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You’ll wake up hungry and thirsty on one very random day, your shoulders slouched from the weight of immeasurable fatigue. Outside it will be all dark and gloomy and it will feel as though the sky is caving in on you. Your breathing will be dangerously laboured as a palpable pressure threatens to crush you. You will think to yourself that perhaps the doomsday foretold in the bible is here, that your day of reckoning has come. But no. What has happened is that you have suddenly come of age and the harsh realities of the country called Kenya have been thrust upon you.

Bewildering. Confusing. Stupefying. Tiring. Overwhelming. Adjectives that do not quite describe these new, fast-unfolding realities. You won’t be even half-ready for this. Or perhaps Kenya isn’t ready for your becoming. Or both. You will wish that there were some sort of manual to help you reconcile these harsh realities and help you figure your way around them. Worry not. 

This is a primer on how to be a Gen Z-er in Kenya.

One. Resign yourself to Fate. You will graduate from campus, First-Class Honours, top of your class. And on top of that, you will have certificates of the professional courses you will have taken because these, you were told, would give you an edge over your peers when job hunting. Fast-forward to two years after graduation, a thousand and one job applications later, one or two unsuccessful job interviews here and there and still, nothing. To land an internship, even an unpaid one is almost akin to winning the lottery. You will curse and grind your teeth, and wish that you had worked a little harder in high school and gotten into one of those Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) courses because, it is said, there are more opportunities in those fields. But then, you will pause and look around and realize that your campus buddy Kama, who studied Mechanical Engineering, is in the same predicament. Another buddy of yours from campus who studied medicine has been lucky enough to find an internship with her home county government. But eight months later, Annie has yet to receive any stipend payments.

You will look at the latest unemployment statistics and discover that out of the total unemployment figure of 2.9 million, about 1.004 million unemployed Kenyans are between the ages of 20 and 24 years. You will also read about the massive company lay-offs, and the business closures on account of rising taxes and escalating fuel costs. “Hii immenda. Hii imeenda kabisa!” you will tell yourself in despair. 

As your hope of finding gainful employment continues to fade, you will remember what the Deputy President alias Riggy G alias “Mr Honest Men” said at your graduation ceremony: “You know I am an honest men. I don’t want to sit here and lie to you that we have jobs for you.” Since you are neither as creative nor as lucky as Ivy Chelimo to have coined a nickname for the Deputy President and thus land yourself a job in the Deputy President’s office, and since you do not know someone who knows someone who knows someone else somewhere in a big office, you will resign yourself to fate. What to do? You shuffle your way to the nearest affordable housing project in the hope that you will get a mjengo job (three cheers to the government for the massive million-jobs-creating programme!). Or, tap the hustler fund for a loan to buy a smokies and mayai boilo trolley that you’ll cart around town like so many of your fellow youths. Here you make do with whatever there is.

Two. Ujanja mtu wangu. Sooner or later, you will come to accept that we’re way past the age of “Elimu ndio msingi wa taifa”. Here, your academic papers and your skills barely count for anything anymore. Entrepreneurship is no easy option either, especially when you remember how tough the regulatory environment is, not to mention the depressed consumer demand on account of inflation.

There are newer and more novel ways to eke out a living. Have you heard of tenderpreneurship? What about the Wash Wash business? I know, I know… these are not really legal ventures, but if there is anything about Kenya that we can learn from previous generations,  it is that it is a gossamer-fine line that lies between what is legal and what is not. Here, the end always justifies the means.

Three. Learn to dream. Wildly. Or more accurately, learn to be delusional – delulu, Gen Z parlance. Because, being delulu is the only solulu. To be a Gen Z in Kenya is to dream of the latest iPhone on the market, or the latest designer sneakers – the Jordans and Nikes, you name it – and to manifest trips to Vasha and Diani, doesn’t matter that you barely have an income or that the largest chunk of your meagre income is spent on sherehe because sherehe ni sheria. It is to stake your hard-earned twenty bob, fifty bob, a hundred bob (at most), in the hope of winning the two hundred million jackpot.  

