Jan 30

The Exciting but Sobering Realities of Moving Back to Kenya

After 11 years at a residential address that did not say Kenya, Amandla Ooka-Ombaka has decided to return home. She provides us with a very real snapshot of what to expect for the big move. 

I have yet to decide exactly what I will be doing when I land back in but my heart has “+254” stamped all over it – so that is the only place I am considering. It has been a wild adventure going to school and working in over 30 international cities in the past decade – from Addis Ababa to Phoenix, Abuja to London, San Francisco to Accra, Abidjan to Warri, Dakar to Buffalo. There is no way this bright-eyed, bushy-tailed teenager over ten years ago could have imagined how much I would see, try, fail and succeed.

I like to think that before I left home I knew who I was. However, this past decade has been an exercise in losing and finding myself again. Some of the learning has been trivial but liberating…I will never be a morning person. Much of it has been confusing…why is it that with age I am becoming more introverted? Is going back to consulting selling out? Am I an entrepreneur? Are all adults just trying to figure it out all the time? One thing is for sure, I am heading home with more questions than answers. But I’m heading home. Here are the five things I am noodling on as I make the final preparations to leave the US:

  1. I will still be a “visitor” in some ways when I move back home

Years ago when I told people I planned to move home after school, they said I would never come back, family members included. The pangs of hurt and anger these responses would illicit in me were palpable. Why would anyone say that? The only place that is truly “home” to me is Kenya. My parents have left my siblings and I a lot of work to continue with our fellow Kenyans. We can’t walk away from that. JKIA airport is the ONLY airport in the world where I can walk through the citizen line. Where I exercise my right to vote judiciously.

My grandmother constantly reminds me that she doesn’t care that I go to Harvard. When I’m at her house, it is my turn to cook.

But over the past 10 years, “home” has become a much more nuanced concept to me. I feel at “home” whenever I am with people who keep me grounded and remind me that if I can’t translate all the stuff I do when I’m away from Kenya into actions that will make a difference at home, then I have a problem.

For instance, my grandmother constantly reminds me that she doesn’t care that I go to Harvard. When I’m at her house, it is my turn to cook.

Nairobi has also changed tremendously in the past 10 years. It is not the city I knew as a young girl. My mannerisms and outlook on everything from social interactions to taking the lead in corporate environments are subject to a new set of rules. I will be well served in being much more observant talking less, adapting and integrating without losing my ability to question the status quo and strive for a better answer. Easy right? Ha!

  1. My grandmothers (and older relatives) have truly aged and my “party-people” are married with kids

I love my maternal grandmother dearly. She is the only one of my grandparents still alive–and she’s a boss. But spending consistent time with her these past few months has shown me just how much she has aged since her days of running our household, and baking up a storm for her grandkids’ birthdays. I know that time doesn’t stand still, but my “short” trips home over the past decade gave me only snapshots of her life. Nothing like the motion picture I saw in the time since I’ve been home. I want to be home with her and for her.

Friday nights are game nights or opportunities for me to baby sit so they can go out as married couples.

I’ve observed a similar time-warp with my closest friends. We used to head straight from the airport to our favorite local spot when I would come home to visit, but now Friday nights are game nights or opportunities for me to baby sit so they can go out as married couples. I love spending any time I can get with my peeps, but the time we spend together now is just very different. The longer I am away from them, the more different becomes un-relatable. I’m not ready for that.

  1. Living in Kenya as the consummate “potential, potential” economy

Allow the geek in me to wax for a second. I have spent the better part of the past 3 years studying why countries like mine have struggled to deliver on the “Africa Rising” narrative, while others like Rwanda, Vietnam and the Philippines seem to be making relatively more progress after controlling for all the factors possible to make an apples-to-apples comparison.

For me, it boils down to leadership, governance and strong institutions, which is always easier said than done. To be clear, I have a lot more to learn. Given what I do know, yes, Kenya made notable progress in all facets of development: economic, political and social in the past decade. From promulgating one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, to the recent issuance of a $2B Eurobond, the largest ever in Sub-Saharan Africa. It was 4x oversubscribed. The reversal of the trend in the HIV prevalence rate, and universal primary education for all cannot go unmentioned. There are questions around implementation of course, but my hope is that I can play a part in making even more progress. The reality is, despite all these efforts we are still underperforming relative to the targets we have laid out in our Vision 2030 strategy to become a middle-income economy. Moving home ramps to the need for me to be ready to deal with the daily frustrations of potential, but use that as fuel to put up or bust and do my part to help make things work.

  1. Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) adjustments are a real thing

Financially, coming home now versus pursuing more monetarily lucrative options is real talk. In many ways, my decision to do this now is an investment – get in on the ground floor as the next wave of growth takes off. My personal satisfaction and impact quotas at home are incomparable to anywhere else.

But in running the numbers of my grad school debt (in USD) versus immediate future income streams (in KES) was a reality check. Sure, things like Amazon, Instacart, Uber, FioS and flights running on time are really nice, but these higher “transaction costs” of moving back home don’t stress me out much. I believe that after one lives in Lagos, and grows to love it anything is doable. But the significant wedge in income at my level requires me to change a lot of my future financial planning calculus, especially after 3 years of–amazing but non-income generating–student life.

  1. The side-hustle is not just a way of life, it is life

I have so many thoughts about how labour force participation patterns are rapidly evolving. Everyone I know in Nairobi has a side hustle. For many, it is a pursuit of passion. One of my favourite people in the entire world also happens to be my cousin. Starting businesses like laundromats and car rentals energizes him like nothing else; he’s not as crazy about the consumer apps that it seems everyone on the East Coast is into. For some people, it is a hedge–timing the opportunity on the side to transition from a more stable job when it makes sense. For even more people, it is a way to make ends meet, because the 9-5 doesn’t cut it. This has real implications for how my age mates are spending their time at home. Weekends are for meetings with small investor groups, field trips to visit potential farms to start production, appointments with loan officers to discuss if the side-hustle can be used as collateral for a mortgage. Part of this trend is due to the fact that we have grown up, and coming home at 6:00am on Saturday and sleeping all day is now deemed a waste.

But another part of it is the “hustler” mentality we need not only at a micro-level to get our lives to where we want them to be, but at a macro-level to become a middle-income economy by 2030. Back home this summer, we were talking about a “24 hour economy”; this is SO EXCITING!

I used to plan in 10 year increments, replete with scenario analysis in excel. I am now on a 2-3 year timeline. There may be a time to move away from Nairobi in the future, but my roots will have been re-planted at home. And that makes all the difference to me.

Source: Applause Africa