A TALE OF TWO CITIES

PART 1: NAIROBI

It’s 11.30pm in Mombasa. One and a half hours after curfew.

My wife and I have just pulled up outside the gates to the apartments we will soon be calling home. Half our life’s worth is sitting on the back seat of our fossilised Mitsubishi. The engine is howling so loud, it could wake up two neighbourhoods.

It’s midnight in Mombasa. We are still hooting at the gate.

Inside the car, 15 minutes have passed since the last word was spoken. I’m still battling a flight or fight response; the result of 4 police stops and an empty fuel tank emergency. My wife is probably trying to remember which one of us’ idea it was to relocate 500 km from the only city we have ever known. Oh, and the other half of our belongings is out there somewhere; in a truck whose driver is no longer picking our calls. In moments like these, self doubt is your only friend…

‘Do we actually know what we are doing?’

‘How long will it be before reality slaps us out of this fantasy?’

‘How long before we run out of money?’

‘Who even does this?’

A few months before this nervy night, I sat on the couch where my wife and I would be snuggling if she hadn’t been away on work for two weeks. She had called to say goodnight but like many nights before that, she went on a rant about her working conditions. She was slaving away at a film shoot that underpaid and overworked her. When she wasn’t too tired to talk over the phone, she was too angry to piece together a coherent sentence. Some days it was her boss, other days it was the long hours, but on this occasion she feared for her life. You would too, if the company you were working for didn’t care that its employees were riding around in a vehicle that had failing breaks!

All her stories had made me more and more bitter about a film industry that continues to treat its filmmakers like glorified slaves. About a life that made us prisoners to such an industry. My own experiences in the industry could fill a bucket with tears.

It just felt like our life was spinning in vicious cycles. First you’re anxious because you don’t know where the next job will come from, then the job comes and you are lucky if you can negotiate a peasant’s pay. Then you finish the job and you’re lucky if you’ll see a cent of it… ever!

I really believe I’m a talented filmmaker, but it didn’t seem to count for much in this country. Most of the jobs I ended up doing were dictated by corporates who lack any kind of imagination, or bosses whose pockets were more important than the story itself. It had been like this for almost 10 years now and believing that things were going to change started feeling naive.

I have loved TV & Film since the days I sat on my mother’s kitchen floor, mapping out battle fields from sukuma wiki sticks. Throughout my childhood I would remain a daydreaming, karate-kicking, sword-wielding menace to my family. But now, in my adulthood, it was clear that the last drop of that love had been squeezed out of me. Film was the biggest source of unhappiness in my life. Every phone call with my wife made me hate the industry even more. I couldn’t even remember the last time I directed a TV Show because I genuinely loved the project. I just needed to eat.

When my wife eventually returned home we did a lot of soul searching. We were drowning in negativity while aching for a new way of living. There had to be more to life than this. It just didn’t make sense to us that when my parents were my age, they had less skills sets, less work experience, less exposure and yet we were still markedly poorer than them. At my age, my father was a low level purchasing clerk at the old Firestone. A title that would earn you little status in our modern day, but back in the late 70s it afforded him a way of comfortably taking his children through some of the best schools in Nairobi. Back then, if you were to tell him that his son would, at the same age, be travelling around Africa directing live broadcasts and TV shows he wouldn’t believe it. He wouldn’t, for a second, imagine that despite all that experience his son would still be slipping steadily down the poverty ladder. Yet, here we were; my wife and I counting money we were owed in debt while calculating how long we had before we were evicted. Aside from the major losses I have had in my life, this was the unhappiest I had ever been.

The flip-side of that thought, however, is that my father was a man under pressure for most of his life. This pressure came from all directions. If it wasn’t the pain from both his marriages, it was the working hours combined with the burden of being the most educated son of an increasingly marginalised village. This pressure would build and eventually manifest a fatal stroke. So yes, he was making money. But was he happy? Is that what he had signed up for? To break his back for decades and then die before he could enjoy the fruits of his labor? Clearly my father’s route wasn’t the answer either. It is a route that justifies the ends by suffering through the means.

It seemed, at least in that moment, that my wife and I had two choices. Make more money and be prepared for the problems brought on by a such a route or give up and settle for a life of poverty. That was until we stumbled upon a quirky Thai farmer called Jon Jandai. In his Ted Talk, he tells the story of how he quit university to go back to his village and live happily as a self sustaining peasant. Far from just delivering a funny talk, he poses fundamental questions about our society’s relationship with life. Like why we glorify suffering when most of us have the option (perhaps even the privilege) of simplifying our lives. I had watched the talk a few years before my wife and I found it again but this time it found me when I most needed it.

Neil deGrasse, the world famous astrophysicist, once said “I can guarantee you that the most important moments of your life are decided not by what you know, but by how you think.”

Watching that Jon Jandai Ted Talk alongside my wife was one such moment. It instantly sparked a change in how we thought about life. We were two average Kenyans who had been culturally programmed to think like our parents generation:

Work Hard at School x Get Into a Good University x Get A Job x Take a Car Loan x Get Your Masters x Buy Land (More Debt) x Buy Things You Can’t Afford To Impress People Who Don’t Really Care x Buy a Bigger Car…. It’s a vicious cycle of working and spending with little else in between.

This worked for a lot of our parents and perhaps even for some privileged few in our current society, but for the most part it is just not an attainable way of living for everyone. Even more worrying is that the earth does not have enough resources to allow everyone to live that way; she needs more people living simple sustainable lives.

Jon’s talk made us question what we really needed in life. What life looks like when you have authority over the things you spend your time and energy on. What it’s like for money to be a means and not an ends.

We had been on a path that required us to keep buying stuff and services that we believed made the quality of our lives better. Like paying steep rent in a ‘gated community’ even though there were two serious burglary incidents within the first 6 months of us moving in. Or filling our closets with clothes that we would quickly outgrow, thanks largely to our frequent KFC visits. Our life was filled with examples of spending money on things we could have done without.

What Jon Jandai didn’t have in his bank account, he made up for with free time to teach himself new skills and pursue projects that gave him fulfilment. His Ted Talk helped the penny drop for us: we were broke not because we had nothing, but because we did not make the most out of the cards we were dealt. We were poor because we had no time to ourselves. We were zombies ghosting through life while playing at being alive. It’s impossible to keep living like that once the cobwebs are lifted from your eyes. Surely there was a way for us to make this work.

The biggest card we had going for us was that we had established ourselves as freelancers in our industry. This meant that, though jobs were few and far between, we would still have a minimum of 2 to 3 decent jobs a year. By decent, I mean okay pay that reached our bank account on time. It wasn’t great money, but by our calculations it was enough for us to downsize our life even further and buy more stability. More time. For the next 9 weeks we would go back and forth on the financial and habitual changes we needed to make in our life.

By then we had started a hobby of going for hikes every weekend. Hikes turned out to be an amazing setting to plan and talk about our futures. There is something about starting a healthy relationship with nature that allows your mind the space to wander and be creative. It infects you with an explorers attitude. It made us so curious about the world that we began watching Walking Tour Videos on YouTube. These videos showed us parts of the world that we would have certainly died without seeing. Even though it was all virtual, it was enough inspiration for us to start toying with the idea of living like nomads. With 2 or 3 minimum jobs a year, nothing was stopping us from living and exploring life in different parts of Kenya and only coming to Nairobi when we had been commissioned to do a job. The idea of living in a coastal town made our hearts melt. Mombasa was beckoning but we still didn’t have the guts to do it. Still we loved everything about it. From the people, to the pace to the simplicity of life. It was a far cry from the loud and often invasive atmosphere in Nairobi.

Our idea was simple: for those two or three months in a year that we had to work, we would come to Nairobi and give everything we had. As long as you pay us on time and pay us fairly, we will twerk like hell for that money. Also part of our plan was to use the free time to develop a variety of new skills. Don’t get me wrong, I love being free but I still hate being poor. The 2 to 3 jobs we were starting out with were not going to be sustainable long term. Not if we wanted to be able to make enough money to secure a future. Stability to us meant making enough money to divide our financial portfolio into a healthy ratio of spending, saving and investing. That is still the goal. Adding more self taught skills to our locker gave us a longterm chance of achieving this.

One Friday night while we were watching one of those touring videos my wife turned to me and asked “What’s stopping us from doing this thing right now?”

I thought long and hard before replying “Nothing.”

I’ll never forget the smile on her face when she said “Okay then, I’ll start looking for a place.”

My wife is the most picky person I know, but it took her just 15 minutes to find a place we both loved. It was a cozy, one bedroom apartment 5 minutes away from the beach. It boasted a swimming pool and a rooftop overlooking the Indian Ocean with running water 24/7 and a standby generator! All this for up to 40% less rent than we were paying in the gated community. And oh, did I mention free wifi? It was as hard to believe as it was to resist.

Two weeks later, we were at the scene of that nervy night; hooting at the gate until the landlady finally let us in at a few minutes past midnight. The truck driver also eventually picked up. He had been looking for a place for he and his crew to sleep before bringing our stuff early the next morning.

The landlady’s coastarian accent might have been adopted, but she had the wit and grit of a proper Nairobian. She quickly laughed off our fears of being robbed at the gate and then served us cold beers and a plate of pilau.

“Karibuni Mombasa!” She said with a cheeky grin. “Huku… hatuharakishwi!”

The long journey was over, but the adventure was only beginning!

2 thoughts on “A TALE OF TWO CITIES

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