When I was a kid I loved drawing. I drew people, I replicated pictures and changed the colouring; I also liked replicating logos while trying to capture their meaning. At some point I “created” clothing, mostly women’s (what?); But most of all, I loved drawing houses… and cars. I used to come up with layouts of houses and designs of cars; and I had books in which I drew them. I had promised myself that, when I grew up, I would build all of those houses I had created; and if any car manufacturer liked my car designs, it would be cool to have them produced =) … I used to dream that, when I grew up, I would be an architect; an architect who owned a garage like “West Coast Customs” of the MTV Program “Pimp my Ride”.
Unfortunately, in secondary school I came across a teacher who made me believe that I was useless in Maths; and according to what I’d heard on the streets, to succeed in architecture, you had to be good in Maths. Funny enough, I never failed any of my Maths classes (well, I managed to get just enough marks to pass); and funny enough, the path I decided to follow involved a lot of Maths, just different kinds of Maths: Economics! I was always passionate about “Development” (blame my parents), so Economics seemed like the right thing to do. But deep down inside me, I always knew that, someday, I would build my houses… some day!
Half way through University: One of my best friends with whom I had a few classes and who was so passionate about the stock market managed to influence me: suddenly I wanted to be a stock broker. In fact, I began to applying for a Masters in Financial Economics – is this related to stock broking? I don’t know.
At the same time, I got involved in this initiative I had started called Buja-Connections, whose purpose was to “gather (young) Burundians from across the globe to invite them to put their ideas and resources together to contribute to the well-being and development of our brothers and sisters back home”. Through that initiative, I started seeing how we could promote a positive image of Burundi around the World. I realised that almost nobody was speaking well of our country “out there”. I started seeing how the Internet could revolutionise Tourism and Business in Burundi. That’s why I bought buja-connections.com; and when I finished my undergrad, I packed my things and headed back home: I was going to develop my country, and in the process, make a lot of money out of this revolutionary idea that I had. The Masters degree could wait; I don’t think I had the fibre of a stock broker anyway (those guys are too loud!). March 2009: I was officially back home!
The core of my business is was the website. But I didn’t know how to make websites! (Remember, I’m just a Business Economics graduate: my computer literacy was limited to Microsoft Office software and browsing the Internet). So I did my research and found this local company which made websites which were according to me, quite “average”. But well an average site is better than no site at all! So I called them, they gave me a quote and… I laughed. The quality/price ratio was ridiculous. There was no way they were going to get my money!
Meanwhile, a friend of mine returned to Burundi from studying abroad. She was IT graduate. I asked her if she could make websites. “Not really”, she said. BUT, she had a book called “making website for dummies” (or something like that) and some software called “Dreamweaver”. I got those, locked myself in my room for 3 months, learning HTML, practicing; and on May 5th 2009, the first version of buja-connections.com went live, in a design that I WANTED – though very amateurish; but I’m was happy that I had done it MYSELF!
Meanwhile (you will get a lot of “meanwhiles” in this post), somebody at Church found out that I could “run a website”. There was this youth conference coming up and they needed people to update their website with whatever is going to happen. I worked with 1 guy and 2 ladies, who were going to write the articles, then give them to me to put them on the site. At the end of an event (the conference lasted for about 4 days), they would put their texts together and write a single clean piece – that’s what would go online. However, the events usually ended late at night, and they would be too tired to “think” and come up with something descent (I’d also be in a hurry to get home) so what ended up happening is that they would give me their notes and I would come up with the summary for the website. And so, in the process, I became an editor.
On the other hand, the website was run using a Content Management System called “Joomla!”. So the guy who was running the website had to teach me how to use the software so that I could do the updates by myself. I learnt about Joomla! and I fell in love with it. I saw how I could use it on my own website. Meanwhile (I had warned you), I was given this graphic design software that would help me work with the images for the website: it was called Adobe Photoshop. I was taught a few basic tricks and I was given links to free online tutorials where I could learn more things. I fell in love with Photoshop too. Suddenly, my artistic side woke up and I realised all the things I could do with Photoshop. Sooner than later, I was in the business of graphic design, making logos, adverts, business cards, websites… you name it! Oh, and I was making Buja-Connections prettier and more interactive (it was probably at its 5th version by then; since I kept re-doing the design as I learnt more things).
By the way, after the youth conference, I was put in charge of the whole website, at Church; and at some point I was doing a translation job as well, since I had made the site bilingual.
Now, back to Buja-Connections!
Burundi made sure to show me that my idea was an illusion! The reality was that the country wasn’t yet ready for Internet; hence nobody was willing to buy any of my services yet. My “awesome idea” was slowly on the way to the bin. But I didn’t give up; I kept pushing. For 2 years, I invested time and money, from my parents, and from my income as a part-time graphic designer. I did all I could, I made most of my services free to try to get people interested. Sometimes I made money, most of the times I didn’t. I lost motivation. People thought I was nuts, useless, lazy. I thought about all the sacrifices my parents had made to invest in my education, and what was I giving back? Nothing! I got depressed. I lost weight (which wasn’t a bad thing really :)). It was time to look for alternatives. I had wasted too much time. I needed to make a living; a descent one. And I needed to valorise my skills and education. It was time to look for a full-time job!
So I applied for jobs. This part wasn’t too hard since I got two offers at the same time. Which one to take? Dilemma! We (family) prayed for a revelation; I measured pros and cons, considered many factors, and made the weirdest decision ever: I went with the least glamorous, least paying job. Why? Because it did more of what I wanted to do in the first place: Economy, Development, etc. It was with the new Burundi Revenue Authority aka OBR.
