By Charles Gichane
Many Kenyans in the Diaspora will tell you that making it abroad, whether it’s for school or to further one’s career is difficult, but for Jane Mukami, ‘difficult’ doesn’t do the subject justice.
The words exhausting, discomforting, tough and unbearable frequent her vocabulary when discussing her journey as part of the Diaspora, but these challenges haven’t broken her spirit.
In fact, they’ve made her stronger: literally.
Mukami ventured to Atlanta, Georgia in November 2000 to attend Kennesaw State University where she graduated in 2006 with a bachelors of science in computer information systems.
Despite early excitement about living in a new country, the reality of being an immigrant quickly made her realize that her romanticized idea of living in America was in fact a façade.
“The first challenge for me was the weather given that I came during one of the worst winters Atlanta had encountered,” she said.
“My few warm coats proved unworthy of the weather and I quickly bought warmer clothes,” she added.
The weather proved to be the least of her troubles as she faced the daunting challenge of finding a job to support her through college, while maintaining a balanced life that would allow her to excel in her academics and ease her transition into the American culture.
“I assumed that finding a job would be easy and all I needed to do was establish where I wanted to work then go get the job,” she revealed.
“You can only imagine my surprise when I found out from other Kenyan students that as a student, I was only allowed to work at the school for a maximum of 20 hours a week! The most highly paid jobs on campus paid $5.50/hour which would be $440 (Sh37,565) a month and that was not enough,” she added.
Despite this obstacle, Mukami was determined to find a way to earn more money to support herself and with the help of the other Kenyan students she was able to find a way around the college’s strict rules.
“I secured three jobs off campus, two at fast food restaurants as a cashier and another one at a hotel as a front desk attendant,” she said.
“Both of these jobs I would have considered beneath me having worked for an IT firm in Kenya, but I was in no position to choose,” she explained.
Working three jobs and going to school full time wasn’t the life she envisioned before making the trip across the Atlantic, but she was determined to make the most of her opportunities.
“It wasn’t the glamorous easy life I expected it to be, but I had a goal to meet which was to get my education and sustain myself while putting the least possible burden on my mother,” she said.
“I survived on three to four hours of sleep between jobs, school and time to study and I constantly got homesick. I would call my mother but lie about how great everything was because I knew if she suspected the slightest form of discomfort she would have me go back home,” she revealed.
With money becoming such an issue, she was almost tempted to start using credit cards, which were distributed by banks to struggling college students who would end up with a mountain of debt.
“Unless you’re very disciplined and have great discernment, you can get caught up and chewed out by ‘The System’,” she warned.
“I remember being approached by different companies at school to apply for credit cards within the first 4 weeks of commencement. I was approved and received four credit cards within two months of being in the country,” she added.
Mukami acknowledged that for most students in situations similar to hers, acquiring and using a credit card was completely misconstrued and by the time they realized the damage, it was too late and they owed a lot of money.
“It’s easy to go out and buy a lot of things with the intention of paying them back, but if ill prepared this can turn into a nightmare,” she said.
“Living above one’s means is extremely easy in a country and culture that is so bent and caught up on image and what one looks like, so some people stay in massive debt just so they can live beyond their means as they attempt to keep up with the culture of buy first, pay second,” she added.
In addition to her financial troubles, Mukami also found it difficult communicating with Americans because her accent was so different.
“I learned that it was imperative that I change my accent to where Americans could understand what I was saying because I started getting exhausted of repeating myself whenever I tried to speak, so the need to quickly adapt kicked in immediately,” she said.
Once she honed her American accent, she began interacting and networking with other American’s because in her personal experience, she had an unpleasant time within Atlanta’s Kenyan community.
“There is a lot of gossiping, back stabbing and pulling each other down that goes on. In my earlier years in Atlanta, I was under the microscope of Atlanta Kenyans and it became a little tiring,” she explained.
“I chose to cut myself off from most of them because the only thing that matters at the end of each day is my happiness and I find that I progress and stay focused most when in the company of likeminded, supportive and positive people,” she added.
Mukami doesn’t feel like every Kenyan in the Diaspora gossips and brings the next person down, but she believes that part of the reason people come to America is to open up their minds by stepping out of their boxes and comfort zones so they can enjoy new, different, non-Kenyan experiences.
“Moving from Kenya only to base your life around a Kenyan community to me is not a smart move for most,” she said.
“Don’t follow others just because that’s what everybody does. Create your own path, your own story and your own life however you deem fit because the US is a great country with limitless opportunity for those that choose to seek it,” she emphasised.
Even with all these hurdles, she has still managed to become very successful as a consultant for a small Information Technologies (IT) company in Atlanta that’s in the cloud services field.
“My job entails working on as part of a project team to ensure that our clients B2B transactions flow back and forth via our cloud services platform. My job on a day to day basis involves data mining, data analysis, meetings with client for different purpose and making sure the clients need and expectations are met in a timely manner,” she stated.
“I enjoy my job immensely and grateful that it affords me a comfortable life. There are a lot of educated people in the States that cannot find jobs in their fields of study,” she explained.
Even though she went to school for IT and has a great job in the field, her real passion and dream career is participating in fitness competitions.
“I got serious about fitness in 2008 and I’ve worked hard to transform my body. I also work to motivate others in hopes of having them experience this great feeling of renewal, confidence and self worth that comes with a healthy and fit life,” she said.
“The competitions have different divisions. The women categories are Figure, Bikini, Fitness and Physique so I compete in the bikini category which calls for a curvy yet well conditioned and toned looked,” she explained.
Although she doesn’t make much money from this profession yet, she has put all her hopes and ambitions into her fitness career, even launching a fitness blog www.FitKenyanGirl.com where she mentors, and provides tips and guidance to people so they can start their own successful fitness journey.
“FitKenyanGirl.com is a way for me to let the world into my life and share my thoughts and experiences as I traverse the fitness journey,” she explained.
“Fitness is a never ending life style journey and I hope to motivate and inspire more people to want to be at their best,” she added.
From her humble beginnings as a struggling and ill prepared Kenyan student in America, she has transformed herself to become a strong, healthy, successful and extremely motivated woman.
Despite the memories of her initial struggles in the States, Mukami is hesitant to move back to Kenya because she has grown accustomed to a certain quality of life.
“Let me start by saying that life in Kenya is of a higher overall quality because family is close at hand for support, there is cheap labor in terms of house help and drivers and the pace of life is slower and relaxed which means less stress,” she said.
Although she speaks lovingly of Kenya, there’s a huge ‘BUT’.
“To duplicate the type of life I have here in America in Kenya would be difficult. I did research three years back when I was considering the move and the job market for what I do shows that I would have to start from the bottom, financially, and build myself up to where I am comfortable,” she confirmed.
Her reluctance to make the move back is due to the lack of opportunities available in Kenya compared to in the States.
“Anybody can move to the US and succeed as long as they stay focused and are ready to work hard because odd jobs are available for anyone with a high school education,” she revealed.
“In Kenya, there are people with Masters Degrees with no jobs and getting a good job often requires connections that might not be available to everybody,” she added.
Mukami goes as far as to say that the system in Kenya for upwards mobility is much like the cast system practiced in some parts of India.
“Some people can never move up from their parent’s occupation and good jobs are mainly concentrated in big cities making it hard for Kenyans in rural areas to make a decent living,” she said.
“I think that devolution is one of the ways to curb this and help grow Kenya and its people,” she added.
Follow Jane on Twitter: @FitKenyanGirl