A choice between two roads

Two Roads

Everyone who heard that Mutambuze had quit his job, as a Partner in a Wall Street Investment bank to go and settle back home in bushy Africa as an orchard farmer, thought he had lost his mind. The job he was giving up was not like your run of the mill assignment.

After graduating at the top of his MBA class, the Dean of his US Midwestern Business school, impressed by his grades, had advised him to apply for a job at a famous investment bank. Mutambuze had done some case studies analyzing some of this bank’s ventures, but had no prior contact.  Nevertheless, not eager to go back to Africa, and end up job hunting for scarce jobs, he complied.

Being recruited at Lion’s Investment Bank (LIB) was notoriously competitive. It snapped the best and brightest kids from top B- Schools handing them six figure dollar salaries. Invited for an interview, Mutambuze noticed he was the only black. The rest were white and Asian kids, who came from Ivy League Colleges and carried themselves with supreme confidence, if not cockiness.  So he was most delighted, if not shocked, to be called the day after his interview. “We are offering you a job at LIB!”

Having joined, when he received his first paycheck, Mutambuze almost went crazy. He had to go over it, wild eyed, to make sure it was him. If he was back in Africa it would take him probably five years to earn this kind of money. His life instantly changed. He secured a Penthouse apartment overlooking a Lake. There was almost no toy beyond his reach now to acquire; he quickly spoilt himself to a sports car. This was some life, even in his wildest dreams, he had never dreamed of.

Mutambuze discovered earning this kind of money at LIB was by no means a walk in the park. Young investment analysts like him worked 24/7, going over huge files where they analyzed various firms balance sheets before recommending acquisitions. So often they had to fly out to visit these firms. Living in planes and at airports in the US, as he was always shuttling between cities, hardly having chance to enjoy his neat apartment, became the norm.

LIB had a masculine and competitive culture close to open bullying. Assignments had to be delivered yesterday without fail. Staff were constantly harassed to deliver results or be dropped. “You are lucky to get a job at LIB!” any would be reminded, if there was a hint of a complaint.

For Mutambuze, having grown up under harsh conditions, surviving on coarse posho corn meal and weevil-laced beans in the boarding schools he had gone to, this was no issue. Indeed, he excelled and after five years was rewarded as a Partner. This came after he had gone through three days and nights without sleep to write a report that earned the firm a major acquisition in China. A partnership at a top investment bank came with even more benefits.

Around that time he married a beautiful black girl from West Indies, called Anne. The two were attracted to each other being both immigrants and working in the financial industry. Soon the married couple bought a multimillion dollar house in a leafy suburb, circled with the best schools, wide roads and malls, and looked forward to a happy bright future. After struggling for years they had a son and settled into a life of a wealthy suburban couple that vacationed in Hawaii.

Then one day their lives changed abruptly.

Mutambuze was busy at work when he got a call that his mother back in Africa had suddenly passed away.  Mutambuze knew he had to attend the burial as he had missed his father’s funeral while attending graduate school. Having called up Anne he boarded a plane and after 21 hours of flying across the world, he arrived just in time before burial. He had expected to leave immediately after due to pending office assignments. But just after burial he started receiving delegation after delegation of elders seeking his counsel and decision over some outstanding family matter.

As heir to his father, a former chief and head of clan, many of the locals recognized and looked up to Mutambuze as a cultural leader. They had been waiting for him ever since. Besides attending to them, Mutambuze, got to understand that the land his father had left to the family, was now being encroached on as he and his siblings had long migrated to the US. The matters were quite complicated that he called LIB asking for a week’s extension. The bank denied his request.

It is on his flight back to work when Mutambuze made the decision to quit. “Why can’t I stay and develop our land with a mango farm and start a juice making factory!” He wondered, reflecting on all the companies he was restructuring around the world before selling them. “Cant I take this knowledge back home!”

When he got together with Anne, he told her, “I want to go back to Africa and start life as a farmer!”

