LONG READ: The YALI Experience in 3,200 Words
There are lessons you are inadvertently taught when you are a 35-year-old being forced to sit in the same class with an 18-year-old. Imagine someone who is half your age, with less of life experiences sitting by your side, being taught the things you should have learned eighteen years ago.
You feel a little jealous that you were not told these things early enough; that some people are just lucky. But you also feel hopeful that a young generation is being made to learn about better ideals of leadership, and what a good society should look like. It is also somewhat shameful that you haven’t really done a lot to ‘change lives’, and in a country with a life expectancy of 61 years such as Kenya, you take a silent vow – the things you tell your heart and your mind and your conscience— to use the remaining part of your life to change the world. Your world.
But when you sit in that class with an open mind, to learn not just from the lecturers but also from your colleagues, both the ones on the fringes of the ‘youth’ bracket and the ones in their teens, you learn a lot. As Q told James Bond in that hit movie Skyfall, ‘Age is no guarantee of efficiency.’ And well, for the old ones, James had a response, ‘And youth is no guarantee of innovation.’
So what do you learn, you learn not to be defensive. You learn to ‘seek first to understand, and then be understood’. You learn something about, and this Sandra (she of Empire International) had a way of saying it, ‘lift up your hands as if you are blocking your face, then breath, now bring down your guard’. Someone else called it being ‘proactive’. If you notice, we are very big on Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
US President Barack Obama, that self-styled Kenyan-American, had to do something for the late global icon Nelson Mandela. He wants to mould leaders in Africa, get people with the brains, the will and the conscience to build a better community. So, he came up with this thing called Young African Leaders Initiative. It is something between a bootcamp and a university. In East and Central Africa, they have a Regional Learning Centre to cater for 14 countries set up at the Kenyatta University main campus in Nairobi. Those 14 countries are Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Central Africa Republic, Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, South Sudan, Sudan, Congo (Brazzaville) and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
There’s a certain kind of motivation people get when they listen to the stories that people tell, okay, let me say they share, without expectation of say, any help or adoration or even praise. If you are interested in the narrative, it is mind-blowing! Everyone has a struggle, but at the end of the day, they all come out smiling.
Moses (uganda), Ambrose (Kenya), Mashangao (DRC) and Eden (Ethiopia) during a seminar on Desigh Thinking at the YALI RLC EA at the Kenyatta University Main Campus in Nairobi (PHOTO/Ambrose Njeru's Facebook profile).
I met Iongwa Mashangao, a businessman from the DRC. A man who started 50 pieces of solar equipment or lanterns to light up his home and then his village in 2010, is now lighting up the whole of DRC. He began the business when he was a student in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
“I began with 50 pieces, then 100, then 2,000,” Mashangao told me as we sipped our beverage at break time in between the YALI lessons– him black tea with lemon; me, hot chocolate black.
For some reason, there’s a Kenyan, who handled the business for the US-based solar company. He saw the orders to DRC increasing. He went there, met Mashangao in a hotel lobby in Kinshasa.
“We met, we talked. He told me he can help me bring a whole container. I told him I couldn’t afford a whole container because I only had USD80,000 in the bank. He told me we should send him the amount and he will send us the container. It was a risk. We were meeting for the first time. He was a foreigner, yet we were supposed to trust him with all our savings. We told him we can repay the amount from the container in three months,” Mashangao told me about his leap of faith.
He sent the money. Then waited. The Kenyan boss did his part of the bargain and now Mashangao moves just over 30,000 pieces every three months, with annual returns of USD200,000. When he was here in Nairobi, he actually went to visit the Kenyan boss and his family!
I kept thinking: If he hadn’t trusted; if he didn’t take that leap of faith … clearly the universe responded to his desire and fulfilled it (Ha! I read that in Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich). Now he even offers credit to his countrymen, and they pay at their own time. He is offering a solution to the community. Empowering people – he has employed over 40 people, those are 40 families depending on the business. Imagine that kind of responsibility!
