Where to spend Christmas? I am dreaming of a GREEN Christmas!

*playing Mariah Carey’s Christmas album in the background*

Hello beautiful people, long time, no read. I know it’s been a while, so many things have happened since I last wrote – President-elect Trump, WIMBIZ annual conference, Ondo elections, Wedding Party premiere (reviews, anyone?), and so much more.  I am super excited about the new month of December and all the season represents – giving, sharing, loving, dining, exploring and even more giving.

I know so many people are wondering where and how to spend the Christmas holidays this year. I am as well. The ways in which I celebrate Christmas have evolved over the years. From hosting Christmas parties at home, to taking family trips both abroad and within Lagos (Mama Kemi is the queen of staycations), to more recently (when the ajala travel bug bit me), taking solo trips and returning just before December 30th to ensure I ‘cross-over’ and spend New Year with family.

Since 2013, on my flight back home from wherever I had spent Christmas, I type up a thanksgiving letter to God, highlighting everything that I am thankful for in the year. Everything from my family to my career; from safe passage in all my work and personal travels (doing Lagos-Abuja safely every week for 6 months deserves special thanks to God, no?) to friends and family who got engaged or married and loved ones who had babies (adding to my ever-increasing list of god-children and my bridal train); from new friends made and old friends I am still in touch and in love with, to my health, well-being, weight, and BMI (lol);  from my ‘toasters’ and the fun times, the break-ups and the lessons learned, to improvements in my spiritual life and attitude. E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G! The first thanksgiving letter I wrote was 8 pages long, font size 12, regular spacing – you get the point. I wasn’t generalizing, I was mentioning actual names of people, places, exact events, organizations, etc. I don’t think I realized I knew how blessed I was until I wrote this letter. It is easy to say ‘count your blessings’ but how can you really count those blessings if you don’t ‘name them one by one’? Sorry for the digression (not really sorry sha, lol)

Give THANKS!
Give THANKS!

My first Christmas away from family was in 2011 which I spent in Calabar. I spent some time in Tinapa with a close friend and his family, and then moved to Calabar town itself on Christmas Eve as they geared up for the main carnival. My dear friend Andie was a fabulous hostess, and I enjoyed spending Christmas morning at her family house, listening to Mariah’s Christmas album on replay while getting ready to go to church for the Christmas service. Afterwards, we went party/get-together hopping across town and I met up with some old friends who also came in from Lagos for the carnival. I also had a blast spending time with some new friends I made at the airport during the severe 10-hour delay on our Lagos-Calabar flight. The carnival on 27th December felt truly like Africa’s biggest street party. I know I have not been to any other African street parties yet, but the sheer number of people was overwhelming!  And you know we have numbers in Nigeria, so I would not really doubt that claim, lol. It was amazing to see how the quiet little town of Calabar comes ALIVE in December!

Calabar, 2011
Calabar, 2011

To be honest, I actually really missed not being with my immediate family on Christmas day but being with long-time friends helped. Whatever the case, make sure you are spending time with your loved ones. After crossing the first non-family Christmas hurdle, it became easier to go away again. Christmas 2013 was spent in Dubai, mainly resting and reflecting. Big highlight of that trip was seeing the world famous Cirque du Soleil on their Michael Jackson Immortal tour. It was mesmerizing! I remember having to close my mouth more than a few times, lol. When you travel, not every time shopping, sometimes memorable experiences!

Enough reminiscing. Kemi, what are ‘we’ doing for Christmas this year? Being the planner that I am, I would have figured out the answer to this question since October (usually after the birthday celebrations) but for some reason, I have not been able to finalize Christmas plans. I had some grand plans to visit Zambia with my Aunt (my uncle is married to a Zambian) but somehow that didn’t quite pan out. ‘Somehow’ here really means forex, lol. So I have eaten some humble pie and decided to look inwards (within Nigeria) to figure out how to have a very ‘green’ but memorable Christmas. In fact, I don’t like white (snowy) Christmases – you know my relationship with cold and winter is not exactly warm. 🙂

Here are a few ideas I have toyed with but still have not had the time or mental space to conclude on – I need help!

  1.    Calabar (again!) – I hear that every year the carnival gets better and bigger, and I think it would be fun to see how things have evolved 5 years later. Social Prefect is planning a trip to Calabar this Christmas. I think I will hola at her ASAP to see if there are still spaces on that trip – they get pretty sold out quickly. Nigerians love a good party!