Because you’re woke, you have read, you have listened, you know that Kenya’s problems are systemic, that they stretch all the way back to independence – which is why you didn’t bother to vote in the last general election. No use, if it is to recycle the same old faces. You are confident that the only way to break out of that vicious cycle is to stage a revolution through X (formerly Twitter) because you are too brittle – and too fickle – to wage an actual revolution. After all, three years or so ago, you were part of the vicious X battalion that ran the former president off Twitter. So you figure that a bit more effort coupled with a sprinkle of delulu should be enough to kick the current regime not just off X but out of office too. Always, the mantra is “delulu is the only solulu.”

Because you’re woke, you have read, you have listened, and so you know that Kenya’s problems are systemic, that they stretch all the way back to independence.

Four. By the very fact that you are young and Kenyan, you are an endangered species. They start off by killing your dreams and eventually come for you. Instruments of state – the police – will be out baying for your blood even when the law says that you are innocent until proven guilty. And they will always get away with it. Remember the story of Benson Njiru and Emmanuel Mutura of Kianjokoma in Embu County who died in police custody after getting arrested for breaking the COVID curfew? You could also be shot and killed in a street demonstration, never mind that the constitution guarantees your right to assemble, to demonstrate and to picket. Remember what Public Service Cabinet Secretary Moses Kuria said not too long ago? “By just being in this country, you are a candidate for death. And because there are so many things competing to kill you, there is nothing wrong in adding GMO to that list.” 

Five. Be high as a kite. Be fly. Because by getting high you are able to fly to a reality and a world far, far removed from Kenya – which is what you desperately need to do right now because the real-time is too brutal. Have you had a look at what they now propose to charge you for a passport? At those prices we are never getting out of here, wallahi. So, why not just get high and fly away? You know how it goes, you’ve seen it, and even perhaps experienced it.

“Who shall save alcohol from the youth?” they ask.

It’s too late though, and the statistics are damning. The latest NACADA report on drug and substance abuse in Kenya says that one in every 11 youths aged between 15 and 24 years (that’s 632,846 of them) are on one drug or another, and that one in every 26 youths aged between 15 and 24 years (267,454 young adults) are on multiple illegal substances. 

The risk of depression among multiple drug users is twice as high as among non-users. Do we care? Yolo, the mantra goes – You Only Live Once. Or perhaps not at all. Especially if you come from Kenya. This is our way of obscuring reality. But “You can’t conquer reality by running away from it,” dixit OG Mandino.

Pause. Reflect. Repeat.

I struggle to find my place in Kenya as a Gen-Zee. Pandemics, global economic meltdowns, wars, inept governance – the world threatens to spin off its axis. And yet, amidst the tragedies, a silver lining endures.

When COVID-19 struck three years ago and curfews were imposed and businesses closed, I certainly thought that that was the end of the world. I saw my parents struggle to keep their businesses afloat and the livelihoods of neighbouring families disappear as breadwinners lost their jobs. People I knew died of COVID-19-related complications even as the anxiety and uncertainty that came with the pandemic took its toll on the mental health of friends. 

Pandemics, global economic meltdowns, wars, inept governance – the world threatens to spin off its axis.

Today, it all seems like a distant memory. When together with friends we reflect back on those times, there is consensus that all that pain and uncertainty heightened our sense of community – I am because you are. We felt united, not by the origins of our second names, or the side of town we come from, or the colour of our skin, but by a collective will to overcome shared adversity. This is perhaps the greatest lesson for our generation, the identity of our generation.

The older I get, the more I realize how various narratives have been used to divide Kenyans and prevent them from seeing the bigger picture. Our parents’ generation was neatly sundered along ethnic lines. The Millennials, woke as they are, have been divided by identity and mtu wetu politics, which actually circles back to division along ethnic lines. And more recently along class lines – Hustler vs Dynasty politics. The only constant here is a political class that uses whatever tools at its disposal to puppeteer the masses. 

As disillusionment grows, as faith in the Kenyan state as a functional unit dwindles, and as we of the Gen Z generation come of age, we have been presented with two gifts: The realization that, above all, we are united by shared adversity; the benefit of hindsight bestowed upon us by the failures of previous generations. What we do with these gifts is entirely up to us and will determine how we will contribute to shaping the unfolding realities of our time.