Two weeks ago, I passed by the market to buy my beloved plantains. As I was about to drive off, my supplier reminded me that his son had graduated with a degree in economics more than a year ago and was still jobless. His daughter had also followed suit and graduated with a degree in commerce. Unfortunately, she was also jobless. He was optimistic that I was the right person to find jobs for his children. When I suggested to him that it was not such a bad idea for them to think about opening a grocery business like his, he was not too impressed. I provoked him and told him as much as he felt his job was ‘low class’, he had managed to finance the education of his children to university level, surely that was a great achievement!
I remembered that even last year when he first told me about his jobless son, he was adamant that the son was not the type to sell vegetables and spend a day in the market with him. To him, this was a step down from a white collar job behind a mahogany desk. I mentally compared this encounter with one I had in England, Leicester in the year 2012 . A nice middle aged couple from Church had invited me to their house for tea. Their beautiful country style home was furnished with beautiful chair covers and their peach curtains glistened as the summer sun struck them. I turned and told the blonde beauty that her curtains and covers were exquisite. “Oh those,” she laughed shyly as she tucked her hair behind her ear, “my daughter and I made them together,” I was amazed.
Never had I imagined that modern English women would be the type to design and sew to excellence. I have never been a tea fan (only chai grown and brewed in India) so they offered me an americano and a carrot cake that mother and daughter had baked together. The cake was excellent; the Marks and Spencer cakes I had become addicted to buying paled in comparison to it. After an animated discussion about the Church where we met and about how East Africans differed from Nigerians, the topic shifted to children. Their eighteen year old daughter was just about to join university so her mom had trained her on how to design and sew her own clothes. She was certain this action would encourage her to save her money instead of splurging on branded clothes. As she animatedly explained the clothes designs, she brought to my attention the African kitenge fabric I had gifted her with a few Sundays ago. She had made a shirt for her husband and a shift dress for herself. They were dressed in them but I hadn’t noticed all along.
Amazed and tongue tied yet again! “I will offer sewing classes soon, you can join us if you wish!” she chirped. I stood there staring blankly and for once in my very long academic journey I wondered as to whether it would be worth it to learn some handicraft skills.When the blonde beauty noticed that I was a bit uncomfortable, she changed the topic to business. She and her husband were actively thinking about what kind of business they could open for their children in case they didn’t manage to get white collar jobs. At that point in the conversation, her husband requested if he could show me their small chicken farm at the back of the house. He had started raising free range chicken and they were doing very well. We walked out to go and see them as he collected some freshly laid eggs.
It was evident, the couple were very proud of their little industry and they had hopes that both their son and daughter would expand it. The conversation shifted to how they were aware that times had changed. It was not automatic that their soon to be university graduate children would get top white collar jobs and earn the high incomes they desired. They perceived that the process would take some time. Therefore, in order to prepare them for any eventuality, they had started showing them how to work with their hands. Their daughter had learnt to design and sew so well that she actually received an order to make wedding dresses and their son was learning some woodwork and farming. The parents were practical yet they were very hopeful.
In urban Kenya, it is not always easy to have conversations about working with the hands or anything that comes close to blue collar work with parents. In some quarters, ‘kazi ya mkono’ tasks such as tailoring or woodwork are viewed as tasks exclusively for the lower income blue collar labour market. It is reasonable to define ‘kazi ya mkono’ based on the different forms that exist. In some cases it can involve manual labour jobs such as brick laying, digging ditches, tilling and harvesting crops and service tasks such as shoe shining. Other forms include shop keeping, house maid services, grocery selling, needlework, sewing and plumbing. Even baking, salon work, barista work, waitressing and catering services are technically ‘kazi ya mkono’. However, the latter continue to find greater acceptance in the Kenyan society.
Still, the Kenyan measure of success is largely the white collar job nestled in corporations, parastatals or the upper crust of government. Even when I researched Kibera for my PhD, I would probe the youth about their ambitions and it was clear they desired the white collar executive office or politics. There were a few encouraging youth I met who had made rational steps to ease their life situations and survive waithood. One was a single mom who started a small hotel in Kibera. She served fresh juices, smoothies and food for breakfast and lunch. Unlike most of her educated and jobless peers, she was earning money on a daily basis. I was also impressed with the young men who opened PlayStation gaming centres and earned an income from gamers. As for lower middle class parents like my plantain supplier, they might rebuke you for suggesting that their children try grocery or smoothie selling, surely that is not their portion!
It is not easy for a parent who has spent millions to educate children to imagine that they will not be absorbed into the white collar job market immediately and join the highest pay scale. I don’t want to cite the depressing statistics on youth unemployment in Africa, just use google and you will find the reports all over. I strongly believe it is important to be as pragmatic as the middle aged English couple. It is very important to be realistic about the nature of the job market and maybe even think a little bit deeper before enrolling for some courses at the university level. In the UK and the USA they publish extensive data on job expectations for different university degrees. There is widespread knowledge about the advantages and disadvantages of courses in the very popular humanities, arts and social sciences. Additionally, it is well publicised that there are extensive opportunities in S.T.E.M (science, technology, engineering and maths). In fact, there are some reports that argue there is a technical skill shortage in this area. At both the university of Warwick and Leicester, the careers and course advice given to us was so candid that we ‘arts and social science people’ sometimes left the careers counseling devastated. They really made you think deeply about the value of the course and how best to harness the skills acquired outside the traditional job market.
I remember attending one such devastating ‘careers in social sciences talk’ at the university of Leicester school of management. The professor of management asked us what we want to do with our PhDs. Most students had elaborate plans and very high expectations of the degree. Africans were generally optimistic that the degree could open doors of opportunity in their continent of origin so they were not so bothered with discussing the UK job market. When the professor realised we were not interested in UK jobs she told us how she trashed some foreign CVs because there were so many British and E.U post doctorate fellows and even full professors who had applied for social science based academic job positions at the university. She told us as long as we were in the humanities, arts and social sciences, we were endangered because it was very competitive. She then explained how it had been very easy to get jobs in the past because the graduate students were few. Her advice at the end of the talk was don’t bother applying for academic jobs in the UK.
She then invited her colleague to speak; a young and beautiful lecturer in the school of museum studies. We thought she would offer a glimmer of hope. Instead, she detailed how it took her a very long time to acquire a job after successfully completing a post doctorate fellowship in archaeology at the university of Cambridge. At that point the professor of management interrupted her and smirked, “I can surely tell you where her CV was stashed in the list of applications.” Her advice was that we should be flexible and work whatever jobs that we were offered as we aimed for the dream job. With time, our investment in the PhD will pay off. The question of time is what is not easy for most people to figure out. For some, time is a month, for others it is two years or even ten years. So what do people do as they wait? They make steps to cope with the environmental circumstances. They deal with the present reality.
Based on this sum of experiences, my advise to the plantain supplier and everyone dreaming of the white collar job that seems very elusive is that selling vegetables might actually translate to a passion for large scale agriculture which is in high demand in the African continent. Stitching and sewing might temporarily might actually turn into a clothing and design company that goes global. ‘Kazi ya mkono’ definitely needs reframing in the Kenyan context.