“Do People in Kenya Wear Shoes?”

My lessons learned from Ignorance

One afternoon, during my tenure in America, I sat amongst some white Americans at my school cafeteria.

It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but it happened to be the first time I was sitting with this particular group of people. We introduced ourselves to one another and, as usual, they immediately became quite interested in my background. I told them I was from Kenya, “a country in East Africa… have you heard of it?” I asked.

They replied “yes”.

And as if prompted by my what I had said, one of the ladies who was sitting directly opposite me began to tell me a story. She started by stating that “Kenyans are the ones that win all the marathons…”

I smiled to concede my subtle sense of pride — though it was a statement I’d heard way too many times before.

She then went on to tell me a story about one particular Kenyan athlete who ran a marathon barefooted and won. (She was actually referring to Ethiopian Abebe Bikila, who won the 1960 Olympic marathon).

I didn’t correct her though. I just smiled again.

Until then I felt our conversation had gone quite well. It felt good to have someone take a genuine interest in my country. But it was the next question she asked that completely bewildered me beyond words.

After her eloquent speech on Kenyan runners, she asked; “so, do people in Kenya have shoes?”

That insightful documentary about a barefooted Ethiopian runner had somehow led her to deduce that Kenyan’s don’t wear shoes. It was a hasty conclusion to say the least. I wanted to laugh. But the sincerity and pity in her voice removed any hint of sarcasm.

It was an honest question.

After living abroad for several years, I’m not a stranger to ignorance. I’ve been asked all different kinds of questions; “do you live in trees?”, “Do you have computers?”, “Can you speak to lions…?” (that last one was real too).

And often in these circumstances, I would somehow justify the ignorance. My school happened to be in a rural town, “The middle of nowhere”, a “college town” and perhaps that was why these questions seemed so common. I’d think to myself that maybe the ignorance people demonstrated there was not entirely their fault. How would they know anything about Kenya when they’ve probably gone their entire lives without meeting an African? I pitied them.

And that being so, I would often tell myself that it was ok. After all, “if I took an American to my rural home in Kenya, wouldn’t Kenyans act the same? Wouldn’t they want to touch the ‘Whiteman’s’ hair the same way the American’s asked to touch mine? Wouldn’t they ask ‘crazy’ questions? Wouldn’t they appear just as, or even more, ignorant as the Americans?

Of course, they would. What would they know aside from what they hear and see about American culture?

Rural Kenyans would be just as ignorant as rural Americans. That would make sense right?

Well… No. There’s a distinct difference.

The difference between a rural Kenyan and a rural American is almost as distinct as the power they hold in their hands. Whilst rural Americans wield a smartphone or a tablet in their hands, a rural Kenyan is more likely to hold a stick of sugar cane or a cob of maize. In America, ignorance came from college level educated students and in Kenya, it would come from men and women who probably never finished school…

And therein lies the root of real ignorance.

Whilst many Americans have access to infinite amounts of information and knowledge that could rid them of their ignorance, many Kenyans do not. For the ladies that sat with me for lunch that afternoon in school, knowing whether Kenyan’s wore shoes, was as easy as pulling out their phones and asking ‘Google’. And yet somehow, despite that, they were still choosing to be ignorant. To me, that is the distinct difference between ignorant Kenyans and their American counterparts; Americans have a choice… many Kenyans do not.

Ignorance is a Choice

Through my experiences, I’ve come to believe that ignorance is a ‘choice’. There is no-one in this world who can fully soak yourself in all the information available. It’s impossible to know everything about everything. So instead we are forced to choose what really matters to us and remain consciously ignorant to the rest. And it is this choice that really interests me; it is what people choose to stay ignorant about, that I am fascinated with.

Let me use today’s pop culture to explain.

Picture artists like Kanye West, or Jay-z — probably two of Hip-Hop’s biggest stars. Both having come up in a victimized and pillaged black America, their music was largely a reflection of that. But having lifted themselves to fame and stardom, you would think the underlying subject and value of their music would drastically change. You would expect that their music — once representative of lust, vanity, greed, pride, etc. — would now defame those vices. That Jay-z would tell us how ‘money isn’t everything’, or that ‘power is vanity’. Or maybe Kanye would become humble and tell us that “fame is not worth chasing”. Because isn’t that what most successful people say;

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” -Jim Carey

Yet somehow, the likes of Kanye and Jay-z have missed all that. They have all the resources, all the fame, and all the money they could want, yet somehow they lack the enlightenment that they could so easily find. For me, this makes them just as ignorant as the ladies I sat across from at lunch that afternoon. They too have a choice. And even so, they choose, not only to remain in their ignorance but continuously preach that ignorance to us; rapping about promiscuity, pride, and vanity as if they’re bound to them. As if it’s all they know, and all they can know.

It’s like Kanye and Jay-z have always had the power to discover that Kenyan’s do in fact wear shoes, yet they continually tell the world that we don’t. This is my definition of real ignorance. To have the power and resources available to gain wisdom, and yet choose inherently not to. It proves to me something about the human condition.

That just like Kanye, and Jay-z, and ladies at that lunch table that day, it feels much better to live in the dark — in one’s own ignorance — than to find a light that threatens all that we know, and who we believe ourselves to be.

“Ignorance is bliss.”

Why We never had to go to Disney World

We all know how it feels to long for something.

Be it a place, a people, a friend, a lover… longing is that delectable feeling of wishing your life to be different.

Sometimes it feels like the faint hint of a memory that spurs a subtle chuckle, or a veiled smile. Other times, longing looks like waves of nostalgia in an ocean of memories tempting to swallow you whole.

It’s a feeling I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Yet despite the loathing we have for that nostalgic feeling that visits us from time to time, I have learned some of life’s greatest lessons in reminiscing about the past.

Remember Disney World?

