At 23 years of age, I felt I was just starting my career and getting married was not something I wanted to do right away. My family, however, had a different perspective on the matter. My husband-to-be was a promising businessman who came from a well-established family. Who would pass up a match like this one? I could see their point. I have to admit I got caught up in all the excitement. Your family makes you fall in love with the idea of marriage. Everything is about you, and by the time you wake up, it’s the day after the wedding.
After we got married, my husband and I moved to the coastal city of Mombasa, where we lived with his very large and traditional extended family. My husband very quickly made it known he didn’t want me to work. My parents had always encouraged me to stand on my own two feet and be independent, but all of a sudden, I was just a housewife and surrounded by people with very different beliefs from what I was brought up with. He finally relented and I joined him in a business venture to market a strip plaza. Part of my responsibilities also included finding tenants, which I did, first bringing in a supermarket as an anchor store and then opening up my own green grocery called All Greens. Before we knew it, all the space in the plaza was rented out. After a year of running the grocery store, we sold it as a running business and I returned to the travel industry as a manager for an agency. When my first son Aman was born in 1991, I quit my job to raise him, although two years later I was back in the work force. We welcomed two more sons, Raj in 1997 and Saheb in 1999, and that’s when I decided it was time for me to go to university.
Making tough choices
I had always felt very inadequate for not having a university degree, although I turned to books to get my learning fix and am still a voracious reader. But at 32 years of age, I wanted to know what it would be like to be a university student. I applied to the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), but since I needed a prerequisite course in economics, I enrolled as an external student at a local high school. With my youngest son in tow, I was the only adult in a class of high school students. You can imagine I stood out, but the teacher tried her best to help me be comfortable, even having a glass of milk and cereal ready for me every morning. She knew I was up all night with the baby and studying. I’m happy to say I passed the course and enrolled in LSE’s external degree in management and law.
Alas, I was unable to complete the course for many reasons. Unfortunately, my marriage was not a happy one and had deteriorated, mostly due to the negative influence and interference of my husband’s family, as well as many personal misunderstandings. I thought a change of scenery might help and I proposed we emigrate to Canada.
In most parts of Africa, the culture is old-fashioned enough that if you leave your husband, your family won’t take you back. So I had a very difficult decision ahead of me. Building a life for me and my sons in Mombasa would be difficult. But with Canada, the United States and Australia promoting immigration throughout Africa, it looked like I had some options. With an uncle in Toronto who worked as a lawyer (and is still a mentor to me), Canada seemed like an obvious choice, so I applied for permanent resident status as a travel consultant, an occupation that was in demand at the time.
Although it was uncertain my husband would move to Canada with us, we felt it best to apply as a family. It was a slow process. Most nights, I would come home from work and deal with mounds of paperwork. Canadian immigration officials required so much information to process the application, along with reference letters from people we knew.
Three years later, we finally received the okay and by February 2003, we arrived in Ottawa and received our permanent resident card, which allows you five years during which to move to Canada.
Our visit gave me the chance to see what the country was like and what my options were, which at the time, included a job promised by a well-established uncle. When we returned to Kenya, however, my husband refused to talk about moving to Canada. By then two years had passed and it was clear to me the marriage was definitely over. I booked tickets for me and my youngest son and we left. Although I was terrified my husband would not allow my other children to leave, I felt it would be wrong to pull them out of school partway through the year. I wanted them to join me when I was a little more settled and able to support them. Being away from them for five months did not seem so bad then, but it was difficult. Life is about making tough decisions.
My visit to Ottawa two years earlier did not prepare me for the blast of icy cold weather that greeted me as I stepped off the plane in January 2005. We went from 35 C in Mombasa to minus 35 C, a 70 C temperature change from which I was sure a rather stylish winter coat I bought in London would protect me. I thought I was going to step off the plane in Ottawa looking really trendy. Lucky for me, a friend who picked me up at the airport brought her version of a winter coat and told me to save mine for spring and fall. My family and friends back home were quite concerned over my decision to move to a country that was so different from our own, particularly in regard to the weather. My thinking was: four different seasons, four different wardrobes, four different foods. Winter would soon be over and it would be three more seasons before it came again. I’ve always gone through life with my glass half full, even when the glasses were shot-size.
I enrolled my son in school and then set out to look for a job. Unfortunately, the uncle who had promised me a job didn’t come through. Family dynamics had changed during the two years since I’d received my PR card and I was told I should be happy with a minimum wage job. At that point, I decided I didn’t come all this way to start at the bottom. I may not have a lot of qualifications, but I was abundant in transferable skills. During that time, I met a lot of people in similar situations of having left their homes for Canada. Some shared their stories to inspire me, while others only to discourage me. Why should I succeed where they hadn’t? I realized that out of these two groups, I had to pick which one I would listen to and make my move.