Public Speaking

A friend calls to ask if I recommended her for this ‘opportunity’ she’d been called to attend, which I did not, and then calls again the following day, ecstatic, to tell me how it went. Her voice is higher-pitched than normal, elated. She tells me she’d have to explain in full detail for me to understand the eye-opening experience she just had. Having time on my hand, I let her proceed.

A group of late-teens to early twenty-somethings were gathered in a hall at Kengeleni that day and became recipients to a speech so powerful that when they left, some of them concluded, it was the most impactful and perhaps most important speech they were ever going to hear in their life. A turning point to how they would forever view their finances.

They walked out empowered, believing the world was theirs for the taking and that they didn’t need credentials or anyone’s permission for that matter, to go chasing what they want― which is true. If you’re confident enough in life, you CAN do whatever it is you want. But then again, there’s a place for that.

The late Kurt Vonnegut used to say, he liked talking to college students so that he could brainwash them, with humanity; before the world got to them. It’s a critical age where we can be impressionable, and the more this friend spoke, the more apparent it became, she had just had the wrong kind of brainwashing. She had been initiated into a cult, that would stop at nothing until they’ve recruited everyone. Their speaker in his mighty eloquence had just introduced them to the world of Multi-level marketing (MLM).

For just Kshs.28000, you were presented with the opportunity to join a community so savvy about success that within the coming year, you’d be on your way to becoming a millionaire. At that age, without any substantial income, there’s no way you would not see that as THE opportunity. The kshs.28000 got you a package of medical (I think) products you could sell, and make your money back. At the same time, make life better for your customers. That’s a fine way to make small money, but to join the big leagues, you purposed to recruit people. Your recruits would fall under you, and you would earn from their earnings, and earn from the earnings of their recruits for a couple of levels down. They’d insist, you just had to recruit 5 people and you’ll be set for life. You even had the option to open several accounts and after that, umaskini kwaheri.

Two parallel futures were drawn out for them. One, of the guy who risked it all and jumped on that ‘opportunity,’ and isn’t that what life is all about, risking. How they wouldn’t have to work hard or be part of the rat race; they’ll just ‘work smart,’ their earnings compounding, and in a few years, they would be unrecognisable. They’d be driving the most luxurious cars, taking vacations abroad, and most importantly, they’d be doing all that while they were young. Who wants to be old to enjoy their money? The opportunity presented the opportunity to live your best life while you were still young, not having to wait.

The second parallel was he who waited too long, foolish not to jump on at the earliest. Those were promised to regret, twice. Once, when you’re struggling at your day-job earning a meagre salary while you watch your mates living the life you could’ve had, driving these beautiful cars, living in the most amazing mansions, and you would think back to that day in that hall, like damn, that could’ve been me. And the second regret is that you’ll regret waiting for too long to join. All the people who didn’t wait will be far much ahead of you in life. They had the advantage of the head start and now have a huge network of referrals under them. It was repeated that you might walk out of that room and want to mention what got discussed there to family. You were advised against that for family would discourage you. Family won’t get it. They don’t even understand the life that you want. They’re already enslaved to the system and here you are trying to go unscripted. And don’t makeup excuses of not being able to afford, they’d say. Money is in abundance and you have to use money to get money. Once you envision this dream of financial freedom, kshs.28000 is nothing. Don’t leave your life in the hands of people or to destiny when you can take charge and shape it yourself. Success comes to all those who go on a limb when confronted with the opportunity to change their current states. Those who don’t wait. So, they urged them to make a commitment and put up even if it’s just kshs.2000 as you look for the rest. And don’t listen to naysayers who won’t understand, they’d conclude. There are people who will tell you that this is a scam. But wait till they see you in your car!

By the time the friend left that room, she already had coughed a portion of the Ksh.28,000, but unfortunately for her, made the same mistake she was told not to make. She talked to me―THE naysayer.

The thing about being young is that you live in this state of urgency. You always feel that you’re running against a clock. You have to have everything figured out by a certain age. You watch some of your friends get ahead in life and feel left behind. If it was up to you, you’d want to be the one with the head start and everyone holding you as the blueprint of what they should have achieved by now. But it’s not up to you, so you’re the one comparing yourself, and it hits you again and again how inadequate you are. You haven’t made anything out of yourself. You’re not there where you wanted―where you should be. And anyone who throws you a lifejacket to get you out, you’ll regard them your saviour. But sometimes they’re cannibal pirates perhaps wanting to devour you after they bleed you dry. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, an elderly French gentleman once told me.

John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, did an episode on Multilevel Marketing (MLM) some years back. A funny poignant beautifully executed expose that brought to my attention the documentary, Betting on Zero that I also highly recommend. It’s an eye-opening account on what MLMs are doing to communities, the worlds we’re blind to, on the other side of the world. It centres around the Latina community who had been manipulated into making these ‘investments’ in the company Herbalife in search of better circumstances for their families. They bought in bulk, amounting to thousands of dollars, some accruing debt, mortgaging their houses, just to purchase these products for a taste of that promise, that dream that was sold to them. To be your own boss and achieve financial freedom.

Now I must point out, the products intended to be sold are overpriced, and their benefits, way overstated. No one in their right mind would purchase them. But when you realise that the shipping of the product is a front for the real business happening, things become a little clearer.

