State of unemployment in Kenya

Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” Heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson’s words seem to depict unemployment in Kenya in relation to formal education. That doesn’t mean the end of the fight but the beginning of war.

To the best of my knowledge, Tyson always had some crude tactics up his sleeve; a plan to knock his opponent out cold. If anything at all, this is the lesson Kenyans should take home.

For those of you that haven’t been to this beautiful country and those who visit but don’t tour about, sitting right behind the driver in a public service vehicle, matatu, in Kenya is one of the most exciting spot for a passenger who desires to indulge in the day’s juiciest incidences. Think of it as the gossip(udaku ) corner. I’m not a gossiper; most of the times, but that’s my best spot.

Possibilities of participating in the day’s udaku between the driver and conductor are inevitable. Besides seeking your opinion amidst their riotous battles, you act the conductor’s savior when everyone produces huge notes and the driver’s if there’s need to start singing when stopped by traffic police. (You got to be that good) Either way, you are stuck between two enticing fellows up until you have a disagreement on how much to pay for your ride.

In Kenya, being a matatu driver or conductor within major towns guarantees you stable income; a job worth doing but the least entertaining topic when dining with your in-laws.

Speaking of jobs, there’s a massive outcry amongst the young blood in Kenya and Africa at large about lack of employment. Often, many companies threaten to downsize and when one employee leaves for whatever reason, replacement takes ages if at all. Word has it that the economy is bad. I’m not sure if that’s correct since there are people in the same country pocketing half a million shillings per day. No corruption involved!

That leaves me wondering if the unemployment situation is real despite having a few of my friends swearing by it.

A Day In Kenya In The Face Of Unemployment

Last Saturday I had a chance to review the state of unemployment from my favorite spot; the seat behind the matatu driver. Call this ‘the Mombasa Chronicles’ if you must. I boarded the vehicle at Lights, the illegal bus stop at the junction of Malindi-Mombasa road and the road leading to the land of the rich, Nyali. I mean at the famous Kongowea market. In case you are wondering, I did it while the policeman wasn’t watching or pretending not to see me breaking the law. (Americans would cringe at this).

When the matatu got to the legitimate bus top to load some more passengers, I took the chance to admire the ever-busy team of Kenyans building the nation. If you must know, in Kenya, we have nation builders, nation painters, nation supervisors and the nation eaters; choose your spot anytime. The conductor jumped off the vehicle even before it stopped and began wooing those at the bus stop. Just so you know, a conductor is a walking dictionary of alluring words while taming passengers but a venomous scorpion if you disobey his rules after boarding the vehicle.

In comes the manamba, the guy who hangs by the matatu’s entrance like Tarzan. Most bus stops have at least five of these. They are the designated human charmers who earn about Sh. 20 for begging you to abandon your plans and board the vehicle but never leave the bus stop.

Their leeward side is one you wouldn’t want to see though, it’s savage enough to bully you clothes-off. In the entire matatu industry, you don’t want to mess with such; their kind doesn’t think the colorful language is anything to worry about as long as you board the vehicle. Whether that’s the aftermath of drug abuse, your guess is as good as mine.

Hawker at work

But that’s not all; every bus stop, at least in every major town in Kenya is marked with a minimum of five hawkers. Also in the group of nation builders. These fellows sell everything you forgot to carry from home or buy wherever you shopped last. Ask them for fresh drinking water, sweets, toothpicks, pens, handkerchiefs, biscuits, whistles, fake designer perfumes, steering wheel covers and all. They have everything you need in various versions at different cost. Given a chance, they would sell you life!

Last Saturday though, none of these devote nation builders caught my lustful eye, read, no drama. It’s the vivacious mama with a waistline the size and flexibility of my knee, hips to the power of a hundred and the large luggage on her head that did. She strutted towards the vehicle’s entrance with a lollipop in her mouth, restrained by one hand while the other perched on her hips. Her luggage didn’t seem to need her attention; the beads of sweat dripping off her face down to her bosom scooped it all.

As usual, the manamba approached her seeking to help her board the vehicle, a fierce frisk of her hand made it clear his charm wasn’t up to task. Her preferred destination was different anyway. He pointed at a vehicle sinfully packed in front of us without bothering to help her with the luggage; something between death of chivalry and the art of never giving a f*** about other’s business. The mama strode off towards the vehicle stirring the heart of the conductor in charge.

Surprising, she was in no rush to get the mighty load off her head until the conductor accepted to go by her rules. With the deal closed, she bent her knees a little to enable him dislodge the luggage. You should have seen the popping mesh of veins in his hands, grimace in his face and deathlike pant betray the true weight of the load. Whoever said conductors were strong should have specified where their real strength is.

