I joined a pyramid scheme in August 2013. I didn’t know it was a pyramid scheme at the time. When my big sister invited me for the presentation, she was cagey about what it was about. “Just make sure to come. Please. It’ll just be 30 minutes,” she said on phone that morning. “It starts at 6P.M sharp. Don’t be late.”
I am no good at keeping time so I planned my entire day around her invite. I didn’t want to let my sister down. Half an hour to 6, I started my way to the 9th floor of Finance House, the one off Loita Street. I found a handful of other vulnerable Kenyans like myself sitting on black metallic chairs in a white-washed open room. They were facing a laptop projecting to a wall, their backs were to the door. It had the atmosphere of a waiting room. Hushes and murmurs. It smelled of uncertainty and timid opportunity.
Light poured in from the horizon of the setting sun, and for a few fading moments we were part of the vista that painted the skyline of a city folding itself after a day of welcomed toil and tenacity.
I sat in the front row and stuffed my bag under my seat. 6P.M sharp, a lithe chick with a tailored suit, athletic body and a curly ‘fro lit up the projector and the presentation began. She was a Toastmaster on all accounts. I won’t lie to you, I was excited. She spoke of her dreams and her financial goals and financial freedom. She talked about her worth to the company where she worked (she was a Sales Manager in a chewing gum company) and the disconnect between how many hours she puts in versus how much she takes home per month. She talked about building a side-hustle (I sat up straighter here, my interest was piqued) and about leveraging on her business to retire in style and about how much she’d made from it that month.
She talked about the invite-a-friend-to-invite-a-friend model of social networks. “Is it Mark Zuckerberg who invited you to join Facebook? You with the bad hair –,” she was talking to me, “– is it? But by joining it you are building his social capital. He’s making money off you being in his network.”
Then she told us what she was doing to make that much money with such little effort: She told us she was in an exclusive investment club, although some called it a network marketing scheme. Didn’t matter. She wanted us to join the club, the network. But we weren’t joining so we could sell products. Nah. That’s so GNLD 1998. We were joining so we could grow the network – we’d make money when we recruited people to join our own network.
Made sense? Plenty. Was I sold? Yes, terribly and terrifically sold. Did I want in? Definitely. Wasn’t I worried that the deal sounded too good? Not particularly. I was desperate – it was August; I’d left the audit firm where I’d worked for five years that April. My savings were running out quick and my writing wasn’t bringing in much. I didn’t see another way out of my pickle if not to go back to corporate employment, an idea I wasn’t too hot about. This sounded good. Was my sister pleased with herself? Insanely. I didn’t need to turn my head all the way around to see that she was smiling silly. She’s tall and dark, and she has sparkling white teeth, like a true Kale. I could see her entire denture from the corner of my eye.
She smiled harder when I told her I’d sign up to her network. We shook hands and she told me she always thought me wise.
I cashed in my pension so I could get the starting capital to sign up and the working capital to keep my business running for the few months it wasn’t making me money. I got a boxful of premium products on the day I was recruited – supplements, hand wash, deo sticks, all-purpose detergent, detox juices. “Don’t focus on the products,” my sister said as she put her arm around my shoulder, “you’ll give most away.”
My sister was a step above me in the network, I called her my up-line. My sister’s up-line was the chick that had made the presentation that day. Let’s call her Lyne. Lyne took me through the motions of the business: I’d share a list of names of the people I’d invite for presentations. I’d profile them and I’d invite them in the same cagey way my sister had invited me. “If they can’t make it to one of the weekday presentations in Finance House, we’ll take the presentations to them over the weekends. Cool?” We were taking this tour to the road, baiby!
Lyne also told me to write down my goals – my short, medium and long-term goals. “We need goals so we are working towards something,” she told me looking wide and straight into my eyes. My sister sat next to her, still smiling.
I joined the business in mid-August. My short-term goal was to celebrate my 29th birthday that October in New York. My medium-term goal was to make a million shillings in the next year. My long-term goal… well, we’d figure that out once that milli was hitting my account every month. I wasn’t going to suffer for my art no more.
I could hear the sound of that milli hitting my account. Pause with me so we can hear it together. Ka ching ching.
Lyne told me I was ambitious and driven (she told everyone that), and she liked how I had articulated my goals (she flung those words as she stole an approving glance from my still-smiling sister).
Then she told to it was time to get to work, to start calling the guys on my list and inviting them for presentations. She gave me her blessing. I was going to make it. We were going to make it.
I started with GB and a few of my close pals. GB was mum during the presentation and baffled when I brought out the form for him to sign up. He didn’t want in. He couldn’t understand how blinded I was to the obvious. Recruiting him to join my network was like trying to sell him a second left shoe when he already had another left shoe on.