The other day, my mother asked me, “do you remember when we went to Disney World? Weren’t you really happy then?”
I was sitting comfortably on the dining room table, suddenly gripped by deep thought and second guessing my answer to what seemed like a rhetorical question.

As a kid who grew up in Nairobi, going to Disney World for the first time, even as a teenager, was the experience of a lifetime. At least that’s what I’m supposed to say. I should tell you that it was one of the most memorable moments of my life. The type of moment that this world has taught me to cherish because, you would think, that the times when I wore the biggest smile on my face, were the moments that the waves of nostalgia bring to the forefront of my mind.

My Favorite Memories

From the years of 2009 to 2016, I spent long periods away from my family. They were in Nairobi and I was in the United States. It was hard. I was 15 when I left home and I had to grow up extremely fast. Though occasionally, as one would expect, I missed home. I missed my family, my friends, the food… everything. And when those intolerable waves of nostalgia crashed through my mind, I often prayed they would swallow me whole and drift me back to the comfort of home. It was in those moments — the times when I really longed to be home — when I learned some of the most profound lessons of life.

Everything I Thought I Would Miss, Didn’t Really Matter

When my mother inquisitively asked me if I remember our trip to Disney world, I wanted to tell her yes. But the truth is when I was longing and yearning to be with my family… I didn’t think of moments when we rode roller coasters and ate turkey legs. Instead, I thought of the most apparently mundane and unexciting times I spent with them. The banal and routine experiences we shared were the moments I yearned for.

Christmas with Snow Peas

I remember one Christmas we spent together at my Grandmother’s place in rural Kenya. (We call it ‘Ushago’… but I think you’ll understand it better as ‘the village’).
That Christmas we had no electricity. There was no TV to watch or tablet to play on. And there’s only so much you can read before a book puts you to sleep.

So, my brother and I just sat, slept and did nothing. And once we had sat down for long enough and slept as much as we could, we all sat outside and shelled snow peas. And trust me, as a kid, extracting boxfuls of peas from pods is the probably the most drudgerous and uninteresting way to spend Christmas day.

In fact, if you had asked me at the time, what I thought of the whole experience, I’d have said that I was bored and jaded out of my mind. Yet, for some strange reason, those hours spent on my Grandmothers veranda shelling snow peas, make up my favorite memory of Christmas. When I spent my first Christmas away from home, it was that day that I would yearn to go back to. I would have given everything to go back to shelling snow peas with my family.

The Endless Car Rides I hated

I remember traveling in our family’s old Peugeot 505 on our trips upcountry. These were 4–6-hour trips that “took forever” and for a kid who could hardly sit still, I hated those car rides.

At the time, there were no tablets or phones to play on. No TV’s in the car to watch movies and no Wi-Fi to entertain us. Instead, my brother and I spent most of our time sleeping. And once we had slept enough, we would find a reason to fight. And after we had fought enough, the window became our greatest entertainment. My father would put on this beautiful west and southern African music that I still cherish to this day. The funny thing is, at the time, my brother and I never really liked those songs. And today, they are not just music, but the sounds of memories kindling my childhood spirit and taking me back home.

We’d sit in the back seat in complete silence and I swear time would actually stop. There were no buildings, or people to stare at, just these long stretches of savanna between towns.

And right there.

Sitting in the back seat with the glare of the sun in my eyes and the sweet sounds of ‘Africa’ channeling through my ears, I was completely content.

Sunday Afternoons

When I was younger, Sunday was often one of my least favorite days. It was ‘the day before school’ started — which meant it was almost as bad as Monday. And Sunday in our household was often treated like ‘family day’. We’d just stay around the house, not really doing much and the thought of school was ever so pungent in our minds. There was ‘nothing’ to be excited about.
Our common routine was going to church in the morning followed by a lazy afternoon. And the afternoons always seemed so prolonged and boring.

After lunch, we would all sit on the large dining table at our house ‘doing nothing’. My parents read the newspaper over tea and my brother and I read small magazines and talked about life. Eventually, we’d end up having deep conversations in those moments and my father coined the term ‘family meeting time’. Over time, those afternoons became more intentional and, to be honest, if my brother and I had a choice, we would have skipped those meetings, gone upstairs and drowned ourselves in television. Instead, we just sat, drinking tea, filling crosswords and chatting about mundane and irrelevant ‘stuff’.

But funnily enough, despite how much I hated Sunday afternoons. It was those moments, seated on a chair at that dining table, laughing at mindless irrelevance and drinking tea, that I would give the whole world to go back to.

We didn’t need to go to Disney World

When my mother asked me if I remember Disney World, and whether I was happy then, I wanted to say yes. I felt like I was ‘supposed to’. But the truth is, I never thought about Disney World. And when nostalgia hits me, I don’t recall all my extravagant and ‘happy’ experiences. I don’t think about eating at fancy restaurants or going to see amazing shows. Instead, when I think of home and my family, I think back to those mundane car rides to nowhere, the boring Sunday afternoons and Christmases with no electricity.

So maybe, just maybe, everything we’re taught to long for is not actually what we remember. And in response to my mother’s question, “maybe it was never about going to Disney world… it was just about being with my family.”

The Worst Thing Social Media Took From Us

If you’ve ever sat on a toilet, with your phone in your hand and free WiFi, then you know the power of social media.

Nowadays it’s such a natural human habit to pull out your phone and scroll your life away. I guess it just feels better to get lost in other people’s lives sometimes. Or perhaps it’s that numbing sensation you feel as you ‘Enter the Matrix’ of Snapchat stories and Instagram photos… who knows?

But before I go shaming social media for all its pitfalls, I must acknowledge that in many ways it has made my life better. The truth is you probably wouldn’t be reading this if social media didn’t exist.

That said, it’s not my intention to write some generic article on “why you should stop using your phone” or give you some psychological analysis of the effect social media has on our brains…blah, blah, blah.

