The 2000s were the halcyon days of my childhood, a decade during which the working masses thrived, a prosperity particularly felt by those of us growing up in the urban areas. Evenings after school were spent on the PlayStation with friends, weekends at the cinema in Sarit followed by shopping at Nakumatt. Holidays were enjoyed at Splash in Nairobi or Wild Waters in Mombasa, thanks to the Co-operative Bank, which encouraged us to save through Jumbo Junior (Can you believe that there was a time when even kids had extra money to save?) Going to a private school was common, and in whichever estate you lived, there was a kid studying at Riara Academy and another at Moi Kabarak.
Almost as if my parents had foreseen the “Free Primary Education” that would be announced in 2003, they brought me forth into this world a year prior, so that I could benefit when the time came for me to be enrolled in school. The doctor at the Aga Khan Hospital had held me aloft just as Mwai Kibaki was raising the Bible and the sword at his swearing-in ceremony at Uhuru Park. Screams rent the air – shouts of victory in both places. A 2002 Gallup poll said that Kenyans were the most optimistic people in the world, and so, what better way to celebrate that than by bringing a new baby into the world? my parents must have thought.
As the years went by, however, and the Uhuru regime came in, the optimism began to fade. The Co-operative Bank scrapped the Jumbo Junior initiative, end-of-year festivities disappeared, the play area at the Village Market was demolished, and where it once stood, a new wing of the mall was constructed. And finally, as if to hammer in the last nail in the coffin, Nakumatt collapsed. It seemed to be the beginning of the end.
Fast-forward to 2023, and the middle class is agonising on its deathbed while the sheer amount of wealth held by the upper class renders it immune to such tribulations. For the urban middle class, there is no shield to protect us. Our dependence on purchased foods and imported goods has been our Waterloo. Most houses in the middle-class neighbourhoods have a garden outside which, to show class, nobody uses to grow vegetables. It is abandoned to aesthetics – to flowers and herbs. Food, then, has to be bought in the supermarket, where the prices go up at the government’s whim. The cost of fuel has gone up, as have taxes as the government raids middle-class payslips. No. Middle-class life is no longer what it was since Kibaki left.
Working as a Gen Z
Sometime back, to my absolute delight, I became an employee at a government parastatal. There is some prestige that comes with getting a government job. Your peers start to think that you have money and treat you with more respect. They even address you as Mheshimiwa when you join them for an evening of stories pale baze. Your relatives adopt the belief that you now command influence: “Wewe ni deep state sasa. Si uko kwa serikali?” they whisper to you and laugh heartily as they pat you on the back.
Well, I was most definitely happy to get into formal employment; it is not an opportunity that befalls everyone. A 2014 study by the Ministry of Education found that public and private universities churn out 50,000 graduates every year for whom there are no jobs out there, adding to the growing pile of 2.3 million unemployed youths. They say that opportunity knocks once at every man’s door, and so when it came knocking at mine, I welcomed it into my house with open arms, gave it a cup of tea and even prepared for it a place to rest next to my bed.
I was a dedicated employee in the beginning, waking up early to be at the office by 8 a.m. and diligently attending to my tasks until 5 p.m. when we would finally clock out. This became my routine: Commute to work in the morning, sit in the office the whole day, commute back home in the evening. Even when I had nothing to do, no assignment from my superiors, I would still have to sit around all day and only clock out at the stipulated time.
By the end of the first month, I was suffering from severe burnout. I completely resented the monotony and I had no motivation whatsoever. Just piles of work that would leave me so beat at the end of the day that I had no energy to do anything else. I abandoned my creative pursuits. Within a month of being there, I had been turned into a hamster, doing nothing else in life but turning on the wheel for my master.
I completely resented the monotony and I had no motivation whatsoever.
And if the reward at the end of the month was meant to console me, it didn’t. I had last encountered taxes in Form 2 Mathematics and dismissed them as a myth. Now I was slapped in the face with PAYE, NHIF & NSSF deductions, the remainder not even enough to cover my expenses. It’s almost like I was working to cater for other people. And what do we call someone who does that? A slave! Yes. I felt like a slave; the fruits of my labour were being carted away without me even having had a bite.
