutes earlier resonated in her mind. She had to dull it the only way she knew how: shoe therapy.

Getting and keeping the perfect job is a dream in the Kenyan job market, if not most job markets in the world. Many a time we have a vision of exactly what we want to do when we are done with high school. First, we will do a short course; Certified Public Accountants, Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, Certified Public Secretaries, or Certified Information Communication Technologists, whatever certification is relevant to the degree we wish to undertake when we are done with high school.

Second, we will go to campus, read the hell out of those books, graduate with at least a Second Upper (or equivalent) degree and make our parents proud. Third, of course, is finding that perfect job, a graduate trainee position with Safaricom, which is the leading mobile phone operator n Kenya. Or perhaps an internship with Interns4Afrika which will definitely open doors after the 6-month internship period is over. The reality, is, however, that many great stories start small.

Think Steve Jobs and Ben Carson. Steve Jobs is an entrepreneur whose vision and thirst for innovation has changed the face of technology. Ben Carson went from a troubled youth, to becoming a world-renowned neurosurgeon, and is now vying for the most crucial presidential seat in the world.

Maureen Asiyo is certain that she will one day take over the tourism and hospitality industry. Right now, however, she just wants to be done with her Bachelor’s Degree and survive in the cut-throat Nairobi job market. Pole pole ndio mwendo is an ancient Swahili proverb meaning slow, slow is the way to go. Slow, but sure. Maureen Asiyo’s career embodies this proverb, but in a good way.

Maureen Asiyo is a beautiful 28 year-old woman, petite, of caramel complexion, and is almost always sporting a five-inch or higher heel. She is loud, unpretentious and determined. She is also a ‘hustler.’ A word she has used to refer to herself for as long as I have known her. The word hustler is an appropriate term to describe her. The first definition of the world hustler according to dictionary.com is an enterprising person determined to succeed or a go-getter. And a go-getter she is.

Maureen’s story of hustling started immediately after she finished high school when she began doing sales/promotions for pocket money.

“I loved that period in my life. I was already confident, but it made me more confident. ” she recalls with nostalgia as she sips her cup of tea.

Maureen did this for a while and went on to juggle different, but similar jobs, all of them to do with sales. She did promotions, then went on to work as a sales representative with a Bidco associate. Her job was to sell Bidco consumer products ranging from cooking oil, body lotion and perfumes to tissue and sanitary towels.

Bidco is one Kenya’s leading consumer products manufacturer. It wasn’t until she decided to begin her after-school studies that she locked down Tourism and Hospitality as her preferred field and began to save for it. It took her only a few months to get enough money to start. She put in a little bit of whatever she earned into a savings account for school. She studied at the Global Institute for Tourism and Business Studies opting for an International Diploma in Air Travel and Tourism. Tourism was a natural choice for her, though she has no specific reason for it. She just fell into it.

“I remember my first day in school like it was yesterday,” she tells me with a faraway look in her face.

“I wasn’t nervous or anything. I love getting to know new people. My lecturer caught me texting you that I’m in class and would call you after!” she laughs.

“We ended up becoming good friends, and I even lectured some of his classes after I finished before I got a job.”

Most people have their College fees paid by their parents. As soon as they graduate, they have the luxury of even picking what Master’s they want to pursue and this is still paid by their parents. There’s no harm in having the support of their parents, but what do you do when this is not an option? You struggle on your own, because there’s no other way. Of the 45 million (2014) people in Kenya, there are a total of 443,783 (2014) university students 215,739 (2014) of these students study in public universities. Maureen did not make it to campus, and did not have the fees to study as a privately sponsored student so she had to go to college first.

I ask her if she thinks she would be done with her Degree and even Master’s by this age if she had more support. We are at the home she shares with her mother and brother in Kahawa West and are both distracted by The Wedding Show which comes on at 6.00 Pm every Sunday on Citizen TV.

“Yes definitely. But you cannot live life hoping something would have happened. You just have to take what you get and work the hardest you can,” she responds.

Too true. In this job market what time does one have to ponder over the silver spoon they never had? The only thing to do when you find yourself silver spoon-less is to find another way to keep up with those that were luckier because it is a competition. Life is tough, and some have to work harder to keep up. This is just the truth of the matter. Or is it?

“Not really, I mean, even those people who are well off still have to work harder. Of course having support from your family helps, especially financial but it’s not really that big of a deal to me,” she replies with a determined smile.

Maureen landed her first job in the Tourism industry in 2012 with African Touch Safaris who have branches all over the country. She was just coming out of a lecture at Global Institute and had gotten several missed calls on her phone. She called back the number hoping that it was the job offer she had been waiting for. She started as an intern for three months. After the three months were over, she was assigned to the newest branch in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lubumbashi.

She was sad at first, she would be leaving everything she had ever known, friends, family, and the familiarity of Nairobi for a completely new experience. She had little experience in the industry, found herself in a foreign country with a humble salary package and difficult working conditions. She took up the challenge as any other hustler would: with a will to succeed and gusto, because this was the career path she had chosen.

She was both a travel consultant and a marketing executive while in Congo. This entailed sourcing for new customers for the company, marketing the company, and also building customer relations with the few existing customers that the company had managed to secure.

“I agreed to take on the position because I was young, thirsty for adventure. I also knew that all my experience with sales made me the right candidate,” she explains about her decision.

“What was the hardest thing about working in the DRC?” I ask her.

“The working conditions were very hard. We were introducing our company, African Touch Safaris to a new market. The locals there, although friendly did not adapt easily to foreigners and newcomers. It took a long time for us to actually connect with people. It was also really expensive! I had to send my boss for food from Kenya when she would come to check on our progress.”

She recalls that a loaf of bread in the Congo cost roughly 1 USD which is approximately 100 KES. At the time, her meager salary of 20,000 KES (approximately 200 USD) was hardly sufficient for the high-cost of living. The inflation in the Congo is because they use the United States dollar as their currency.

She eventually had to leave DRC because she was let go. She was not aware that she would be dismissed. When her boss called, and said she should take the next flight to Kenya, she was mildly suspicious, but not worried. It was a blow when she went to the Nairobi office, a day after flying in only to be told that she as being let go. The company was not doing well in the Congo.

There wasn’t a position open in their Nairobi offices and she promptly found herself without a job. The next few months were difficult for her to say the least. She would stay in doors for days just applying for anything she could find. Luckily she had no bills to pay as she stayed at home. After months of looking she landed her current job as a Tours and Travel Consultant with Aslan Adventures Tours and Travel. She was exited, but adamant that it would not last in the first few months owing to the DRC experience, but it has now been five years and she is still working with the same company.

What about her education, you might be asking yourself?

She registered with Moi University’s Nairobi Campus and is currently in her second year undertaking a Bachelor of Arts in Tourism Management. She has stayed true to her passion for the hospitality industry.

Maureen has goals which she hopes she will achieve through hard work and dedication.

“I want to finish my degree. I have been spending a lot of my money for school and I plan to continue studying, but I want to buy myself a car when I graduate. A car is not a luxury these days, you need to be mobile, it helps with the hustle,” she tells me of her short-term goals.

“How about long term goals?”

“I would love to start my own company one day, but that is like a 15-year plan, or less, I don’t know what God has planned for me. I would love to get a better position, either where I am or in another company. I have so much experience and skills and I want my salary to match,” she responds with vigor. A true fireball.

The main lesson I got from Maureen’s story is that life is what we make of it. We could either sit around and feel sorry for our circumstances, or we could get up and catch our dreams by the horn.

If you are like Asiyo, then maybe your life has been a struggle and you have had to do things for yourself. Do not be discouraged, rather hold on and be grateful for all the lessons learnt along the way, and those that are certain to come later on in life. Do not be hasty, and worry not about getting rich quick, rather savor the words of the ancient Swahili wise men, ‘pole pole ndio mwendo.’ A slow pace is the right path to take. Slow but sure.

As Ken Mwangi ‘Mwas’ walks towards the Indian businessman he is about to rob, he feels no fear and has no second thoughts. Pattni, the businessman, is just opening his Mercedes C230 Kompressor when Mwas intercepts him, drives the butt of his favorite hand gun into his side, and urges him to unlock all the passenger seats. One of Mwas’ guys comes out of seemingly nowhere and gets into the front seat.

