What Did You Want to Be When You Grow Up?


The Difference That Geography Makes: Part One

I remember sitting in a high school class somewhere in Kenya, some moment in time. There were about 80 of us. Our mission was simple: say what we wanted to be when we grew up. As we neared student number 30, one would have thought we were listening listening to a song that had the same beat repeated over and over and over again:







These were some of the most brilliant minds in the country (well, we were only the best in my first year there but we were always in the top 10..er….er…so the 10th most brilliant minds)

Finally it was my time to shine! I put the biggest grin I could on my face and said with pride:

Music producer.

“Idiot,”, must have been my nickname for quite a while afterwards.

Court house

Different Geography, Same People: Part two

I used to have a running script that I used to repeat over and over again whenever I met a new college student from the continent. I would think to myself:

“So, are you going to school to work in business, law, finance or to eventually work for some NGO?”

Whenever I met someone who did not fit into those categories, I would get very confused. Surely, there can only be one person who exists outside of the bell curve?

Then I would get very intimidated? You’re taking my spot.

Then I would fall in love? You’re abnormal like I am.

Seriously though, it’s remarkable how now many years later, the career paths that Africans chose can actually be recited by heart and described with such clarity:

A professional who has to wear some uniform or a suit of some sort. He/She wants to be relatively high up in the hierarchy but don’t want to be the ones who did all the grunt work to build it up. He wants a fancy job title with a fantastic salary that gives him a big house, a big car and the respect and love of his community as a “boss man/boss lady!” or ” they just want to make that paper paper paper paper”

Business suit

Different Geography, Different People: Part Three

I didn’t even know some careers existed or were worth pursuing until I came down under.

“I want to be a sparky! (electrician)”

“I want to open my own brothel ! The licence costs half a mil but its still worth a go!”

“I want to make movies”

“I want to be a zookeeper”

“I want to be a park ranger”

“I want to be a drummer”

“I want to be a comic book penciler”

“I want to be a professional poker player”

The weirdest one of all, post high school, a HUGE chunk of Australians decide either before or during semester one of University that they want to:

“Take some time off, go backpacking and discover me!”

Now granted, discover me usually means go and have sex, drugs and rock and roll with a lot of foreign strangers but that concept of a “gap year” is blasphemy in Africa even among wealthy and middle class families.


What Does That Say About Us and About Them?

I think at the end of the day it says that human beings are smart creatures. We adapt to whatever circumstances and whatever roll of the dice God or this life gives us.

In Africa, most people can’t afford to take a gap year because they have no safety nets, or rather welfare nets, to support them in those years.

In the West folks can afford to go round the world sipping from goon bags and swapping spit with locals only to come back and open a costume shop because those who came before him fought for him to have those rights.

Some want to be professional gamblers

Today’s Lesson

The only thing I implore you is don’t assume that other people’s rules are your own. The limitations that you have in occupation aren’t necessarily the same ones your father had or your sister has or your best friend has. Get to know you, what your passionate about, what you can do well and where you can have the biggest impact. Go there. Please don’t be a robot. We already have enough of those.

I end by asking:

So what do you want to be when you grow up? Why?

Are you becoming who you wanted to be when you grew up?

What does that say about you?

To explore the human condition across cultures some more, stay on the email list or the RSS feed reader list.

Be blessed and bless other people all around ya,


No Comments

  • By gal africana, June 6, 2008 @ 5:03 am

    I have the weirdest answer to that question. I wanted to be a princess. I was very young, but my wish was very concrete. After reading all those ladybird fairytales, I really really wanted to be a princess. I would use lessos and vitambaas and make a big tailed skirt and pretend it was my princess gown. I wanted to be that sweet, just, pure, goodhearted, innocent girl that had birds and deer coming up to her because of her pure heart. I wanted to fight evil by being the good just princess…..you asked. lol

  • By Mo Ma, June 6, 2008 @ 7:51 am

    I had wanted, since standard 4, to be a zoologist. When I turned 16, I then got interested in my current field of study but, in the past 2 years, I have realised that what I want to study more than anything is music.

    Most whites, in particular Aussies and Americans aren’t as connected to their roots as we are. A typical American moves several times before he’s an adult, even across states thus they don’t have that deep connection to the land of a hometown (a VERY deep connection) and their extended relations as we do. Africans tend to be defined, not just by our personalities and experiences, but also by our extended families…our cucus and gukas among others (spelling?) hence we don’t understand this need for them to go off and ‘find themselves’.