That made me wonder how those of my parents’ generation became content with this kind of life. Most of them left college and immediately joined the workforce, and have been working from eight to five every day ever since. It seems like a wasted life to me – to study for 16 years, work for 40 years, and only enjoy the last 11 or so years of your life, when you have so much less energy to expend. It’s as if you are a work bee or ant, fated to labour your entire existence on earth.
Going by the Escape the Matrix shenanigans that have been doing rounds in the recent past, I believe we Gen Zers are totally against such a fate. My generation definitely has a different outlook towards work from that of our parents, clear proof that what’s sauce for the goose is actually not sauce for the gander. I certainly am not willing to waste my life away sitting in an office doing nothing meaningful for myself.
Towards the end of my stay at the parastatal, I had a conversation with one of the guys in the human resource department who openly confided in me that there hadn’t been a single promotion at the organisation in the last five years. Five years of no upward professional mobility for anyone. Yet the place is full of Gen Xers who’ve been hanging around civil service jobs since the ’90s. Seeing such people still baying for promotions and refusing to retire is clear proof that there is no hope for us young Gen Zers in terms of moving up the office ladder. I took all this into consideration and without further ado handed in my resignation in the second month. I had had enough.
I didn’t have a fallback strategy; all I knew was that I had to get back into the gig industry, the home of freelancers. Even though my financial status wouldn’t be too good, my mental health would, and that’s all that matters in the present time. Together with friends who are also writers, we hatched a plan to uplift the literary scene and open the door to young writers. During the many discussions and debates, we remembered Kwani?, the literary journal that had been created to give younger writers a platform in a field then dominated by the old guard – writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Meja Mwangi. It succeeded in doing so, bringing us writers like Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Parselelo Ole Kantai, Billy Kahora, and others. If it had worked for them, we figured we could give it a try too, making sure to do what they did right and careful to avoid what they did wrong.
Together with friends who are also writers, we hatched a plan to uplift the literary scene and open the door to young writers.
Being Kwani?’s heirs, we decided to christen our endeavour Qwani, a nod to the current Kwetu-Qwetu trend. Following Kwani?’s model, we worked on our first anthology, welcoming submissions in all genres, including but not limited to poetry, short stories, philosophy, science, reviews, plays and sheng’, and on the 1st of April 2023, we launched Qwani at the Alliance Française. Qwani has been gaining traction among the youth ever since, and one of our writers, Natasha Muhanji, even went on to win the Sondeka Short Story Award, exactly 20 years after Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor won the Caine Prize.
The future is bright when it comes to literature, and so I believe we Gen Zers should explore this space zealously. The same applies to music; it is now much easier for one’s music to reach a wider audience thanks to streaming apps like Spotify and Apple Music. Recording has also become more accessible as there is no need to visit a recording studio like in the old days. There are many spaces – establishments like The Alchemist, The Mist and Beer District – that allow upcoming artists to showcase their craft in front of their regular clientele. Kenyan music is definitely on the rise as evidenced by Spotify’s decision – in partnership with COLORSxStudios – to give six Kenyan R&B artists a chance to showcase their work.
Let’s not forget the large number of art galleries that have cropped up across town. Now more than ever, all kinds of artists have the opportunity to exhibit their work and make a living out of it. If ever there was a time for creatives in this country to make money from their talent, it is now. We have always been talking about “doing what you love” when considering career choices, but what if doing what we love involved our hobbies and our creative pursuits? I believe this would greatly improve our welfare and our standard of life.
If ever there was a time for creatives in this country to make money from their talent, it is now.
High unemployment is no reason for us to just sit back. If white-collar jobs are no longer available to us, then we Gen Zers should create our own coloured-collar jobs. It’s time to cross the Rubicon into these uncharted fields.
To quote Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar,
Men, at some time, are masters of their own fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
but in ourselves, that we are underlings.