Escaping the ‘Fences’ of Africa

“Some people build fences to keep people out, other’s build them to keep people in.”

‘Fences’ is a Hollywood film I recently watched for the second time. Partly because I was forced to, but also because I love Denzel Washington.

For me, any movie with Will Smith or Denzel Washington in a lead-role is a “must-watch”… and that’s not just because they’re both Black — though that is a major factor. But also because of how relatable their roles tend to be to me as an African man. The truth is, the Hollywood movies aren’t particularly good at telling the African narrative. So I, like many other Africans have had to ‘see myself’ in Black American stories. And though they are not always relatable, they are often close enough to spark my interest. I suppose that’s where my love for Will Smith and Denzel Washington stems from.

Anyway, Denzel’s Character in Fences portrays a black family man in 1950’s America. At face value, the movie could be considered completely foreign to me. Honestly, what does 1950’s America have to do with me as a Kenyan living in Nairobi?

My answer is; “Everything”.

There is a very strong metaphor in the film which I didn’t catch the first time. A metaphor that brings the movie closer to home. Denzel, though he is a black man in the 1950’s, reminds me of the many African fathers (or even mothers) I have come to know in my lifetime. The one trait that I have seen in many African parents, which is so reflective in Denzel Washington’s character in the movie, is this innate belief that they are being victimized.

Africans, just like black Americans, especially the older generations tend to believe that someone or something is always against them. They will blame the government, the environment, the past, anything and everything when things don’t happen the way they should. They will complain solely for the sake of complaining because to not complain is to have nothing to say at all. They will tell you stories of all they’ve have overcome, all the struggles they went through, just to prove to you how hard it has been for them, and how hard it continues to be.

Truth is I don’t blame them.

When Denzel spoke of how the ‘white man’ took everything from him, how he couldn’t play baseball because of the ‘white man’ or how he’s been paying back a loan to the ‘white man’ for 15 years, it reminded me so fervently of my own family. Though we are thousands of miles away on a different continent altogether, our complaints and our grievances echo back and forth so much so that Denzel’s character could easily have been my father.

Let me back-track a little.

My parents and grandparents grew up in a world that wasn’t about options or possibilities. “Go to school, excel, get a job, work hard, get money and provide for your family,” that was it. They grew up in survival mode. I suppose when you’ve lived through the colonization of your people and the pillaging of your “possibilities”, it’s hard to see life through any other lens.

Whereas white families, or Euro-American kids may have grown up believing in mass opportunity, plush possibilities, and parents throwing around phrases like “you can be whoever you want to be”, for us Africans, it has been very different.

I, like many other Kenyan kids, grew up in a ‘survival mentality household’. Study hard, finish school so you can make money — that was ‘life’. Now I give credit to my parents for somehow escaping from that mentality a few years back, but today I see many African people, households, families, kids, still stuck in that same mentality. And I’m not talking about ‘poor’ people: poor people have to survive before they can dream big or see opportunities. It’s a different life when you’re are solely worried about where your next meal will come from. I have no bone to pick with the poor.

Instead, I’m talking about those of us who grew up like I did. The Africans who went to school; who had food on the table when they came home, and a fresh pair of socks to wear in the morning. The Africans who were afforded the possibility to “dream big” and “be whoever they wanted to be” — even though it was never explicitly said. It hurts me to see Africans who are oblivious to the opportunities that not only they have but their sons and daughters too. I want today’s Africans to strive for something greater than ‘survival’ even if we are used to a culture, society, or environment that dictates a different narrative to us.

My fear is that we, as Africans, though being “freed”, still struggle to see the possibilities that our ‘new world’ is giving us — the possibilities granted by the sacrifices of our ancestors.

The movie Fences spoke to me so deeply because Africans — be it parents, kids, culture, or communities — are much like Denzel Washington’s character.

We are building fences around ourselves. Not the types that keep others out, but the types that keep us and our people in. It is about time that we emancipated ourselves and grasped that we do not need to feel victimized. Opportunities and possibilities exist. The colonialists and the white men left a long time ago, we cannot take off the shackles on our ankles and strap them voluntarily on our minds.

There are no fences anymore. Only the ones we have built ourselves.

We Must Unlearn to Look Down on Africa

When I was in high school we spent 3 months of the academic year learning about ‘Hard Water’.

Let me start by saying that when the topic of hard water was initially introduced to us — a classroom of teenage Kenyan students — we were gripped not by our interest in the subject, but by our curiosity as to why our teacher did not just say “ice”.