Mwas and his second accomplice get into the back. He looks outside to see if anyone has noticed them, but it does not matter anyway, they will be long gone before anyone gets to the crime scene. They order him to drive west towards Waiyaki Way and he complies. His hands are shaky on the steering wheel and as they pass a police stop, Mwas gives him a piercing look through the inside rear view mirror and he quickly looks away.

As they approach Kangemi, a slum located just outside Westlands Nairobi, they take several turns until they reach a deserted road. Mwas gets out and orders the devastated victim to do the same. He does not bother to beg them for mercy.

They take him to a nearby bush, take off all his clothes save his socks and underwear and ask him to count to one hundred before he opens his eyes. By the time he does, no doubt well-past the hundred counts, Mwas and his team are back home, safe and sound, and looking forward to a luxurious weekend courtesy of the Muindi, Indian.

Mwas is now 33 years old, currently ‘unemployed’ and living with his longtime friend, Chris and his wife, Amina. They have known each other for almost a decade, Mwas and Chris. They met back when they were both 24. Mwas was a world-class criminal at the time, and Chris a budding entrepreneur. He sold clothes. He loved to sell clothing. In fact, it was his dream to someday own an elegant, top-notch boutique.

Chris and Mwas are almost the same height, 5’8’’, are of the same chocolate complexion, and are also coincidentally from the same village in Kiambu County. Well, almost the same village if you look at the bigger picture. Anyway, Chris and Mwas have been good friends for a long time which classifies them as brothers. Brothers look out for one another.

Mwas has been raised in Huruma which is in the Eastlands part of Nairobi, where many a young man who grows up there becomes a criminal, or has been at one point in his life. Not all of Eastlands is dilapidated.

However, the sum areas are all the same with their open sewers that residents have to jump over on a daily basis and iron roofs that make sleep impossible during rainy season. The evenings are the best as this is when traders of all types come together to sell their goodies.

The streets are always laden with vegetables, mutura (intestines stuffed with other offals), fried fish, French fries, roast maize and even clothing going for as low as Ksh.20 that not everyone can afford. No wonder crime is so prominent in these parts.

Every so often there is news of a young man being killed because of crime, according to Mwas. He speaks incessantly of his past escapades. Sometimes he seems sad about them, other times one gets the feeling that he feels the things he has gotten away with are some kind of achievement.

Chris and Mwas met in Eastlands over cold Tuskers and in the company of beautiful women, the two recall the old days; the mutura on the side of the road and the many times they had to bury their friends lost at the hands of policemen. Sometimes they even smoked a blunt or two at home when Amina was not around, just like they invariably did all afternoons years earlier.

Chris has been kind enough to house him for almost two months now with no complaints. But Chris can only support him as if he were his own brother or child for so long. If you ask Chris why he is letting his brother live with him when he could be dangerous he replies, “Tumetoana mbali” we’ve come from far.

Mwas misses his past life. Not the gruesome parts, though. He misses the thrill of not knowing what the next day holds. He misses his friends, most of whom have left us. Only two of them remain. The other is in exile in a faraway land. He is not afraid to die but is afraid that he might never drive a Range Rover Sport like some of his more successful counterparts.

They own bars and clubs and big businesses. All he owns are the clothes on his body and in the tiny leather suitcase in the corner of the living room. This makes him reconsider the next steps he has to take to get his life in order. Perhaps he will go back to his old trade for a few months.

“Just for a little longer so I can at least drive a Range,” he convinces himself.

Deep down, however, he knows that he would not be able to leave once he goes back in. He wants the glamour, the flashy car, the big house, the beautiful wife, and the well-fed, well-clothed children. He has a soft spot for children. His own bundle of joy softened his heart and turned him into the calm man he now is.

“Eh, nilikua mbaya,” I was really bad. These words are always on his lips when he talks about his past.

Mwas’s cold, deep-set eyes are the only things that reveal his dangerous side. Otherwise, you would mistake him for just another hustler on the streets of Nairobi. You would also have to know him to read that intense look in his eyes that says, “I’ve seen it all and I’ve done it all.”