The business model is actually to recruit the salesforce, who are also the target customers, to buy this product. It’s clever you see. The people who sell your product are actually your target market and also the marketers bringing in more and more people to buy the product, who also become marketers. It’s a never-ending cycle. In Betting on zero, agents admitted to storing product in their houses, broke from buying and having nowhere to ship them. The way I saw it is that you dug yourself into a ditch by coughing up let’s say the kshs.28000 and to pull yourself out, to recoup your ‘investment’ you’d have to pull someone else in. Putting them in the position you initially found yourself. There’s a woman in the documentary who’s heart-breaking yet reassuring comment embodies that.  “I’m not going to swindle anyone,” she said, “I lost but no one else is going to lose because of me.”

The way out of this is to decide that it ends with you. No matter your losses. The moment we all embody that mentality, there is no business. I’d like to think my friend did understand that as I explained it to her, and that she didn’t let the idea of the sunk cost get to her.

To take a step back, the moment they were in that room and told to commit by depositing a small amount, those who did had reached a point of no return. The purpose of the commitment is so that you can’t back out when you’re having second thoughts. The sunk cost fallacy is real. As human beings, we tend to stick to things when we feel we’ve invested parts of ourselves in them: time, money, effort. When we’re already along for the ride, it’s hard to jump ship even when we foresee ourselves crashing by the end of it. When you invest years into a career, even when it no longer is challenging or serves you in any way, you’d prefer to go on because you’ve invested yourself in it, time and whatnot. You would rather be miserable than admit that you might have been wrong the first time, or perhaps you might have grown and time has come to move on. When you cough up the kshs.2000, let’s say, you will find it much easier to find the remaining amount than quitting from the start with or without a refund of the cash. Not considering how much more you’d lose if you don’t jump ship much earlier on.

They feed on that and our many insecurities of wanting to have a better portion of this human experience. Young people being most susceptible. From a marketing standpoint, it’s much easier to market to this demographic by feeding on all their feelings of inadequacy.

I get it. We’re at this juncture in life where everyone seems to be finding the thing they want to do in life. Call it their calling or whatever fancy word we’ll use. Everyone’s finding the paths they want to specialise in while some of us, the anomaly, seem to flounder, not really knowing what they want. The pressure is on you to figure ‘it’ out and make it. Reminds me of a friend who always says “form ni kuomoka…” But trouble comes when you don’t know what you want yet. This is an address to those people. My people. You will get there and you will be glad when you get there that you took your time to sample other things before you got there. There’s a phenomenal book: Range by David Epstein, that I recently finished speaking about how the people who had a long exploration phase, acquiring a wide set of skills in various fields before they ended up settling for what they ended up settling for, triumph in life in general. They turned out pretty great. In the thing they ended up doing, they brought in a broad ray of knowledge from all the experiences they accumulated and that made them triumph more than people who specialised much earlier on. When they were asked, admittedly they said, “I don’t think anyone got here the way I did. Much earlier on, I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I just kept on jumping from one thing to the next.” But the research showed that they weren’t an anomaly. In fact, that was what was consistent for anyone who did anything remarkable in life. They had a long exploration phase. A period of just doing things while they doubted if they would ever amount to anything. So, relax. I hope this gives you comfort in this confusion you’re in; that all knowledge is interconnected, and no experience is ever wasted. If you needed reassurance, then find it in that. You’re doing okay. You’re doing better than the majority.

Now that you’re relaxed, beware that not everything presented to you as an opportunity is. Any good orator can be enticing and end up having you believe what isn’t. It’s witchcraft I call it, the ways of the tongue. But to be formidable―for a speaker’s spell not to work on you, you must carry with you an awareness. Knowledge is the filter that can have you separate what’s right from what just feels right.

The first thing anyone presenting this business to you, they’ll tell you it’s not a pyramid scheme. Why? Because pyramid schemes have a bad rep. But if I may be bold, it often IS a pyramid. Aim Global and the many names they go by, however how many times they say they’re a business. Businesses are about people. About making things better for your customers, employees, shareholders and your community. As a rule of thumb, anything sold to you to profiteer at the expense of someone else, a basic self-centredness, you must say no to from the start. And if you have to pay to work at a company, it’s either a scam or an MLM, which are sometimes the same thing.

Moments after my phonecall ended, I received a text inviting me for this ‘opportunity happening the following day. At Kengeleni. And I wish I had the time. I could at least send everyone there, John Oliver’s video. Or maybe you could, we have families impressionable to a lot of things.

Business, Finances, MLM, Mombasa, Multilevel Marketing, Opportunities, Youth


Hassan Kassim

Hassan Kassim is a Mombasa-based Creative non-fiction writer, recently longlisted for the Toyin Falola prize, blogger and translator of Kiswahili work. A beneficiary of the Penpen program by African Writers Development Trust(AWDT) commissioned by Culture at Work Africa and the European Union(E.U), and holds his Bachelor’s degree in Maritime Management. Hassan writes about the ill-documented Communities of Coastal Kenya. His work has appeared in Writers Space Africa; his 2 non-fiction stories published in the anthology 'Twaweza,' a collaborative effort of 12 African writers on the African identity and set to appear in the forthcoming anthology for the Toyin Falola prize.

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Hassan Kassim is a Kenyan-based Creative non-fiction writer, blogger and translator of Kiswahili works with over 2 years of experience. A beneficiary of the Penpen program by African Writers Development Trust(AWDT) commissioned by Culture at Work Africa, and holds his Bachelor’s degree in Maritime Management.

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