(Speech Delivered on Saturday 8th July 2017 at the Africa Careers Network Baraza in Kilimani, Nairobi)
Good evening everybody,
I have a confession to make from the get-go: I am not entirely sure why me today. Why, of all the incredible hundreds of ALA alumni with mind blowing stories, am I the one speaking to you today? For starters, I am not the most eloquent. Neither am I the most accomplished, far, far, from it – we’ve had folks publish books, do TED Talks, launch multi-million shilling businesses, grace magazine covers and top 30 under 30 lists. If you have an ALA flyer or have been to our website, you know what I mean. Nor am I the ‘consummate professional’ to dish out life-altering advice on how to climb ladders to the pinnacles of success. At best, I am a mix of a handful of triumphs and a myriad of missteps. In fact, if I was to list all the times I have failed, trust me, the Kenyans amongst you wouldn’t vote. Why? Well, because I’d still be talking on election day one month from now. If you expect to hear from a poster-child of ALAian success in this speech, I promise to disappoint. Nonetheless, I’m very honored to share a piece of my story with you today – mostly through the rarer perspective of failure, vulnerability and growth.
I am aware that if I worked in some places, talking about my failures at a networking event, instead of fleshing out my resume, would be tantamount to committing professional suicide. But I have the fortune of working as a Learning Designer with the good people at Nova Pioneer. At Nova, we celebrate failure. As a school and as an organization, we see failure not as an absence of growth but as an integral part of the process of growth and learning. Every Friday, we – both staff and students – have a cultural practice called Failure Fries where we sit around a table and talk about how we’ve erred and the lessons we’ve learnt over deliciously unhealthy plates of fries. To err is human, they say, but for little me, this old adage held little meaning.
A little background first. I am a villager from Nakuru, Kenya. I grew up under very interesting circumstances; I was the only child to a single mother – who herself had 13 siblings. So I had both the solitude of a nuclear family of 2 and the the warmth of a larger family of 17. Few people know this but my mother worked as a househelp at the residence of a former Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Nairobi when I was a baby. She couldn’t take me with her so I was left with my grandma in the village till I decided, at the tender age of two, I’m told, to get myself some milk from a boiling sufuria and almost killed myself in the process. To keep a steady eye on my developing mischief, mom changed jobs to a casual laborer at a freshly-opened, local dispensary and stayed there throughout my childhood. Even though she made so little, no child I knew was more loved than me. I don’t know how she did it but my mum bought me a present – however small – almost every single day. She taught me resilience, work ethic and self-reliance which have come in handy these days (every day at the Njeris, the lights were on and chores began at 5 AM without fail: studying, making breakfast, cleaning the house, feeding the cow, fetching water from the river.) At school, I was quietly brilliant – or so my teachers told mom, and so they would keep telling her into my adulthood. He never speaks and when he speaks it’s incoherent, but he has good grades. Exceptional grades actually. I was first in my class for six straight years in primary school. Those were six beautiful years but…Naomi Wanjiru transferred to our school.
I cried when my streak came to an end. The boys in my class rubbed it in like they were on a payroll for it. Eeh, sijui Muturi has gotten his match; eeh there’s no way he’ll ever catch up with Naomi. You’d think they were not the same boys I had been whipping for seven good years. I feared my mum would give me hell when I took my report card home with a curved figure – and not a straight one. But she didn’t; she was still proud of me; she knew I would fight it out. And so the next term I was back to first, then second, then first, then second, then first…In retrospect, Naomi was the best thing that happened to me in primary school. She, unwittingly, prepared me for a world where I wouldn’t always get what I wanted, where excellence was to be earned through sheer hard work, not innate talent; where it was okay to be second, so your first would be better next time.
Then I went to Nakuru High School on a scholarship. There, I found a hundred more Naomis. In my first exam, I was a solid position 1-1-6. I got a 28% on my first Business Studies test. I was devastated. But how did my mum react to it? Cool: “It’s okay son, I know you can do better.” So the next time I did better: I jumped from position 116 to 16, from 28% to just slightly above 99%. To me, the 28% never meant I was not capable of understanding. Maybe if I hadn’t been three weeks late for high school due to lack of school fees and didn’t have to take the test the same day I reported to school, I’d have done much better. Or maybe not. The 28% is still on my high school transcript, but does it define me? I’d argue not. Granted, our failures impact us, but we must fight for the power to define ourselves – to write our own stories.