Little did we know that ‘Hard Water’ was actually a real ‘thing’. “Water that has a high mineral content and forms limescale in kettles…. Blah, blah blah”, as our school textbook would say.

Now, I don’t dismiss the importance of learning about hard water. And even though I much despised chemistry as a subject in my teens, I suppose it was important. ‘Important’, for the same reason my father sent me to school; “because education is the key…” Not because of any logical reason I could bring myself to believe as a young teenager.

Hard water is relevant — perhaps to students who have grown up seeing limescale in their kettles or experiencing this “strange water” first hand. But to kids from Kenya who are more likely to see Giraffes through the windows of our houses, than hard water spilling through our kitchen taps… it was all irrelevant. Learning about hard water only served to turn our education into an abstraction; a collection of lessons that were beyond our frame of reality.

There is a quote in Nelson Mandela’s very insightful book named “Long Walk To Freedom” that says;

“The educated Englishman was our model.; what we aspired to be were “black Englishmen” as we were sometimes derisively called. We were taught — and believed — that the best ideas were English ideas, the best Government was English government and the best men we Englishmen”.

The book was written over 20 years ago, but I struggle to see how anything has changed since, at least in my native country of Kenya.

As a teenager, I went to a British international school — what many, not by coincidence, would call one of the best schools in the country. And though I was the beneficiary of resources and means of education that few others got in Kenya, I don’t think I learned much. Not anything of real relevance anyway. Nothing that really ‘helped me’.

When I sat in that chemistry classroom as a teenager, listening to my English teacher ramble about hard water, I absorbed his words like I was sitting in the pews of his church; with unwavering faith, writing in my notebook as hastily as I could. Though, what I never noticed then, that I have been enlightened to since, was that I was actually a victim — a victim of colonialism in its most contemporary form.

A Voluntary Slave

Learning about subjects like ‘hard water’ in school, in Kenya, I was no longer learning about ‘my reality’, but someone else’s. As I scribbled in my notebooks in chemistry class, it never occurred to me that the things I spent night’s revising and cramming into my absent mind actually had no value to me. They did not serve to enable me to better navigate my country or better exist in Kenya. Instead, I was stuck in a system. A system which required me to seek the validation of those at its helm if I wished to get ahead. Instead of my education introducing me to an affixation with my environment, it taught me about somewhere else… somewhere far, far away, where the white people came from. I learned about the world from their perspective, and saw my country through their eyes…

“As I grew up and advanced academically, my reality was further separated from my education… I just knew my education was preparing me to go somewhere else… and give to another environment that it belonged to, it was not for my environment when and where I grew up.”

 Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu

We are Taught to Hate Ourselves

When I first learned about Mount Kenya — Kenya’s tallest mountain — I was a little boy, listening to my father’s words in the village where he grew up, at the foot of the mountain itself. Years later in primary school, I recall learning about Mount Kenya once again. Only this time, our textbooks told us of a man called Dr. Johann Ludwig Krapf. ‘They’ say he discovered Mount Kenya on the 3rd of December 1849. It was written and stated as a fact by our teachers, and somehow, when I was a child, I did not think to question it. I probably scribbled it in my notebook like it was chemistry class, struggling to engrave the date in my memory just to pass the next test.

Though what never occurred to me at the time is that my grandparents — and my great-grandparents — had grown up right at the foot of the mountain. So, what the teacher was effectively saying was that it took a white man from Germany to travel thousands of miles to “discover” a mountain that was right in front of them…?

No chance.

This was one of many of the paradoxes of my education. I grew up not believing that answers came from within the borders of my country or continent, but from outside. From the more intelligent white men who knew ‘everything’. From the ‘first world’ that we hoped to one day exist in.

It is this habit of thought that I have continually tried to remove from my mind but, at the same time, I’m terrified to I see it so deeply engraved in the minds of fellow Africans. We continue to see the ‘western world’ as ‘right’ or ‘superior’ or ‘further ahead’; we drink of their ‘hard water’ like we will one day taste it and never questioning why. It’s this same habit of thought that has kept us looking down upon ourselves, undermining our power and being told what to do.

It is about time that we, as Africans, empower ourselves!

The great Julius Nyerere once said;

“You cannot develop people. People will have to develop themselves.”