I sat there wondering, “How on earth did she balance such a load for so long with such composure bearing the waist to hips ration?”

“Most people have no idea of the giant capacity we can immediately command when we focus all of our resources on mastering a single area of our lives.”

Tony Robbins

What Kind Of Employment Is Missing In Kenya?

Absence of employment in Kenya isn’t the kind of topic you would like to address from one perspective. It demands adverse background check in those supporting the notion; their exact definition of employment.

An 8 – 5 office job with a cheque at the end of the month maybe?

If so, don’t try to argue about it yet. Faithfuls of this gospel are also supported by those who have ‘papers’ of all sorts demanding to get the kind of jobs they went to school for. You have negative chances of winning.

You see, downsizing companies aren’t in the mood of negotiating with these fellows. Instead they dictate the peanuts they intend to reward them with in exchange for all their active hours of the day. They demand that they eat, preach and sleep their anthem; no time to think about self. Board the ship if it suits you!

But what human being wants to give all for nothing?

A few months after boarding, reality hits the new employee and the media floats a list of complains, plans for strikes and in some scenarios, unscrupulous deals in the company. You wonder what bit of the ‘sell your life for a handful of peanuts’ wasn’t well understood and by whom.

As if that’s not enough, there’s also a team of fellows demanding government jobs; the safest jobs in Kenya where getting fired is next to coming back from the dead. Those in the jobless corner fantasize about these jobs day and night, especially those with relatives in high places. And with the creation of county governments, getting the job isn’t difficult if you know someone who knows someone in the county.

Forget the qualifications; out goes Diplomacy, in comes False.

What if you don’t know anybody anywhere besides your mother and the ladies in her women group?

Roadside vendors

Meet Self, The Unbeatable Employer

Remember those hawkers at the legal bus stop?


These fellows among many other easy to dismiss citizens are the true nation builders. Not only do they avail what you at your hour of desperation, they are also the most informed people in the land. They even know when the President is in town. Dare them.

Their jobs require no papers, not even a resume’; unless of course they must wrap what you buy for safe handling. While their jobs seem menial; these fellows feed multitudes. Some have children in high schools far and wide, rent and food bills to foot. In case you are wondering, NHIF and related medical plans are the least of their concerns, at least to many. But again, their bodies resist diseases better than Himalayas’ monks.

The list of nation builders extends to the fellows in the open air market, Kongowea in Mombasa, Gikomba and Toi market in Nairobi and Kondele in Kisumu. Besides selling the tastiest spinach, green maize and mangoes, their cousins can get you the cheapest broken suit in town. In fact, if you are Kenyan or have visited for at least two weeks and haven’t interacted with them, you are a betrayer!

Do you still want to argue about the validity of their participation in Kenya’s positive economic growth?

Show me one business you can start with Sh. 100 and close the week with Sh. 1000 without robbing, killing or cheating anyone. Going one… Going twice… I didn’t think you would.

While a young, healthy and educated Kenyan somewhere is expecting someone to employ them, hawkers and vendors in the market take the bull by the horns. Some get into the business while still under their parents’ roofs when paying bills isn’t their portion. That gives them enough time to break virginity in the drill, save enough to move out and soar to wild heights. Anyone armed with that kind of mind has everything it takes to hire other people as they expand their operations to new avenues.

If you don’t believe me, investigate all those fellows wearing sweetly scented floral shirts, designer shoes and golden jewelry. I mean those lads and lasses who flash sporadic smiles and sighs when you begin complaining about unemployment in Kenya. Ask them how they got those killer looks. Try not to waste time around their businesses, every one of their seconds is well budgeted for. They even count the number of footsteps it takes to get them from their shops to the bank.

But the list of those who trust self to provide employment doesn’t end at the market. It extends to the hot matchbox-sized stalls in town, your former classmates who seem to date their laptops at Java every day and the electrician who sorted out your power problem without issuing you with a receipt. These fellows, like every other person – you included, have something to offer; their key aspect is, they know what it is and are putting that sneaky wisdom into good use.

So what they don’t have corner offices in the most magical building in town?

The mere fact they aren’t waiting for ‘someone’ to hire them is a hint; education doesn’t have to be formal and neither should employment. The only waiting those who depend on self for employment without being overly choosy do is for Mpesa messages on their phones. What are you waiting for?

Your papers may have given you a kick in your mouth, but the choice you make after that determines how long you experience unemployment in Kenya. As American entrepreneur and life coach, Tony Robbins put it, “Your income right now is a result of your standards, it is not the industry, it is not the economy.” If you earn nothing, you have yourself to blame! #RudeButTrue

People who care always share!


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