My first job was a generous touch from the gods of nepotism. Fresh from campus, I was hunting for any gig that would spare me the agony of returning to the village. I needed little persuasion to join my seemingly well-off cousin who had lived at the coast for years. A few days to graduation, my cousin Mustafa gave me a job offer.
Mustafa is a man of few words, so the offer was a simple message on Facebook Messenger:
“Boss, uko na job ama ukam tupige hustle hapa Kilindini?”
One, Kilindini sounded quite exotic. In reference to the coast, regular people would go with ‘Mombasa’, or ‘Pwani’ - Mustafa rolled with Kilindini. It sounded cool, I was hooked. At the time, my flashy cousin supposedly ran a ‘big’ clearing and forwarding company at the Kenyan coast.
He would often skip a year or two to travel upcountry, but when he did - man, Mustafa was a high-baller.
I was hungry for opportunity. Every graduate is a hungry graduate. This offer gave me a chance to travel. I needed to be anywhere other than my village after graduation. I was a little envious of my old classmates in the village. In lieu of college, a few now had thriving enterprises - a car wash, a fleet of boda bodas......
I fired a response on Messenger, immediately. I highly doubt Mustafa’s message data had even backed up on Facebook servers.
“Ah, kabisa mzito. Niko ready sana kufika hio pwani.”
Remember, I had never been at the coast. Not that you’d know, for I had an endless repertoire of hilarious snippets and escapades I had heard here and there. Plus, coastal bloggers are good storytellers..
Anyways, Mustafa writes back: “Fiti, Mzito. Call me after graduation tujue plan ya hii jobo…”
I was so hungry for opportunity that I hardly discussed the terms of my job offer. Or, even the bare minimums. For instance:
How much do I get to earn?
Is it salary or commission-based?
Does it have additional benefits?
How many hours?
Well, graduation crawled past agonisingly slow, much like the proverbial wheels of justice. I would have skipped the ceremony in its entirety, if mother had not shipped in a busload of her friends - her prayer group. All they wanted was to hear my names on the roll.
Well, my name immediately evoked an endless hail of Hallelujahs’ and Praise God’s - momentarily halting an otherwise automated process. The audience fixated, and joined in the clapping! Such a miracle that this poor lad managed to graduate! I was quite embarrassed!
I was coast-bound, that evening. As soon as mother’s prayer group had sufficiently turbaned my head in enough supplicatory prayers. Most importantly, handed over the gift envelopes stuffed with crumbled 50’s, 100’s and a few 500’s.
I later learnt that she had organised a little tea party on my homecoming. A degree in the family raised her stature in the community. She was heartbroken to hear I'm at the coast.
My arrival in Mombasa was a little underwhelming. I had not seen Mustafa in a few years. I expected his usual flamboyance. As soon as we landed in Mwembe Tayari, I called him. It was a little past 8am, but he sounded groggy.
He said to “Nunua mahamri na chai, naja sasa hivi…”
Half an hour later, he arrives. I do not see a gleaming black SUV. Dude squeezes out of a rickety 3-wheeler, a Tuk Tuk - with a badly tuned generic woofer at the back. At the time, these contraptions had not crept upcountry, had never ridden in one.
But, this was not the shocker. The shocker was Mustafa asking me for a hundred bob to pay his fare.
Mustafa - he who often left an entire village drooling from his designer jeans and sneakers, now looked like an enforcer in the Mafia. A little scruffy, and clearly hungover. He had on a white vest, a heavy silver chain on his neck and wrists, creased khaki pants and knock-off sandals.
Momentarily, I had a mental image of mother screaming at me for walking outdoors in a vest.
Mother: That vest is not even white!
Me: This is called ‘dark-white’, mum!
We ride for a while in the rickety Tuk Tuk. It is difficult to estimate time, the contraption is too noisy for its size. From the little, shaky engine spewing smoke the back, to incessant hooting coupled with endless cursing by the driver. Our driver is even chewing Khat - at 9am!
I developed an instant dislike for the coastal city. Little did I know that the laidback coastal city would embrace me as wholly as the dark embraces a witch riding her broomstick!
The Tuk Tuk ride ended at Likoni. Again, Mustafa asks me to pay the fare, a hundred bob.
I saw the humongous ferry for the first time live live. Suddenly, the old jokes made sense - of street con artists around the ferry asking clueless newbies from upcountry to ‘pay for the ferry’. Ha! I wish I had a phone, I would have a framed photo of my maiden ferry ride.
Oh, Mustafa, quite oblivious to an ecumenical moment in my life - chose the sailing moment to catch a nap.
My cousin lived in a single room, at Shelly Beach. Ignore the fancy name. Shelly Beach is basically a semi-rural slum settlement along the upper Likoni coastline. It is getting hot, really hot - rocking a ‘dark-white’ vest to town started making sense.
By the door, there’s a low wooden table, lined with Formica. There’s a wide stainless steel sinia with half a stub of cold Ugali, obviously last night’s. A slightly blackened frying pan on a 6kg Meko gas cylinder, with the remnants of a fried omelette. I’m not hungry.
Mustafa immediately sheds off the ‘hung over’ look, grabs a chunk of Ugali and gulps dilute-to-drink orange juice from a stained jug. That's him prepping for the day ahead. It’s now half past ten, or so.
One hour later, Mustafa leaves me at the gate of the Kenya Port Authority (KPA). Of course, I paid for both of our fares. It is my first day at work, induction took less than a minute.
My job description is simple: Look for a suspect customer looking to clear whatever cargo at the port, then ‘CALL ME’.
As he boards a Tuk Tuk, asks for another hundred bob. Perhaps I looked lost, for he leans out, and says: “Clients are easy to spot. They often look lost. Befriend them.”
All I had was a clip board with a sheaf of blank papers on it. I had to learn everything on the job. Well, the KPA main entrance was peppered with numerous agents, all equally ill-dressed and as hungry. Some were outright hostile, but I made a friend by offering to pay for their lunch.
I realised my cousin’s famed company was a ‘clip board company’. We did not have an office!
I spent days and days in the scorching Mombasa heat, faced hostile scowls, car doors getting slammed in my face and me questioning the authenticity of my new degree. I exhausted every coin mother's prayer group had given me. We no longer chauffeured around in Tuk Tuks, like royalty. Each morning and evening, Mustafa and I would join hundreds of pedestrians crossing the ferry.
It was the third week before I landed my first client. A furtive, shy guy from Eldoret seeking to clear some ploughing equipment. I called Mustafa.
“Take a Tuk Tuk, come to Hazina Plaza hapa CBD. Usimwache!”
My client and I board a Tuk Tuk to Hazina Plaza. We meet Mustafa.
So, while I’m getting barbequed in the hot Kilindini sun - Mustafa is manning a fruit stand outside Hazina Plaza! He sells fruit pudding in clear, plastic bowls. I was stunned. He left me at the stand while he returned with my client to the port.
I had to learn a new art: dicing fruit, making pudding.
That Eldoret client earned me a cool Ksh13,000 - in commission. I have no idea how much Mustafa made, but it must have been a lot! Over the months, I was never paid a salary - just commissions. It was the real hustle.
By the end of the year, I had learnt the ropes of the clearing and forwarding gig. I started getting my own clients, which, of course, caused bad blood between Mustafa and I. I struck out on my own. Then, the internet came along, I dived into marketing on social media platforms.
A decade-long, blissfully productive stay at the coast, came to a halt when the Covid 19 pandemic landed on our shores.