By Karl-Chris Nsabiyumva
Photo by Chris Schwagga for Expe-dition
“Every path is different. And you learn more from the path you didn’t expect.”
The quote above is a comment I saw on a “Humans of New York” photo of a girl who said that she was trying to stay calm while watching all of her friends get accepted into Ivy League schools. It reminded of how, when I was in high school, I used to dream of studying at the Univerisity of Oxford in the UK… but, you guessed right, it never happened. I applied to many schools but I don’t recall Oxford being one of them. I don’t regret it though because instead, I ended up in a school where I only had to study – intensively – for two years to earn a recognised UK degree (contact me if you need the address). Meaning that I already had one year work experience by the time kids who had started University the same time as me, but at Oxford, graduated… And also, I’ve realised that an Oxford degree wouldn’t have made that much a difference in Burundi. I know it could have exposed me to “better” opportunities worldwide, but my intention was always to come back home after school, so I really didn’t lose much in my opinion… Anyway, this post isn’t about my academic path, it’s actually about what happened after school…
Now when I was finishing school and telling people – well, Burundians – that I would be returning home after my degree, many called me crazy like, “What are you going to do in Burundi? Ubuzima buri hiyo! At least wait till you get a Masters degree, which would allow you to get a well paid job!” … Whereas I often tell people that I returned home because I had a business idea I wanted to implement – which was true – I actually also didn’t have another choice. My student visa was about to expire by the time I finished, and the only way to stay in England was to apply for residence or a work permit. Now in the UK, companies are the ones that apply for work permits for the hired foreign staff… Call me a man of little faith but I knew that no company would want to go through that trouble for me when they could easily hire an equally qualified Brit, EU or Commonwealth citizen. I have an Economics degree – nothing special – I knew there were thousands of other people out there who could do what I could do without requiring a visa. Residence permits on the other hand cost £2000 or more, and applications usually took about 6 months to process, at least… That meant that my parents would have to cater for my living expenses as I waited… but I couldn’t afford that. I felt I had burdened – more like ruined – them enough with my degree. I wasn’t going to ask them for more money. Get a job you say? The financial crisis was at its worst. I had been laid off my part-time job, but it had also been weeks without a call from the job centre whereas before I had had the luxury of refusing jobs. I wanted to go home anyway, so I packed my bags and left.
I didn’t really have a plan for my business when I returned home. I hadn’t done any market research or stuff like that. The naive and unexperienced little me thought that I would just be successful because my idea was “rather simple to implement, nobody else is doing it, and the market needs it” so it would be an instant success. What I wanted to create was an online bilingual “Bujumbura Professionals Network” + “Jobs in Bujumbura” kind of platform, coupled with useful information for potential visitors to Burundi i.e. addresses and rates of good hotels, restaurants, things to do, etc. People and businesses would pay little money to get their information and classifieds on the site, and I would make more money from advertising of course. So I built the website. It took me six months to first – intensively – learn about website design, then to make it. It was a learn-by-doing-and-do-by-learning process. Two years later my website was getting quite some traffic (for the comprehensive info for visitors) but nobody wanted to buy space. Although I had made some little money, prospects weren’t promising. I was broke, disillusioned, and a bit depressed. Through trying to make it I learnt that good ideas alone don’t make money without good marketing… and I’m a crap marketeer… So I got fed up and started applying for jobs (I had refused a few offers upon returning home by the way). Although my initial plan had failed, I had learnt a few new skills… and I had also learnt how to present all the things I had done during the two years of trial and error in a way that looked good on a CV. My website was still online anyway, so I had proof for my claims.
Luckily for me I got hired rather quickly. A good job for that matter, both experience and pay considered. I like to believe my well presented “failures” got me my job at the new Revenue Authority. Whether that is true or not, my story of failed entrepreneurship allowed me to meet the creator of Burundi’s first English radio show who ended up hiring me for his show, after having me “share” my story on radio. These two jobs allowed me to go places I had never been, to meet people I would have never met, and to learn valuable lessons I wouldn’t have learnt anywhere else… Not even in Oxford!
When I returned from England I was your typical little bourgeois, who hang out with other bourgeois in exclusive Buja spots, critising everything and nothing from poor customer service to the way the country is run, reminiscing the life I had in the “developped world”, and talking about how I planned to “change this country”. When I returned, I aspired to prosper and afford to live comfortably and independently (i.e. Not with papa’s money) in this little World of mine, plus, of course some bonuses like holidays abroad. I still want my holidays abroad don’t get me wrong, but the path that I found myself on, instead of the one I wanted, has turned out to be the most eye-opening and inspiring, personally, professionnally and spiritually.
From the radio show I learnt about the power of storytelling, which encouraged me to start blogging. What started out as a random and a just-for-fun activity to share my life adventures with my friends and relatives, grew into some awesome platform that has been talked about in National and International News #PardonMeForBragging. My full-time job on the other hand, I shall talk about the things it taught me and allowed me to acheive another time. I believe it deserves a post, or posts, of its own. One thing I can tell you is that I have gained way more experience, and have had more fun working here than I would have had, if I had stayed in England. I am sure of that.
You have probably been wondering where I am going with this. You are probably asking what the moral of the story is. No, it’s not that I missed bragging or anything. I am first talking to myself. I am at a stage in my life (again) where I feel like I’m at crossroads and need to decide which path to take. There are some decisions I have to make while not being certain if they are the right ones. Second, I am talking to people out there who are also wondering if their decisions are the right ones, especially professional decisions; and/or those who are thinking and rethinking about returning home to Burundi – or not. Allow me to tell you that no matter what anybody tells you, or what you believe for that matter, you can never be certain of anything, but you will never know “what could happen” unless you try, unless you take that leap of faith… Oh, and it also helps to have a Plan B. Or at least to be open to other opportunities. I am sure you have heard quotes along these line times and times again before… Well, they weren’t lying. We probably won’t end up on the paths we want but who knows, maybe we’ll learn more from the paths we don’t expect?