No.

Instead, I want to offer you a different perspective.

My Childhood

Let me take you back to my upbringing in Nairobi, Kenya, when I was seven years old, playing outside, kicking a ball around, and doing things normal kids used to do. I would ride my bike, fight with my brother and build things in this little dirt patch we had outside our house. Life was good.

At that time, my brother and I didn’t really watch TV. It just didn’t appeal to us that much. Our TV had two channels, and they both showed the news most of the time — which is also the most uninteresting thing a kid can watch. This meant that most of our TV time was spent watching re-runs of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ on VCR. And there’s only so many episodes you can watch before you’re reciting each of the characters’ lines before them, i.e. it just got boring really fast. Consequently, my brother and I found other ways to entertain ourselves.

Though, when I tell people of this time, there are those who say I “didn’t have a childhood” or they pity me. Then there are others who had similar experiences. And there are those who, by comparison, would think I grew up in the Hamptons (at least we had a TV right?)

But despite what other people may think about my childhood now, what really matters, is how I saw myself at the time.

When I was watching re-runs of old shows on VCR, I wasn’t thinking “oh man, wish I could get a PlayStation” or “wish I had an Xbox to play Crash Bandicoot…” No… I didn’t even know what a PlayStation was. Maybe I was Naive or ignorant… but the fact is, I was completely content and happy. I didn’t know that I lacked anything, or that other people had more or less than I did. I had no-one to compare myself to and thus, life was just… life and I was content with it.

Today’s World

Fast forward to today and things are quite different.

That beautiful childhood naivety and blissful ignorance I once had, has now been painfully stripped from me by social media.

Let me explain.

When you’re mindlessly watching TV or waiting at the bus stop and you curiously open your Instagram app on your phone, what do you see?

You probably see your friends or perhaps a few celebrities that you follow, all giving you insight into their lives. It feels good. You get a sense of numbing joy to watch the stories of their lives and in a way, you feel closer to them. It’s a great way to stay connected — especially with friends you don’t speak to often.

But while your scrolling through pictures on Instagram and watching stories on Snapchat, do you ever consider that what you’re seeing is not ‘real’.

People are not sharing the ‘real’ parts of their lives; they only show you what they want you to see; their perfect and luscious lifestyle and anything they perceive as noteworthy or ‘special’ around them.

Think about it.

When you’re at the funeral, you’re probably not going to pull out your phone and start ‘snapping’ people with tears in their eyes, are you?

No.

Yet when you’re lying on the beach and Michael Jackson comes out of the water, you’ll probably have your phone out faster than MJ used to dance in his prime.

Both instances are noteworthy experiences, and yet you’ll never see a funeral on a Snapchat story.

The Paradox

Because of this paradox, social media becomes a ‘flex zone’; where people only share the ‘best of’ what happens to them and around them. It’s a ‘comparison-platform’, where you stack your life up against that of other people and gain perspective on how your life is ‘supposed’ to be like.

For me, this is when social media becomes extremely dangerous.

Consider that when you scroll through Instagram, you’re not just watching other people’s lives, you’re watching a hundred reasons why your life sucks and everyone else’s is better. In a sense, you are robbing yourself of your own contentment by noticing that someone else is living a ‘better life’ than you. You’re losing that beautiful naivety and blissful ignorance you once had as a child. You’re suffering when really, you don’t have to.

My life sucks

When I log in to social media and I see that DJ Khaled bought his six-month-year-old baby a Mercedes Benz and a Rolls Royce, I admit, I will probably laugh and show my friends as well. But what really happens deep within me, is I start to feel a sense of jealousy. I compare myself to this little baby, and, as ridiculous as it sounds, it seems (not necessarily true) that he has a better life than me. And that doesn’t make me feel good? I feel inadequate.

And suddenly buying cars for babies is the new standard of fatherhood. How, in hell, will I ever measure up to that? How will I ever find the money to buy my babies cars? Now, I’m suffering for no reason. I’m hating my life all because I watched this ten-second Snapchat story of a man who buys cars for his children…. I hate it. And that’s only one instance. A couple taps on the screen and my friend Mike is on the beach with the girl I’ve wanted to date since kindergarten… or Fetty Wap is playing with his money again…

Eventually, these images and videos become my idea of ‘happiness’; of how life is supposed to be like, when in fact, it isn’t ‘real’, its only ten seconds and a couple snap shots of an entire lifetime.

I have to stop letting social media steal my happiness from me.

Nowadays, I get on social media and I think of going back in time; to the blissful ignorance of being a child again. To just delete all the social media from my phone and live a life of peace and contentment. And yes, I might lose all my followers and ‘friends’, but on the other hand, I might realize that my life isn’t so bad after all.

Why “Do What makes you happy” is the Worst Advice Ever

“I haven’t really found what I’m passionate about…”

If I made one dollar every time a heard a young person say this phrase, I’d probably have enough money to buy passion and sell it back to them …but I don’t know if ‘selling passion’ is what I would be passionate about.

After graduating from University, I struggled to answer what is probably the most frequently asked question among college grads of today.

“What do you want to do in life?”

Truth be told, I hate this question. It’s so ambiguous and irritating.

“There a lot of things I ‘want’ to do. Sometimes I just want to stay in my bed, eat Nutella and watch Netflix all day.” But that’s not really what the question implies. Put frankly, the question is;

“How do you plan to make money? How do you plan to make a living? What career path are you going to take? What job do you want to work…”?

And I guarantee that every person you’ve met since graduation has probably asked you this question in one way or another, they just phrase it differently every time. And it usually comes with that subtle sense of inadequacy every time you can’t offer them the most moving and eloquent response.

Because surely, by the time you’re in your twenties, you really should have your life figured out …right?

Yet most of us don’t.