We as African’s cannot continue to voluntarily bow to the west. We cannot continue to see ourselves and our world through a ‘white’ lens. Let us see each other and our surroundings for who and what they are. Let us aspire to be ourselves and no longer need to be like ‘them’. Perhaps once we find pride in ourselves, we can slowly mold our continent into something that is really and truly our own.

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.

If I Gave you $5000 Right Now, What Would You Do?

I’ll never forget one day at work when I met with a co-worker in the staff room. She was complaining, the same way she had the day before, and the day before that. I listened, like I often did, or at least pretended to. It was the same mindless venting she was known for and quite frankly, I was tired of it.

I interrupted her mid-sentence, “If I gave you half a million shillings ($5000 roughly) right now, what would you do?”

She paused. And suddenly her eyes glazed over in suppressed excitement.

Are you kidding me, I would go home and sleep!”

I’ve never forgotten that.

Her words may not even be remotely surprising to some people. I imagine there a lot of people who’d answer the same way she did.

But, to this day, the pity I felt for her in that moment still resonates in my mind. And after replaying that scene over and over again since, I’ve realized something very profound about how certain people think.

On that day, my coworker gave me a glimpse into her reality. She was working as a means to an end; as a way to ‘make money’, and the quicker she could make enough money to go home and ‘do nothing’, the better. Whatever job could make that happen, she was willing to do, no matter how discontented she felt.

That’s what she was really saying.

Poor Person’s mentality

At the beginning of this year I was broke. I was living in my parents’ home, I had no job prospects and for seemingly the first time, I felt poor. I wanted money. I wanted to move out of my parents’ home and start my own life — and money could make that happen.

So, unconsciously and blindly, I took a job working as a salesman… I hated it.It wasn’t that the job was hard, it wasn’t, I did really well my first month and they paid us really well too. Instead the reason I hated it was because it didn’t ‘feel right’. I had no desire to be like my bosses — or even my co-workers to be honest. I felt lost. I remember waking up every day trying to convince myself that a check at the end of the month was worth the sacrifice.

During that time, I had gone from making no money and being desperate for a job, to making good money and hating my job. It was as if the money didn’t help. It only made me realize what I really valued. It took the blinders off me per se.

When you are ‘poor’, you don’t think about what you’re passionate about, you don’t think about ‘career advancement’ or whether you even like your job; you just ‘work’. You ‘work’ to alleviate the pain of poverty (and that pain looks different for all kinds of people). To make enough money to feed yourself, pay your rent and keep the lights on — that’s all that matters.

But once you start making a bit of money in excess of your basic needs… something changes. You begin to look around and you begin to value other aspects of your ‘work’ that you may not have noticed before.

You begin to ask yourself “what’s really important to me?”, “Do I even enjoy my job?”, “is this where I want to be?”

Suddenly, money begins to ‘look’ a little different. Your needs change, and ‘money’ can’t really fulfill these new needs.

You begin to “value what you do for the money, even more than the money itself.” — Jane Hwango

The Search

I’ve come to realize that there is something even more elusive than money. We all search for it, whether subconsciously or knowingly. Some people call it ‘happiness’, ‘purpose’, but I like to refer to it as ‘fulfillment’.

 

A popular Greek myth, tells of a man named Sisyphus. Sisyphus was banished to a life of discontentment by the Greek Gods. He was to push a heavy boulder up a mountain and place it at the top. The problem was, every time he got to the top, the rock would stay there for a moment, before rolling back down the other side of the mountain. He did this over and over again; the rock continually rolled down and Sisyphus continually pushed it back up.

In this world, we are no different to Sisyphus.

We work, we travel, we buy things, all because we are seemingly getting closer to the top of the mountain. But unfortunately, when we finally get ‘there’… we grow discontent, unsatisfied, and the boulder falls back down the other side. We then go back down the mountain and habitually start all over, habitually picturing happiness and fulfillment at the top of the mountain.

The fact is, the fulfillment we search for — through, our possessions, our jobs, our lifestyle etc. is not at the top of some mountain that we can ‘arrive’ at. You can’t make ‘enough’ money to stay content and fulfilled. We, as humans are just not like that; even Warren Buffet has money problems.

Instead, what we find through our life experiences, is that fulfillment is but a feeling. Like happiness, it comes and it goes. Life becomes a journey of finding the things that bring you closer to the fulfillment and happiness you search for; without compromising all the other aspects of your life.

Fulfillment is not so much in the destination but in the path, itself.