    I have, in the past two years, met and hosted in my home many of these gap year-ites and other backpackers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CouchSurfing) and their stories of their travels are so interesting! That partly influenced me to decide backpack for a few months across Europe after I’ve graduated and worked for like 2 years. I can just imagine my parent’s faces when I tell them that…

  • By akiey, June 6, 2008 @ 9:09 am

    I may have a slower weekend this time Mwangi, will catch up on the past 2-3 posts I missed here. As always, an interesting read that nudges folks to reflect on issues. To your 3 Qs:

    a)A language professional & a media specialist.
    b)I’ve become one already. Started working in my late teens and never looked back. Where’s it leading? Time will tell. I’m just laying one brick at a time.
    c)It says I’m either too brave or too silly to go against the grain and believe I would make it and live off this esp when not relying on a 9-5 pattern.
    Makes me extremely busy when tied down by projects, opens me up to new experiences every day but accords me lots of free time too to travel, explore and strengthen bonds with family & friends.

    By age 16 I’d decided I wanted to work with languages and be able to earn a living and make a difference in people’s lives. My parents were/are very encouraging so they didn’t put any kind of stress on me, instead they encouraged my somewhat unusual choice of concentrations through out high schl. Midway thru undergrad they had opened the door wider and making more room at home as friends from diff Kenyan and foreign language groups started calling my home their 2nd home. That helped a lot in shaping the person that I am.

    You explain the Going away to discover ones’ self issue well enough esp regarding the safety nets Westerners have in place. Seeing how many billions go to waste or into the pockets of a select few in Kenya, I know for sure we can afford to have even wider nets.

    Mo Ma’s explanation on the same also holds true and thank God for our close links to grandparents and extended family, so I guess this issue cuts both ways.

    How about you maaan, the 3 Qs right back atcha!

  • By Mzeiya, June 6, 2008 @ 11:46 am

    Growing up I have always wanted to be immersed into the financial world. I got this mostly from my dad. Back in Kenya I would follow CNN business news religiously even though many terms were alien. At uni I pursued a business discipline. However as things would turn out I left the country and as most new immigrants I landed work in a completely different field. Not complaining though. But I must say the dream of being behind an office desk crunching numbers is still on for me. In the meantime I need to get the full qualifications.

  • By Mwangi, June 6, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

    @gal africana: Now there’s one I have never heard an African girl express before. Assuming you grew up in Nairobi, where would you find deer?? he he he. And so to the second part of the question, how close are you to this objective of becoming Princess Africana? Or have we moved a step closer to understanding why you still seek sanity? ;)

  • By Mwangi, June 6, 2008 @ 12:14 pm

    @Mo Ma: You hosted couch surfers….I have heard about that, how is that? I am considering doing that for a couple of months at some point.
    You wanted to be a zoologist?! That’s fascinating. As I said in the post, when I was in Standard 4, I didn’t even know that career path existed. I don’t know if you know a Kenyan guy who plays double bass in Nairobi by the name of Pessa. He is one of my tightest friends since primary school (Riara folk) and you should definitely get in contact with him if classical music is your thing in Kenya.
    Hmm, I never thought about it like that. It does seem like a lot of Westerners leave home so that they can run away as though their parents were jail wardens or something. It is pretty ironic to “find yourself” by traveling somewhere else…don’t you carry yourself everywhere you go? Me thinks this is an issue worthy of more discussion.

  • By Mwangi, June 6, 2008 @ 12:22 pm

    @akiey: I have already expressed my admiration and respect for what you do and how you live, but it can’t hurt to say it one more time. So how much free time would you say you get a week? When you say, laying a brick at a time, I am curious as to what house you are trying to build, an international biz, enough money to retire on etc etc?
    As you may well know, I sooo agree with c)
    As for the 3 Qs:
    So what do you want to be when you grow up? Why?
    Most recently I wanted to become a poor social activist working in Africa at the grassroots level. However, my mother kept telling me that no one Africa will listen to a “young boy” with no money and education. This was part of the reason I asked about whether or not aid organizations do anything, I can’t think of anyone who has changed the lives of the poor and marginalized except….the poor and marginalized.
    I wanted to do this because I was taught that giving to others is the highest form of living.
    Are you becoming who you wanted to be when you grew up?
    I don’t know. Right now I am working on financial freedom which was never really something I thought about in depth in my younger years. Once I do get my financial freedom I definitely want to use that time to create social projects that will have HUGE impact on society (I don’t want to affect just on the individual level). How I will do this? I don’t quite know yet.
    What does that say about you?
    It says that I value control a lot and don’t have great trust in the pure intentions of a lot of people in Africa. I am going for money and lifestyle freedom so as to approach any social projects from a position of power and control and not feel like I am at anyone’s mercy.
    Probably not the answers you were expecting huh.