After University, we find ourselves asking many of the same questions.

“What do I want to do? What makes me happy? What am I passionate about and what career path should I take?”

And we spend time searching for the answers anywhere and everywhere, never realizing that we may be asking the wrong questions.

Stop searching for ‘Happiness’

Consider that searching for what will make you happy, or passionate in life is the wrong approach. It will only make you think like I once did.

Until recently, I would see lawyers and bankers in suits, driving around the city in the finest cars and think to myself “hmmm… must be nice… maybe I should go into law…”

Or I would see church pastors standing on stages and inspiring people and think; “maybe I should study theology…”

I would even see government officials, flying around the world on all-expense paid trips and think …I could do international relations and become a diplomat.

Eventually, I ended up in this naïve cycle of thinking that just left me feeling even more lost and confused than I already was.

Here’s the problem

Most of us make our career decisions based on the idea that a certain job or career will bring us fulfillment. We ask ourselves, “what can I do that will make me happy?”

We see lawyers, doctors, politicians and artists and we want to be in their position. We want to stand on stages, or eat at fancy restaurants and generally live like they do. But what we never consider, is what they sacrifice to live such a lifestyle and how they got to where they are.

Think about it.

You can say that you want to be a doctor, but do you really want to go through 8 years of grueling education and copious reading to become one?

You say you want to be an artist, but are you willing to practice your instrument for 8 hours a day, and perform at gigs where barely anyone shows up?

Or perhaps you want to be the CEO of some multinational bank, but are you willing to have 14-hour work days and forfeit time with your family in the process?

…because if you’re really honest with yourself, you may realize that you don’t necessarily want to be a lawyer or a doctor, but rather, you want the lifestyle that that profession would afford you. You want the fruit at the top of the tree, without actually wanting to climb the tree itself.

That is a dangerous way of thinking.

The question, therefore, is not what job or career will make you happy, but rather, what pain and sacrifice are you willing to endure to get where you want to be? What tree are you willing to climb? And what are you willing to struggle for in life?

The Joy is in the journey

See what this new way of thinking considers, is that joy and happiness are not solely in the destination that you’re working toward. They are actually in the journey itself.

Happiness does not suddenly arrive when you taste the fruit at the top of the tree. It comes in fragments as you climb the tree itself.

If you want to become the best computer software coder in the world, you have to find joy in the monotony of sitting at a computer for 8–10 hours a day.

If you want to become a world-class athlete, you have to find happiness in pushing your body to its limits.

And if you want to become an entrepreneur, you have to find joy in being occasionally rejected for your ideas and creating new ones.

The bottom line is no matter what you decide to do, you must find joy and happiness in the journey. Because real happiness lies in overcoming the obstacles you face towards your goal, not solely in reaching the goal itself.

What Are You Willing to Struggle For?

I recently asked a friend of mine “What are you willing to struggle for?” and after giving me this inquisitive look he said “I think I’d be willing to struggle to start my own business. Maybe sell some products or some special services. Is there anything wrong with that?”

“No”. There is nothing wrong with ‘struggling’ to start your own business. Though what you must consider is the pain of sacrifice and struggle that building it may cause you, and whether you’re willing to go through the adversity. Because when times get tough, you’ll have to dig deep within yourself. And in that moment, if the only reason you find to justify your struggling is you wanted to “start your own business…”

You’re bound to cut your losses and quit.

If your focus is solely on the ‘happiness and joy’ you think owning your own business or being an engineer, a doctor or a lawyer will bring you, then you will be completely unprepared to struggle.

So, before you go on your job search, and begin applying to all these job positions you feel unsure about. Before you go searching for ‘happiness, joy and passion’ like a headless goose. Think of the end you have in mind for your life. Think of how you hope to live in a few decades from now, and then ask yourself; “what am I willing to struggle through to make that lifestyle possible?”

In doing so, you will find happiness, not only when you reach your destination, but throughout your journey as well.

The best advice I can give you as you wonder through this forest of life after graduation, is focus on finding the best tree to climb, not just the one with the sweetest fruit at the top.

What are you willing to struggle for?

Yours Truly (Kimathi Kaumbutho) is a Spoken Word/Poetry writer/performer, and a Hip-Hop artist from Nairobi, Kenya. Click here to see more of his work.

It’s finally cool to be an ‘African’

Up until the 1980’s, it wasn’t cool to be black in America. Years of racial oppression and subjugation had ostracized black culture. And even though the late 1900’s was far removed from the days of slavery; black America was still reminiscent of a very dark time in their past; ‘White’ was still ‘right’ and ‘black’ was still ‘wrong’.

But around the late seventies, things began to change. You could say that there was some form of ‘black revolution’.

Riding on the wings of Hip-hop and rap culture, black Americans began to change their narrative. What was previously a strong DJing culture had made way for the birth of an entirely new genre of music called ‘Hip-hop’. And suddenly everything changed.

Black people were telling stories. Stories that had never been told through music before. They had a voice and all they needed was a microphone to share. Through rhythm and poetry, Black American’s created a movement. It was bigger than rap and a testament to black pride. Through Hip-hop, Black America was restoring the dignity that was once pillaged from them.

By the early 90’s, the Hip-hop and black culture revolution had transcended itself. Black Rap artists such as Tupac and Notorious BIG were some of the famed bearers of the torch that ignited a global phenomenon. Suddenly, even kids—like me—growing up in Kenya were dressing and acting like black Americans. We’d wear baggy pants and basketball jerseys of teams we’d never even seen play.

For the first time, black America was cool and everybody wanted to be like them. Somehow being “from the hood” or “hustling” or being a “nigga” was really, really cool.

Today, I see the same trend happening… but much closer to home.

African history is dark with stories of oppression and subjugation from the days of European imperialism. And though many African countries consider themselves independent nations, the remnants of colonialism are still heavily ingrained in our cultures.

