Yesterday, I met two old friends. One is a lawyer and the other an engineer. We all graduated the same year. Luckily, they were immediately hired by reputable companies based in Nairobi. They wore fancy suits, had expensive phones and from Facebook images, they seemed to be doing very well. Naturally, I assumed they were swimming in money.
After the pleasantries, we had an honest conversation. I was shocked to learn that both were earning a gross salary of Ksh 25,000, psychologically abused by their bosses and overworked. How is that even possible?
When you graduate top in your class and get hired by a renowned company everyone assumes you are making lots of money hence place high expectations on you, worst of all if you pursued a prestigious course. What they don’t know is behind that fancy degree, nice suit and swanky office is a tortured soul battling depression while trying to reconcile perceived social standing and an empty bank account.
This is my story.
Every time I tell someone that I’m a trained civil engineer they are shocked. They quickly do mental calculations on the time, sheer hard work and tuition spent on my education only for me to drop it for blogging. It makes absolutely no sense! They check me out from head to toe for clues. When their eyes settle on my rugged hair, a knowing smile form on their lips. Aha, he is on drugs!
The very first time I interacted with an engineer was during a career fair back in high school. He had a bushy beard, thick spectacles and an air of arrogance often associated with intellectuals back then. I was so taken by his brilliance as he explained the various disciplines and career options. That very moment I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
Fueled by ambition I camped at the library in a bid to understand the infamous salts and mole concept. Chemistry was my Achilles heel yet it was essential for the career I hoped to pursue. My entire family was ecstatic when I did well in KSCE and was admitted to the University to study engineering.
My alma mater just like any other public university has two major divisions. The government-sponsored students who feel are smarter than the self-sponsored who in turn think of their counterparts as poor and conservative. The other division is between those taking courses like medicine, law, pharmacy and engineering, and the guys pursuing BA, education or business-related courses.
Walking on campus with a humongous book on Engineering Mathematics in one hand and a wooden T-square in the other was enough to attract the attention of elusive campus beauties.
Nobody in my class would miss classes like probability and statistics. Since my class had only five ladies, who felt more like brothers in dresses, this is the only time we got to share a hall with several females from other departments hence higher chances of getting a girlfriend.
The trick was to go to the lecture hall a few minutes earlier. Sit next to a chatty group of ladies, whip out a book and start scribbling complex equations. Solve the same question using three different methods without paying attention to your beautiful neighbors.
From the corner of the eye, you would see the ladies elbowing one another or talking in hush tones while pointing at you. Moments later, the leader of the pack who is often the prettiest would tap your shoulder before unleashing a dazzling smile
“What topic is that?”
“Lap what? How comes our lecturer hasn’t taught us?”
“Nah, this some assignment for a different course.”
“Are you an engineer?”
“How did you know?” Feigning surprise.
“I knew it! You guys are so complicated,” she says while giggling.
You exchange numbers, meet up after classes.
A week later she is introducing you to her girls as engineer Maish, her new boyfriend. The friends turn green with envy. Some make passes at you when she is not looking. In their minds, she has won a lottery. With such a dashing young man, she is set to have beautiful intelligent kids, make lots of money and fly across the world immediately after campus while the rest are still tarmacking.
After 3rd year I was required to go for industrial attachment. I spent two weeks visiting countless government offices and consultancy firms across the city. It was all the same story.
“Drop your CV at the secretary’s desk, we will call you soonest a vacancy is available.”
None of them ever called, I suspect they tossed my papers into the trash can the moment I stepped out. Exhausted, I landed in an engineering corporation located in the city center. Unable to sway me with promises, they brought in an extra desk and a letter directing that I start my internship the following Monday. Soon after, I got another internship spot at the county planning department.
Most engineering firms don’t pay interns. Some actually demand that you pay them some amount for equipping you with hands-on skills. I was so happy that I would walk in town with the intern’s badge hanging from my neck.
The two workplaces were completely different. My supervisor at the county offices was a shrewd chap. He would get to the office before official opening ours then leave at midday to check on his businesses. Since drawings for any infrastructural project must go through the department for approval before construction begins, there is rampant corruption as developers seek to hasten the process. He taught me how to survive in this industry and sometimes charge outrageous amounts for simple stuff.
The corporation had a more structured environment with all kinds of professionals ranging from accountants to architects. There were about ten engineers in my department. They were all brilliant and highly qualified. One time I chanced upon their pay slips. Boy, I was terribly disappointed.