After ‘Profile: Close Pals’, I moved to the ‘Profile: Pepe and Pals’. I remember that Saturday morning, reading the names out aloud to my sister as she brushed her teeth. “Profile: Pepe and pals. Location: Ngong @ 3PM. What do they like: Liquor and a good time. Angle: They are a gang, they can recruit each other.”
“I’ll do the presentation,” my sister said as she dabbed the corners of her mouth with a towel. “I’ll wear jeans and boots. Lyne will sit in to listen. Make sure you smile when I’m presenting, OK? I need positive energy. You didn’t smile hard enough during the last presentation. Kwanza you looked bored. Hebu light up!”
And so it went for ‘Profile: Corporate Ex-colleagues’, ‘Profile: Couples’, ‘Profile: Family Sprint’, ‘Profile: Family Juba’, ‘Profile: New colleagues journalists’ and ‘Profile: Unprofiled’. There was one guy pal in this last profile who, after a Finance House in September, touched my arm on his way out as he said, “Is this what you are doing nowadays, Bett? Gosh.” I smiled hard in response.
“This is a business of numbers, Flo. A game of numbers,” Lyne said one Friday in mid October as she slapped her open palm at the edge of the table. My sister and I had met her at Wine Bar for a motivational session. I was getting jittery because I hadn’t recruited anyone. I knew things were going tits up because my sister had stopped smiling.
Lyne banged on. Her fingernails always matched the red in her pout, her skin always looked hydrated. Lyne looked like a million bucks, I wanted to look like a million bucks. I didn’t know how to tell her that I hated being called ‘Flo’, though. She was on a roll. You didn’t want to interrupt her when she was on a roll. “It’s a business of numbers! For every 20 people you invite, at least three will sign up.”
I invited 25 people, no one signed up.
“It’s a business of numbers,” she harped. “Keep at it, Flo. For every 30 you invite, at least two will sign up.”
I invited 40. Still, no one signed up. I started to grow impatient.
“It’s a business of numbers, Flo. Don’t give up, you are almost there. Someone will sign up.”
I invited 70 people. Still, no one had signed up. I didn’t even know I knew 70 people.
It was already late November. I didn’t have anyone else to invite. The only way to get people to presentations is if I kidnapped strangers and gagged them in their seats through a presentation.
In December, it was time had to accept that my business had tanked. It had tanked with half my pension, an unaccounted amount of conference fees I’d paid from my own pocket, countless hours compiling those lists of people to invite, calling them then sitting with them through presentations.
I wasn’t left with much to show for my stint: the smoking gun was in the two poorly written books I’d bought on network marketing, punches on my jaw from all the times Lyne called me ‘Flo’, a boxful of products in a carton box under my bed, a hit list with the names striked out, and a distant and vacated dream to hit 29 in the streets of New York. Failure tasted like the Omega-3 tablets I was still taking daily, it was as odourless as the deo in my underarms, I could hear the bile boiling in my detoxed liver. If I heard ‘aloe vera’ one more time…
GB was a gentleman about it, he quietly offered me his shoulder.
Naturally, I shifted blame to myself. Maybe my dreams weren’t grandiose enough, maybe my goals were too pedestrian – New York? A milli? Please. Maybe I didn’t invite my pals at the right time, maybe our presentations to them were prematurely architected. Maybe I didn’t smile hard enough. Or maybe I just wasn’t cut out for this hustler’s lifestyle.
Then I got angry with my sister for playing at my vulnerability, and at Lyne for calling me ‘Flo’ while at it. Then I asked God if He could give me another chance at biashara; “I promise to be smarter this time around, Lord. I promise not to sell anyone another left shoe.”
Eventually, I accepted that it had nothing to do with me. The business model was flawed from the get-go. It was never going to get airborne. We would taxi on the runway for as long as the pyramid was in existence. We were checked in to a flight that was grounded. My lofty dreams were strapped to their seats with no place to go. My boarding pass was from lounge A to terminal B. Our captain was… OK, you catch my drift.
I started this blog in April 2013. I launched it three months later, that June.
The three-month gap was a necessary transition between leaving my old life as an auditor and starting my new life as a writer. I wrote every day of those three months. 1,000 words daily. I was patient, I knew I would get better at it if I simply put in the work. Most of the stuff I wrote was for practice. Most others were rejected by editors I pitched to. A bunch was edited copy that was ready for publish. Problem was, there was no place to publish them. I started this blog because I wanted to give these pieces publishing rights. And publishing rights they got.
As I went on, I used the blog to sharpen my deadline discipline and refine my creativity. It was fun. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed seeing my stats and my subscribers list grow steadily. I enjoyed those colourful comments you left here and when I shared my pieces on Facebook. When you said things like ‘Wow, keep writing!’, ‘Very nice! You were born to write!’, ‘When is your book coming?’ I got all warm and fuzzy on the inside. It fuelled me to keep going. Who wouldn’t? I am human, after all. I am as insecure as the next writer is. I needed that validation.
