Pole Pole Ndio Mwendo

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Lubumbashi University Lubumbashi University Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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.

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