“Have you lost your mind!” she sneered at his proposal. “We are happy here with a child and have a dog. If you are going, just know I am not following you.”

Later, after debating the pros and cons, it was agreed that while Anne stayed behind, Mutambuze would go and give the project a two year time limit. “If nothing comes of it I will return,” he promised. “I will ask the bank for a two year unpaid leave of absence.”

The bank didn’t promise to keep his job, though it mentioned he would always be considered, if he ever wished to return. Mutambuze wound up his duties and then flew back to Africa to start large scaling farming.

In his former career as an Investment Analyst, Mutambuze could easily figure out how to turn around a firm from loss to profit making. But going into large scale farming here at home was nothing like he had ever expected. It seemed he was hitting road blocks everywhere he turned. The machinery he imported could not arrive on time and when it did the taxes where through the roof. Simple implements like seedlings and fertilizers were almost impossible to procure. The workers he hired were slothful and quick to cheat on him.

Initially Mutambuze settled in the city, whose life he was more accustomed to. But as no work was making progress, he moved to the rural farm, throwing away his suits for overalls. He now lived in a small hut and spent the day out in the sun.

Two years down the road he had not even started planting trees. He called up Anne to ask for more time. Her response was fast. “I am leaving you!”

Mutambuze considered giving up the project and going back to the US, to return to his old life. But then, as he reflected, in spite of all, he was enjoying what he was doing. Life was far more rewarding; he was providing a valuable service as a farmer to his community and was consulted on for many things, including cultural issues as a clan head.

“Anne, it’s okay but I am staying here!” The couple agreed to a divorce, with Anne going with his son and their multi-million dollar house.

Much as he had lost his job and all his investment, Mutambuze trudged on. Slowly, things started coming together, though he was always up to a new unexpected challenge. The mango trees he planted were often subject to pests and once they ripened he had to deal with thieves.

Once it was time to harvest Mutambuze noted he had never wanted to be a seller of raw materials, like a peasant. Using his old connections he got investors to start a mango juice factory in his district with ultra-modern machinery. Being a cultural leader he convinced his people to supplement on his farm produce as out growers.

When his juice factory released its first product no one was as excited. Mutambuze developed a marketing plan which he executed, turning his juice product into one of the best-selling on the market. Eventually he started selling regionally and to the Middle East.

All this time he remained in regular contact with Anne, who with time, remarried. Mutambuze also started a new family. When his son was about to graduate, they invited him for graduation. At the ceremony hearing his son’s name read, he had a moment to reflect and look back on his life.

By returning to Africa it had cost him immensely in terms of his professional career and wealth enhancement, given all the opportunities he had left behind. He had lost his marriage and time witnessing his son grow.  Whatever success in life he knew of had come at a huge price.

But Mutambuze was happy. He felt a very fulfilled man, having gone out and done something close and dear to his heart. He had built in his country something enduring that created jobs for many while also saving family land. Life had presented him two roads to choose from. He took the one filled with all dangers and less glamour. “Even if I was given another chance I wouldn’t choose differently,” he nodded, as he saw his son walk down with his degree.

1 Comment

  1. Hello Martin,
    I chanced on this story after a colleague shared a link to your post about the value of “networking”. It sure does feel disappointing, but also mind-opening to learn that the world works quite differently from the impressions we may have had much earlier on in life … “work hard in school, get good grades and all will be well…”.

    Now, about “Mutambuze”, is he a fictitious character or is this a real-life story?

    I ask because the cross roads he found himself at can be mind-bending, almost too difficult for an average adult to navigate thru.
    That Mutambuze faced start-up challenges in Uganda but still trudged on is almost too good to be true, and I am curious as to what may have spurred this resolve to continue. Could it be that he found the life as a banker too tense and unsustainable? If so, how about the young family he’d started? Could he just up.and.go.without good reason?

    All this and more are questions running thru my mind as I reflect on two personal accounts.

    BILL

Leave A Reply