‘I have been to prison many, many times,’ Mwas tells me as he sips his ever-loyal cold Tusker beer.

‘The last time he was in prison was in 2014, almost twenty years after I stepped into those cold rooms way back during my Form 4.’ He says quietly a faint smile on his face.

Back then in his final year of High School, hewas caught with ammunition, drugs and stolen items in his ‘box.’ In Kenya, all secondary school students have metallic suitcases for storing their clothes and other personal stuff. He was imprisoned for a few months, but was able to resume school upon his release.

According to him, you either get better or worse when you get out. He got worse. What made him the worst, though, was the death of his best friend. He turned into an animal, then. Got into harder crimes, and was unforgiving to those who betrayed him.

It was Mwas’s best friend, Oti who introduced him to this life of crime. He was only fifteen at the time. His first assignment was to tag along with him and his gang as they carjacked a PSV and stole passengers’ possessions. Mwas’s first step was taken when he asked a young lady to hand over her purse to him for perusal.

He did not look into her face for fear they might meet another time, and she would remember him. Years after this first encounter on a sunny Saturday in June, Mwas lay over his best friend’s body and watched as his eyes rolled for the last time. He had been shot by the police outside his home somewhere in Eastlands.

“What changed him from a ruthless criminal to a calm individuals?” You might ask.

“Mtoi wangu amenichange. Amefanya at least nafikiria kuendelea kuishi juu yake, yaani I have hope because of her,” my child has changed me. She has given me hope in life, he says with a soft look on his face.

Mwas is not foolish. He did not proceed to college, but only because he started his craft early, and had no need for education at the time, or so he thought. He grew up knowing that the only true path for him was a life of crime, he didn’t know better.

When you start a habit in your teenage life, and it turns into a career, there isn’t much you can do to fight it. You let yourself sink in until you need to come up for air. Mwas has come up for air, but he will soon miss the water, and will dive back in. Once he does this, there’s no telling what will come next.

As Mwas wakes up to leave the restaurant we have been sitting in for the past two hours, I feel sorry for him. I wonder whether he will dive back into the water of crime and desperately hope he will not.

As he walks up to me, black bag on his left shoulder, I breathe a sigh of relief. Our reunion is not as uncomfortable as I thought it would be. He seems older. This is no doubt as a result of the ample greys on his head, eyebrows and moustache. Only a few months since we last saw each other and he looks five years older.

“I hope I also don’t look five years older,” I think to myself.

His face seems darker, like mine does when I spend too much time outdoors in Mombasa without sunscreen. His hair has not thinned out, and his eyebrows are as thick as mine if not thicker.

The sun causes his forehead to glisten and this brightens his face. His eyes are bloodshot, as though he didn’t get enough sleep the night before. He also seems to have lost weight. Not too much, though. I wish I had slimmed down, rather than gained as much as I have since we last saw each other.

I’m glad he brought the black bag along with him. It puts me at ease. The three-hour journey from Nairobi to the Kiganjo Police Training College seems to have relaxed me, as well. Thank God for road transportation.

The area visitors have been assigned is vast and dry. The heat is unbearable. Luckily, my brother finds a spot under some eucalyptus trees for the two of us when I arrive. This is where my dad finds us. I arrive an hour and a half earlier than him and am almost finished eating when my brother fetches him from the main gate. My brother respectfully drags a construction stone for him to sit on and places it strategically at a distance from me. This makes us all slightly uncomfortable.

Eh, Ivy. Bado uko Kenya?” I see you are still in Kenya Ivy, he says. I flinch. I didn’t come here for a fight so I restrict my tongue. It has gotten me into too much trouble with too many people too many times before.

Hapana, niko tu,” no, am around, I reply trying as hard as possible to control my voice. I do not want him to hear the amusement I feel at this statement.

Swahili is the language of choice in awkward situations for him. I do not know why, but it just is. I ask him if he wants some food and he feigns surprise, “You cooked?”

I nod and serve him a plate of the coconut rice and biryani I had made at four a.m. that morning. I love cooking for people, and if it means waking up at four, I am all for it.

He settles himself onto the stone my brother brought for him, and asks my brother, who is seated between us as if to act as a buffer, to hold his peach plastic plate as he opens the bag.