    Social Prefect Calabar Tour
    Social Prefect Calabar Tour (PC: Social Prefect)
  2.    Obudu Mountain Resort – Still staying in the Cross-River region, I think Obudu might be a great idea. Does the fact that it shares a border with Cameroon make it almost abroad? Lol. I have considered Obudu many times but because I am not a big fan of long trips, I have not been able to convince myself that the extra 3-4 or 5-6 hour road trip after landing in Enugu or Calabar respectively, will be worth it. I hear the cable cars are no longer functioning – can somebody please fix them?
    Obudu Resort (PC: Hotels.ng)
    Obudu Resort (PC: Hotels.ng)

    I hear these babies don't work anymore :-(
    I hear these babies don’t work anymore 🙁
  3.    Inagbe Grand Resorts – Still keeping it ‘resorty’, Inagbe also seems quite appealing. 15mins boat ride from Ikoyi and you are in Lagos paradise. I looked at the video tour on their website and it seems like a decent place with a good mix of fun activities and relaxation options. This might actually be worth exploring. What would make it even better would be to go with a group of loved ones!
    Inagbe so pretty!
    Inagbe so pretty! (PC:Inagbe Resorts website)

    Inagbe again
    Inagbe again (PC: Inagbe Resorts website)
  4. Staycation in Lagos – There is also the option of just booking a hotel somewhere in this Lagos and spending a few days there. It is always nice to have someone else wait on you. With all the concerts and events in Lagos this December, wouldn’t it be great to be able to enjoy the event to the end without worrying about annoying your neighbours when you get home late because your gateman will not hear you honking incessantly?  Around this time, most hotels have Christmas packages so I might be able to find a sweet deal. Now, all I need is the time to go hunting for this sweet deal. Sigh. Friends, please if you know any decent hotel with a good Christmas package, please share with a sister.
  5. Road trip across West Africa – Going by road to some of the neighboring West African countries also seems like a great idea. You get to see a lot of beautiful sights, enjoy the scenery and discover new terrains on a budget! My favorite countries for road trips are Ghana and Benin Republic. I am not sure I would want to drive to Cape Verde sha, lol. If you don’t want to have to explain to policemen at different borders that your car is actually yours (although it carries your father’s name) or that your international driver’s license is legit, I suggest you go with a tour company. They take away all the logistical hassle. All you need to do is show up, doze during the road trip, but please don’t drool! Pictures are unforgiving, lol. For Benin Republic this December, Naija Nomads has a tour between 27th and 30th December. Check them out!

    Naija Nomads goes to Cotonou
    Naija Nomads goes to Cotonou (PC: Naija Nomads)
  6.  La Campagne Tropicana Beach Resort – does this still count as Lagos? If yes, refer to (4) above. If no, refer to (3) above. Lol. The prices though, you will just want to do half-day there! If you know La Campagne prices, then you will understand my next suggestion.
  7.  Village runs – Reconnect with your roots. My last surviving grandparent passed on in June, so this is not really an option for me right now. But wait, even if you don’t have living grandparents, who says you can’t visit grand-aunts and uncles? This is definitely a nice, cost-effective *coughs* way to spend the holiday. Turn it into a culture trip – explore parts of your village/town you never knew existed, ask your older relatives for the history of your family/village and don’t forget to ask them to spook you out with folk tales and legendary stories.

    Horse rider display at Ijebu Ojude-Oba Festival (PC:BISCON)
    Horse rider display at Ijebu Ojude-Oba Festival (PC:BISCON)

Regardless of what we get up to, we must remember 2 things. First, the main premise of this season is GIVING. Gift exchanges are nice, I mean, who does not love Secret Santa? But this is beyond just exchanging gifts. Giving to people who cannot give you anything back in return is extremely powerful and fulfilling. Give it a try. The temptation to the tight-fisted in this ‘not-so-buoyant’ economy is very strong, but don’t let that stop you. It is the liberal soul that will be made fat. Make sure you include a budget line for ‘giving’ as you think about how to spend your 13th month or bonus. Give your domestic staff 13th month bonuses too. Take gifts to the orphanages or old peoples home. If you don’t have the time, give money to people who have the time and have set up programs to meet these needs. If you don’t have time and money right now, surely you have some old baffs/clothes, shoes, household stuff that you don’t really need anymore. No excuses guys!

Second, we must take the time to reflect on the year – the highs, the lows, the lessons learned, the changes that need to be made, the dreams that need to be revived, the risks that need to be taken, etc. I hear there is a new hashtag for this:  #turndowntoturnup. Don’t just use the hashtag, actually write down the things that you need to turn down, and the things that you need to turn up, turn it into a vision board, share with 1-2 people you can truly be accountable to and then run with it. Who hashtag alone ‘epp’?

Okay guys, we need more ideas. What are WE doing for Christmas this year?

Hugs,

Kemi

Finding my inner Picasso at 29 :-)

Hello good people! Now that it’s November (in typical Nigerian fashion, Happy New Month), I can safely declare that birthday season is over. That said, we are open for gifts all day, every day, lol.  This is also a good place to say Thank You again for all the good wishes, cakes, prayers, more cakes, gifts, calls, even more cakes and outpouring of love.

