We arrived at Kangemi social hall early enough. Like many other youths, this was one opportunity I did not want to miss anything; especially registering early enough to be around when tea is served. By ten o’clock the organizers called all to attention and after prayers, the seminar began. The first speaker was the moderator from the NGO that had convened us. She spoke softly but firmly. She started by explaining that they were an NGO keen on empowering youth. In response to this some youths could be heard murmuring “where are the jobs, we have papers”. She continued and pointed out that life is what one makes it and that if we chose to make ours great, it was all within our making. “Normal motivation crap”, I quipped under my breath. She introduced the speaker of the day and as she sat down she added, “I hope our speaker of the day helps you think without a box, all wealth and happiness and freedom awaits you”.
“Nature and nurture can be used in the same sentence without contradiction”, Mzee Maembe began speaking. “That is quite a statement”, I thought to myself. “Ladies and gentlemen, the more we forget nature, the more chaotic, loathsome, grueling and despotic our lives become”. A youth close to me leaned towards me and said “sounds familiar, crap about environment and sustainability, right?” Mzee Maembe looking in our direction and seeming to address me continued, “I was just like you”. What? How could a man who owns a leading manufacturing company, retail chains and hotel chains have been just like me?
“This area, this slum is very close to my heart” said Mzee Maembe. “Many of you know me as the owner of multi-million businesses. Yes, I own businesses that fulfill my joy and excite my life every day. Every day I wake up and the joy of seeing people finding livelihood and fulfillment fills my heart. How I wish all humanity would feel such joy. How I pray that today marks a new beginning for you young men and women such that 20 years from now, you will be telling others a story of joy and fulfillment”. By this time, I was hooked. That is exactly what I wanted, that was my dream; to live a life that blesses others and enables them find meaning and value in their existence.
“20 years ago, ladies and gentlemen, 20 years, I lived in this Kangemi and I was a pauper. Just like you, I enjoyed the stench, insecurity and helplessness that slum life can offer” continued Mzee Maembe. “I remember my turning point very well. I was 32 years old, a diploma holder and had done all odd jobs in this great city as a sales person and a merchandiser. I enjoyed my work but then one day my employer lost the merchandising contract. Without savings and a job, it meant whiling away time in the ghetto and looking for menial jobs, especially on construction sites for survival. Let me tell you how my journey to where I am today started”, Mzee Maembe said with a firm tone and to this, I could see every youth in the room shifting his or her sitting position.
“My journey to the top started through some unfortunate circumstances. On this particular day, I did some heavy work on a construction site and as usual received my wages. Like it was our norm, we decided to pass through Kawangware to say sorry to our bodies. Our normal style of saying sorry to the body was to pass through Mama Safi Hotel for cow leg delicacy then we would proceed to Mama Pima’s joint to gallop down Busaa or Chang’aa until the body felt sedated. The day was calm as usual, the Mama Pima environment way. There were hordes of us in every corner and I could pick out the voices of the regulars as they belted their broken English and assured the world of how learned they were. Everything was going right but no sooner had I taken a swig at the contents in my glass than I heard murmurs “this chang’aa of today is not good”, one said. “It has a funny taste, but it is catching me well”, another one said. “It is not the normal one, Mama Pima, hii chang’aa ina nini, uliongeza mkojo wako?” another one joked.
I ignored what they were saying for normal drunkards’ talk; the chang’aa had a funny smell yes, but it tasted good, it had the kind of toughness that makes one close an eye before swallowing a gulp. I took a swig and another and another until I was about to empty the contents in my glass. I was drinking fast because I needed to get back to Kangemi and address something before it was dark. Just then, I heard a man groan and say “hii pombe ni mbaya bwana”. Before his words could settle, I heard more retorts to the same effect and immediately felt a dizziness beginning to creep up and my eye lids becoming heavy. My brain ran very fast, and quickly the thought struck me “another case of illicit brew poisoning?” There had been numerous such instances but like we the drunkards used to say, it is insane to stop drinking; only alcohol can reject me.
Not wanting to take chances, I sprung to my feet and staggered out of Mama Pima’s den. I spotted a motor bike guy, beckoned him and ordered him to rush me to the nearest hospital. Rush, he did, riding mad like motor bike guys love to do and I clung on him as I bit my teeth together trusting that I would hang on my dear life no matter what happened. By the time we got to the hospital, I was already frothing at the mouth and my breath was belabored. As I was being helped into the doctors’ room, all I could feebly matter was, ni pombe inaniua. I do not remember anything else but I came to, a day later to the news that thirty fellow drinkers had died and I was among the few survivors.