I do not know why, but I watch him closely as he opens it. Out comes a bag of chicken and chips, a plastic container of pilau, and a pack of English muffins. Suddenly, I flash back to my high school days when he would visit me, black bag laden with goodies that I would then toss into my jacket before anyone saw.

This exchange was usually done at the front of the school, and someone probably almost always saw me! Luckily, I wore this oversize maroon coat my entire three years at Moi Forces, nerd that I was. I could therefore stuff as many illegal items (food) into its large pockets as I could.

Their voices bring me back to the present. They are talking about the training Omanyalla is undergoing at Kiganjo. He is a year and a half younger than me and we have been brought up together closely. We both came to Nairobi for further studies. He is the opposite of me, but we have our similarities.

For example, even though he is training to be part of the Kenya Police, he is a much better writer than me. He studied Journalism at the Mount Kenya University. We are both rebels! We never do as we’re told. As I watch him I laugh at him good naturedly, interrupting their conversation.

Longi yako haifiki chini!” Your trousers are too short!

Si uziingize kwa boots zako,” tuck them into your boots, I add.

He is slightly taller than me, and was unlucky enough to get the shortest trousers. He is wearing a navy green uniform with the funniest looking hat, which he hangs on the back of his neck. They call them kurutus, recruits.

I have heard most of Omanyalla’s stories about his training already so my attention drifts back to my thoughts. This time I recall another time in high School when I was selecting which subjects to drop, and which ones to continue with. Both my mom and dad were there. Academics was the single most important thing to them when it came to me. I remember I was the first one in class with a fifty-something in Mathematics.

What stood out in this performance was the fifty-something and not the number one. My father chastised me so harshly that day that I cried in front of the whole class. Luckily my tall self sat in the back so not a lot of people saw my tears. Such was the tough love I got from him.

The bag was a reminder of his softer side. It reminded me of a simpler time when choices were simple and decisions were not as heavy as they are now. When life was not as complicated, and I was just a young daddy’s girl doing everything I was told to do. I have two bones to pick with time. One is that it takes away the innocence of youth. The other is that it has steals familiarity from people once so close to the point that they become strangers.

As I zone back to the present again, I realize my silence is making things awkward for both of them. I slowly begin to ease back into the conversation and make small contributions. Eventually, after a bit of coercion on my part, I am welcomed into the conversation, and it almost feels like old times. Almost.

After a few minutes of small talk, the bag opens for the last time. He takes out a bottle of diet coke and familiar-looking plastic cups. I remember those cups very well. I had left them when I left home a year ago. This familiarity warms my insides, but not to tears. I am all grown-up now, and my tears much further down than they were eight years earlier.

Soon after, my brother’s squad-mates come to say hello. Dad is delighted. Here is a chance to impart some of his knowledge. He loves to do this. One of his most memorable words to me is a quote he loves - only fools don’t change their minds. This is my go-to-quote when I have to go against something I believe in, or when I need an excuse to do the wrong thing.

I pull my brother aside for a little private talk as he goes on and on about service to the people, and respect for human life. Of course I eavesdrop because just like him I love to talk, and tell people things they already know, but do not care for. Soon, it’s time for us to start the long journey back to Nairobi.

We say our goodbyes and walk together towards the matatu stage. I feel satisfied with the trip. When we reach the gate, however, a sadness engulfs me. I stare at that unimpressive square black bag in front of me and conclude that life is too short to hold stupid grudges against those people that should matter the most to us.

Every evening when I was growing up I would sit on the stairs of our front porch watching and waiting for even the softest breeze to help with my jiko-lighting. In most cases, there would be no breeze to assist me. If the jiko was to catch fire and let me be on my way to the playground with the rest of the kids from my estate, then I would have to blow life into it straight from my lungs.

It was an arduous task, to say the least. A page of an old newspaper would go into the opening of the jiko, matches at the end of the newspaper, my mouth close to both, and I would blow as hard as I could. Sometimes I was lucky enough to have forgotten that there was ash under there and get my whole face filled with the gray stuff.

I hated lighting those things. I vowed to never ever own one and never make my daughter light one, until I saw an advertisement of a jiko a few months ago as I was queuing at the bank. Life saving stoves, they called them, but an energy saving jiko is what you probably know them as.

