The courtroom where I get judged . For my jungle accent, the length of my skirt, the shade of my skin colour, the lack of gait in my step, the length – or lack thereof of my hair (I once cut my hair and was summoned by human resource for a therapy session because they thought I was having suicidal thoughts).
The place where impressions sometimes matter too much. Certainly more than the brilliant thoughts in your mind that nobody knows because no words have yet been formulated to articulate this brilliance. The place that makes you want to brush your teeth when you see the little boys making stiff climbs up the corporate calendar for something mostly to do with their gift of the gab.
If you work in place like I do, the place I see little boys and girls transformed from awkward 24 year olds in ill-fitting cheap suits with jungle accents to accessorize , to arrogant 29 year olds talking of present value of GDP and fiscal cliffs. The place I see Kamau stop wearing safari boots and a shirt with ugly prints on casual Friday to hush puppy loafers and fashionable polo shirts.
This is also where I met for the first time – that breed of little boys and girls who had grown up all their lives in Nairobi, went to Universities abroad and only came back a couple of years back because mummy fell sick and they wanted to be near mummy. You can tell these ones a mile away. There are the ones with no jungle accent, the ones who say “absolutely!” to agree with you. The ones who hold their own in a conversation about atrocious aircraft food. The ones who ask you where to you are going on holiday when you take two days off to visit your sick grandmother in Nyeri. The ones who ask you out for lunch to Java and Artcaffe and whose parents live in Westlands and Kilimani. Visiting your parents is a 400km journey to be carefully planned and budgeted for.
This is also where I painfully saw a version of myself through the lives of others. I saw my awkwardness, desire to fit in and ultimately, the triumph of my capability to summon all my physical and intellectual capabilities to gain recognition. Take Leah for instance, she wears an ill-fitting suit accessorised by a vague sweaty smell, has a jungle accent , and can barely make a presentation without having everyone in the room praying that it ends quickly to spare her additional pain. But wait until you see her output, her reports are meticulously written and you can always count on her to work through the night in order to meet the deadline. Because she is aspiring and so desperately wants to fit in the club of young middle class professionals. To do that, she must capitalise on what she has now, intellect to churn out the reports and physical strength to put in the long hours. For now, this will be have triumph.
In another three years, Leah will be using “absolutely” in a sentence and having an opinion on fiscal cliffs .That I can attest to. I mean, I am living proof. I started off wearing an ill-fitting suit (thankfully, it was spared of the sweaty smell as my mama had taught me to use a shaving razor and deodorant).I could hardly make a presentation without wanting to flee. But now, I look my audience in the eye, wear my designer suit with gait and say “absolutely!” to agree with an opinion.
I dare say that to some extent, corporate Kenya reveals a man’s character. It makes us confront ourselves and ask what we really are about. What moves us. Can we draw the line in the sand between self-improvement (and with it career advancement) and betrayal of our true selves? Something like selling our souls for a plate of food.
A couple of years ago, I was up for a middle level management position and my career coach told me that the only thing standing in the way of my promotion was my personality. That I walked into the big boys offices to say hello and chat about the fiscal crisis too few times. That I had my lunch at my desk too many times instead of venturing out into the staff café to socialise. He went on to explain that he wanted to see me in the big boys offices using buzz words like value chain transformation. That I needed to throw myself in the faces of the big boys by looking for things to do in their offices.
This conversation was a tipping point for me . It made me realise that I needed to gift myself with the possibility of staying authentic to myself and my character. I did get the promotion, as to the authenticity of my character, I am not too certain that I have stayed authentic, but I am glad I had that moment of realisation.
It also the place that you make lifelong friends. You occasionally meet that person that sees through your insecurities and desires and instantly makes a connection with you because they are walking the same journey towards the plateau of middle class contentment. You go to their homes, meet their boyfriends, witness their boyfriends dump them for spending too much time in the office. Share in their joy at engagements and weddings and witness their daily struggle to balance middle class aspirations with parental responsibilities. Corporate Kenya for you.