Its raining cakes - halleluyah!
Its raining cakes – halleluyah!

Thinking through how to celebrate my birthday this year was a bit of a task. This is what happens when you’ve done almost everything doable for birthdays. I have thrown house parties, non-house parties (my 21st birthday party was actually held at an event center – a bit OTT, I know *covers face* ha ha), hosted dinners, hosted dessert parties, and all sorts. When I turned 24, I found myself outside the country on a work project and I discovered how ‘peaceful and cost-effective’ birthdays could be when you are out of town.

24th birthday in Dubai
24th birthday – Dubai
25th birthday - Venice
25th birthday – Venice

Quick Tip: It is always a good idea to take the day off on your birthday. It’s really tough to be productive when you are busy answering calls, responding to messages and trying to feed your colleagues. Besides, your tasks/deliverables don’t know it’s your birthday and hey, work needs to get done, so it’s better to be officially away than to be distracted at the office.  The downside is that the cake/gift delivery guys might find it hard to locate your house, lol.

1st birthday party
1st birthday – game face on 🙂

 

5th birthday - game face still on!
5th birthday – game face still on!

Even as a little girl, I always insisted on celebrating my birthdays. I was one of those children who without fail, on their birthday every year, showed up at school with a cake and a crate of soft drinks (or minerals as we called it back then), and showed up at church later in the week on Sunday with another cake and another crate of ‘minerals’ 🙂

4th birthday - with Primary school Headmistress and Proprietress
4th birthday – at school with Headmistress and Proprietress

When I got to secondary school, I celebrated EVERY birthday in a big way (whatever big means in a Federal Government College situated deep in a village, away from any civilization) and birthdays at university were not any different.

18th birthday - mandatory cake pose :-)
18th birthday – mandatory cake pose 🙂
28th birthday - surprise celebration while studying for an exam
28th birthday – surprise celebration while studying for an exam

Now that I think about it, I was happy to spend other people’s money (OPM) on celebrating birthdays in a big way, lol (thank you Mum and Dad) but once I started working and earning, I became more aware of budgets and other constraints. Can I get a witness? Hahaha. Now it makes sense that the last big party I had was my 21st birthday which was just before I started working full-time.

23rd birthday ice-cream party
23rd birthday – Ice cream party (on a budget)

Anyway, fast forward to 2016, I had just gone back to work in September after a year away where I invested all of my savings and did not earn any money, and so, I definitely could not afford to travel on my birthday. So that ruled out any exotic foreign birthday plans  – I know my village is exotic in its own way but naa, lol. At the beginning of the month, I was so sure I was not going to celebrate, and I would just have a nice day at work. But about 10 days to the time, I started feeling that birthday itch and with the countless ‘what are we doing for your birthday’ questions that I was being asked, my brain started spinning.

I wanted to celebrate in a different way. I wanted to do something that would be memorable for me and my guests. I know some of my very good friends who attended my 21st birthday party still have some of the souvenirs we gave out (yes, we gave out souvenirs like it was a wedding, lol – don’t judge me, I was young, lol) but I won’t call them memorable. Besides, souvenirs can’t last forever. Having ruled out dinner, ice-cream, beach party (who has time to even coordinate?), destination birthday party (if I did this for my 29th, what will be left to do for my 30th, lol) and all the regular suspects, I was left with only one option – an art/painting party!

Paint The Night Africa is a company that organizes pop-up sip and dip events – where guests become ‘Picasso’ for a few hours by following the directions of a professional art instructor. The best part is that you get to take your own painting home!!! How’s that for a memorable souvenir?

29th birthday - Hello Picassa
29th birthday – Hello Picassa

I found PTNA on Instagram a while back while I was researching ways to celebrate my bestie’s 30th birthday but she wasn’t keen. I just contacted them, told them what i wanted and voila, we were in business. As I am an ‘ajala traveller’ and I still wanted to trick my mind that we were abroad for this birthday, I chose to have a travel-themed painting. It was a fabulous idea until it was time to paint.

It was all fun and games before we started painting
It was all fun and games before we started painting

I am one of those people who cannot draw a straight line or a circle without erasing at least once. So drawing and painting are not my forte. I would rather sing than paint – and people who know me well know that I’m not quite the singer, lol. What seemed so easy for most of my guests was so difficult for me. I was wayyy out of my comfort zone. I remember feeling so frustrated midway because my painting was not coming out as planned. My own mix of yellow and red did not produce the desired orange and my clouds did not form the right pattern. Yup, as birthday girl, I got to blame the colors and the brush for not cooperating with me, lol.

