The Best Advice I Ever Got: ‘Start With What You’re Good at And Expand From There’
Updated: May 2
Your path is your path. There is no competition here. No one can beat you at your own path but you. So, honour that and trust the process, even though new beginnings can be nerve-wracking. You need to take your time and walk the steps because you are purposed to be here for a reason. Starting with what you’re good at will give you the confidence to face whatever may be lurking around the corner. And knowing your strengths will allow you to shine in your individual areas of giftedness and increase your chances of success. Your path will take shape organically and holistically in unexpected and thrilling ways.
I used to have this preconceived idea that you could only make a living in Africa by getting into industries that relate to essential needs. I honestly used to think that business opportunities only varied between industries of health, agriculture, transport, infrastructure, energy production and consumption. I thought you were only legitimate to move back home when you have found a remedy against Ebola or bought plots to get into agro-business to produce tree tomatoes or mangoes. And when not for essential needs, I used to think your only legitimate reason to move back could only be if you had studied a complicated branch of economics to join a ministerial cabinet. Another valid reason for moving back home could be if you had studied a course in peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Because you know this is what Africa needed in my mind as if what sums up the continent is being in a war, desperate, backward, poor and sick.
Obviously, it is embarrassing admitting this now.
Growing up in the West, you have, whether you like it or not, some bias you got from the same media. It may be not as be biased as what we watch on mainstream media, as I had travelled extensively to Rwanda prior to moving. But still somewhat in the wrong, as I thought there wouldn’t be an audience for art and creative expression. I had initially moved to Rwanda to make a documentary and had underestimated the time it takes to get personal with protagonists to go beyond the surface level. Hence, I had to find a job to sustain myself, and I wondered what I could be doing. What could I actually bring to this market? How could I be useful? How could I play my part? What skills do I have that bring value to this market?
What could I actually bring to this market? How could I be useful? How could I play my part? What skills do I have that bring value to this market?
A few months after my arrival, when I moved six years ago, I almost reconsidered a job in construction for which I had been interviewed. How did I find myself in that interview, you might think. Well … it was a big misunderstanding. I attended Valentine’s party, which turned out to be a laid-back networking after-work party kind of vibe. The city being small, people know that you are new. I also think there is something about you that screams I-packed-all-of-my-bags-to-live-the-African-dream-but-now-that-I-am- here-I-am-clueless-about-what-I-am-supposed-to-do-next. And employers get that vibe quickly. Some take advantage to spot new talents; others leverage your palpable desperate need for relevance in this new space for their own benefits. It is a fair game. There are no bad guys or good guys, just people trying to move forward.
There is something about you that screams I-packed-all-of-my-bags-to-live-the-African-dream-but-now-that-I-am-here-I-am-clueless-about-what-I-am-supposed-to-do-next. And employers get that vibe quickly.
Alain (let’s call him Alain) adjusted his proposition to make it somewhat aligned with what I was after. With a glass of wine in my hand, I remember saying, “Yes, absolutely. I am open”, “I am flexible”, “I am happy to do anything as long as I can be helpful”. I said everything that would basically put me in the desperate for a job category. Also, any conversation with Chardonnay can make one feel in connection with someone.
And just like that, I thought I had secured a job for myself in a promising enterprise as a social media manager.
When Alain called me back a few days later, he picked me up at my aunt Cécile’s place with whom I was living at the time. He came with his business partner Olivier (let’s call him Olivier). We got there. We visited the entire construction site. I kind of expected that the job wouldn’t be solely about social media management. Being a photographer and videographer, I gathered that he would probably expect me to create the content in addition. But while showing me around, I got the inkling that the role would rather be about managing the workers, which I would have been incapable of doing. I simply know nothing about construction. Just looking at the buckets of cement, I was telling myself that I wouldn’t even know if it is good quality. How could I possibly know? How would I know if it is well applied? If it is really cement in the first place?
When Alain and Olivier finished introducing the business, they welcomed me into their office and asked me if I would be interested in the job. It took me two seconds to respond.
“What do you mean no?”
“Respectfully, I don’t think I would be a good fit.”
“What would be a good fit then?”
I was not quite sure then what would be a good fit for me in this market. With my masters in documentary-making under my belt, the projects I was after were about conveying life's wonder through evocative mediums. I sought to reveal the beauty that is all around us but often goes unnoticed in the daily rush of life, getting viewers to look beyond stereotypes that culture presents. I knew I couldn’t exactly say to Oliver, ‘My purpose in life is to bring light’. But by having a bachelor’s degree in digital communications, I thought I could assist clients with their day-to-day P.R. and marketing efforts, including website maintenance and social media management. Doing that, I was hopeful that I could still be creative through content creation and making their communication visual and attractive.
“My understanding of the job was to manage your online presence. Since I am a photographer and a videographer, I could have created quality content that drives your marketing strategy forward.”