A well wisher took care of our hospital bill and I was discharged. However, ladies and gentlemen, I had lost all capacity to do the usual construction site work. I was emaciated and did not know where the meal of the day would come from. I went to my rental room and for two days I was confined to my room; feeding on porridge and nothing but porridge. I knew I had to do something if I was to survive. I took my phone and called a friend. In a condescending tone, he told me “Kama Nairobi imekushinda, rudi mashambani”. Those are the most hurtful words I have ever heard but those are the words that turned my life around.
After a few days of relying on my neighbors for something to eat, weak and tired, I made the decision; to go back to the village. This is the most difficult decision to make; going back to the village signifies accepting failure and giving up on the dream of finding a great job and being wealthy, which is what I felt as I rode the bus back to Western Kenya. Immediately my clansmen heard I had arrived, they came knocking; as usual expecting handouts from the city. However, upon seeing the skeleton I had been reduced to, they quickly found an excuse and left. It did not take more than two days before the verdict found consensus among villagers; and the verdict was: I was HIV positive with full blown AIDS. In a good village like ours, that verdict meant none was keen to associate with me. I was left to the care of my mum, poor mum; her eyes were always filmy with tears whenever they met with mine. From the fear in her eyes, I knew she also believed what the other villagers believed, her son was going, and death was beckoning.
My mum was born again and she strongly believed in miracles. I guess that is why she invited him; the pastor I despised most because of his ever nagging behavior. He was always on my case whenever I would visit my village; always making pronouncements about how all pursuits are vanities unless done in the spirit or when tuned to GOD fm. I used to argue with him and dismiss him but now that I was weak and bedridden, I skeptically listened to him pray and rant about God’s power. He prophesized that I would not die, I would live. Of course, I was not terminally ill and I knew that with mother’s good care I would be strong and ready to go back to Nairobi in no time.
After the long prayers, my mum left and returned with a big kettle of tea and a plateful of arrow roots. As we munched away on the delicacy, the pastor turned to me and said, “Son it shall be well with you”. To this the assistants and my mum quickly rejoined with “Amen”. The pastor then fished his bible and read a verse in 1 Samuel that was to the effect that scion was to emerge from the house of Jesse. And what followed was an animated sermon by the pastor on the scion that was to emerge in the house of Jesse. This talk kind of melted my heart because I needed all the assurance I could get. Then there was dramatic silence; that deep silence that ensues after someone has been shouting in a room for a while. I looked up and gazed into the eyes of the pastor who was looking straight at me. “Son”, the pastor calmly started, “I want you to reclaim your birthright. You were not born to fail, you were born to win. You are not a looser; you are a gainer in Jesus’ name. You are not the tail, you are the head, trust in God and reclaim your birth right”. The pastor went on quoting bible verses about God’s faithfulness and nearly lost me when he veered into some arimashaba bagala kararaimabala raswamathakani, all in the name of speaking in tongues.
The pastor and his entourage left but I was left thinking and for a number of days I thought without any clear answers. What did that pastor mean by I should reclaim my birthright? Hope he does not mean I get born again as to be walking around with a holier than thou gait? As I started to regain my energy, I visited my grand father and mentioned the idea of birthright. My grand father quickly pointed to land; “you want your dad to give you your share of the ancestral land?” he seemed to ask himself and continued as if talking to himself “Now what would you do with that. Land has shrunk; you should go out and look for money where there is money. Even if you were to be given the quarter an acre that may be your birthright, what would you do with it?” I quickly, excused myself and left because getting a share of my dad’s land was far from my thoughts.
I was unsettled and knew I had to get some money and return to Nairobi. There was a village mate who had dropped out of school in class eight and was doing very well; he was the rich man in the village. I went to him to request for a loan. Rudely he told me that he would not give me any loan but if I chose to, I could work with him on his farm for pay. He was lucky; I thought to myself, his dad had left him a two acre piece of land. On that piece of land he had a dairy unit, maize, tomatoes and vegetables. I started helping him on the farm and I got a rude surprise. Every day my friend could sell crates of tomatoes, vegetables and milk from his dairy unit. From the four lactating cows he had, he had at least 40 litres of milk daily, which assured him of at least 1000 Kshs per day. By village standards, this was a lot of money. I helped him on the farm and he gave me 200Kshs per day. One day as we were sitting below a mango tree, resting after spraying the tomatoes, three mangoes came down by themselves from the tree and fell by my feet. As if in succession, I became aware of other thuds not far away from where we were as avocadoes fell loosely from a tree.