Halfway through - not looking good :-|
Halfway through – not looking great 😐

I was really getting worked up and then I remembered that we were all there to have FUN! It was not so serious after all – I was not in an evaluative situation and it was okay to have a different shade of orange or my own customized cloud patterns. I got the hosts to play some upbeat music, sat up in my chair, started making jest of other people’s paintings and decided to have a great time. And I did! The night ended on a high note – folks got to sign their paintings and take them home, we took tons of pictures and had a good time laughing at each other’s paintings.

Art Squad
Art Squad
More of the Art Squad
More of the Art Squad

This is what typically happens when you are trying out something new or operating outside your comfort zone. You get frustrated and uncomfortable with not being on your A-game. In those situations, the best A-game to be on is your Attitude game – your positive attitude game. As we learn, grow and progress in our lives, careers and businesses, we will always find ourselves in situations that stretch us and make us uncomfortable. You start a new job and you are no longer the expert in the room. You move to a new apartment and you are the newbie (or JJC as we call it) in the building. You start a new business and you are now the learner on the block.

The best way to navigate these uncomfortable situations is to have the right attitude. Have an open heart, open up your mind to learn, accept that your journey might be slightly different from others’, find reasons to laugh and have fun! In the end, it will be alright 🙂

My materpiece - not perfect but mine anyway :-)
My masterpiece – not perfect, but mine all the same 🙂

Here’s to new adventures and being on our positive A-game at all times!

Kemi

I played a Nigerian Bride In #TheBiggestWeddingShoot Ever

Okay!!! For those of you who follow me on social media, you might have seen my post about my new hobby – modelling. I played the role of the bride in the #BiggestWeddingShootEver, directed by the incredibly talented stylist and jeweler, Gbenga Artsmith, in collaboration with a number of other fabulous vendors (full list below). It even got featured on Bella Naija today.  Mama, I am arriving gradually 🙂 

I think I'd make a gorgeous bride *blush*
I think I’ll make a gorgeous bride *blush*

I have gotten numerous congratulatory messages and phone calls from people I know and people who I have not even spoken to in ages. I am gladly accepting the congratulations and keeping them for the not-so-distant future when it will be actually real. (Baba God, pick up, pick up!)

Disclaimer: I only met the ‘groom’ on the day of the photoshoot, and I have not seen him since then. He was so shy (hahahahaha) but he did a great job. I have newfound respect for actors. Playing make believe is not the easiest job in the world.

Kemi O takes on modelling

Pretending to be sooo happy! Lol
Pretending to be sooo happy! Lol

Why did I do the shoot? I could not let an opportunity to play dress up and get a free photoshoot pass me by, lol. Okay, I kid. I did it because I thought it would be interesting to express a different side of me, the side that likes to act. I did because I was trying to keep my dream alive.

You see, I have always had a love for drama – not TV, but stage. I am called a drama queen every now and again by my close friends. Right from my primary school days, I have always been a member of the drama and arts club. The only person that could see right through my acting back then was my Mum. Mama Kemi for CIA President.

In secondary school, I continued my acting career with the high point being when I played the leading role as Ogwoma in Zulu Sofola’s ‘Wedlock of the gods’. (Fun fact: Zulu Sofola is the first published female playwright from Nigeria). I remember spending my entire mid-term break rehearsing my lines. I remember falling ill with a fever the day of the performance and how I insisted on going on stage regardless. I remember how the fever disappeared as soon as I got on stage and I remember the feeling of fulfillment that overwhelmed me as the curtains fell (okay, they were manually drawn by my classmates) and the audience gave a deafening round of applause. I think I cried sef. Yes, I am one of those people who cry when they are too happy for words!

Behind the scenes
Behind the scenes, feeling like a Princess

I am not sure what happened in University but between classes, tutorials, planning and executing events and trying to look good for the boys (just keeping it real, hehe), I managed to act only once in the 4 years I spent there.

After graduation, in a bid to keep the acting dream alive, I joined an independent theatre house called ‘Dream Play House’ (Ifeanyi Dibia, where are you?). We had big plans and several scripts lined up but between work and life, I managed not to get on stage. In 2010, we worked on a play called “To Love a Ghost” written by Ita Hozaife, but the closest I got to getting on stage was hosting the red carpet interviews. Close enough, NOT!

