How I Ended up Working in South Africa…

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By Mukurima X Muriuki

My name is Sheila Komen. I recall that a few years ago, I had worked for a number of institutions for a period of time and there was always this crop of staff that would be referred to as ‘Internationally Recruited Staff’ or ‘Expatriates.’ I did not know if I could live the dream of being an expatriate, but in hindsight, I vowed my dreams would be validated someday.sheila

The road to attaining this dream was not easy. I would find myself reading William Shakespeare’s work where he says “dreams are children of an idle mind begot of nothing but vain fantasy,” and I would imagine he was talking about my dreams!  However, with or without Shakespeare, I knew that if I went the extra mile, maybe, just maybe, I could access the path that would lead me to my destination. As a result,  I did not despair and just like a tortoise, in my work, I chipped at this dream…

As years went by, nothing could feed my hunger relative to working as an Expatriate, or quench the same thirst. However, in 2010, I had an opportunity to attend the first ever African Green Revolution Forum to be held on African soil, in Accra-Ghana.   I was part of the execution team in my organization, under the leadership of Dr. Akinwumi Adesina (who is currently a contender for the Presidency at the African Development Bank). In the conference, part of my job was to be a hostess at this huge event which had drawn just over 1200 high ranking Policy Makers, men and women, who directly make decisions affecting Africa’s Agriculture. Again, my duty was not to design or suggest policies, but to serve the guests! I was the perfect hostess who would usher each and every one of these dignitaries up and down the stage. Of course my bold smile kept me going!

Being a hostess was not on my to-do- list at this conference. However, I did the job with great pride, dedication and commitment. I would arrive at the venue very early in the morning and make sure everything is in the right place. I can safely say I was a Jack of all trades and I did anything that was asked of me to ensure the event was a success.10689915_10205675082062259_5820798268709374215_n

On the last day of the conference, as we arrived at the conference centre early in the morning with my colleague, Ms Maria Mulindi, who is also now an International staff in Nigeria, we walked into Prof. Richard Mkandawire, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) Head of Agriculture. He had not made it to the briefing session as he had arrived late. This means he had not been fully briefed or informed of his session delivery. He looked anxious and tense!

At that moment, Prof. Mkandawire informed me that he had come in early, in  order to write his speech. Since he had not been briefed on anything, he needed help. But  could a hostess have anything substantial in her cranium worth presenting to dignitaries? But alas! Maria promptly offered my services to him and she thrust her computer in my arms and took off. I will be honest, Prof. Mkandawire had the most incredulous look on his face (we still laugh about it). He was shocked that he had been offered the services of a hostess, who he had seen perambulating up and down the stage ushering dignitaries! And now this hostess was being offered as the go-to person in crafting a paper! But it seemed the righteous winds were blowing on my back that day. There was no one else he could  turn to, but me-the hostess!



We started writing the paper and after a few drafts, it was just not working out. You see, I had decided to play it safe since I was still reeling from his disbelief look which he had given me earlier on. On his part, he could have been a bit hesitant to work with me. I truly did not blame him. This was our first time meeting and after all, I was just the conference hostess. It was at that moment I decided “ENOUGH!!” There being no headway,  I turned to him, put the laptop on the table and politely told him: “Professor Mkandawire, can I work with you the way I work with my boss?” He was surprised at the guts of this hostess, and without thinking too much; he nodded in the affirmative.  I made it known to him that the way my boss and I work,  my boss ‘throws out’ his thoughts, I ‘throw mine out’ and we start developing a concept and the end result is a by-product of brainstorming!

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The professor was tongue-tied at first but then warmed up to the idea. In the end, we had a beautiful ‘Call for Action’ paper!

Just before he left for his session, Professor Mkandawire turned to me and in a shocked tone, said: “Oh my Goodness, you mean you are just not a hostess? Do you have a Msc in Agriculture because this looks like your comfort zone?” I politely said No to both questions-I was not just a hostess and I did not have Master’s degree in Agriculture.  He then asked me why I was not working in the region, and I answered the opportunity had not come my way yet.

As we parted, Professor Mkandawire said: “Young lady, mark my word; you and I are going to work together in the near 11207310_10207216150187999_4481215459473117009_nfuture. You have helped me produce a paper on a session you did not participate in, yet you knew the key points. I will work with you in the near future. “

As they say, the rest is history. In 2012, I was hired as an Expatriate in the region thanks to a paper I helped draft one, while moonlighting as a hostess in, Accra! True to his words, I am now working with Professor Mkandawire. He serves as the Vice President in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I am based.