I was put in charge of Customs Reforms and Trade Facilitation. My job covered all Customs Procedures and Legislation, and in other words, my responsibility was to “modernise” the Customs of Burundi. This promised to be interesting. But in like most Public Administrations around the World, what’s supposed to happen in theory is totally different from what goes on in practice. For the first few months, I didn’t have a proper office desk yet. I sat on a broken chair; I thank God that it didn’t mess my back up. I also didn’t quite understand how I was supposed to deliver on the job and nobody was really guiding me; instead, most of the time I would be blamed for things that weren’t working, and asked to fix them. I would wonder if people were just teasing me, or if they were really serious. As the youngest staff in the organization, people tended to look down on me, and there were so many factors that defined work relationships like ethnic and/or political background, professional experience… which I couldn’t quite keep up with. Also, I had the impression that when your job didn’t involve collecting money, management didn’t seem to care about you. I felt like I wasn’t being valued. I started hating the job and regretting why I hadn’t taken the other one. I almost quit, and I almost lost the job too (blame silly administrative procedures related to certifying my undergraduate degree).
But then things started to get interesting. First, I got sent to trainings. I was learning new things, so I was in my element. Second, I was given responsibilities and assignments. I was sent to represent the Customs Administration in meetings abroad. I even got to chair some of those meetings! (Talk about responsibility!). I would write up proposals for reforms and they would go through. I started working with consultants on important and interesting projects. I was being useful, and was somehow contributing to development in my country (by improving procedures and facilitating trade!). I was happy.
Meanwhile, on a random Saturday afternoon, while driving around town, I switched the radio to CCIB FM+, a radio station which is known to play good music. But there was no music playing; instead, a radio show, in ENGLISH! It was called “Imagine Burundi” and the whole idea behind it sounded so similar to the idea behind Buja-connections! I had to meet these guys! We had to work together! I drove home as fast as I could to send them an e-mail. A few days later; a certain Jefferson Mok replied. He said I was their first fan mail, so they were happy. He wanted to meet with me so we met. As we spoke he thought I had an interesting story. He thought he could make a show on me, as a young Burundian who had left the developed World to go and work for his country. We mainly talked about Buja-Connections. The idea, how it started, and eventually how and why it failed; and how I was “surviving”.
Since I was eager to work with these guys (and they seemed to like me) I joined Imagine Burundi. Next thing you know, I was a public radio show Co-Host giving advice on employment and business (yeah, the guy who had failed to set up a business). I learnt how to record, I came up with ideas for segments, learnt editing; I even made a segment which was aired! And so, Imagine Burundi became my 3rd part-time job – after Buja-Connections (I never really quit), and my job at Church.
From then on, till now…
What have I learnt from all this?
I have learnt that I’m bad at planning when it comes to “life”. Like, I graduated from University thinking that by age 25 I would have made enough money, I would be mature enough, enjoyed my life to some extent and so I would marry. We’re a month away from my 25th birthday and I don’t even have a girlfriend. To be honest, I don’t think any girl would like having me as I am now.
Okay, you can argue that I hadn’t really made any plans; I just had dreams that weren’t based on realistic elements of life, the professional World, the environment, etc. I agree! And this is one of the things I learnt from all these experiences.
I also learnt that the World is constantly changing and that different opportunities arise each day. I learnt that I can’t persist to do some things with my life and ignore others, based on feelings of the moment, or how I think I understand the World. If I had followed “my dreams” there are so many things that I would have probably missed. I learnt that it’s okay to mess up, as long as I learn from my mistakes. In fact, I learnt that adulthood is overrated and full of people who aren’t as perfect and wise as they appear to be.
This unplanned life helped me learn so many things about the social, professional, business and economic realities of Burundi. I met awesome people and made amazing friends. I even learnt a few things about relationships… and heartbreaks. I built my personality, learnt a few things on how to express myself better; I gained in confidence; and I also learnt how not to take myself too seriously.
But most importantly, I learnt that the purpose of this life and the source of true happiness is to live each day to the fullest, taking in as much as we can, and giving back more, as freely as we received it. If something happened to me today and took my life, would you say that my life was incomplete because I didn’t build any of my houses? I wouldn’t say that; the houses are just bonuses, like everything we get in life. What matters is giving. Every time I work on a project at work that fixes some problem, every time I say something on Imagine Burundi that can potentially help someone, every time somebody is blessed by a message posted on my Church’s website, every time somebody is happy with a logo I made them, and every time one of my friends laughs at one of my silly jokes; I know God values that a million times more than anything I will ever do for myself, no matter how big it is.
I know this sounds too idealistic, and I may sound perfect; but I’m not! I’m just a normal guy who has issues of his own (and who’s kind enough to share some of his discoveries). I don’t have life all figured out yet. There are so many things that still confuse me. Like right now, I’m dealing with people who seem to have issues with my love life (…). There is also this thing I’d like to invest in, but I’m not quite sure whether it’s worthwhile… Oh, and I’ve also been told that I can be quite shy sometimes… So there is still a thing or two about self-confidence and expression that I still need to learn here…
My friend Seth Chase said that on the journey of life, we all have goals we want to attain; but nothing guarantees that we will ever attain them. He said that although some confuse those goals with the “destination” of life, when they cannot be sure whether they’ll be alive tomorrow or not, it’s every day we live which is the destination. The steps we take on the journey are the destination. The journey IS the destination.
“It’s life that matters, nothing but life — the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself, at all.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky