Humble beginnings

Nuggets of wisdom about success in life come from the most unlikely sources sometimes.

So there I was in slow moving traffic along State House Road in a cab some weeks ago. Usually, I’m chatting away but on that sunny morning, I was pensive, looking at my surroundings without seeing them. I vaguely noticed the old man shuffling along in tattered clothes with akalas on his feet, begging bowl in hand, a young fellow guiding him with a hand on his elbow, from car window to car window. Nothing new. A common sight on Nairobi’s streets.

Some motorists hastily roll up their windows when they saw the pair coming. Staring stonily ahead, brows knit in concentration at some speck on the horizon when the dark man with the weather beaten face drew parallel to their side mirrors. Perhaps imagining that if they didn’t look at him then he didn’t exist. Or perhaps wishing he would move on quickly.

Others looked at him curiously, perhaps taking in the lines etched on his face like an ancient piece of parchment, lines that marked the endless roads and valleys he had crossed to get here, a beggar in his sixties perhaps? I’m never good at telling people’s ages just by looking at them. Few dropped anything into his bowl.

I’d already dismissed the man and his young friend (or relative) from my mind and gone back to my silent musings when Kingori, my cabbie suddenly spoke. “That young man,” he jerked a thumb over his right shoulder as the car crawled forward, “He is young and strong. He can work and provide for the old man. So why is he walking him around in the hot sun begging?”

That got my attention. I’d never thought of it like that. “The problem with young people these days is that they are choosy when it comes to work. They would rather sit around all day complaining about the lack of jobs instead of finding something to do however humble that can pay a little and then work their way up. They look at someone like me and want to get a car and become a taxi driver. Do they imagine I started here?”

I nodded thoughtfully remembering the butchery right outside my last house where every day half a dozen young men sat on benches all day listening to the music blasting from the barbershop next door, chatting away and gossiping about other people. I’d always found it extremely odd. Think about it. When is the last time you saw a group of women just sitting around all day at a shopping centre doing nothing? Never I bet. Even the ones who sit on the kerb outside the main gates of an estate are usually waiting to get cleaning jobs from mamas in the estate. By 1pm, they’ve dwindled to a few and those remaining usually leave soon after, sure that no work is forthcoming. But young men idling their time away is a common sight in the suburbs, especially around kiosks.

“My first job was a houseboy in Nyeri with a salary of Ksh2,000 per month,” Kingori continued. I turned to him startled, trying to imagine him cleaning, cooking, perhaps changing nappies. I really couldn’t visualise my cabbie doing any of those things. I’ve written about Kingori before. You can read about him here.

“How does someone survive on Ksh2,000 a month?” I asked lamely.

“You just manage somehow,” he replied with a shrug. “I did that for two years then moved to Meru where I was employed as a herdsboy, looking after and milking cows. The job paid the same amount.” I could only stare at him amazed as he told me his background.

After the Meru job he came to Nairobi where he worked as a loader at Marigiti, Nairobi’s largest fresh produce market also known as Wakulima market. He had to be at the market every day by 4am to catch the trucks that delivered vegetables to the traders. Each lorry driver would pick two or three loaders to lift the huge sacks off the truck, hoist them on their backs and carry them inside the huge market. I looked at Kingori’s slight frame and tried to imagine him carrying sacks of potatoes, onions or cabbages on his back and failed. It was exhausting to even think about it. And waking up at 4am every day? I’m not a morning person and imagine that had to be the hardest part of the job.

After unloading trucks, he would seek work ferrying produce on mkokotenis (hand carts) for traders from other markets in residential areas who purchased produce at Wakulima for sale to their customers in city estates. These traders paid Ksh1,500-2,000 per load which two or three mkokoteni pushers shared. That meant dodging early morning traffic, overlapping matatus and impatient motorists who hooted and swerved around them sometimes missing hitting them by a hair’s breadth. It was backbreaking work but for someone who previously earned Ksh2,000 a month, it was paradise as he earned the same amount in two days. From there he graduated to ferrying charcoal which paid a little more.

His journey into the taxi business began as a driver for a childhood friend from his Nyeri hometown who worked an office job and had purchased a car. He asked Kingori to ferry passengers in the estates of Langata so that the vehicle could bring in an income instead of sitting idly in parking lots in the city all day. He paid Kingori a commission for his efforts. “It was hard at first. There were days I would sit at the shopping centre for three days without getting a single customer.”

“How did you manage to survive?” That careless shrug again. “After a month or so it got better. I slowly built a list of customers who knew me and always called me whenever they wanted to go somewhere. They also referred me to their friends and I got more customers. I saved up slowly over two years, bought a car and started my own taxi business.”

I was still staring at him in disbelief as he drove along, sharing his story. So much made sense now. Why he had such good customer service. When you’ve started at the bottom, you have a much greater appreciation of success. Kingori never takes his customers for granted and always goes the extra mile for them. He recently purchased a third car to boost his business. The other two vehicles are operated by his cousins who he encouraged to come to Nairobi and he employed them.

      “My point is these young people who sit at home the whole day and complain about unemployment. Do they imagine someone is going to come to your house and give you a job? You have to put yourself out there even if it means offering your services to someone free so that you get noticed. And don’t be picky about jobs either. When you have nothing in the pocket, you should grab anything that can put food on the table and then work your way up. I didn’t just wake up one day and start driving a taxi. I had to do so many other things to get here.”

I cheered inside. There is nothing I can add to such simple and yet profound wisdom.


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4 thoughts on “Humble beginnings

  1. Lovely story on Kingori. I’m so inspired. When you read such a story, really makes you wonder why we complain. Keep up the good work. Always looking forward to a new story.


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