What? I asked myself. Are these the same fruits we bought at 20Kshs each in Nairobi? There and then, I knew what to do. I went to our local town and walked around, scouting to determine the supply of mangoes and avocadoes in town. I saw a few fruit stands and some women hawking fruits but I knew there was untapped potential. My uncle was a bicycle repair in some corner of town near a primary school. I went and asked him what I had to do if I wanted to start a fruit stand close to his bicycle repair stand. By the next day, I visited my friend not to help him on the farm but to collect mangoes and avocadoes. Just on the first day, I was mesmerized by how people grabbed the clean and well arranged mangoes and avocadoes at my stand. The mangoes and avocadoes were in plenty in my village, so I could buy many and started selling to hotels for juice making. Before long, I had to employ someone to take care of the initial fruit stand as I did supplies to schools, hotels and even offices. As my clientele grew and became loyal, I began to notice other things they used such as vegetables, tomatoes, cereals, onions and I supplied. At this time the knowledge acquired in school came in hand; I registered a business name, printed invoices, receipt books and delivery books. Without knowing it, I was becoming the preferred supplier of cereals and grocery items in town.
I had no choice but to open my first cereals store and a grocery, adjacent to each other in town. As the work grew, I employed more young people to help me. Then with more capital than I needed, I ventured into the hotel business. I did not start big; I simply started a milk café and focused on giving extra-ordinary service to my clientele. I went to the villages and collected milk, which I either served as tea or prepared sour milk that was served with ugali or mandazi. Before long, we had to introduce other foods like chips and main course meals. We looked for bigger space and our model of dealing directly with farmers helped my hotel to offer very competitive prices on things like chicken.
This is how my mega businesses started my dear friends. It started with me realizing the value in what God had given our people in abundance. The more I dealt with farmers from my home town, I realized the challenges they faced marketing their products. I realized how much they were exploited by middle men. I also realized how seasonality of products also meant seasonality of income for them. As a consequence of seasonal income, my people were embroiled and trapped in a certain poverty cycle. I sought to find market for most of their produce and to give competitive prices to them. I started taking their produce to new markets. With better returns, my people increased their productivity on the farms. For instance, my suppliers of tomatoes were increasing the production every year due to my assured buying of their product. I kept supplying markets like Nairobi but soon realized I could even make more money if I processed the tomatoes. I ventured into agro-processing and I have never looked back. The profits keep flowing in. I visit supermarkets and I am happy to see my products smiling at me. I have worked on a model where my production is retail chain driven. I have retailers all over the country who pre-order my products. Most critically, my other businesses are the greatest movers of my products. My hotel chain and retail stores are an assured distribution chain.
As I conclude my friends, you have choices to make. The choice to embrace your birthright or you will continue searching for Holy Grail. I was more like you; I thought success will come my way if I stick in slums in urban centers and do odd jobs waiting for the lucky break. Little did I know that in basic things availed to us by nature, we can grow some gold. Now I have friends and they mesmerize me. I have a friend who supplies firewood; but unlike those who rely on forests, he gets his firewood from his tree farm and from others who have planted trees. To ensure there will always be trees, he liaises with farmers and encourages them to plant fast maturing trees. I now have suppliers to my hotels. They have poultry farms or they buy eggs and chicken from farmers, among other commodities and supply to my hotel. Agribusiness my friends, agribusiness is the most assured route to comfort in life that one ever discovered. You do not need to own big lands. You just need access to some land and engage in farming activities that excite you. You do not have to go to the farm; just help solve the problems farmers face and you will be blessed with great returns” concluded Mzee Maembe.
As the vote of thanks was made by a youth leader, as the moderator thanked all and declared the seminar over and as people milled out of the social hall ready to go on as if nothing happened, I remained fixed on my seat and staring into space. There was fear in my heart but I knew the decision I had to make. I have to claim my birthright!