First, their salaries weren’t competitive or anywhere close to what you imagine engineers make despite working for years. Secondly, although out there the society placed them on a pedestal they were struggling to maintain this image on a tight budget. Car loans and mortgage took a substantial amount of their monthly earnings. To make it worse, all the biggest contracts have been taken by the Chinese hence fewer projects available. We would spend most afternoons on Facebook or engage in endless political debates.
As an intern, my main duties involved rushing to the supermarket over lunch time to get the freshest samosas, sausages, and bread. I was also sent on all money-related errands. My superiors were convinced that all Kikuyu’s are thieves. I guess they were applying the adage, set a thief to catch a thief.
I met one interesting plumber during a site visit. He would undertake at least five projects a month each earning him 50-100k in profit. That’s a cool half-million shilling for someone with little basic education yet an engineer would have to work for almost three decades to make half of that. Something didn’t feel right.
When we resumed our studies at the university, professors were more truthful about what awaited us out there. One lecturer after another expressed their regrets for choosing this career path. A highly-acclaimed transportation professor revealed how he regrets having studied engineering to PhD level, which meant there were fewer job opportunities for him. His peers who went into business after their first degree were minting millions and doing so much better than him in all other spheres of life while he was struggling to make ends meet. To add salt to the injury, the Bachelor of Arts guys he used to look down upon were now his bosses, earning more than he does and rubbing it in his face.
Certain I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life lamenting about how unfair life is like the older engineers, I began exploring my writing talent and investing little savings in potential business ideas.
Weeks before clearing university, I applied for management trainee positions in three multinational companies based in Nairobi, YALI East Africa and as a volunteer to some business incubation program.
Due to naivety, my young company ran out of business soon after campus. I was struggling to stay afloat and pick up the pieces. At the back of my mind, I had a fallback plan.
The following week I received rejection emails from all the firms I had applied to. My plan B went up in smoke. I was devastated. Who the hell gets rejected by five establishments in round one of the interviews? I wasn’t even good enough to become a volunteer. The writing on the wall was clear. I was a failure. No future. All I could see was darkness.
I got a reprieve when I was invited to some water supply project in Kwale that needed an engineer. Finally, the gods were smiling down upon me. It was now my turn to excel. I imagined myself doing what I always dreamt of. Everything was falling into place. I was delighted. I went to meet the project manager with very high hopes.
Guess what I was offered? Ksh 400 bob a day to oversee the completion a Ksh 98 million contract working Sunday to Sunday. No allowance, no medical cover or any other form of compensation. To make it worse the main site was inaccessible by public transport so I would have to spend the entire amount on fuel.
Incensed, I drove off in a huff and headed to Shimba Hills National Reserve, which was close by. Two kilometers into the forest, the car got stuck. You know how useless 2WD cars are off-road. I was stuck all alone in the dense forest, without any network coverage to call for help. All the frustrations come back flooding. All I could think of is how useless I was. A big embarrassment. Ashamed of what I had turned out to be after all the sacrifice those around me had done. I broke down.
After crying for a while, I wiped away the tears and began digging out the tires with my bare hands. I pruned branches and placed them on the path and dug out the tires repeatedly throughout the treacherous half-kilometer road section. When I finally got to the other side, my hands were bleeding. I stopped at a makuti shed overlooking a group of elephants, took out a notebook and wrote The Kenya Middle-Class Nightmare.
The piece I wrote during my lowest point in life capture the world’s attention and opened so many doors catapulting me to a blogging career.
In retrospect, I learned not to take rejection personally, pick lessons from my failures and never to give up. If I was able to bounce back from rock bottom then no mountain is too big to summit.
Being a country that places a high value on education, lots of parents push their kids to ostensibly esteemed careers thinking they will change family fortunes upon graduation. Many other young people get into careers with unrealistic expectations on remuneration. This is intensified by the fact that those already in the field don’t truthfully reveal to the young fellas what awaits them so as to protect the respect accorded to them by society.
For the next couple of days, I will be running an online campaign dubbed #PerceptionVsReality, which seeks to unearth the truth behind various distinguished careers. Check out my Facebook page Mark Maish for real-life stories from other graduates. If you would like to take part in the initiative by telling your story kindly reach out to me via email firstname.lastname@example.org. All names will be withheld to protect identities.
That said, higher education is like modern football kit. It may give you a little advantage and enable you to play comfortably but it won’t make you win trophies. Sacrifice, hard work, talent, creativity, a touch of luck, street smarts and self-drive is what makes you achieve massive success in life. Academic papers or lack thereof should never stop you from becoming great.
Written By Mark Maish