Nairobi girl who rose from hawker to regional manager
Sitah Lang’o’s warm and affable personality is infectious. In just five minutes, you turn from acquaintance to old friend, a gift that has seen her graduate from struggling to make a living in Maringo Estate, in Eastlands, to Regional Country Manager, East Africa, for SWIFT, a global company that offers financial messaging services to financial institutions.
Sitah jokingly calls herself a village girl. She was born and raised in Ugenya, Siaya County, with four siblings, and credits who she is today to her parents; her father, a retired civil servant, and her mother, a farmer.
“I grew up seeing what hard work is,” Sitah observes, recalling her mother being the source of fresh vegetables and milk for institutions and households in the area, produce grown from their farm.
She admired her mother’s independence; “She didn’t need to ask anyone for anything,” she remarks.
She joined boarding school at the tender age of eight; her mother believed her and her siblings would get better schooling away from home, and today, Sitah feels that she would not be who she is today had she not gone to boarding.
In 2001, she graduated from Kisumu Girls High School, and that December, her father helped her find internship at a five star hotel in the city. She was elated because she had always wanted to work in the hospitality industry.
After her father’s retirement in 2001, money was not easy to come by, so Sitah had to look for ways to foot her transport and meals, since her mother could only afford to pay for her accommodation in a small room in Maringo Estate, in Eastlands.
She would work 18 hours daily without any stipend. She started her shift at 6.30am and would work, waiting tables and attending to client orders until midnight so that she could get transport home.
Leaving earlier meant that she would have to spend money on transport and meals; money she did not have.
In April 2002, her internship ended and she was informed that since she did not have suitable academic credentials, she could not graduate to full-time employment. Her mother wanted her to go back home, but she refused, telling her that she would find her own way in the city.
She was without a job for a couple months, spending most of her time at a friend’s tailoring shop in Maringo. She was lucky because her friend was kind enough to give her food. Occasionally, she would take a matatu ride into the city to look for work at restaurants, with no success.
One Sunday while going to church, she struck a conversation with a man she was seated next to. He happened to own a bar, as well as a small fast food stall selling chips, in BuruBuru Estate, Nairobi.
The man offered her a job – for Sh2,500 a month, Sitah prepared and sold chips to the customers that frequented the bar. The pay was not much, but she was glad to have work. And work she did, from 9am to midnight seven days a week.
Her hard work was unappreciated though, because her boss would pay her intermittently, and after three months, owed her Sh5,000 in salary arrears. Her diligence drew the attention of her bosses’ wife, who also ran a business in the CBD. She employed her to prepare and hawk tea and bread along River road between 6am and 8pm.
Sitah thought that her pay would be prompt, but she was wrong.
“She rarely had money to pay me.”
PAID IN FOOD
Her payment was in food – the bread and tea that was left over. The Sh2, 500 monthly that she was promised was rare, and seven months later, owed Sh10, 000 by her employer, Sitah questioned her life’s direction.
“One day, I just didn’t turn up at work.”
Around that time, her siblings moved to Nairobi from Siaya to seek work opportunities.
“We were all struggling together, so we encouraged and supported each other.”
After some time, her elder sister informed her that a fast food restaurant on Moi Avenue in the CBD was looking for a night shift cashier, however, the proprietor preferred a male cashier, who he thought would better handle the sometimes dangerous incidents that took place during the night. Sitah convinced him that she could cope, and he relented, offering her Sh5,000 monthly for a 7pm to 6 am shift.
Sitah shakes her head when she recalls the late night fiascos she witnessed while working here. An elderly man who used to covertly hawk alcohol sachets in front of the restaurant quickly appointed himself her bodyguard, and would intervene whenever an incident occurred in the restaurant.
Incidents such as thefts, stabbings and general assaults of sex workers and drunken brawls were common at her work place.
Read the full story here.