Kenya, for example, got independence from the British in 1963. Yet over 50 years later, I believe that our minds are still very much colonialized.

When the Europeans came to Kenya in the late 19th century, they exploited us and pillaged our culture. Though what I believe was worse, is that they crippled our minds. They removed our sense of dignity and self-pride. Which is one of the most effective ways to enslave an entire people?

They made us believe that their ways were right and ours were backward and we, as Africans, still struggle to overcome that.

Today, we still see the western world as the ‘first World’; a place and people that we should aspire to be like. We continue to conform to their culture because we believe they are ‘better’. The ‘West’ is right and ‘African’ is wrong. But things are changing…

Welcome to the Revolution!

Times are changing. Africa is beginning to reinvent herself. A new narrative is being told that we, as Africans, can take pride in. We are much like the Black America of the 1970’s.

African Artists like Davido and Wizkid are making Afrobeat songs with American and British artists.

Artists like Sarkodie of Ghana is now internationally acclaimed—and he doesn’t even rap in English.

The likes of Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé are using strong African themes in their music.

The world of fashion is being revolutionized by African culture.

Even black Americans are appropriating African culture; wearing Dashikis and kanga-like garments like they grew up in our continent.

It feels like the world is beginning to celebrate Africa, even before we have learned to celebrate ourselves.

For the first time, it’s beginning to feel ‘OK’ to be African. No longer must we conform to the western world. We can take pride in ourselves, our art, our people. It is our time to be celebrated and appreciated. The chains on our minds that once kept us in such deep self-loathing, and envy for the ‘white’ world are finally breaking, and now we have a chance to tell them a different story.

Welcome to the African Revolution!

Don’t follow your passion. Follow your ‘Why’

“Don’t follow your passion…”

It’s a phrase that is eerily uncomfortable and often misunderstood. For those of us who are valiant dream chasers and believers in Lupita Nyongo’s epic “your dreams are valid” Oscar speech, then you probably hate the phrase.

In fact, you probably clicked on this link simply to debase its credibility, and affirm that you are right in choosing to follow your passion.

You’re probably asking yourself right now “how can you not follow your passion? Isn’t that the only way to reach the fulfillment and happiness I so desperately search for?”

Truthfully, there are many of us with this misconception. That life is about following your passion. And if you’ve lived your life believing and trusting that following your passion is the key to your happiness, allow me to offer you a different perspective.

Almost every month aspiring singers from around the world audition for the international hit TV show ‘The Voice”. The winner of the competition is awarded 100,000$ and a record deal with Universal Music Group. That’s enough to get anyone to try their talent as a singer.

But the problem with these kinds of shows is that they are dismissive. They only show us one side of the spectrum. We hear about the stars. The singers that win the jackpot and begin their journey of becoming a musical superstar. What you don’t hear about is the story of those who failed; the thousands of other ‘talented’ singers who also believed they were the next musical sensation, only to not make it past the audition phase.

The truth is thousands of people audition even before they make it on television, and only a select few actually spark a music career from the exposure.

What hurts even more, is that all the aspiring artists that auditioned were also ‘following their passions’ and chasing their dreams. They just fell short.

The truth is, no matter how talented and brilliant you feel about a certain skill you have—be it singing, or anything else—there’s no guarantee that you will make a career out of it.

It sounds cynical, I know. But let me offer you some hope.

Don’t follow your passion, but instead follow your ‘Why’.

All my life, I had the dream of playing professional football. I became the direct embodiment of following your passions and chasing your dreams and I believed it wholeheartedly. Fortunately, my passion for football evolved into a storied career. I traveled the world playing at all levels of the game and reached heights I never thought were possible all as a result of what I thought was ‘following my passion’.

However, in the process, I learned some profound lessons about ‘passion’. First, I learned that passion is fleeting, it can be here today and gone the next. Don’t believe me? Count how many crushes you had in primary school.

It’s possible to be passionate about something one day, and completely loathe it the next. I was ‘passionate’ about football, but I didn’t always feel like playing. Somedays I just wanted to stay in my bed.

If you had asked me a year ago why I played football, I would have said; “I just love playing… I’m just so passionate about it”. But that wasn’t why I played.

It actually took me a whole 8 years from the time I left home to realize why I played football.

I played football to inspire people. This was my ‘why’.

Missed Opportunities

The problem with me solely following my passion for football was that I missed every other opportunity to inspire people along the way. I was continually looking for ‘passion’ when I should have been chasing the purpose and ‘why’ I had created for my life. That’s the problem with solely following your passion, it’s that you blind yourself to all other opportunities you may have to fulfill your deeper purpose for following that passion in the first place.

It was only once I realized why I played football—to inspire people—that I began looking for other opportunities to inspire. I discovered I had a knack for writing and words.

I started a blog, I wrote poetry and recorded music. I just looked for any and every way I could inspire people.

In 2016 I stood on a stage to represent my university in a video that turned out to be the biggest media project they had ever done. It was viewed over 40,000 times on Facebook alone. The thing is, on that stage, I wasn’t following my passion and playing football, I was actually performing a spoken word piece.

How did I, being a football player all my life, actually become a spoken word artist? It wasn’t even something I was passionate about.

Only now does it all make sense, I was just trying to inspire. And I’m so glad I didn’t miss the opportunity to inspire more people because I was too focused on following my passion.

Think Differently

Yes, it’s great to follow your passion, to chase your dreams. Keep dreaming! But if you really look within yourself, you will realize that your passion has a cause; your dream is much bigger than simply becoming a musician, a politician, a fashion designer or an athlete. There is a ‘why’ behind you following your passion, you just need to find it. And that will be the most liberating and defining moment of your life.

You may realize that your passion is not in music or in becoming a professional recording artist, but rather it is in giving others the opportunity to experience the joy and trance of music. This will completely change your paradigm of thinking.

