The making of a diplomat: retracing my steps

15th December 2006, I got a call on my desk extension summoning me to see the Chief Executive Officer. I had stayed in anticipation after a post management trainee appraisal hoping for a confirmation and an opportunity to work and earn a salary. A typical mindset for every first time job seeker, I think. On that very day, I held a different letter from a competing bank offering me a graduate clerical job. One that I did not mind but one I was very ready to use as leverage for better situation terms at the bank I had learnt so much from, and one I preferred. I had also on this same day skipped my graduation ceremony from university simply because I knew what was ahead mattered more to me. It occurs to me today that odds, small as they may have been ages ago, shaped a rather negotiations routed and diplomacy driven mind that I have today, and probably had all along.

I walked into James Ochami (the CEO) ‘s office.  He always had an intimidating but friendly pose. I feared and admired him in almost equal measure. I wore a navy blue pin stripped suit from ‘Enka-rasha’, white shirt (a definite bootleg ‘Marks & Spenser’) and a plain navy ‘Deacons’ neck tie. I was wearing some black shoes from some stalls that were next to Development House along Moi Avenue (time has gone by, a building stands there today). James always teased me about my social escapades. This morning was no exception; he asked if I had a date. I didn’t shy away, after some strained chuckles, I blurted out a ‘Yes, with destiny, which you happen to hold’. He pulled out the appraisal report. It had plenty of notes on it from different authority levels. He also had my job request letter attached to it. His face turned darker as he read through and corrected my sorry English. You do not say ‘I have cleared university’; you say ‘successfully completed studies in a given area of specialty’. I was embarrassed but least bothered. He said management had reviewed my performance through the six months and decided to offer me a job. I have since come to hate the term ‘management’ but that is for another day.

“You do not go to university to get a career; you go there to prepare for life.” James said, trying to convince me to take up a role in the Information Technology Division of the bank. I had expressed my fear. I had studied Finance and Banking, a course I had picked to prove a point anyway but ICT? How was I going to do that? I did not know anything beyond Microsoft Word, Excel and deleting browsing history. Hello, I did not even know how to play Solitaire. I still do not know.

I took up the offer.  It was trying. The sole guy in ICT who was my boss and a close confidant today fell ill, four days after I joined his department. The other guy had been axed in a government initiated retrenchment. I was baptized by fire. I learnt T24 core banking system by night and executed it by day. My desk phone rang every second, user support. I learnt virtually everything with internet aids and with support calls. A user would bring up an issue, when I got stuck; I called Mr. William in hospital for support. @Bankelele can bear me witness. A month down the line I freely executed codes, spoke MCSA, MCSE and worked core banking systems like I was seasoned. I was also back to school studying computer science. This was my first real job. It opened up my mind to so much self belief. By 2010, I was confident only one person knew that bank better than I did, my supervisor, still the smartest human being I have met.

I have since done Strategic Planning, Business Development, Project Management, Credit Control, Fundraising…among other things. I’ce studied Economics and I am well on my way to being a philosopher in International Trade and Relations. Doctor. I have dealt mostly with industries, government agencies and SMEs. On a random night at Psys Westlands, as I was having a drink with Sam ( and a couple other guys.) We talked about trends that characterize the city.  Nairobi City. For a long time, entrepreneurship had been the cool thing to get involved in. Everyone was quitting employment, venturing into start-ups and that kind of stuff. Kenyans on Twitter today probably still have the biggest number of CEO’s ever. You know, the Info-something CEO and Founder kind, retiring at 32 and half stuff. You can feel left out. I did feel left out because I was an employee.

My mother always says I am the surprise bloomer. The kind of flower that springs up when there are no flowers anywhere else, on flower day. Often, I am the kid that least believes in himself when everyone else has believed in me. Until few weeks ago, I was very determined to follow through a career in politics. I possibly had one hand on a nomination certificate. The mud and twists going on today though had me withdraw that thought. Someday, maybe.

On one of my recent trips, in Abu Dhabi. To my right, co-author Nagwa. To my left, a dear friend and colleague Fre.

I have traveled around the world, a bit. I have seen people, places and experienced things. On one of my trips, I met Ms. Nangula Angula, 65, from Namibia. She had watched me fumble around a dress shop in downtown ‘Pasa Baru’ with amusement. She asked me if I needed something for my mother. She ended up trying on about seven different outfits before I settled on what to buy for my dear mother. We later spent an evening talking after everyone else we were on tour with had retired to bed.  As we talked, what started off as a mere tease of how I was dealing with the animosity that was growing  between one of her compatriots  and an Ethiopian Lady who I spent most of my free time with and  who had developed a form of liking for me ended up as a talk of passion and purpose in life. She shared how her sixty five years were about community. From her childhood to traveling around the world, with and for a community driven agenda. She told me I seemed unaware of the strength of my simple presence in a given space, my speech and the quickness that my mind portrays in offering solution or sharing empathy. It felt weird but it wasn’t new. The conversation ended at an advised possible negotiation, reconciliation or inspiration role. This is something I have shared and come to again, with Atika my Indonesian friend from Jakarta a while ago.

A friend @RuthAine from Uganda asked me to write something… She noticed my lengthy absence from blogosphere. Whenever we share tales about life and its general nonsense, a lot of sense emerges. Talking about careers and life purpose lately made me put these thoughts here today. I have never quite known what my path is, what my role is and what my objective is. At almost three decades now, on planet earth, I find things that have shaped the person I am driving me towards diplomacy. Towards seeking solutions for groups I believe need from those I know have. I am driven by aspirations that seek change and opportunities for a charcoal dealer I met in Bondeni, Nakuru to a solution provider I know from Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Like James Ochami said, university prepares you for life. The experiences you pick thereafter mould you into a vessel with passion or one with purpose. I have come to know that each of us has a different path. Everyone is who they are and our aspirations are as diverse as the shape of our noses (got that from Aine). So as maybe a one Mwangi provides models with his entrepreneurial mind, Hassan will give you solutions with his organizing skills. As Angela inspires you with her business philosophy, Seth will challenge your perspective on everyone’s role as a change agent. We are all different in our unique ways.

Banks (Bankelele) once called me a traveling Economist and Strategist in a blog post about business Bloggers in East Africa. I do not blog as much anymore but each day, every person I engage with in whatever part of the world I am in; I realize that the things that characterize my core consistencies allow me to hold higher aspirations. From a management trainee trying to prove a point for a salary to an Economist whose lifestyle is contoured by events and experiences in life aspiring and working towards diplomacy, in finance. Interesting to note is James Ochami is Kenya’s envoy to central Africa today.

Till then, Cheers.


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