Three years later I joined ALA. To be honest, after that finalist weekend in Nairobi in early 2008, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be at ALA. The finalist weekend was the first time I had been to Nairobi and I simply felt out of my depth. People here spoke with “USIU-Strathmore” accents, played basketball and guitars, wore social faces and clothes from boutiques. I was the exact opposite: an awkward 15-year old kid who hid in his room when sessions were over, embarrassed by his village accent and inexperience. I don’t know what the ALA admissions team saw in me, maybe it was my choice of object to talk about myself in 90 seconds – a tissue paper, of all things.
ALA was incredible: Ol donyo Mara, my primary school, had been a thousand kids from within three miles of my home, ALA was two hundred students from over 30 countries in Africa and beyond. The sheer diversity blew me away. The first few weeks at ALA I mostly hang out with Ali Ramoul from Algeria who was part of my advisory family (an advisory family at ALA for those who don’t know is a social “family unit” composed of an advisory faculty and about 6 students). Ali told me about his life in Algeria – in simple English blended with French and Arabic accents. Like younger me, Ali was quietly brilliant. And what courage and patience it must have taken for him – and his fellow Francophone and Lusophone scholars at ALA- to study in a language they barely spoke!
Now, there’s plenty to talk about from my ALA experience – but a lot has been said about success at ALA. And fairly so, because there is tons of it. I’d like to go the opposite direction and highlight one of my biggest failures at ALA. At Nakuru High, I had gotten a 28%; at ALA, in my first “attempt” at the Cambridge AS Math exam, I scored a U. And that, my friends, is not a typo. Not an E, not an F, a U. A U is when your grade is so low, you don’t deserve the honor of getting a grade in the normal human range of A to F. Was there a perfect explanation for this? Maybe, maybe not. But I knew better than to wallow in despondency – actually I found the grade amusing at first. I sought help from my teachers – especially Ms Osibodu – and my peers – especially Estella from Cameroon – and while I broke no records when I resat the test, I managed a respectable B.
ALA also introduced me to my love for writing and storytelling. Ms Gator’s and Ms Jordan’s writing classes were some of my favorites. But back then, I was too obsessed with being the next Mark Zuckerberg to tune into my love for writing. When I went to Colgate University and was asked that obligatory question for a college freshman, “So what are you planning to take.” My response was always, “Econ and Comp Sci.” My story from a prospective “Econ and Comp Sci” double major to a “Psychology major, African Studies and Writing minor” is too long for this speech. But some nuggets from it include: failing Comp Science 101 and having the guts to go back to Comp Sci 100 and getting bored out of my wits and subsequently withdrawing from Microeconomics with grades not so different from that Business Studies test in high school.
I’m sure you can “extrapolate” from the data points you have about me so far that my post-college story has not been one for the ages. There were two things I knew before graduating: one, I wanted to pursue a writing-intensive career in Africa and, two, I had no plan whatsoever on how to make it happen. I argued with my mother about returning to the continent, and I won that argument. So, when I would tell her I wasn’t feeling challenged enough at my first job, she very much relished the opportunity to drop the parental “I warned you” bomb on me.
At 23, you unconsciously compare yourself with your peers and worry about falling behind. You are swamped with a cacophony of well-meaning advice on why you must do it now – Bill Gates did it when he was 20, why not you? Do it before the family commitments and the mortgages! If you went to ALA, and have received scholarships worth over 30 million shillings like I have, you have extra pressure to create more value and “transform the continent” now. If you’re not careful to get a proper perspective of your own journey, you will easily drown in the noise and buckle under the pressure.
I must thank the ALA Lifelong Engagement team, Ayado and Sharmi in particular, for always having faith in me, in us, even when we fail – especially when we fail – and doubt ourselves. I also wish to thank a cross section of people and institutions that have made this crazy journey of mine possible. I am grateful to my teammates at Kiva, Kuza Biashara and the Equity Group for the opportunity to learn through working with you. I am grateful to my teachers, my peers and my cheerleaders from ALA to the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program, from Colgate to the Equity Leaders Program from Ujima to Nova Pioneer – for believing in me, investing in me, and pushing me to be better. And, of course, I am grateful to God and to my mom – the realest MVP of MVPs.
In closing, I wish to quote Dean Hatim Eltayeb’s speech at this year’s ALA graduation ceremony (which, BTW, you should all check out). Dean Hatim says: “What we need, what Africa needs, is not one perfect breed of bananas, one perfect monoculture…what we need, what Africa needs, instead, is a vibrant community of strange, resilient, beautiful bananas – each of them with different strengths, susceptibilities, weaknesses and immunities.” From my experience, it pays – to both individuals and to communities – to be our own different bananas: to own our flaws and flip them into strengths, to define and walk our own journeys, to write and tell our own stories. And equally importantly, to cheer others on as they do so too.