If you’re an athlete, you may realize that your passion is not in running, but rather being a source of hope and optimism for the kids you grew up with.

An actor may realize that their passion is not in being on television, but rather in heightening people’s self-esteem by showing them that they can be whoever they want to be.

Once you have made this realization, you will no longer follow this fleeting and blinding thing called ‘passion’. Rather you will be following your ‘why’ and the purpose you have for your life, which I believe is way more fulfilling and rewarding. Don’t follow your passion, follow your ‘Why’.

Africans Matter Too! (Open letter to French Montana)

At the Grammy’s in 2016, Kendrick Lamar posted a picture of the African Continent with bold letters in its middle that read ‘Compton’. The whole world watched in awe as the live audience rose to their feet to give him a standing ovation.

A few weeks ago, French Montana released the music video for “Unforgettable”, his latest song. The video shows some of the children of Uganda dancing joyfully to the song. In fact, when you watch it, you can’t help but wear a smile on your face. The video has over 15 million views and has been raved about all over the internet.

But what do these two events have in common?

Both events are a deeper depiction of cultural misappropriation and misrepresentation. Kendrick Lamar and French Montana have taken the concept or idea they have of Africa and represented in a way that neglects the same African people they claim to be representing.

Let me explain.

Now some people may say that there is nothing wrong with French Montana’s and Kendrick Lamar’s appropriation of Africa in their art. In fact, even African’s themselves may state how great both acts were at depicting Africa.

But let’s take a deeper look.

Of late, there have been numerous debates between Africans and the rest of the world on the subject of cultural appropriation. Some Africans have gone as far as condemning people who wear African clothing without being able to prove their knowledge of the history and traditions behind what they’re wearing. Some Africans have even ranted on social media about how other races should not be allowed to wear African clothing.

Now I would not go as far as saying that nobody should borrow or appropriate from another culture. That would be absurd and only clarify the lines that divide us by race, culture, ethnicity etc. in a world that is seeking equality.

Instead, I believe the contrary. We should all be allowed to appropriate different cultures that are not our own. We should all be able to use and identify with the art of cultures that are foreign to us. But only to a certain extent and within certain parameters.

So, where do we draw the line? How does one tell whether they are stepping over the boundaries of cultural appropriation or borrowing too much from a certain culture?

It’s hard to say. But for me, it all boils down to one simple question;

Are you representing the culture you’re appropriating in a way that that culture would be proud of?

This is the sole question that can quell the issue of cultural appropriation.

And this is the same question I would ask to the likes of Kendrick Lamar and French Montana. When they depict elements of African culture in their art, are the representing Africans the way that they want to be represented?

Let’s consider Kendrick Lamar’s labeling of the African continent as ‘Compton’ in 2016, and ask ourselves the same questions. Firstly, is this a worthy representation of Africa? Is the Africa he depicted the same Africa that we, as Africans, want to show the rest of the world.

NO. It isn’t.

And I trust I speak for other Africans when I say this.

What Kendrick Lamar showed us at the Grammy’s in 2016 was the Africa that we African’s don’t like to see. It was the barren borderless land of fable, the indigent subject of stereotype, the mythical Africa, the poverty-stricken block of 54 countries that form one… “country”.

So, despite how well-intended Kendrick Lamar was, his audience is still likely to have the same misconceptions of Africa and African culture from watching his performance.

This is cultural appropriation at its worst.

When French Montana portrayed the kids of Uganda dancing happily to his new music video, I felt proud. I liked that the kids were depicted in a positive light. The joy on their faces was so contagious.

But when I heard the lyrics of the song… everything changed.

“I’m gunna catch the rhythm while she push up against me…. A f%&ing good time never hurt nobody If you loved the girl then I’m so, so sorry I got to give it to her like we in a marriage… No, no I won’t tell nobody…. Tryna do what lovers do…”

These are the lyrics of the song.

Evidently, the song promotes lust, promiscuity, and sex. Yet, there are little African children dancing to the song in the video. Where is the correlation?

The truth is the kids probably have no idea what they are dancing to. In their minds, they see the video as good publicity, perhaps a chance for them to share their art with the world. But what if they knew what the song was representing? Would they still dance? Is this how they would want to be represented?

NO. It isn’t.

The truth is, the video is not about representing the kids. It is about using them to further a mainstream agenda. Using them to get more views and more likes, and more money. That’s the only reason the kids are in the video. In fact, it is obvious that the song was not written for them. They are merely tools that French Montana uses to promote his music.

What French Montana and Kendrick Lamar depicted in their art was probably not intended to be malicious in any way. But I believe their acts are evidence of a deeper and more displeasing truth about the appropriation of African culture.

Today, despite how the world is becoming more cognizant and inviting of African culture, at times we are misused, misappropriated and badly misrepresented. In recent times, as evidenced by artists like French Montana, Kendrick Lamar and even Beyoncé, throwing ‘Africa’ on western art has become somewhat ‘retro’ or ‘cool’ and ‘unique’. And honestly, I have no issue with this. I personally don’t mind if African culture is appropriated by the western world.

All I ask is that when you appropriate our culture, show us the way we like to be seen. Represent Africans the way that we want to be represented, and not solely how you prefer to see us. Stop Misrepresenting Us! African’s Matter too!

The Day My Big Brother put me in Jail

It was a beautiful afternoon. One of those days when the Nairobi sun shines brightly in the sky and everyone just feels happy.  I was driving into the city to pick up my brother in my mother’s old Volkswagen Passat. With my windows rolled up to keep the hot air out, and the music loud, I was trying to make the most of what was a boring and tedious journey.

My brother was waiting for me in Westlands, an affluent neighborhood on the outskirts of the city that is usually dense with traffic. Luckily, that day it wasn’t so bad. It was the 23rd of December, a day away from Christmas and the roads were pretty clear.

