Karen of Voi

I got into a bit of a tiff with three young ticketing officials at the Voi SGR train station. This was over legitimate tickets that needed name-change to indicate the travelers, not the buyer. They said the only solution acceptable by “the system” was to cancel them, get fined for it, and take a 50-50 to zero chance that we will get new tickets for the same day. We needed to travel to Nairobi and be on time to take our flight out of the country. There was no way we could miss that train, and there was only one. Unacceptable. I knew they could resolve it if they dared. The system! Damn the system!

Let me tell you. If you are a Kenyan who travels to Kenya and fails to seize opportunity and deeply interact with its Generation Z, you do not do yourself any favor. This is the population that is beginning to own Kenya, as the working force, as the hustling majority, as the very near-future decision makers, fresh out of high school or college.

So we challenged the three ticketing officials to become conscious decision-makers who rise up to solve human problems, and not merely act as cogs in the system’s wheel. I told them they owned that country and all its wealth and that they had the brainpower to fix any challenge with integrity, without fear. I could hear my own words echo back at me and I said to self- Self, you’re full of it, but go on with yo’ bad self.

I went on and told them I’ve led organizations before and I’ve learnt the power of my position as a problem solver called upon to affect human lives, even just one. Boy, they must have been seeing arrogance oozing straight out of my ears like crude oil. I figured I might as well bleed out my haughty indignation for the sake of the nation. They were blaming the computer, saying they must follow procedure. I said: My-hands-are-tied is a copout, a laziness of mind when you know you’re dealing with an honest situation. You’re not slave to machines. Use your smarts and your discretion to fix this situation.

They were frustrated with me and my sister because we simply wouldn’t walk away without them resolving the issue. Mostly, as usual, it was me going at it. There’s a switch in my head that turns on a spawn of some ancient trouble-maker who was probably thrown down the cliff for upsetting obedient folk who never questioned authority, charlatans and scoundrels.

While we stood there at the counter, one official made an innocent passenger pay 20% fine for the computer’s mistake in printing the wrong date on his ticket. The system was set up to force them to reach into a poor Kenyan’s pocket and demand 20% of ticket-cost even for mistakes made by SGR officials and computers. I was pissed off by how easily the passenger accepted the punishment for something the official admitted was the computer’s fault. “Oh, it did not refresh. Give me 200/- for that mistake.” She said so casually. And the guy forked out the money. I said, “That’s just wrong!” The man and his ticket walked away meekly.

Meanwhile, a Chinese official had come in and sat quietly listening to all this ruckus from one of the booths. I had noticed him, the new Chinese gods in town, and it was also for his ears that I spoke authoritatively. It was their money, and they wanted to make sure they squeezed the last cent from Kenyans, living and unborn. You can thank your politicians for that.

After an hour of not budging, the ticketing lady finally took up our challenge and resolving our issue. For that moment of awe, she seized the mantle and became a leader, not a cog in a system that tells her to punish an honest customer. She had kept her cool while her two male colleagues got their egos hurt by our lecturing and walked out. If she cursed me under her breath for forcing her mind through a paradigm shift, she didn’t show it. She just kept a nondescript smile.

When one of the guys came back to his station after putting balm and bandaid on his bruised ego, I told him his female colleague deserves a promotion, that she was exceptional in her service, that I had no doubt Kenya needed a million of her. Her name is Karen. Karen of Voi.

Upon arrival in Nairobi, I had a rich conversation with another Generation Z young cabbie who took us to the airport. Kinyanjui. He had fought really hard to win our business when we told him he was no competition against Uber cabbies who would charge us half his fee. He wasn’t giving up, wasn’t rude. I liked his hustle and his attitude and we took him on. He took us to Naivas so we could get our Kenyan coffee and tea and roico for survival in the US. We talked business, politics, Handshake and all.

In all this, I felt the invisible weight of the country on these young shoulders. A massive amount of debt forced on them would soon be breaking their backs, souring their dreams, crumbling their efforts, making them wonder why it was so difficult to survive through honest labor in a country bustling with new impressive infrastructure.

The current leadership has signed them up for economic slavery through Chinese deals and mind-boggling institutional corruption that leaves these kids responsible for paying off bloated debt and stolen money. Life has taught me some tough lessons. I’ve had big personal debt before, fully paid off some, still have some, but I’ve worked out a peace-of-mind relationship with these responsibilities mainly because I own them and no one else. My debts are not hitched to someone else’s future. When you’ve gone through the fear of owing and not being able to pay back, you do not want that kind of terror on someone else.

I’ve deliberately kept my husband’s name off of any college loans as guarantor because I would never tie that noose around a loved one’s neck. Of course kids can use their parents as guarantors because children are the responsibility of the adults who put them on this earth. But how did a bunch of greedy grown-ups called politicians get to use the nation’s children as guarantors who will be stuck with paying off future debts they never signed off on? Imagine a will that says: To my children I leave you poverty, struggle and heartache. Oh, the evil! But if Karen could damn the system and rise above it, this generation can fix this mess.

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