A silence suddenly dominated Alain and Olivier’s office. They looked at each other, baffled.
“Ah, les artistes!” Olivier exclaimed. “So, we drove all the way for you just to say no?!”
When I shared this story with my aunts, they first said that I had perhaps been too quick to say no. I, therefore, felt guilty and thought that I had probably acted like a spoilt child. Should I have said yes? Was it the route I am supposed to take? Was it the only way I could make money to sustain myself to stay in Rwanda? Were my creative endeavours just meant to be done on the weekend instead? Was Kigali even a space where one could nurture creativity, storytelling and art?
“You got me wrong. I don’t think you need to take this job,” said Tantine Cécile. “What I am trying to say is that you should have given a day or two to give a final answer and decline gracefully. Just to be sure to remain on good terms with people. The information is easier to swallow for people when they think you've taken the time to think it over.”
“Sure. But should I not call them back to say that I am interested? I have replied. It’s been now three months that I am in Kigali. I think it is time that I find a job.”
“And you think this is a good reason for you to take a job in construction when you don't know anything about construction? What about all of these university fees that you paid for ... is this money now thrown out the window?”
Tantine Cécile was particularly worried that I was kind of getting cocksure to the point I could get a job in any sector.
“You know, we are all enthusiastic about this diaspora coming back. Though it doesn’t mean that you are useful in any profession, just because you evolved in the West. Why would you apply for positions in Rwanda that you haven’t even considered before moving here?”
She almost made me feel like one of these wives of expats who upon their arrival, grow spices in their garden, drink green juice detox cleanses and reinvent themselves as Pilates coaches — though they are not whatsoever trained for it — because they conceive of an Africa where everything can be improvised. But what was I going to do then?
“Even though we don’t always understand what your work is about, said my aunt Jacqueline trying to be reassuring, what I know for sure is that you are going to confuse people if you start working in construction. Perhaps you could start with what you are good at and expand from there. See what is actually possible with your skills and see how you can adapt them for this market. See what you can do without necessarily changing your career path completely. But by all means, don’t give up. Otherwise, the day an opportunity in your field could arise, people won’t be sure whether they can recommend you or not.”
I would have sworn that my aunts Cécile and Jacqueline would have preferred that I get this job rather than trying to make it as a photographer and videographer in Kigali. Just like that, they had encouraged me to establish myself unapologetically as a creative hustler of all things visual content. I had in front of me, personal development gurus. They made me realise that luck can be provoked, and opportunities can be created. What I had to do from now on was cultivate an image that would allow me to optimise my job search. So that people who knew me — even just a little — would say to their circles, “What I know about Cynthia is that she does content." Or "If you have a content campaign in mind, Cynthia is the person to talk to!".
They made me realise that luck can be provoked, and opportunities can be created. What I had to do from now on was cultivate an image that would allow me to optimise my job search.
These scenarios could only be possible if I work on my positioning to achieve my goals. I had to focus all my efforts to develop a core that could activate word of mouth, allowing me to seize opportunities. That's how I came up with the idea of making a logo for myself, with my initials C.B. along with the play button. It's the same logo that I still use today on social media, and to this day, it is very effective.
Five months after the interview with Alain and Olivier, I started working for Illume Creative Studio as an in-house videographer. I worked there for a year to film and edit their video content. Then I became a fellow of Africa's first paid fellowship for content creators launched by Akoma, where I learnt to execute campaigns using storytelling and visual content. Then I freelanced for three years to create content for clients to generate leads through inbound methods. Communication being visual today, my passionate interest for content led me to recently join the Rwanda Development Board’s communication division as an analyst to translate communication needs into compelling visual content.
In a nutshell, I've climbed up the ladder in a way that is making sense to my skills. I have experienced first-hand that this market is constantly evolving. And I certainly don’t need to work in construction to make money. Today, my aunts’ words of wisdom still resonate with me. Whenever I feel challenged with a task I am being given; I always remember to start with what I am good at, with what I am comfortable with and put my strengths into a display and expand from there. However, my work's direction makes me sometimes believe that I have strayed from what I would really like to do — documentary photography and videography. But there are decisions that I have made along the way to make enough of a living to sustain myself and support my creative endeavours — because it has a cost. I believe that the journey I have been on gives me the groundwork I need to further my career and make my dream come true. I have the conviction that the fullness of my creativity can be embraced, nonetheless. I have realised that the way artists make a living is a bit more multi-layered and complex than having clients and selling.
Whenever I feel challenged with a task I am being given; I always remember to start with what I am good at, with what I am comfortable with and put my strengths into a display and expand from there.
The only part I need to figure out is finding the correct equation to create meaningful content that personally connects with the soul of audiences for both its aesthetics as well as its ability to communicate a strong message, while obviously making money to sustain myself but also having enough to invest on what will be my next projects.
As we say, anything is possible when we believe. One step at a time, my path is being drawn.