On the red carpet with Ita Hozaife
On the red carpet with Ita Hozaife

When I realized I might not get on stage anytime soon, I decided to continue to fan the flames of that dying dream by indulging in watching plays at Terra Kulture at least once a month. I don’t even want to calculate how much I have spent on theatre viewings. I remember saving up to watch Lion King on Broadway, Fela on Broadway, and other shows. I am always the first person to go and watch a musical (Saro, Waka, etc) or any other plays showing in Lagos. Every time I sit in the audience at such shows, I am inspired and reminded of my dream to be on stage.  I am not on stage yet – but I will get there. In the meantime though, I know that my life is a stage and everyday I am given the gift of life, I have the opportunity to play any character that I want. I could be Kemi the Consultant, Kemi the Ajala Traveller, Kemi the Aspiring Dancer, Kemi the Coach, Kemi the Writer, and now, Kemi the Model.

This is not my real face, lol
This is not my real face, lol
One of my first attempts at modelling -circa 2012
One of my first attempts at modelling -circa 2012

This photoshoot was my attempt to revive that dream of being on stage. An attempt to rekindle the flames of acting. I figured playing the role of a bride would be quite challenging as I had never been one before. The shoot was fun and it was quite a challenge too. Try looking happy to be with someone you have only just met. Try smiling when your ears hurt like crazy from the pain of gele. Try being joyful when you can imagine your mother’s voice asking you ‘’ta ni eleyi’ (who  is this? ) as she sees the pictures on Instagram (yup, Mama Kemi is on Instagram o, hehehehehe). Try giving the photographer a genuine smile for the 50th time. I really had to overcome my shyness, my fear of what people would say and the random congratulatory messages,  and just give the shoot my best shot! And I think I slayed it, if I must say so myself.

Suffering and smiling
Suffering and smiling

Do you have any dreams that are comatose, lying low or dead? I don’t think dreams die, they might have been asleep for a looong time but they don’t die. Fan the flames of your dreams today. Whatever it takes, keep your dreams alive. Keep your eye on the prize, don’t let your dream die. Step by step, little by little, poco a poco, you will get there. 

Cheers,

Kemi

Credits:

1st outfit: Asooke @ceomaniaalasooke, Makeup @doyinadunfe, Jewelry/Styling @gbengaartsmith, Photography @raremagic_gallery Event decoration @lavishbymichelleevents

Second outfit by @teethreads, Fabric from @remio.fabrics, Lemon green asooke gele @depeju_tribesasooke

p.s – I now know that I will not wear 2 geles (head-ties) on my wedding day. The pain I felt when the second gele was being tied was deep. I didn’t know when I started crying. I wonder how all these brides do it and still smile and look happy. Respect!

p.p.s – Photoshoots take forever!!!!! Why???

p.p.s – No more free photoshoots o! Henceforth, I will be accepting payments in cash and goods. Thank you!

My YALI experience with Uncle Barack and Aunty Michelle Obama in the USA

In 2014, I got an opportunity of a lifetime to hang out with the first Black president of the most powerful country in the World, Uncle Barack and his enthralling wife, Aunty Michelle Obama. Yup – you read that correctly. I got to see President Obama in person, and got a hug from Michelle Obama. No, it was not on Google hangout or via Skype, it was real! Live and direct, in the flesh, with my ‘korokoro’ eyes and actual hands, I saw and hugged Michelle. I am sure you get the point now.

You might wonder how I got this rare opportunity to hang out with one of the most admired couples in modern history who have continued to give us #couple goals year in, year out. You might wonder if I really mean it when I say that spending time with the Obamas was not even the highlight of this experience. The real kicker on my YALI experience was the opportunity of spending 6 weeks with 24 amazing young Africans from 17 countries, and being instructed on matters of public governance at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Minnesota, one of the top 10 schools of Public Policy in the United States.

With my classmates at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Congressman Keith Ellison
With my classmates at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Congressman Keith Ellison

I want to help you stop wondering, by telling you all about this fantastic opportunity for everyday Africans to develop the skills and networks needed to build brighter futures for our communities, our countries and our Africa.

YALI is an acronym for the Young African Leaders Initiative, an initiative launched by President Barack Obama in 2010 to support young African leaders as they spur growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across Africa. Quite a mouthful I know, but a very value-adding mouthful.
The first major programme of YALI which I was lucky to be part of was the Mandela Washington Fellowship, an initiative to bring together 500- 1,000 young African leaders between ages 25 -35, across civic organizations, private sector businesses and public sector institutions for six weeks of academic coursework, leadership training and networking at U.S. universities. The last part of the program, a Summit held in Washington DC, was led by President Obama and other leaders from the public and private sectors across the U.S.

With former U.S VP Walter Mondale
With former U.S. VP Walter Mondale

 

Before I go on, I want to let you know (just in case you did not know) that YALI 2017 applications are currently open on this page here and will close on October 26,2016. There is a LOT of information on the website about eligibility, selection criteria, how to apply, tips to strengthen your application, etc, so I encourage you to go and explore the website. I would have done copy and paste for you but I don’t want to be accused of plagiarism – it’s too early in my blogging career to be entering trouble, lol.