As I got closer to my brother’s location, I called him and we agreed to meet at a nearby petrol station. But just as I exited a roundabout, about 150 meters from my brother, everything changed. My whole day just turned on its head.

A policeman. A stocky angry policeman whose face I will never forget, stood in front of my car signaling me to stop. I was surprised and genuinely confused.

I turned down the music and rolled down the window as he approached me. “kijana unaendesha gari kama huku ni Southern Sudan” he said. Meaning, “young man, you’re are driving like you’re in southern Sudan.” He was obviously hinting that I had made a mistake.

“Nimefanya makosa gani?” (what mistake have I made?) I asked him. Which I’m sure is a frequently asked question to Kenyan police. Anyway, he went on to tell me that I had blocked the traffic to my left coming into the roundabout.  A serious offense in his eyes. He signaled for me pull off to the side of the road where he continued to castigate me. But after what was a very one-sided conversation, he suddenly opened the passenger door and jumped into the car.

WHAT?! It surprised the heck out of me.

So, there we were, sitting side by side, with this aura of tension around us. It was awkward. The policeman then commanded me to drive to the police station.

Still bewildered and confused, I asked him why. He just looked at me angrily and dismissed my questions. Eventually, I reluctantly followed his command.

Now, before I go further with the story. I must explain that at the time, I had just come back from the United States. I was still relatively new to driving in Nairobi, justifying my complete confusion at the policeman’s actions.

So, we began driving to the station.

Somehow, even in all that tension, I remained calm. I told him that I still needed to pick my brother from a nearby petrol station because he had been waiting for me. Somehow he agreed and after driving only a few minutes, we stopped close to my brother’s location. My brother saw the car and began walking towards us.

He looked happy to see me because he’d been waiting for some time. But as he approached the car, you can only imagine what was going through his head; “What? why, in hell, is there a policeman in the front seat of the car? …Kim, what is going on?”

Without saying a word, he slowly entered the car and sat behind the policeman with this look of complete bafflement on his face. It was almost comical. After an awkward silence, he finally asked us both; “ni nini kimefanyika?” (what is going on?”)

The cop went on to explain the situation in the most ambivalent way possible. Even I didn’t really know what was going on. My brother, not being a very passive person, began to question everything the policeman said.  I just sat quietly and kept driving to the police station.

For my brother and I, it became obvious what the policeman wanted. He wanted me to bribe him. “Alikuwa anataka kitu kidogo”. A common Kenyan phrase meaning “he wanted something small” in exchange for my freedom. Knowing this, I tried to treat the situation with integrity. My father always taught us never to give a policeman anything. Never! So I didn’t say it, but I made it clear that I was not going to bribe him.

As we got closer to the station, it was as if the policeman realized that he wasn’t getting anything from me. We parked the car at the station as he began to speak softly to me. It felt like he had given up. I suppose the hassle of arresting me was not worth his effort anymore. It felt like he was going to let me go.

Then my brother snapped.

Filled with anger, he told the policeman; “You can’t do this! My brother hasn’t done anything wrong! How dear you…”

I felt some pride in the fact that my brother was standing up for me. But it was crazy.

It’s like he just suddenly turned into Denzel Washington in ‘Training Day’; in that scene, near the end, where the hood confronts him.

The policeman did not like this… not one bit.

He turned to my brother with rage in his eyes; like he was about to turn into Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction. And then unexpectedly, like he’d suddenly gotten a new idea in his head, he just paused. He didn’t even argue. He just told us to get out of the car and follow him. So we did. We walked into the police headquarters. My brother was still talking angrily to the policeman. In fact, it felt a little inspiring. So I, following the example that my older brother had set, began arguing with the cop as well.

“I was on the roundabout, I had the right of way, I didn’t block anyone… I didn’t make a mistake…” I said angrily. The policeman knew I had done nothing wrong, but he just calmly watched us, unable to prove otherwise. He was writing something in his log book as two other policemen came to see what was happening.

That’s when he said the magic words. “Weka huyu ndani!”

As fast as anything they grabbed me and ruthlessly threw me into a cell behind them. Suddenly all my brother’s screams faded, the light dimmed and a big metal door shut loudly behind me. I was in Jail… locked up, like Akon in his song with Young Jeezy, except it wasn’t a music video. This was real-life. I was behind bars for my very first time.

I didn’t just write this story to entertain. For me, this story underlines a very profound truth about human behavior in different cultural settings.

If this same thing happened in America. My brother would have probably pulled out his phone and filmed the whole thing. And if the cop was white, there would have been campaigns in all the black neighborhoods and I would be an internet sensation.

But this kind of thing happens every day in Kenya.

Here, the police are known to lock people up for the pettiest of things. Simply just being in the wrong place at the wrong time can have you thrown in jail like I was.

But I know what you’re thinking, where are the legal systems that should prevent this kind of thing. How can a policeman do that??

Let’s go a little deeper, why did the cop do that? Where is his sense of fairness or integrity?

What you’ll come to realize is that there is a profound lesson in human behavior from this situation. The policeman who locked me up is not a bad person; in fact, he is merely acting as a product of his environment. He doesn’t see anything wrong with what he’s doing because it happens all the time. On that day, it was Christmastime and he needed the extra money. So, what better way to get it than to solicit a bribe from an unsuspecting teenager.

In his eyes, I am rich because I have a car, I am also vulnerable because I’m young. He needed the money and I was the perfect opportunity.

I remember when I was a growing up in Kenya. We didn’t have a lot of access to music. We heard it on the radio but we could never listen to our favorite songs when we wanted to because we couldn’t download them. Then, life changed. We got the internet and LimeWire (software to download music from p2p sharing sites).

