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It’s Unlikely Hussein Will Make It Out Of His Village

Random thoughts on the jogging trail – It’s unlikely Hussein will make it out of his village to become a successful professional.

“Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities.” Malcolm Gladwell.

Today’s 10km was in a coastal village town. I decided to get off the obvious trail and go deep into the village. What struck me is the number of young people riding bodas, selling food on the roadside and loading donkeys. One particular young boy, who did not look that well-nourished, captured my eye. He wore a red shirt with wrinkled khaki pants, a worn out pair of sandals and had unkempt hair. I would put him at about 10 years, which is about the same age as my daughter who we’ll call Zahra for the sake of the story. And given that it’s based in a Swahili town, we’ll call the boy Hussein.

Hussein was loading a donkey at around 7am. The surrounding was filthy with too much litter around. The sight is of dilapidated houses, waste water on the narrow paths between houses and donkey dung all over the place. I could barely find something motivational about Hussein’s surroundings. I was looking for something visible or material, from which I could draw inspiration if I were in Hussein’s position. Of course it’s possible that the boy is from a happy family and is very content, which in itself would be very inspirational, but that I obviously could not see right away. 

I wondered whether Hussein could ever have a chance to move from loading this donkey and become a successful lawyer, doctor, accountant, teacher, fitness instructor etc. There and then, I recalled Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. It’s been a while since I read it, but the key message was that successful people are not really successful due to their own efforts and hard work. Yes, the hard work and efforts matter a lot, but they needed the foundation, opportunity and random luck upon which to build on with their hard work. Without the foundation and random luck, they’d never be the successful people that they are today. 

I couldn’t put it any better than Malcolm himself, “Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience. But they don’t. They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky– The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.” 

It’s hard for me to see how Hussein’s “Circumstances and opportunities” will move him from a donkey-loader to a superstar lawyer, accountant, or whatever. It’s however a lot easier for me to see how a Zahra can move from where they are to a superstar-something. The saddest part is that it’s not Hussein’s fault. He just happens to be born in a town with no proper roads, scarce running water, poor sanitation, and no great schools nearby. Put in another way, he comes from a marginalized region and for that he will likely pay a price until his grave.

But on a closer look, is the region actually marginalized? I don’t think so. It’s close to pristine waters and sandy beaches given freely by God; something that Dubai had to spend billions to build. The only difference is that Hussein lacks visionary leaders who can see and organize the region into a ‘Dubai’ and give him better opportunities. I would not be surprised if Hussein’s Governor usually leaves his natural and better waters, albeit surrounded by donkeys and chaos, to spend time around the manmade Dubai beaches, which lie within order and an aspirational environment. 

My point is, first, we could give Hussein a much better chance in life, if only we could elect for him much better leaders. Second, even with devolution, marginalization is real and debilitating to communities. I hope we can get leaders who will focus on building a more equal society. 

I end where I started, with a quote from the same author, “To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages today that determine success– with a society that provides opportunities for all.”

Edwin H. Dande

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1 COMMENT

  • Nixon Otieno

    Very honest observations, especially on what builds a successful person.

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