Sometime toward the end of 2013, I heard about the fellowship through a very good long time friend of mine Stephanie Obi (Hi Steph, e-hugs and kisses to you),a beautiful soul and online courses expert who teaches women how to package their knowledge, skills and life experiences into profitable online courses so that they can be free to do what they really love. Trust me when I say that the quality of information you get is closely related to the quality of your network (your people network, not mobile phone network, lol). She knew about my continuous search for personal development programs and knew I would probably be interested so she sent me a blog post link to the advertisement and asked me to check it out.

I read up the information on the website and the very first thought that crossed my mind was ‘naa, they are not looking for people like me. This is for really accomplished and established people doing great things already’. Then I read the questions and the spirit of laziness set in ‘ah ahn, this is too much work please. Aint nobody gat time for this’.  I must admit that I was wrong thinking that way.

First, the Fellowship is not looking for already-made superstars who are making impact in the public sector, private sector or social sectors. No, the Fellowship is looking for young, passionate Africans, who want to make an impact or change in their respective sectors. People who want to be solution providers, people who want to move from whining and complaining, to doing and giving, people who have decided that there is no backup plan for them and so Africa must work and rise to its full potential. The Fellowship is looking for people who have started taking steps (no matter how small) towards their dreams and goals of a new Africa (a new Nigeria or our respective countries), and need some training/education to be equipped for those assignments. The premise of the Fellowship is that the solutions to Africa’s challenges lie among Africans, and the program’s intervention is really about equipping young Africans with the skills, resources and networks they need to bring those practical solutions to life and make change happen in their immediate communities and countries.

The Fellowship is looking for people who will be selfless enough not to keep this valuable experience to themselves but come back home to share the insights and knowledge they have gained with other young people who could not participate directly in the program. The YALI Network is a platform that goes beyond Mandela Washington Fellows and includes a wide network of young change leaders. Essentially, the Fellowship needs YOU!

With classmates outside the Minnesota Legislature Building after a private tour

I finally got over my initial inertia and laziness with regards to completing the application a few days to the closing date. Not cool, if you ask me. I put myself and the ‘poor’ people I selected to be the reviewers for my essays under a lot of unnecessary pressure due to the really short timelines. This is why I recommend you start the application earlier, rather than later. Don’t be like me – be smarter and be kinder to yourself and your reviewers.

I had to take time out to think deeply about the 3 questions (now, they have 6 questions – sorry) and just write out all my thoughts. I had to dig deep to think about all my experiences and begin to write down my thoughts. In my opinion, writing a long rambling essay is easy but trying to make major sense in 150-200 words is not. That said, you will be surprised how much you can uncover when you take the time to dig deep into your past experiences. That seemingly random volunteering exercise you participate in in your estate or on your street, that community outreach project you did in church, that difficult project at work – all those experiences are part of your story. Do not discount them- you will be amazed at how important they can become as you fill out your application.

If you need some more help, there are tons of resources on the YALI website, within the YALI Network, on the YALI Network Nigeria Facebook Page and at the various YALI rollout events happening across Nigeria.

I will not be able to finish this post without talking about a few of the exceptional people I met during my YALI experience. Starting with my amazing classmates at the Humphrey School – the Zambian entomologist working with cotton farmers to empower them, the future First Lady of Zambia who does great work with the Youth and Sports ministry, my long-lost Burundian twin who runs a leadership academy in addition to running 2 airtime businesses, the Cape-Verdean guy who wants to run for Mayor in a few years,(now you all know who I am going to visit in CV), the Seychellen Member of Parliament who schooled me on how laws are really really made, the Swati prince who patiently explained the similarities and differences between South Africa and Swaziland to me, a Namibian beauty queen, my South African champ working on integrated infrastructure that will bridge socio-economic gaps, the Ethiopian scholar who is investing his life to affordable housing, and so many more amazing people that I cannot mention here due to space constraints including my brothers and sisters from the Nigerian contingent. I have very fond memories of my time with these people and a good number of them have remained good friends till date. My kids will have exotic godparents and ‘cousins’ from all corners of Africa.

With some of the beautiful MWF Nigeria ladies
With some of the MWF Nigeria ladies

So, if this opportunity resonates with you and you’d like to give it a shot, get started on it right away. Don’t think you can do it next year – who knows who will be in the White House next year! Act now – procrastination is not only the thief of time, but the murderer of opportunities. I cannot even begin to tell you how many things I missed or almost missed because of procrastination. Deep Sigh.

