By Mukurima Muriuki in Los Angeles
“My name is Fatima Abdullatif Alimohamed and to many, I am known as the ‘Queen of Africa.’ When people ask me whether I was born in Kenya, my answer is always premised on Kwame Nkrumah’s view about Africa, but with a little twist- ‘I was not born in Kenya, Kenya was born me!’ I was born into life, bred into morals, nurtured into values and fed with the water and the food from the motherland Kenya. Currently I am based in Accra, Ghana.
I take it as a blessing that I was born in Kenya, for there would be no better land to have grown up in. I grew up in a liberal Muslim family made up of various ethnic cultures and shades of relatives. As a result, I was brought up in an all-inclusive and open minded environment. I remember how living on Forest Road, where the Oshwal Jain Bhavan stands today, how we used to cross the road and go and play in City Park, fish for tadpoles in the stream and look forward to weekends where we had cookouts with my dad, and friends coming over home. Despite being born in a liberal family, we also had our values and morals cut out for us. I would fast and attend religious classes daily and this kept me grounded to appreciate that there is somebody bigger than us in the Universe whom we must bow down our heads to.
I also remember eating mangoes on the street with some salt and chilli powder, gulping the red Schweppes whilst also dining in restaurants like Stavros and Golden Candle, and never did I imagine or even dream that I would go to live and work in Diaspora. Let’s put it this way- I do not dream, I envision what I want and I go for it. However, growing up, it never crossed my mind that one day I would work in Diaspora. This is despite the fact that I had already been overseas to represent Kenya in sports and thereafter, to study in India and in Britain.
My first assignment outside of Kenya was in Bahrain for a year and thereafter I worked for Gulf Air, which was another experience all-together. I returned to Kenya when my mother took ill, and joined an advertising agency by the name CCL and thereafter Ayton Young & Rubicam, part of a global agency. In one of my roles as the Regional Account Director with Ayton Young & Rubicam, I got the chance and exposure to work across the region handling various clients and portfolios. The same trend continued when I joined Bidco Oil Refineries and Bidco Uganda, and this meant travelling to South Sudan, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and Congo
It was an amazing experience living in tents in South Sudan and learning new habits and languages, while at the same time discovering the similarity in our differences. I got attached to Uganda especially the small town of Jinja and I felt torn when I was transferred to the next stop in West Africa in 2010, to work with Wilmar Africa Ltd. These are some of the challenges of having an affinity with a place-we create another life, another family another home. I had a choice to choose between Ivory Coast and Ghana. I took my daughter along to choose her preference and she chose both and her reason was because the plantain and pawpaw were the sweetest! I was then left with no option but to make the decision since she wasn’t helping much.
I chose Ghana due to the language barrier and security back then. A perfect decision I must say considering the coup that followed in Ivory Coast, where I lost dear colleagues and friends. In the process, I started working on a project in South Africa with Ghana as the base, and did the same with Cote D’Ivoire and Nigeria. They became home –out- of- Ghana whilst at the same time Benin, Niger and Togo became the neighboring territories under my working and playing arena. Crossing borders like a local, haggling with the officers and feeling proud of holding a Kenyan passport whilst my colleagues held other types formed part of my pride. I always ask, why does my African passport cost more in a visa in comparison to a non-African Passport and there is never an answer so I thought let me take comfort in the fact that is probably is a more recognized and expensive passport to own!
Initially, I worked as Head of Marketing for West Africa but within a few months I was promoted to General Manager of the two oil refineries we had (one being palm and the other shea nut). This was a complete privilege in a male dominated position, as an only African/Kenyan and that too, for a listed company with multi cultures with close to over 90,000 employees globally. I guess it is only women who are good at multi-tasking in a pressure role plus being a single parent mother, nurturer and cook at home!
Moving to the West side was a different animal all together-first and foremost a time difference that is backwards, and too much heat in comparison the cold back home. Even a simple dish like Ugali became a craving and to date we fly in with our majani ya chai, Ugali and food stuff from back home. Finding Sukuma-wiki is like looking for a Piranha in the Atlantic Ocean! Coming to live in a boxed AC run apartment instead of my open air huge home with freedom of gardens and fresh cross ventilation air were the small privileges we miss. Having friends who can visit without having to make appointments, never worrying about who will care for your child when you travel are the small pleasures I took for-granted back home.
Thereafter, I became the General Manager Commercial for Wilmar Africa and building and oversaw the growth of the Frytol brand to the number 1 position. I also took on other roles on the side to keep my mind challenged and away from the daily rut, where at times we can get dull if not lubricated with more challenges. I started writing for the Business Financial Times which I still do to date, got on to the Africa Rising team as part of the AAG (Advertising Association of Ghana) and now instrumental in advocacy for the Agriculture sector through the Association of Ghana. I bowed gracefully out of Wilmar Africa in April 2015 and have since registered the African Brand Warrior-a consultancy firm that intends to help brands on the battlefield of this continent become successful within. I could have very easily joined other leading FMCG companies but chose not to as my calling is for giving my best to more companies to help our Continent to rise.
With technology, it’s easier to bring home to your living room, but the intangible is what makes it difficult. Missing the hug from a mother, a brother a sister. Being able to sit with your friends and laugh and enjoy when you want, to be able to talk and strut as I do back home is something I can only do when I go home on holidays.
From my experience, there is nothing like leaving home. Getting married and leaving home is already tough enough for a woman, and so is moving away from all the securities you have grown with. But to leave a country and go to the unknown land takes a lot of guts especially as a single parent. In Uganda it was not as tough as it still felt like home as the language and eating habits were similar, and it was not that far away from Kenya. But home is home no matter what and for us who have family as our fundamental priority it is really tough. I had an ailing father and despite being only 45 minutes away by flight, I could not make it and had to be told on phone he had passed away. I am not sure whether I should regret that I worked outside home or accept it as destiny.
Time has come for me to go back home now. I have always wanted to make a difference on the continent starting with my motherland and to fly the flag high, not only within but also outside. Back in the day in Kenya, I was known as the lady in the Chipsy vegetable fat advertisement, to later being the chair of the Marketing Society of Kenya and Governor of the Kenya Private Sector Alliance. There were challenges every day, those that make you feel alive and that you were worth every pinch of salt in your body. Once I traveled and lived in the Diaspora it became even more prudent for me to be known as a Kenyan first and not for what I used to do. This identity is what is calling me back, no matter how much negativity is reported about home, it is still home and only by being at home can I make a difference and showcase all that there is positive to be about. I am looking forward to going back and recapturing all the lost years with family and friends first.
You see, the milk of a step-mother can never be sweeter than the milk of a mother. Even a mother’s sister’s lap can only offer comfort but it cannot offer sleep. All I can say to my brother and sisters who are caught in between staying in Diaspora and returning to the motherland, is to make a plan and strategy to eventually return home. It is only when we join hands and sacrifice the pleasures we get in Diaspora can we recreate the same back home, instead of whining about how badly run our country is and yet we run to it whenever we get an opportunity for a holiday and pretend to be foreigners when we get home.
As Diaspora, we have been blessed to see how other nations and people. When one lives away from home, each day brings fresh insights and inner transformation, along with an inner effort and openness to growing into new and more wondrous views, vistas and visions. The older I get, the more I realize what really matters in life. I am passionate about my birth land as much as I am passionate about my continent. I keep saying that this is the last continent on this planet to make a visible difference before we move to the next planet. So I am now an advocate for the African heart as a Kenyan heartbeat and to each and African soul of the African soil, I ask; what beat does your heart beat to? Stand up and fly the flag!”