Theodore Roosevelt once said; “the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

There is no amount of money that will ‘buy’ your fulfillment or satisfaction. Instead, value what you’re actually doing for the money — that’s what truly matters. Because like Pico Lyer once said; “sometimes ‘making-a-living’ and ‘making-a-life’ point in very different directions.”

The Day We Saved Nairobi

The opportunity for heroism exists in all the simple and benign things that we perceive as wrong and have a choice to do something about.

Last weekend my parents and I were driving into the city when we passed a burning tree.
Mindlessly staring out of the window, I noticed it immediately. I remember how it flashed by my eyes so unexpectedly, I took a second to question what I’d seen. Immediately I carelessly interrupted my parents’ conversation, “did you see that?! There was a tree that was on fire!”

We were driving along Limuru Road — a densely populated motorway into the city, in the middle of Karura forest (a forest that is as much a symbol of Nairobi as everything else we take pride in). As I elaborated on what I’d seen, my parents nonchalantly shrugged, as if we were going to dismiss the whole thing. I wouldn’t let them.

“We have to stop,” I said hesitantly.

Without turning uncomfortably to look at me, my mother replied; “what do you want us to do, turn and go back?”

I said yes, neither forcefully nor feebly, but with a lack of conviction that warranted them to pay me no mind. I wasn’t overly fretting about it.

A few minutes later arriving at our destination, something just didn’t sit well with me. The image of that burning tree just wouldn’t escape my mind, I said; “We have to go back, there is a tree on fire in Karura forest!”

Irritable and agitated, my parents agreed. We slowly drove back in the scanning the left side of the road searching for the burning tree. “There it is!” I shouted, affirming that I wasn’t crazy.

We stopped the car on the curb of the road and got out to get a closer look at the tree. It was only then I noticed the number of cars that were driving by — tens of them, no-one seemed to notice the tree. By then, the smoke was thick in the air and easily visible from the road, but it was like no one cared… They just drove past.

Immediately my dad began calling ‘999’ Kenya’s emergency number.

“It says “press one if this is an emergency”, then I press one and it goes off…” he said.

So much for the authorities. But then again, “This is Africa” as some will tell you.

Dad then proceeded to call every emergency number he had in his phone — Gigiri police, Runda Police… nothing.

Growing impatient, we decided to alarm a security guard at one of the houses nearby. He was standing outside a gate. “Have you seen the burning tree over there? Have you called anyone?”

He affirmed that he had noticed it, but he just idly glanced at it, looking just as careless and all the other people who were driving past it.

He then adamantly said; “My responsibility is this area here, not over there…”

We looked at him dumbfounded at first, followed by outrage.

 

This was a security man. He was looking at a burning tree and his first thought was “it’s not my responsibility”.

“Well, then who the hell’s is it then?!” I wanted to say.

Never mind the fact that we were in a forest and that fire could spread and burn the very home that was, in fact, his “responsibility”.

We later found that this security guard had actually seen the man who lit the tree on fire and did nothing. He stood by and watched a man commit arson but did nothing because it wasn’t his “responsibility”.

Looking back, I’m not so concerned about the what the security guard did, or didn’t do for that matter. What concerned me more was the hundreds of cars that drove past the smog of the burning tree without even stopping to take notice.

What does that say about us? Not just as Kenyans, or Africans, but as humans?

Several minutes later another security truck came by followed by the Kenya police. The story didn’t change. We all stood watching the tree burn deliberating on whether a fire truck was — in the words of the police — “really necessary”.

As we stood there staring at the tree, we noticed that trees tallest branch was now beginning to burn. This tall branch also happened to be hanging dangerously over some electricity lines and the nearby motorway where hundreds of cars were passing… but still, the police just watched the tree burn and every car continued to drive past carelessly.

It’s called the bystander effect; individuals are less likely to offer help when other people are present. Everyone assumes “someone else” will do something.

What I felt went deeper than that.

 

Humans are funny; we all hate to see the “wrong things” happen, yet at the same time, we hate to be held responsible for them. We would rather shift that responsibility to someone or something else.

That Saturday morning, as my family and I drove past that burning tree, we didn’t want to turn back. We almost wished we hadn’t noticed it because to notice something wrong is to also take on the responsibility of making it right; it is this responsibility that scares most people, so much so that everybody in their cars that morning, who drove past that tree, seemed to pretend that they hadn’t seen anything at all. “Someone else will take care of it, they will tell themselves. What is ironic is that everyone else is thinking the exact same thing, and no-one actually does anything about it.

