At 4 a.m on Sunday morning, I found myself with Mutua Matheka at DXB Airport, connecting to Stockholm, and with two hours to kill. So we wandered about the airport, chasing deep vein thrombosis and passing people slumped on the carpet sleeping with their mouths open. Mutua looked like the son of a tribal chief with his large bushy beard, shaven head, and two strands of hair tied at the top like a half-harvested African shamba. As we passed underneath a warm, orange-glowing business lounge suspended above us, we saw – behind the glass partitioning – business execs drowned in cushy sofas, reading or tapping away on their laptops.
I looked up at the lounge and said, “Now those are guys who woke up real early in their lives and are now enjoying being at the top.” “Yeah, the early birds and their worms,” Mutua responded, “but sometimes you wake up so early yet you never get anywhere. You keep waking up early but you never end up in the lounge.”
That statement zapped a sharp but brief ripple of anxiety through my shoes. You keep waking up early but you never end up in the lounge.
How tragic, how true.
As we got onto the travelator, he adjusted his backpack and continued while the floor moved beneath our feet, “We all want to get there, but most of us aren’t willing to slave to get there.”
“Yeah,” I mumbled, wondering if the travelator could help with avoiding blood clots.
“Everybody wants it today,” he said, “There are people who email me wanting to be photographers…because somehow everybody imagines there is a photographer in them, like I would imagine everybody believes there is a writer in them, yeah?”
“And so I ask them, ‘Have you started shooting?’ and they say they haven’t, they don’t even own a camera yet. And I wonder, now how do I even help someone like this? So I tell them that perhaps they should start by getting a camera and get to shooting, you know, to get the bad pictures out of the way quickly; then perhaps after three years or so they can begin to really master the art and make something out of their photography. But when they hear three years they think, ‘God, I don’t have three years, that’s a long time to wait for something to start happening!’…”
“Nobody has three years, they have today…they want it now,” I said, gingerly stepping off the travelator.
“By the way, you always think these things are moving slowly until you get to the end and you have to get off them,” Mutua notes with a chuckle “…so yeah man, waiting for three years is no fun, what fun is anything anymore if you have to wait and work hard for it?”
We passed a beautiful chick deep asleep with her head laying on her man’s outstretched lap, her hair gathered in a pool of blonde around her head. Her man sat up, wide-awake like a sentry, as if to make sure nobody else steals her heart.
“I like your camera bag by the way, where’d you buy it?” I ask Mutua.
“Online. Unfortunately all good photography equipment we buy online, the market for these kinds of things is still very small in Kenya. Maze this bag fell off 25 floors, bounced off a metal grill on the second floor and when it finally landed all my cameras in it were safe and intact.”
Mutua Matheka’s bag is a super-hero. It should star in its own TV show. Or its own fashion blog.
We passed a little Indonesian/ Philippine looking family all with small feet, the man dragging a dogged suitcase that didn’t seem enthused to be trailing him to yet another destination in the world. We slouched past an airport policeman with very straight trousers who nonchalantly stared at the two white kids with little cartoon backpacks trotting to catch up with their parents. I thought of my half-eaten grilled chicken burger that I had abandoned at Java after they announced the final call.
You keep waking up early but you never end up in the lounge. Those words filled my pockets.
I recently went for a meeting with Ecobank chaps, and they started talking about the gentlemen behind Ecobank, who said they were tired of having foreigners keeping and lending them money so they – a few audacious African men – started their own bank at a time when African men were just learning to tie their ties.
The Ecobank chaps handed me this important looking coffee table book of the visionary Africans, some now departed, who piled their dreams on top of each other and built 35 countries across the continent. And this was only in 1985.
Page after page of this coffee table book profiled these men and their achievements and how the bank has grown. Men who now sit in the lounges upstairs, reading the Financial Times and clicking through Bloomberg. Men who we trudge past as we board planes, holding flutes of bubble-infused champagne in Business Class while we head to the back of the plane where cattle is ferried, whereupon we will sit next to a vegetarian and a man reading a book titled Of Love and Other Demons.
We’re supposed to admire success, but it’s much easier to dislike the men and women who unconsciously wear it on their wrists like those folks in business class with their hot hand towels.
Do you know when I feel the most bile for those Business Class guys? When guys have settled in, when y’all in the cattle section have passed with your smell of struggle and everybody is seated, and then the air hostesses draw the curtains separating them from us. That always makes me so sad for myself and my forehead. As if we will stare at them while they eat. Or ask to taste their dessert. Like we are the poor-cousins-who’ve-come-a-visiting. That curtain draw is the most symbolic divide between the haves and the have-nots. It says that wealth remains private and uncontaminated. But funny enough, the few times I have flown Business or First Class, I really didn’t mind it. Hehe. When you are in Business Class you don’t imagine that anyone would have a problem with legroom.
Anyway, what that book of the Ecobank men failed to tell us about is the sweat between the start of a dream and the realization of the dream. That sweat is redacted because nobody wants to see or smell it. We cover sweat with cologne and deodorants and brave words and short lovely paragraphs punctuated with void and prescriptive inspirational quotes that ask us to identify opportunity, and seize moments, to position ourselves, and wake up early, to work hard and all that business school razzmatazz that is meant to lead us to the lounge with the other big boys and girls. Nobody wants to show you how the sausage is made even though that’s what we actually need to see. The sweat is the story. The true grit of success is the journey not the TV interview at the end.
I think if you went up to the Business Lounge with its soft music and smiley hostesses, asking if you would like another glass of Bordeaux, and you asked one of those moguls what it took to get there, most, the ones who didn’t inherit it from daddy, or who didn’t build their empires entirely from the prudence of African corruption, will tell you of the days or months they failed, or the day the bank or auctioneers were pounding on the door waving threatening letters, of the days when business closed down and they started another, which also closed down and they tried another and another until they made it. Nobody talks about the rainy days, the broke days, the days filled with hunger and anxiety and insecurity and the rent that didn’t get paid, the clients that came so close but didn’t sign and the contracts that were lost because you were young, idealistic and wet behind the ears. Building a bank from nothing can’t be easy. Building anything substantial can’t be easy. Folk wake up really early in the morning for that.
But who wants to listen to such tales of gore? They only remind us of how hard we have to work, how long we have to wait for something big to happen to our lives, and that’s no fun. Right? We want the sizzle, not the sausage recipe.
At the airport I saw a smoothie stand with a catchy green logo, and to feel better about the burger I abandoned in Nairobi, I had to try out the Ecobank’s prepaid Travel Card that I had tucked away in my wallet and was to test out on my travels. (I have shit luck with travel cards.) So I bought a banana and strawberry smoothie and a bottle of water. The card worked and it’s still working as we speak.
Later at Stockholm we waited in a snaking, winding, monstrosity of a queue as the chaps from Business waited in a shorter queue at immigration, standing on a red carpet. They looked fresh and happy with their complimentary newspapers folded under their armpits. Their skin glowed and one of them even sported a forehead, which gave me hope. If he can make it with that forehead, I thought, so can I.
But surely success must also take a toll on you. You can’t take on all the challenges, all the days spent in the trenches, without having any battle scars. And as I looked at them fiddling with their phones, I wondered what scar they hid under those shirts and blouses. Are they like that thin caesarian line that runs along discreetly below the navel? Can they show it or is it their small private scar?
You keep waking up early but you never end up in the lounge.