  • By Mwangi, June 6, 2008 @ 12:25 pm

    @Mzeiya: Aah, someone else interested in finance. Well fortunately your trail has been well blazed and there are many folk you can look to for inspiration, role models,advice and so on and so forth. What is it about the world of finance? It seems like it’s not the technical aspects that intrigued you, otherwise you’d be fascinated by all the jargon on biz news, me thinks. So is it the lifestyle? The fact that you admired your pops and the way he lived?

  • By -jim-, June 6, 2008 @ 12:32 pm

    My dream was to be in the military since day one. Being a doctor, Lawyer, Pilot etc has never been one of my fantasy.
    This Saturday, we gonna pop about 5000 rounds of 5-56 mm rounds. A lot of fun :)

  • By Mwangi, June 6, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

    @Jim: There’s another one I never heard growing up. I had a friend whose father was in the air force but even he wanted to be a pilot.
    Now in my teens I always used to think about, me being the African hippie on the opposite side of the hippie trying to prevent you from destroying the shack and who would be ordered to assassinate me for dissent against the State.

  • By Mzeiya, June 6, 2008 @ 1:29 pm

    Actually my interest in this field can be summed as a combination of a number of factors. Profit motivation seems to be my goal in most of the things I do(including studying) but as we discussed in an earlier post, tycoons are rarely made out of this employment business. The technicalities of the financial world did intrigue me- you know like how the interest rate movements eventually have a bearing on the prices at your local supermarket.Did you hear that the inflation on food prices has affected the buying patterns of close to 50% of Victorians? Pensioners have recently been shoplifiting a lot. Howard did a good job at the helm economic wise, i can only hope the same continues under Rudd. Or how the Goldenberg scandal in Kenya meant that peeps now buy a soda for Kshs 30 from Kshs 3.50. Ok am not so old school but at least I can remember those events.lol.

    In Zimbabwe its dollar now exchanges at 1 billion units for 1 US dollar. So a soda there would be a couple of millions of dollars. So may be Kenya is not that worse off.

    Methinks the world revolves around finance and having persons(s) with a good grasp of it (not necessarily from uni) is something crucial for virtually all firms. At an individual level it helps you plan well your limited resources and not be marvelled at only the bottom line since that by itself may not be a good indicator of your true worth.

    As for my pops influence it mostly had to do with the sort of culture I noticed at his workplace. As a kid, the annual retreats to all over the country, in which families were invited was something to treasure.

    PS: Are you free this weekend? we could catch up before I go back to motherland.

  • By Kelly, June 6, 2008 @ 4:41 pm

    As discussed in my blog earlier, I always wanted to be a doctor since I was little. When I was 10 I even had a ‘lab’; a container with animals’ body parts preserved in formalin, had the whole body system off head. I missed this by a point (got 47/48 required points), and after a period of depression, got a second love, money and figures.
    At 19, I wanted to be rich when I ‘grew’ up! The question was, do I want corporate or business. Then I discovered farming, and I decided,this was going to be the path to the said riches.
    Second question: Yap! I am quite the farmer these days, though I can’t do it full time cos of the safety net issue. So I’m a suit wearing boardroom gal during the week, and a farmer weekends. Some day I will throw out the suits!
    What it says about me? No idea.

    What I find fascinating about the west, and I hope to give to my children whether in Kenya or outside, is that ability to actually follow your passion and make money out of it regardless. I know so many brilliant artists that are accountants, doctors etc, jobs they hate, but to keep a roof over their heads, they can’t quit, it’s sad.

    Backpacking after 4th form! After 4th form in Kenya, you’re back home working hard to either generate money for campus (farming), or money to help with your siblings school fees. I’m sure back then if I told my dad (a highly liberal man for that matter) that I needed to find myself, he’d laugh himself to death!

  • By gal africana, June 6, 2008 @ 7:21 pm

    lol..I think I’ve stopped seeking sanity…the “or”..is in major high drive now.
    This post actually got me to thinking that I’ve been crowned “queen” quite a couple of times for the usual and other different reasons…so I guess I have unconsciously followed some semblance of that dream in some sense. Interesting! Never thought of the connection before.

  • By Carol, June 6, 2008 @ 8:55 pm

    Oh,wow! I will come back to this post like in one year’s time, why? there is a lot in here to say!
    I think I have wanted to be anything and everything in these few decades that I have lived!(I mean two!) In Africa, we tend to want to be Doctors, Pilots and all the rest of the sort,but come over here and see how busy we are in mjengo! Everyone wants to be seated in front of a Pc, files and a phone,dressed in a suit then have lunch with collegues of a balanced meal,kuku like daily.Now who builds these offices?Who cooks this food ,who cleans these rooms.
    I wanna be a volonteer mason or cleaner ,plomber,etc, for some days when I ‘grow’ up.
    As at now, let me see if my dream will come true, (not a pilot)!

