By Mukurima X Muriuki
As the sun sets in Los Angeles and the streets empty out, welcoming a chilly November evening, I swig the last content in my cup of tea-five gulps to be exact-as my mind switches to the fact that I am running late for an appointment with a Kenyan who is dismayed by those who rarely keep time! Maurice Oketch is his name.
I arrive at his home to a congenial and accordant welcome. I am anxious to hear his story. I am also crossing my fingers that he doesnt ask me why I am 7 minutes late. In his living room, there is too much going on, the sound of the television blaring from a corner and people scurrying in and out. I want somewhere quiet and my host reads my mind and leads me to his backyard. Here, it is a whole different atmosphere complimented by a well-manicured lawn, and smell of fresh air. This is how the interview was supposed to be: no troubles; no interruptions, just the interviewee, nature, a glass of juice, and myself! Without wasting time, my host takes over:
“My name is Maurice Oketch; I was born and raised in Mombasa, Kenya. Growing up in a family of eight-four boys and two girls was very exciting (I am the fourth born). My parents were actively involved in all aspects of our upbringing. I fondly remember my dad coming to my hockey games and quietly cheering from the sidelines. It’s very nostalgic when I think about it. We had wonderful neighbors whom I consider family to this day; they are an extension of my family – we keep in touch and celebrate life’s events. Some were very young when I left the country, but through social media, the distance has been dwarfed.
I went to H. H Aga Khan high school, Mombasa for the first four years of secondary school, then proceeded to Allidina Visram High school for the ‘A-levels’. I played competitive hockey while in high school and for 6 years my school won the provincial championships. That guaranteed me 6 years of national championship meets where I made plenty of friends.
After high school, I was worked with a consulting firm in Nairobi which, again, allowed me to travel extensively within Kenya. After a year with the consulting company, I was hired Kenya Commercial Bank and posted to Kisumu. I was young-barely twenty and full of life.
After two years with the bank, it was time to pursue higher education. At the back of my mind, the game plan was to save a pile of money while working at the bank and self-sponsor my higher education, probably in India, Canada, or the U.S. I did not do this alone. My family’s support was enormous. Growing up, my parents would always tell us: in dholuo: “en gi kifungu or ofungu mar ndege” translation (Greatness is within you). We all have greatness within us. We have the key to success in the palm of our hands. It is a lesson I am grateful for and I cherish every day.
Along the way, in my pursuit of higher education, I had wonderful friends and met strangers who became lifelong family friends. They were on my side rooting for me. I am forever grateful for their support. I learnt a very important lesson at a very early age – the value of strangers; the value of friendship, and the value of paying it forward. That was a time when the village raised you. Your success was theirs and they were happy for your achievements. The Ubuntu philosophy of “I am because you are” worked magic.
Later on, I managed to migrate to America to pursue further education in 1993. While I faced some challenges at first, I had decided a long time ago to look at challenges as opportunities. My initial mindset was to have a clean canvas to paint on – and I did just that. Not for a moment did I go into the thought process of “I had this before coming to America.” I accepted the fact that it was going to be a new beginning and I made it a new beginning. I was a self-sponsored student taking the required international student course load of 12-units per semester and working full time at the same time. I wasn’t unique, others before me had done it and successfully completed their course work. I was going to do it as well. There was no way out. There were times when I had to request the school to accept installment payment during the semester; the facility was available and I utilized it. I wouldn’t trade those initial formative years in the U.S for the world – they are my building blocks.
Adapting to life in America was made possible by many friends I made in the U.S. From the beginning I was lucky to associate with great friends – friends who were unselfish in sharing their experiences and providing great insight on how to go about with effective job search and what pitfalls to avoid. The networking was effective. If there was a job opportunity somewhere, we would call each other and refer each other to a job opening. If someone did not have the means of transportation to attend a job interview, we would make it work for that friend by any means necessary including borrowing a car from someone who had a car. It worked. We encouraged each other. We supported each other. We were happy for each other’s success. The camaraderie made it easy to settle in. I loved it. I had nothing to lose. Adapting to living in America has been a wonderful experience.
America has been kind to me; it is in West Los Angeles where I met my wife Natalie . We have been married twenty years. We are also blessed with a beautiful daughter, Zoe-Jordan, who is seventeen and getting ready for her senior year.
Home is where the heart is. Los Angeles is home for me. I do visit Kenya regularly with my family. We love visiting Kenya. My wife who is non-Kenyan is always eager to visit Kenya. She loves it. She is always in awe of the beauty of the country. My daughter loves Kenya. She is more Kenyan than me now! She spends more time learning about Kenya and the ways of Kenyans. She has learnt in greater detail the origins of the people of the lake. She plans on spending her summer in Kenya after her senior year. She wants to spend the time with her cousin’s and extended family and to speak Swahili as well.
For those wishing to migrate, my advice is simple-you can work anywhere. Your mindset is your biggest asset. Make friends across different cultures. Be open minded. America gives everyone an opportunity to retool and regroup; refuse to fail. It is important to note that living and working outside in a country like America does not shelter you from life’s challenges. Make an informed decision when you decide to relocate.
I view the community of Kenyans living abroad as the most important envoys Kenya has. We are blessed with abundant exposure; however, we should not forget that Kenyans living in Kenya are extremely creative and entrepreneurial and they want the basic necessities that make life comfortable accessible as well.
I currently work as an Information Technology Project Manager for a leading law firm in Century City, Los Angeles. I graduated with a bachelors degree in Computer Information Systems (Business option). I am also a Microsoft Certified Professional. Living in Los Angeles has allowed me to pursue other personal goals. I am a professional photographer and I arrange photographic safaris to Kenya, my beloved country.
Los Angeles being an artistic place, naturally appeals to me and my inner open-minded self. This city reminds me of Mombasa and its open culture. Some say Los Angeles has an attitude. I like the L.A attitude! It spurs you and in life you want something that spurs you. You can visit my two websites (www.mauriceoketch.com and www.smsafaris.com).
I am also involved with a group of friends in hosting an annual Kenya Christmas gala. This year will mark our 3rd annual Christmas gala. It’s an opportunity for Kenyans and friends of Kenya to step out in style and celebrate our successes. The gala is an elegant affair and we have had great success in the past. Our vision is to provide a social event where Kenyans living in the greater Los Angeles area can network and learn and lean on each other.
In 2016 I will be accompanying a group of volunteer American doctors for a medical camp in Kenya. I am excited with this opportunity to give back to my country. It’s my way of paying it forward.”
What an incredible man, I think-I believe. As I set to leave, I notice the living room that moments earlier was ‘inhospitable’ to my project, was now a conference room filled with a diverse group of people; one man, of Indian descent is taking the group through a presentation which I can tell is related to the medical camp that Maurice mentioned to me. Indeed, this is a team of doctors and specialists strategizing on how they will conduct the medical camp. As I set to leave, I hear one doctor, from India say; “what specialists are needed? I have access to urologists, neurosurgeons and others. Please let us know in good time.”
I beckon at Maurice and give him a thumbs up-good job. That is indeed a Kenyan in Diaspora going the extra mile to give back to his motherland.