“ The odds are stacked against young CEOs trying to make it in Nairobi”, my friend says that a lot. He says it so much, it stopped being a joke about how difficult it is to be a successful young person in Nairobi, and turned to a self-evaluation at what exactly is in the way of teenage and twenty-something-year-old success stories and millionaires.
We walk a lot, my friend and I. Sometimes it’s to go get greens, other times it’s to watch sunsets. You have a lot of time when you work from home, and when payments are late and the landlord’s agent is early, you need to blow off steam. And so we found ourselves along Red Hill Road, walking in the bright red dust that makes your whites look dirty, it was about 5 p.m and matatus were overloaded with people leaving work to attend to household chores.
I saw the reflector jackets before I saw the pickup truck. Young men milling around the truck, antsy, looking like they were expecting payment. The person I asked told me I’d get a spot, counting cars for $12 a day, from 6 a.m to 10 p.m, for six days a week. That is back-breaking work, even with a chair provided, and umbrella and a bottle of water. You get to see the sun rise, then you get to see it set, and all that because there is really nothing you’d be doing at home, so why not ‘chase cars’ like Snow Patrol and get $12 where you had none?
I think it’d be really amazing content for TV if they brought young people who’ve made money LEGALLY, (not politician’s kids or people who’ve acquired wealth dubiously) and they shared their story with the millions of young people who want to get to the bag and bring their family and friends to prosperity. People who started selling boiled eggs, did scrupulous business over the years, and now own their futures. Like how Americans look up to Jay Z, MJ, Master P as OGs, and Migos, Meek Mill and Nipsey as new-age inspiration.
I left my number with the man, and we walked in silence. I didn’t believe I just considered giving my labour away for $12 for 16 hours of counting cars. I had such lofty dreams when I was leaving school, leave school, go to uni, make mad cash, marry the love of my life and show these guys how it’s done. My friend will later tell me he pictured himself driving a Rolls Royce Phantom two years after school, and show these guys driving Toyota’s how real hustlers do it. Then Nairobi shows you that you really don’t know anything.
I feel like we need to hear more about people who are like the Jimcys of our generation. The arts are nice, but not everyone can sing, dance or play ball. Someone ‘normal’, who had fears about the light bill, about food, about whether the agent was looking for them, about the family planning pill they took because they cannot afford a baby. You know, someone that really started with nothing and they have achieved a level of success that was unimagined when they started. There’s so much innovation in the streets, but not enough highlights about the amazing opportunities that young people are making out of nothing.
I pictured myself taking up the $12 offer. My face cold from the harsh Nairobi winter, my fingers attempting to make notes as my fingers go numb. All these to have enough to eat, to replace my fading jeans, to buy a toy for my niece, to afford a date, to keep my landlord and KPLC happy, and to have enough to save. I sighed and watched the sun go down in the posh suburbs of Nyari, and asked myself if I’d ever live in a posh, gated neighbourhood, let alone buy a house in one.
A friend of mine called me the day before last, he’s a cab driver with the taxi apps, and he was checking up. In between laughs, we remembered living in Umoja not too long ago, eating chapatti and ndengu for about four of seven days a week, and walking to buy fresh bread at a bakery for 45 shillings because the five bob could buy dhanias for garnish. Then he said how saturated the market is, and how he has to apply himself harder for the same amount of money. I know what he means, it’s getting harder to get $10 for the same amount of work I did a couple of years ago. Yet my job is supposed to be easy, to give me liberty with time, to work from home away from over-bearing bosses.
My free time means I read a lot. One of the things I read recently was the obsession by economists with mobile money and financial technology in regards to Africa’s poor. The report said that access to mobile money didn’t mean that Africa was rising, it just meant there was that; access to mobile money transfer systems. Made me think about money, and how young people are supposed to make money, with no money. Siblings have to go to school, parents ask for gas refill money, relatives back home want help, taking part in multiple health fundraisers before they turn into funeral fundraisers, all these while trying to do the things that your youth demands you do.
It’s Sunday at night, 11:46 p.m. The car-counting people never called, and I’m kind of relieved, that was not something I was looking forward to doing. I’m typing this anxiously. I meet a musician tomorrow, to ask him for an interview. I sent the agenda in the WhatsApp group, an articulate text that explained how we’ll win him and his group over, but I am relying on all the time I’ve spent watching Charlamagne the god on BreakFast Club, and Big Boy TV not to fail me when I need it most. I feel like that’s what majority of my generation feels like, that they are ready, that they want to make money, that they want to take their mum’s and families out of the ghetto, that they don’t want to ignore any more contribution appeals. But you cannot make money, with no money.
The odds are stacked against young kings and queens in Nairobi. For sure. That we have to keep finding new ways to make money, with no money, is not how things should be, resilience in the face of man-made challenges, is not something we should be proud to associate with our people, but we have to make do with what we have. So I’ll wake up tomorrow, send in my excel sheets, wait for approvals and payments, meet with a wildly-popular star and hope that one day I’ll walk knowing our children will never have to worry about making money, with no money.