Sending the Elevator Back down: What I Learnt from my childhood in Kenya

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“If you’re lucky enough to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down”

There are certain people that come in and out of our personal and professional lives that make a profound impact on us. Whether it’s family, friends, colleagues or mentors, they’ve played instrumental roles in either informing our values, shaping our character or opening up doors and opportunities.

As a child growing up in Kenya, there were individuals that not only significantly influenced both the journey and person I have become today, but taught me life lessons that are core to my professional and personal values.

Mum

My brother and I were raised by a single mum in Nairobi, Kenya. We had little in the way of “material” things, particularly in the early part of our childhood. We all lodged in a single room in a modest apartment in the humble part of Nairobi. However, what my brother and I lacked in material things, was outweighed by life lessons and love from our mother.

Mum KenyaMy mum had an unwavering vision for her kids that the right education was going to be the key to unlocking a better future for my brother and I. She made the difficult decision to use the little money that she’d saved up, to put me through the first year of private primary school, not knowing where the money would come from for next year’s school fees. Friends and family were very critical of her choice, as this was seen as reckless and inconsiderate.

Things got really tough for a little while, but she never questioned or regretted her choice. In the end, it ended up being a wise investment decision as the school offered me a significant bursary that relieved a lot of the financial pressure on the family.

The Teacher

In school, sports and music were my passion and consumed all of my free time and thoughts. We could never afford to have piano lessons or pay the fees to join a sports club, but there was a sports teacher (who was also the school deputy head) that invested a lot his personal time to ensuring I could pursue my passions.

He would open up the music room an hour before school officially started where I taught myself to play the piano. He would keep the sports facilities open for an hour after school and would often join me in a game of cricket, football or rugby. After a school event such as a sports match, he would make a (unscheduled) detour to drop me off at home (so I didn’t have to walk home in the evening). He was my first true mentor, coach and sponsor.

The Millionaire

At the age of 13 I was in the final year of primary school and we again had the dilemma of how we were going to afford to pay for my secondary school. One summer’s afternoon, we were playing against a rival school at cricket. Little did I know that it was a day that was going to change the course of my life forever.

After the game, a parent from the rival school that we played against walked over to me to congratulate us on the win. I didn’t think any more of it but the next morning my sports teacher called me into the staffroom to say that the parent I’d met the previous day was in fact one of the wealthiest businessmen in Kenya.

They’d been talking about me after the game, and the businessman was offering to sponsor me to go over to the UK to study for my secondary school. It still seems surreal when I think about it. This was a complete stranger with zero ties or relationship to me or my family. To this day I’ve never asked why he did what he did for me, but his gift changed the course and fortune of my life forever.

Looking back, the investments that these individuals made in me (their counsel, advice, time, belief and kindness) have shaped the person I have become today and informed many of my core values:

1. Back yourself and be gritty about your vision

It took a lot of courage from my mum to push through the criticism and scepticism from those around her, on her decision to invest everything she had in her children’s education. However, whilst to others her choices seemed crazy, to her the vision was as clear as day. Our family has come a long way from where we started, but nothing would have changed had she not believed in her vision, taken that first step, and been resilient and gritty to stay the course.

2. Your difference is your greatest strength

I remember like it was yesterday, my mum sitting me down before my first day of school to prepare and explain to me that I’d be going to a school where I would be different. The other kids would be driven in expensive cars to school (whilst I would be walking the 45 minute journey to school). Their uniforms would be new and they’d have the latest and trendy sports kit (mine would be mostly second hand). They would have big houses and travel abroad during the holiday break.

As she came to the end of her talk, she said one thing that has always stuck with me – “but you know what, it’s your difference that is and will always be your greatest strength”.

3. Send the Elevator back down

“If you’re lucky enough to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down”

Many of us have been fortunate enough to have mentors, sponsors, friends and colleagues that have played their part in our success. Make sure you send the elevator back down – invest in the future, become the opportunity maker, provide the platform, offer the advice, give up some of your personal time and inspire others.

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