An energy-saving jiko has plenty of benefits. It is better on the environment because it releases a lot less smoke than a regular jiko. It also uses less charcoal. Some brands boast the use of almost half the charcoal a regular jiko uses. This reduces the rate of deforestation in the country. Energy-saving jikos also produce more heat and your food is ready before people start complaining of hunger. Traditional jikos can take ages to boil a small pot of water. The energy-saving jiko is a life-saver for most women who have used the traditional jiko.

Statistics show that in the next few decades, urbanization and population growth will increase charcoal consumption by 50.82% percent. This means more pollution in the form of smoke and toxic gases, and less forests, not to mention more neighbors! As if there are not enough people in urban areas already. My building houses 86 bedsitters, each of which can comfortably hold two-four people in 1/16th acre piece of land.

Water is a luxury and 100 liter storage containers are the norm. When I have running water for 24 hours straight, I can barely contain myself. I want to wash everything and every inch of my house. In a few years, getting water even thrice weekly will become a luxury. The least I (we) can do is improve on the areas that we can because some areas we will not be able to change.

Sure, even the energy-saving jikos are not the most environmentally friendly. While toxic gas reduction is reduced, it is not completely eliminated. However, before you pass judgment, consider that we all have to make small changes like converting to energy-friendly options to make a big difference as a whole. Almost half (45.9%) of Kenya’s 45.55 million (2014) or so people live below the poverty line which is exceptionally low as is expected of a lower-middle income country.

Despite the availability of energy-saving jikos in Nairobi, I do not own one. Obviously I’m a sweet talker, who cannot back up her convincing words with actions, right? Wrong. I desperately want a jiko that will use half the charcoal as the one’s I used in my childhood and exude 80% less smoke (Honestly, the smoke is incentive enough to get one). I just do not live in a place conducive to use such an appliance. Hear me out before you once again go passing judgment.

First of all, I live in a one-roomed (roomed, not bed-roomed) house with no balcony. So using a jiko, energy-saving or otherwise, would be impossible. In fact, of all the 86 ‘houses’ in my building, none uses a jiko. It is simply impractical to use one here. Or maybe it’s because none of the people living in my building are part of the 45.9%. Anyway, point is, the environment is not friendly for jiko use, not even an environmentally friendly one.

Excuse number two is that energy-saving jikos are not as cheap as regular jikos. A jikokoa charcoal stove goes for about KES 3500. This is about the amount of money I spend on gas in about 7-9 months of moderate to heavy use. I am a heavy user. I cook every meal, unless I’m having overnight oats in which case I heat water for coffee (instant) to take with it. Considering that I bought my gas cylinder complete with a burner for KES 4500, the jikokoa really is cheaper. No excuses here.

Excuse number three… No more excuses. The more I write, the more I realize all I have been telling myself about getting a sustainable jiko has been for naught. I want to be part of the statistics of energy-saving jikos. I want to be part of the 300,000 lives changed and to contribute to the KES 11.1 million saved. I want to be part of the 1.8 billion people in Sub-Saharan Africa whose lives have changed by 2050. It could be sooner if more of us sit down and realize we’ve been making too many excuses. And on my path to a clean diet, I want to be a user of clean cooking technology, as well.

One person cannot change the world, but when it comes to sustainability, a small change by everyone makes a bigger difference. It’s no wonder environmentalists are such great speakers. Part of their cause, as with any other, is to convince people to believe in it enough to make those small changes that accumulate to make big impacts. I keep saying small changes because in the context of nature as a whole, they are small. However, the changes are actually grand. Even if it takes a few months for the effect to be felt.

Just like my poor eating habits, which are steadily declining, my sustainable actions will consistently improve. I might be the next Wangari Mathai. Not all leaders are born, some have it thrust down their throats by circumstance, duty and guilty consciences. I want to get to line having struggled and fought. It does not matter how you get there, though. All that matters is that you finally crossed the finish line, in a way. Becoming sustainable is not the end of sustainability, after all. I love jikokoa’s motto, ‘Life. Saving. Stoves.’ Imagine saving a life, yours or someone else’s.