We left soon after convincing the police to call the fire department. I do wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t stopped that day. If we were one of the hundred cars that drove past and did nothing… if that tree had fallen on the motorway before anyone thought to do anything about it… then this story would have been in the newspaper for all the wrong reasons.

I think we all have this perception of heroism as something grandiose and beyond ourselves; like starting a civil rights movement or saving someone in a burning building. But perhaps heroism is rarely that glamorous.Instead, the opportunity for heroism exists in all the simple and benign things that we perceive as wrong and have a choice to do something about. You may not be able to fly or walk through walls, but you can do ‘something’, and enough people doing ‘something’ is all we need to change our city, our country, and our world.

The Beauty of Just ‘Being Present’

It was December 2013, the sun was slowly setting beneath the glaring horizon, and the balcony we sat on had this magnificent orange glow that garnished the smiles on our faces. Staring at the vibrant landscape, lost in empty thought, we didn’t talk much… like the silent sounds of nature stole our words from us. It was quiet. It was peaceful. It was perfect…

As papa, my brother and I lounged and gazed wondrously at the horizon, there wasn’t anything inherently special about that moment. The sun set, just as it did the day before, and the day before that… our family was together, just like we had been for most of my life, and the savannas of Nakuru were just as magnificent as any other park in Kenya’s rich countryside. Yet for some reason, that evening plays in the forefront of my mind when I recall one of the happiest moments of my life.

What made that moment so special, was not the emphatic beauty of the landscape, nor the amazing company of my family… Instead, what made that moment great, was that, for one of the first times in my life, I was completely and wholly content.

I wasn’t trying to change anything, I wasn’t wishing that any cloud in the sky looked different, nor was I trying to shade the glare of the sun from my face. I wasn’t thinking of the past, or recalling any memories, nor was I peering into the future with anxiety… I was just completely and absolutely present.

Knowing myself now, it’s no surprise that such a memory is so deeply etched into my mind. For, to this day, I still recall that beautiful afternoon. Yet even years after its passing, I still wonder why such experiences continuously escape me. Why does it take a trip up country and a beautiful sunset to make me be content with life? Can’t there be happiness, joy, and contentment, even in monotony, even right now?

We’re so Ungrateful

What I believe has become an integral part of our human condition is the ability to take things for granted. If I lived in that cottage in Nakuru, woke up to an emasculate sun rise every morning and gazed over the savanna every evening as the sun set, of course, I would feel that strong sense of contentment and joy — at least in the beginning. But just as all humans do, eventually, my mind would turn what was once a breathless view into just another sight in the banality of life. What was a thrilling and memorable experience would soon look to me like ‘just another day.’

And I believe, that is what we have done with the rest of our lives.

Imagine the first time you cooked the perfect breakfast, read your first novel, or built your first Lego. Those were amazing experiences. Yet today, these moments hold little relevance in the vast array of newer and more exciting things we do. It seems that somehow, we have turned, what were once blissful, exciting and happy moments of life into commonalities that feel benign and tedious.

But does it have to be like this?

What if we could experience all of life, even its monotony? What if we could see the hidden beauty in every experience we have? What if we could feel the banalest parts of life, just like I felt that sunset in Nakuru?

How Meditation Changed my Life…

Now a lot of people grapple with the idea of meditation. They tend to picture a Buddha sitting on top of a hill, completely still, cleansing his mind of all emotion… But I believe it isn’t that complicated.

I describe meditation as being mindful and being completely present in whatever you do. It’s that simple.

Be it having a meal, driving a car, or even doing the laundry, being completely mindful and present almost makes you lose yourself in the experience; it makes you see things that perhaps were always there, but you never really noticed them. It’s running through the woods and listening to the birds’ chirp and the crickets’ hiss, it’s driving and listening to the symphony of traffic, or having a meal and truly ‘feeling’ the food you’re eating… that’s what meditation is.

So, in a world where people eat whilst scrolling through Instagram, imagine how uniquely different it would feel to just do one thing and be completely present whilst you do it; not conscious of the past and not anxious about the future… just complete ‘here’. That, for me, is the true essence of meditation. And with that power of mindfulness and presence of mind, we can begin to see, even a dreary office space, just as beautifully as a sunset over the landscapes of Nakuru.

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.

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’.

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.