During your bathroom breaks at work today, actively think on your experiences and start penning down your thoughts on your phone notepad app (please abeg, remember to wash your hands after  and wipe your phone too). Open up that Microsoft Word document or Google doc and start writing. Take it to the Lord in prayer to ask if this is the right thing for you to do (but still apply anyway). Just start your application today! Applications close in exactly 2 weeks on October 26 – delay is dangerous! Grab your copy NOW!!! All the best! Make me proud 🙂

Cheers,

Kemi

p.s – Not every time play, sometimes serious work

p.p.s – I got my first TV interview (and so far, the only TV interview) when I got back from the Fellowship (Pt 1 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYqoYFA3ruI

Pt 2 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0-SVy9vatA

Pt 3 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nAFVinqCzmk

Pt 4 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7kHvtu-s6Y )

 

Kemi Onabanjo’s Journey to 30 Countries Before Her 30th Birthday

My name is Kemi Onabanjo and I am a certified ‘ajala’, or as my more learned colleagues would say, a travel enthusiast.

In June 2016, I successfully achieved a personal goal I set for myself – to visit 30 countries by the time I turned 30. The goal was aptly named Project 30 by 30, and I managed to achieve this goal a good 16 months ahead of time. Folks have asked me a lot of questions ranging from why I set this goal and how I managed to achieve it on a Nigerian passport, to how I funded the project and where I am headed next. So I decided to take a moment to answer all those questions and share the entire experience with the world. Here we go!

Travel mantra
Travel mantra

Why?

I have always been curious about the world. I remember devouring volumes and volumes of children’s encyclopaedias (I guess Google is the new encyclopaedia) while growing up and my parents having to buy new editions as soon as they were released. I enjoyed watching a program on NTA Channel 5 called ‘Children of the World’ where kids from all over the world convened somewhere (can’t remember where now) for cultural and talent displays. There was a little boy from Nigeria who used to play the xylophone and although I used to watch him with a mix of pride and great envy (as I could not play any musical instrument or sing to save my life), it was watching the kids from other countries in their beautiful costumes that gave me the most delight. I loved and still love to play the ‘country and capitals’ game – still played it on the bus ride to Idanre Hills last holidays, and I won, whoop! Sorry, I digress.

Although I was curious about the world, I did not start travelling until I was 13, and being a true Nigerian, my first destination was London, England! It took another 6 years before the next trip happened, and this time, it was to the other destination for true Nigerians – Dubai, United Arab Emirates! I went on both trips with my family and although, they were mainly to visit family and look for bargain deals (again, another hallmark of being a true Nigerian), we also managed to visit some tourist attractions. I don’t think I still have or remember any of the items we bought on those trips, but I remember how I felt when I first saw the pigeons at Trafalgar Square, the still policemen in front of Buckingham Palace, the imposing Burj Khalifa and the breath-taking sand dunes in Dubai. As my eyes widened in excitement every time I saw these things, it felt like my mind also popped open in enlightenment. The thrill from landing in a new country, looking out for similarities and differences with Nigeria, trying out new food (although that took a while) was next to none.

London, England - 2000
London, England – 2000

As soon as I started working and earning money, I started saving aggressively for travel – I even set up a dedicated bank account for my travel-savings. About 6 years ago, I decided to be deliberate about my travel destinations when I realized that my vacations almost always led me to the same spots – London, Dubai and Accra, Ghana. And that’s when I decided to start visiting at least 2 new countries every year – 1 in Africa, and 1 in any other part of the world. About 4 years ago, this goal metamorphosed into the Project 30 countries by 30 – and here we are today! Done and Dusted. To God be the glory! 🙂

Dubai, UAE - 2006
Dubai, UAE – 2006

 

How?

First, I have had the good fortune of having to travel for work to cool countries like Sweden (more cold than cool), Kenya, Cameroon, Tunisia, Brazil, AustriaIvory Coast, Benin Republic, South Africa, USA and Mauritius (dear future husband, you can strike that off the potential proposal/honeymoon locations, thank youuu). On my business trips, I quickly learned the art of exploring whichever city I landed in on the weekends. Sometimes, I deliberately arrive/leave a day earlier/later so I can explore the city, and I happily pay the hotel bill for that extra night because I essentially got a free flight to the country 🙂 I fell in love with some of these countries and I have gone back multiple times to explore other cities within them. I have plans to revisit some of them in the nearest future because there is still so much ground to cover.

(Click on photos to enlarge)

In deciding between which campus of my business school I should spend more time on, France was a more attractive option compared to Singapore, due to the miracle of the Schengen visa and the access it gives you to most European countries. However, the thought of living through winter scared me and I tried going to the Singapore campus but that did not quite work out right. Ultimately though, I can say that braving the winter and going to the France campus paid off big time! In the course of my 11 months in France, I managed to visit 8 additional European countries including The Netherlands (I never counted the many stopovers at Schiphol airport as visiting the country), Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary and Croatia.  All things truly do work out for good for God’s children. Amen, Halleluyah!!!