If you listen to Mashangao, he has that jovial jocular personality, always happy, serious and organized. And easy. He was actually running his business while in Nairobi, checking the reports every night after an exhausting day. I just wanted to sleep after the dinner. I last sat in a day-long class 13 years ago! We are almost the same age, so really, I have no excuse.
I asked Mashangao what he would change if he was to do it all over again.
“I won’t do it alone. I should have started with a large group so that as we move up, more are empowered,” he told me.
If Mashangao was to write you an email, he will end it ‘Blessings. Mashangao’. So, yes, I do feel blessed to have that kind of inspiration. And he has a knack for calling people “Great young leader!” Did I mention he is easy-going?
Now Geoffrey is a soft-spoken guy. We met on the corridors shortly after I had introduced myself as a Kenyan journalist working for the Standard Media Group Limited, the publishers of Kenya’s oldest newspaper. Geoffrey was looking for my colleague John Oywa. I have never met Oywa, because when he was the Bureau Chief in Kisumu, I was still working for the Nation Media Group. When I joined the Standard Group two years ago, he was no longer there. So, Geoffrey asked about him, and said he wanted to “thank him!” I knew right there, there was a story. I am a little gifted when it comes to reading people, so, I listened.
Geoffrey speaks in a soft whisper-ish voice. Even when he is shouting (let me say, projecting his voice to speak to a group of people) the timbre is still soft. So, you are forced to shut up and listen. It is a story of a clever young man going through life on the benevolence of friends and neighbours and relatives. It was not all rosy sometimes – for instance, he was forced to hawk in Nakuru at one point for long periods, just to make ends meet; was kicked out of a home of his guardian for some reason.
But a great relative saw the potential in him, helped him, took him to school, he worked hard, set records that still stand to this day, and now as a graduate, he is out here changing the world. Geoffrey’s story is so personal, you have to hear him share it, look at the seriousness in his eyes, and the pain, laughter and the emotions as he recalls the memories. And Geoffrey, if you read this, John is now a boss at Homa Bay County!
Aldarich Freeman Luboya
See how Aldarich commands the attention in the room.
Aldarich was my Congolese room-mate. When I got into the room, he was not there. But I saw his name tag, and I went out to look for ‘Freeman’ (Ha, who remembers Django Unchained, the Movie?). I wanted to see this guy, who, perhaps out of serendipity, the YALI RLC had decided should be my room-mate. I saw him at the reception cocktail, said hi, but I did not tell him he was my room-mate. I then went to the hostel. He came minutes later, knocked the room and I blurted out. ‘Freeman!’
He introduced himself as Aldarich. I insisted I will call him Freeman. He is a free, nicely wild, happy-go-lucky spirit. He is optimistic and realistic. He works at his own pace, does his own things when he wants to, and does not follow the rules (he actually confessed that in the personality test class). It was so interesting to have such a personality and to work in a bank –naturally a place of rules and standards.
“You know something? I am the compliance officer!” He told me when I asked. Everyone burst out laughing.
Aldarich is the kind of guy who asked me to do him a presidential favour which shall remain unmentionable for now. I just didn’t know how to react to that. But every morning, he kept asking and I didn’t have a new answer. Then it occurred to me, why don’t I flip the coin and ask the same of him –something like, ask him to connect me to his President, Joseph Kabila.
In that tiny room of ours, with the annoying mosquitos, little mattresses and narrow beds – you roll once, you are on the edge!—Aldarich gave me perspectives in life that I have never had.
Take this day for instance. I found him glued on the analogue (CRT!) TV watching KTN’s Jeff Koinange Live watching a debate on some controversial sugar importation deal that Kenya had made with Uganda.
A Ugandan David Matsanga, was on set with a Kenyan senator, Dr Boni Khalwale. They were sitting next to each other. Follow that link in the preceding paragraph to catch the sitting arrangement. And it was so heated.