  • By Mwangi, June 7, 2008 @ 1:55 am

    @Mzeiya: It looks like you really have a deep, understanding and passion for your field. That is as rare as it is fantastic and cool. Are you going on holiday? He he he si some folks are well to do, no problem man, where and when would suit you?

  • By Mwangi, June 7, 2008 @ 2:00 am

    @Kelly: Owning a shamba can be a great way to make money. Considering we are currently in the middle of a “food crisis” (I am a bit skeptical but I haven’t investigated enough) it just might be the time to give the supply to the increased demand.
    I also missed film school initially by one point (my ENTER was 84.2/99.99 and the average to get in was 85) so I can feel your pain……glad you bounced back and found a love in numbers.
    I don’t know if you read the article I wrote on using your passions to make money, some dudes make money in the most interesting ways here:
    a) Selling boardgames on herbs
    b) Building sandcastles
    c) Creating hampers
    d) Blogging ;)
    The people who designed the economy of this place should be congratulated for how they have managed to create opportunities especially for hungry immigrants like us.

  • By Mwangi, June 7, 2008 @ 2:02 am

    @Carol: Care to share this dream? Manual jobs are alright if you have a passion for them as a lot of folks over here do….my hats must go off to cleaners though, that job is quite the task first time you do it and the fact I got paid the same when cleaners clearly do more work is one of the things I just don’t get.

  • By Mwangi, June 7, 2008 @ 2:07 am

    @gal africana: It’s amazing sometimes how we replay the same scene with the same characters over the course of our life over and over again without even realizing it.
    When it comes to us as individuals, a lot of the time, it really is our world with other folks just being in it and so perhaps you have been and will continue to be princess/queen many times during your life without even realizing it.

  • By controversial, June 7, 2008 @ 4:56 am

    I am always amazed by the more laid back attitude my Western friends have towards careers. I knew growing up that I had to become a doctor, lawyer or banker. Those where the only things acceptable to my parents. Today, I am an accountant, my sister is a lawyer, and my two brothers are doctors.

    I wish I could have taken a backpack and trecked through Argentina or Chile or South Africa. How nice that would have been. But, my parents were right. My accountant’s salary if pretty nice.

  • By controversial, June 7, 2008 @ 4:57 am

    oh by the way, i read your comment at the Nigerian Curiosity blog and had to come by and check you out.

  • By Mwangi, June 7, 2008 @ 5:06 am

    @controversial: Welcome to my abode, I hope you enjoy your stay and I can be of some service to you. Personally, I was amazed because the approach that Westerns take is clearly very different….a lot of Westerners would rather live in a shoebox and be social pariahs as long as they do something that makes their hear sing e.g. working as a “sex therapist” or a “yoga teacher” or living on welfare or whatever.
    You know for a lot of us, we were told that once we had money we were free to do what we pleased, it also amazes me how many of us end up repeating our parent’s old patterns of thought and behavior.

  • By Mo Ma, June 10, 2008 @ 1:14 am

    It’s brill. The intercultural exchange is just priceless.

    Let me know if you do sign up and have any questions.



  • By Mwangi, June 10, 2008 @ 1:18 am

    I do, what are the costs involved in doing that? What type of crowd does it attract….backpacking crowd? Working professionals?
    Tell some stories on your blog man…..the people demand couch surfing stories……

  • By DeTamble, June 13, 2008 @ 10:27 pm

    I actually did want to own a brothel. I really did. And in year 3 when we were all asked by our teacher what we wanted to do/be when we grew up I said I wanted to own a brothel. Needless to say I was taken out of that school a few weeks later. Apparently that’s just not the right career option for children attending a Catholic school. Nowdays I have a new goal. Either finish Uni or if I get kicked out (which is likely) I’m going to travel the world and have sex with at least one person from every single country and write a kickarse book about my exploits.

  • By Mwangi, June 13, 2008 @ 10:30 pm

    @De Tamble: That’s a first buddy, that there is a first for an African. I could lie and say that I never thought about your goal of worldwide seed distribution in the past but when I was about 17 or 18 years old I wanted to do just that, so I guess…..I can related ( who woulda thought huh? )

  • By DeTamble, June 13, 2008 @ 10:51 pm

    Actually, I’m not African. Never even been there. Not even for an airport stop over. Also there wouldn’t be very much ’seed distribution’ since I’m a girl. But when I was 16 I did wish that I’d been born a boy so that I could be the father of a thousand bastards.

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