Even with our slow dial-up internet, my brother and I got thousands of songs from the internet. Obviously, from a moral standpoint, this was wrong… in fact, it was illegal. But my brother and I would never consider that. In our minds, we were just taking what the world was not giving us. We were acting from a mindset of lack and poverty. It did not hurt our integrity to ‘steal music’ because the “rich white men in America have enough money anyway.”

It’s ironic that this is the same mindset that the policeman had when he arrested me. He was just taking advantage of an opportunity. Using his power to get the money he felt he deserved.

This is what poverty does. It removes integrity. We all talk about having enough integrity to never do anything wrong, but just wait until there is no one around to judge you. Wait until everyone else around you is also ‘stealing’ or taking bribes. Then maybe, just maybe, you will be doing the same thing…

 

PS. I got bailed out several hours later by my family, and it never went on my record. I’ll take the “street cred” though.

What is Killing African Art?

tAfter living in the United States for the past 8 years, I recently returned home to Nairobi, Kenya, my birthplace and where I grew up. I love this country and I love Nairobi. In fact, I love it even more so now that I’ve seen the ‘other side’ and lived in the western world for some time. So, coming home has been an exhilarating experience. What’s more, is after being away for so long, it sometimes feels like I’m experiencing my country for the very first time, and it is so exciting.

Though I must admit, it hasn’t been easy. I’m learning slowly. And though I consider myself fully and wholeheartedly Kenyan (whatever that means) — I do sometimes feel like a foreigner in my own country. Sometimes this makes me insecure, but other times, it makes life so much more interesting.

Of late, I’m slowly realizing the various ways that my time away has changed me. It’s as if my experience abroad has given me the ability to see my country differently. And now, for the first time in my life, I am experiencing Kenya without bias or partiality and seeing the Kenyan people for who they actually are. It’s extremely enlightening.

In doing this, I’ve noticed some things. Things that weren’t obvious to me before; certain behaviors and traits of Kenyan people that I see as crippling to us as a country and a community. Lately, I’ve been questioning where these ugly habits and behaviors come from, and I believe that they are a result of a much deeper and detrimental mindset that is common to Kenyans and Africans alike; The Scarcity Mentality.

Many people are unaware of what the scarcity mentality is. So, I will explain with a recent experience.

When I tell people that I’ve decided to come back to Kenya for good, they are often surprised. They act like I’ve made a mistake, like staying in the United States was obviously a better decision. But what I realize is that, in their minds, the United States is the ‘land of opportunity’, where talent is allowed to thrive and where anyone is more likely to be successful. Kenya, on the other hand, has no real opportunities and it is very hard to ‘make it’ in Nairobi. It’s from this outlook that they pity my decision.

The crazy thing is until I came home, I believed the exact same thing; it was what was always communicated to me. It was so deeply engraved in my subconscious that “There is just no real opportunity in Kenya”.

This is what the scarcity mentality is. It is believing in lack and poverty; believing that there is just not ‘enough’.


For me, this is the one thing that Americans and people of the western world have over Africans in general. That is, they truly and patriotically believe in abundance. In America, they believe you can be, do and have anything you want. They believe that there is ‘enough’ of everything for everyone and opportunity will never run out. Americans have been taught to believe in abundance.

The opposite goes for countries like Kenya. Here, perhaps because of our past, we are so stuck in believing that there is not ‘enough’. There is not ‘enough’ opportunity, there is not ‘enough’ money, or food, or anything. And this is so reflective in our actions.

We drive like there is not ‘enough’ space on the road for other motorists. We interact with strangers like they are trying to take something from us. We even get afraid to share things; I know entrepreneurs who are scared to share their business ideas because they fear they will be stolen, and there are not ‘enough’ ideas to go around. What does that say about our business environment?

We have politicians and civil servants that steal government money that is meant to better their own people. We have policemen who are willing to take bribes (Kitu kidogo) instead of enforcing the law. We have corrupt systems where Kenyans are willing to cheat and steal from each other to get ahead — again because there’s just not ‘enough’ for all of us.

It’s sad.

The other day I stood before some of Kenya’s aspiring artists, poets, actors, singers, writers etc. We spoke about the country’s education system. They felt like Kenya’s schooling system doesn’t sufficiently support its more artistically gifted students. To an extent, that may be true. There are artists in foreign countries who have been nurtured and supported from very early ages to become what they are today. But the same cannot be said for Kenyans. Here, we are supposed to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, and businessmen. Not artists. “You’ll never make any money doing that”.

Why? Again, because we believe there is just not ‘enough’ opportunity to be successful as an artist in Kenya.

But what if we could enlighten ourselves to a new possibility.

What if the belief that “there is not enough opportunity in Kenya” is just the story we have chosen to tell ourselves, and not necessarily the reality?

The truth is there are struggling artists in Hollywood California, at the artistic capital of the world, who also believe that there is no opportunity for them. In fact, whilst I was in the United States, I met artists who had chosen to stop performing because they said it was “too hard to make it” there. So, if they can’t make it in America, what chance do we have as Kenyans living in the “land of No Opportunity”?

We should probably just quit now. Right?

But what I’ve come to realize, is that opportunity is in the eye of the beholder. The opportunities we see are a product of the lens we choose to see the world through. If you view the world with a mindset of scarcity, you will never have enough of anything. But if you choose to view the world through a lens of abundance, then you will instantly change your circumstance.

So, as I stood before all these artists of Nairobi, I tried to challenge their thinking. I told them that during my travels, I began to see the world differently. I realized that we, as artists of Kenya, have a unique voice. A voice that the world has never heard before and a voice that they are willing to listen to. Given that, we have two choices; we can either embrace that opportunity, using our voices to pioneer an art culture that the world can fall in love with, or, we can bury our talents, and choose to believe that there are just not ‘enough’ opportunities in Kenya. Either way, we will choose scarcity or abundance. The choice has always been our own.