“That man is a Ugandan? On a Kenyan TV? Arguing with a Kenyan senator? About Ugandan sugar? No no no no! Not in my country,” Aldarich said shaking his head and wagging his finger. It was in that staccato manner, you could see the bewilderment written all over his face. He was seated on the edge of his bed, watching keenly.
For some reason, he got confused. He thought, the Kenyan senator who was sitting in the middle, was the anchor. I told him, no. The anchor was on the other side.
“And they abuse each other like that? (The Kenyan senator had told the burly Matsanga something about his “arse”)” Weh weh weh weh!” He shook his head again and buried his head in his palms. It was all unbelievable.
Aldarich wants to be the President of DRC some day. When he speaks about what he thinks is wrong with his country, you would think it is the last place he would want to go to. But he loves the place. He was just annoyed that his country’s passport doesn’t carry geopolitical weight in the world; he was upset, for instance, that everyone in Africa is going mushy about the development miracle in Rwanda without really talking about the DRC.
“DRC is the land of the possible,” he said it in French, and I had to decipher.
“You might think I am mad about my country. No, I really love it! I wouldn’t wish to be anywhere else. We want to bring the world to Congo. When I become President, you will be in my government!” he told me.
He was dead serious.
He told me the stories I have read about Mobutu Seseseko, Laurent Kabila and Patrice Lumumba. It was fascinating listening to a Congolese tell the stories with the national nuances, the gossip and context.
He baptized me ‘Kulutu’ which he and Jean Marc Mercy told me means ‘big brother’. Aldarich speaks his mind, goes for what he wants, and he is very practical. He has watched ‘Scandal’ / ‘Fixer’ and once joked that there are women who can make one President, and there are those who can keep one President. He once told Valerie that she was “presidential”, and whispered to me that another lady was like Olivia (the Scandal superstar). He actually agreed with Cate Nyambura that marriage is a “strategic partnership”.
Aldarich is the kind of fella who can talk all night about politics and Congolese music and history. I would fall asleep listening to him, and when I stirred in my sleep, I would get him hunched over his computer doing some work. He turned in at around two in the morning every day. And whenever I went for my hour-long morning jog at 5.30am, I’d come back and find him still asleep. Then at a quarter to seven, he’d jump up, take a shower, dress up and go.
The craziest thing he asked me for was a compilation of Kenyan Catholic songs. I promised him that when he came back, I will give it to him.
Heidi collected currencies from nearly all the countries. Here is a picture she took.
When I saw the name Heidi, I knew there and then that she was a person I wanted to meet. The name ‘Mumia’ pointed out to me that she was from Mumias. I come from there. And I learned that her home is less than a kilometre from my late mother’s home. But that’s not why I was interested in meeting her. She is what my Chemistry teacher called a ‘catalyst’. I heard her referring to people as “enablers”. Heidi works for the public sector, and I have never seen so much energy and focus and dreams in a public official as I saw in Heidi. The last time I saw it was when Joseph Kinyua, the President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Chief of Staff was the permanent secretary at The National Treasury or when a good friend (I love keeping him anonymous) made that masterplan for the Parliament of Kenya.
Here was Heidi speaking about dreams of the youth and the country as if her life depended on it – she works in Kwale County, that is 14 hours on the road from her home! She is my age (sorry Heidi) and that passion metastasizing in the public sector can make wonders for this country.
And Heidi loves to cook. She confessed that before 27 strangers – 54 eyeballs in the Public Management Class! I thought it was the same story for Mary Oyoo, the student economist, but if I remember correctly, Mary said “I love food!” If you look at Mary, you wouldn’t guess, thanks to her fantastic metabolism!
I could tell stories about every participant I met. All the eighty participants from the 14 countries have their stories, fantastic stories. I could tell that Shallon from Uganda was passionate and focused about order. She works in Parliament, itself a House of rules and procedure. And she is an editor, so, well, we hate crap! But telling that story will make this blog a novel.