Consistency fizzled then died down last year when I was expectant then had Muna in November.
Muna came and she changed the entire game. She changed how I approach my writing. She slowed me to the reality of what I have in my hands and what I don’t. What I can do with what I have.
I don’t write as much as I used to. I used to write every day except Saturday. Sunday afternoons were especially a good day to write – you know that hour between 3 and 6P.M where anything you do just seems stolen and heavenly: nursing a hangie after outdoing yourself at Choices the previous night; binge watching on Season 2 of Narcos; staring at the ceiling from your best friend’s bed as you talk and giggle your way through a large bag of Urban Bites; surprising your Mum with a new phone for her birthday? Yeah.
Now, I mostly write features that will be published and paid for in the Saturday Nation Magazine. I shut down my machine at Friday 6P.M and I don’t fire it up again until the next Monday 9A.M.
I could wake up early to write. I could. But there’s no way in hell I can – am I waking up to express words or to express breast milk? Eh?
I don’t read as much as I’d like to either. I bought a Kindle Paperweight last March. I am still reading the first chapters of the free samples – my Kindle smells of new, GB’s smells of fingerprints. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch has been on my nightstand since I started reading it in February. I haven’t gotten far. I am the place where Theo Decker has moved to Las Vegas with his Dad and Xandra, and has just made friends with that Russian, Boris.
When I am at my desk, I read magazines specific to what I need for my work. That’s mostly The New York Times and GQ.
Then there’s my voice. Voice. This elusive quality called voice. Voice is the artist’s Holy Grail. It will take five to six years of consistent writing to find my voice. Which will be about the time I can get a chunky penny for my words to buy the nice things I want for GB, Muna and I.
I turn 32 next Wednesday.
There’s something I want to say. Hang on…
When I returned to work from maternity leave, there is only one story I wanted to write: the story about how Muna was born. I wrote it and called it a wrap. I don’t feel I have anything more I want to write here.
Which works to my favour because I live a relatively simple and predictable life these days: I get to my desk at 9, 10 A.M then work on my story for the week. I’ll hit the ground to source for stories and do my interviews, read a little in-between, listen to some Oliver N’Goma, have a cheap meal with my pal Joan, maybe buy some brogues from Brayo, some pants from Kepha, some sausages from Kamundia Butchery, run some loose errands and maybe horse about tao with my kid sis before heading out.
I have to be in the digs by 7P.M. I scrub away my day’s sins in the shower then start winding down with Muna. I bathe her then read-sing to her as I feed her. I turn the lights out as she breastfeeds herself to sleep at 9P.M.
After I’ve tucked her in, I have my dinner standing over the kitchen sink (an eternally bad habit) then join GB on the couch for some Netflix. I express as I have my tall mug of camomile tea. As soon as I’ve bagged the milk and put it in the freezer, I watch whatever GB is watching. I’m not big on TV. I doze off before I can get through an entire episode. I usually doze off with my glasses still on.
GB wakes me up at around midnight. And – in my droolly half-dream half-awake state – I straighten my glasses then tell him, “Race you to bed!” He ignores me and I race myself down the corridor. Hahaa. I dive under the covers before he shuts the door behind him. I am lights out before he turns the lights out.
I find comfort in the strictures of my routines and habits as a mum. But it means there isn’t much to write about. I could write you about motherhood but c’mon, how many times do you want to read about how Nanny Dee feeds Muna ugali as if she’s a lunje baby. Or how GB imagines she has the digestive system of a paper doll. Or how she walks around the entire house these days, muttering things under her breath, hands in the air like she’s under arrest. Hm?
Once is enough, too many and it gets yawnful and tiresome. Such stories belong in Mums Village. (I write for them sometimes. Check out their website. Whatever you do, please don’t look in the contributors page. My photo, hahha, leaning against that brick wall like that, I look like an African lizard.)
Which brings me to what I am saying.
I don’t want to write about myself anymore. I don’t want to hear that endless drone of ‘me, myself and I’. Enough of the vanity fair already. Let the stories about GB, Muna and I be told elsewhere, if ever they will be told.
I want to write about other people, Kenyans and otherwise. I know they have beautiful stories to share. I want moody artsy photos in grayscale to accompany these beautiful stories. I want to invest in growing my social capital. I want to get it to a place where I can push these stories – my product, my content – to it. I want brands to pay me for pushing this content.
The purpose for this blog is complete, its work is finished. There is nothing more for me to do with it than to kill it.
This is my final post here. It’s been a mighty good run, hasn’t it? I will take you to the new page next week then we can start this all over again.
You and I both know the timing could not have been any better than this.
Race you to the other side?