Back when I was a boy, about eight or nine years old, video games were a rare spectacle. Few households owned a console, Atari, Nintendo or SEGA. Therefore, it was common to assemble at a friend’s house every once in a while, usually when parents were away, to engage in this fascinating pass-time. On rare occasions, you would also be able to borrow the console much to the excitement of siblings. It was one of the few things that would keep us indoors at a time when the outdoors presented a lot more!
One early Saturday morning, I remember waking up very early and after my tea and two slices of bread I went to my friend’s place. He had a SEGA console and had invited me over. I was at his door at around 7:00 am. I knocked, and when the door opened, it was Martin*’s mother. She bent to look through the burglar-proof door, and when our eyes met, I stuttered. “Ma-r-t-i-n”. She was happy to see me, so she went on to open the burglar-proof door and welcomed me in, “Mtoto wa mwalimu, ingia.” (The teacher’s son, come on in). I walked in, saying a couple of muffled greetings to the rest of the household.
My friend Martin was seated on the carpet already playing. I fail to remember which game it was, Super Mario, maybe. I joined him on the floor and made myself comfortable. He continued with his game, and I stared at the screen, waiting for my turn. I did not have to wait long as he had one “life” left. He passed me the controller, but I had to pass it back to him rather quickly as I wasn’t good at the game. My three lives were gone, and I was again an understudy.
The back and forth would continue for some time and was only interrupted by an unmistakable aroma of cooking sausages. My focus on the video game was disturbed until Mama Martin brought the sausages, two each.
Now, back at the Wesaalas’, home-cooked sausages were a rarity in those days. I could count maybe three to four times a year. To get two in the morning was shocking to the system, and for once, we paused the game to indulge. Upon finishing, Mama Martin said we should not go back to playing the video game. Martin needed to go through his morning rituals then he would join me outside. I obliged and made my way to the door. However, it was still early, so very few peers were out and going back home was not so appealing. Next activity there was lunch, and there was no shortage of household chores for idlers.
The following Saturday, I was up early again and made my way to Martin’s place. It was like a reenactment of the previous weekend, the sausages included. I put two and two together, and the following Saturday, and the next, I was again there as if by appointment.
Meanwhile, my game time was not improving much. Martin had the console throughout the week, and I felt I will always be his understudy. My competitive nature was not comfortable, but the sausages more than made up for this.
A Home away from home
Now, my friends, this was my life and career abroad. See when I got the call to go to Geneva, Switzerland for an internship, it was all excitement. It was a video game. I was curious, and I wanted to learn more each day. I did not want to waste a day. I would be alone in the office on some weekends taking advantage of the abundance of the Internet. I would look up and sign up for conferences and technical meetings. A few times, I found myself in professional meetings with highly experienced people. And when I introduced myself, I would get telling looks, like how did this one get here. Mailing lists, mailing lists. I was taken off some but also made excellent contacts.
Then came the sausages. I started to get acquainted with life in Geneva, and I quickly realised how things were much better in my new surroundings. Everything was so organised and efficient, public transport, electricity, water, etc. I often thought if you manage to get your personal life sorted in Geneva, you were good to go. “Hakuna shida za watu wengi kama Kenya”. Then there was football, my sanctuary and the Feldschlösschen for libation. The integration into Swiss life was without much struggle.
I was living life for about two years. I even managed to get promoted in the last six months of my stint with the World Scout Bureau, something that rarely happened. However, my internship was strictly a two-year affair, and after I was to go home. When the time came, I was not sure I was ready to give up the sausages. I pictured being back in Nairobi, the dust and my allergies, power rationing, water shortages you name it. I had to find a way to stay in Geneva, and that I did with the help of a couple of contacts. I secured a job with the UN an upgrade that came with commensurate perks. It felt like now I was part of my friend’s family, at least on Saturdays.
In earlier articles on this blog, I mention how contracts were unstable, three months, six months, break, consultant. It wasn’t easy to plan anything long-term, which meant little growth career-wise and financially. However, life outside of work was two sausages on a Saturday morning. It was all the motivation I needed to look for the next contract.
I can’t remember when I stopped going to my friend’s place on Saturday morning, but I am sure it had to do with the embarrassment of knocking at their door and or the lack of excitement my initial visits generated. I had become a regular fixture with little or no interest in the video game. Further, I was never going to be better than Martin – every time I visited, he had a new trick to show me. He had the console throughout the week. Often he had unlocked a new level or switched to an entirely new game, so I had to start from scratch.
The situation was similar to my job. Every time I went to sign a new contract, my thoughts were rarely on the work. I also felt the ladies in the HR office had become accustomed to my face. “Mister Vesaala you have a new contract, six months, felicitations,” they usually said as they handed me contract documents to sign. I would attempt to look excited. Back at the office, it was like a new start at your old job with some new sitting arrangements. Sometimes there was a completely new project, and you had to figure it out or fight it out.
And there was always the risk of being told playtime is over, and you had to wait outside. It happened at least twice when I had to go on a contract break. It was a three months forced leave, in simple terms. The forced break came with its share of complications, including residency, housing, health insurance, etc. This period for me was often a reminder that I was not home. I could not be comfortable like being out there early Saturday morning not sure whether to go back home or wait for other kids to come out. On the positive, these are the times I added networking and thinking to my list of hobbies, an exciting, enlightening and humbling experience.
To try and bring the story home, I remember when my older siblings started to earn some money be it the HELB loan (boom!) or the earnings from their first jobs, one of the things they brought home was sausages. It was not every Saturday, but there was a noticeable improvement.
So recently, as I was reflecting on my return home, it occurred to me that the sausages that kept me in Geneva are available here, though not as regular. The opportunity to move and work abroad is one that I will always appreciate. However, from my experience and that of others, I observed around me, I realise you could quickly lose your sense of self. ‘Living abroad’ takes precedence over your personal and professional development – forgetting about the video game and focusing on the sausages.
*Name changed for privacy