I could also whisper to Wigdan Seed, the chemical engineer from Sudan that in one of the conversations with Mehret Okubay, the law student from Ethiopia, she actually called you a “genius”, and when you, Wigdan (I still know how to pronounce your name) stuck to those wooden planks that second day and forced us to see that we need to be courteous, I figured Mehret had already learned a thing or two about you. You taught us a lesson that day Wigdan. I can’t forget.
I have stories to tell about everyone. There’s Abel, the Ethiopian. A lecturer. A funny guy. I heard people saying you were a Chevening scholar, well, that sums it up. And you can sing Munaye Munaye, well, you made me laugh.
And Addis, the quiet Ethiopian economist whom we share a personality (MBTI) with and a group project on art and development. Then there’s Eden, also an Ethiopian. The three of them plus Mehret Dubale, Mehret the lawyer and Geda told me that raw meat was the best thing ever! I still can’t figure it out.
Mehret (the doctor) and Gelila (this girl can laugh out loudly!) no more trips to the salon to look for a hair dresser who can deal with Ethiopian hair.
Emmanuel, the soil scientist from Uganda with all the passion in the world for the welfare of farmers, I was glad to meet him. He told me about Cassava species, about rice and banana farming. He, like Shallon, have this easy-going strictness about them. It is their personality. ISFJ! And oh, Emmanuel also looked at the menu, looked at the rice – little broken seeds—and mentioned “In Uganda, this is low grade, if you buy it, it is the cheapest in the market!” We still ate it, there was nothing else to eat (Ugali came by quite late in the day).
And about the menu, you know, when you have to eat the same kind of food for lunch and dinner, and the same menu for breakfast every day for three weeks, you take a vow to reject some meals. It just happens. I know I am not alone, there’s Azza over there in Khartoum who hasn’t touched rice ever since she left Nairobi, I can’t stand bread.
Ashraf from Sudan was our King of selfies. A nice kind of guy, jolly. Next time, I think we will remind the restaurant to label the food.
And Ismael, the professor from Djibouti, who made me take him all the way to the city centre. That day we were with William from Congo Brazzavile. There was a humility in the way these guys, people with families, their own homes, had to go back to tiny hostel rooms with room-mates they have never met, enduring night-long snoring – oh dear!—every day for three weeks! The humility of it all was quite a lesson.
Cate Miano, the law student from Kenya with a vision to empower girls to read through the Pitch a Dream initiative. Young people with vision. They want to change lives.
Idrissa Juma from Tanzania, another young lawyer with dreams for his community. And Alida, a psychologist with twins (Ha, Alida, I can’t forget!) Faith, she of the ‘love clap’ and Lionel, he of ‘transforming the world, changing lives’! And Shadrack and Simon, the champions of Sustainable Development Goals. And Valerie, the advocate of the blind.And our resident photographer Dolin from DRC, plus Robert the designer-entrepreneur, and Stanley the entrepreneur.
Bill from South Sudan and Queen (yes, that’s a real person’s name), had this quiet persona about them. They sit in a room full of people, and just listen. But when they talk, you understand that they have super brains in between their ears. I haven’t forgotten looking up their country-mate Margaret Chang’ and finding out that Google’s top results had Chinese people. I actually began calling her Chinese.
And Kaberia who wants to be a Member of County Assembly in Embu, plus his party leader Ambrose (the governor) and Carolyne Chege who came number two in the last elections in a ward in kajiado. The drive of these aspiring politicians, their thought process and everything about them was amazing.
There were so many people, I forget some. But I have written this with a smile and a chuckle. If you read it without smiling, I apologise for wasting your time. If you read it with a smile and got a lesson or two, I am glad.
All said, at YALI EA RLC you learn to survive, to run like a gazelle being pursued by a cheetah because your life depends on getting away, or to run like that cheetah because your life, actually, your meal depends on it. They teach you to be eagles. They teach you that there’s more than enough to go around. They teach you to change the world. They teach you to be leaders.