(Click on photos to enlarge)

Visas – Being a Nigerian passport holder means that I need a visa for a good number of countries – even within Africa. Things are changing though, with more African countries opening up their borders and removing visa restrictions for other African passports. While we wait for that to happen, I have learnt the art of filling visa applications like a pro. I don’t even think about it, whine or worry about it, I just get right straight to filling it.

Quick tip: I have all the important documents scanned and saved in a folder on my computer – passport data page, work I.D. card, pay slips, template letter of introduction from employer, previous visas, even my grandmother’s birth certificate (lol). This makes it easier for me to put all the supporting documents together, print them a day to my interview and just hop to the embassy like a champ. It also reduces the stress associated with visa interview prep, where one is constantly worried about forgetting an important document at home.

I also constantly do a lot of research on visa hacks for that lovely green passport of mine. I am always looking out for countries I can visit without a visa, or where I can get a visa on arrival. You cannot imagine how elated I was to find out that you don’t need a visa to enter Mexico if you already have a valid U.S visa and that if you have a valid U.K visa, you can get a visa on arrival in Turkey. Plus, the fact that I only had to pay US$50 for a visa-on-arrival to get into Tanzania was a huge relief! These seemingly little visa workarounds make travel-life a little more pleasant.

Prison Island, Zanzibar, Tanzania - 2016
Prison Island, Zanzibar, Tanzania – 2016

Funding- Since I am not a trust fund kid (yet), I had to save a LOT to be able to travel. Life is all about trade-offs, so I chose travel over expensive shoes, bag and clothes. I also have the luxury of not having to worry about diapers and crèche fees yet. I saved in Naira and US Dollars. Every month when my salary got paid, I would change some small USD with my ever-faithful aboki and then deposit in my local domiciliary account (not under my mattress o!). I usually printed my USD bank account statements when I was going for visa interviews, as part of proof of funds.

It was frustrating to see that the deposits yielded no interest but at least it was accessible and I could withdraw it whenever I needed it. This habit of changing forex small small came in handy when I began to save for my business school fees.

Quick tip: Open a domiciliary account so you can start saving in USD for your travel fund. International flight ticket fares are usually quoted in USD, so you can pay for your tickets from that dom account. It will be less painful than paying hundreds of thousands of Naira.

If you can get a debit card linked to the dom account, even better. That way you can spend from your dollar card abroad without whipping out a calculator to calculate exchange rates and bank fees every time. This will save you from exchange-rate induced high blood pressure or tension headaches!

The current economic climate does not seem conducive for any forex related transactions now, but this too shall pass. We hope it will not last forever. As soon as this storm passes, open that dom account and start saving in USD.

Flights- For me, this was the biggest part of the travel expense. I love to travel but I don’t particularly enjoy airports or flying, so I try to minimize the time I spend getting from point A to point B. I would rather pay a little extra for a direct flight than have to stay at an airport for hours waiting for a connecting flight and being tempted by the evil perfumes at duty free that keep calling out to me, lol.

In my working years before business school, I always used the same travel agent (who has now become a family friend) because I did not have the time to go online. I would ask the travel agent to give me 2-4 flight options and their prices, and then I would choose the most affordable and time-efficient. When I became a student, and had more time and less money, I booked a lot of my tickets by myself, online – go figure!

Beyond flights, I have also used other modes of transportation to explore more and manage costs. I went on a 7-day cruise of the Greek Isles for my 25th birthday and I got to visit 7 cities across 3 countries – Greece, Italy and Turkey. On my last birthday, I took a train from Berlin, Germany to Prague, Czech Republic. During my last international trip with my best friend and her family, we also took trains from Barcelona to Madrid in Spain, and from Lisbon to Porto in Portugal. Trains are great – you don’t have to take off your shoes to go through security, you don’t have to get there 3 hours before departure, you usually would get a great view of the scenery and landscape, and you can sleep in peace without a seat belt holding you down.

(Click on photos to enlarge)

Accommodation – This is another major culprit in the high travel expense category, and I have tried out a lot of different options in a bid to manage costs. I have stayed at all sorts of hotels (even the 0 star ones), hostels (more available in Europe than in Africa, and the best one I have stayed in so far was in Japan), serviced and non-serviced apartments (great for when you’re travelling with a group), Airbnbs (the new kids on the block which I absolutely love) and even once, I stayed at a colleague’s house who was out of town (this is a good way of getting super cheap accommodation if you have colleagues in other countries). Not every time 5-star hotel, sometimes hostel. However, on my birthdays, I always give myself a treat and stay at a fancy hotel for just that night at least. It’s a not-so-cheap way to get a free birthday cake, maybe some wine, and on some very good days, a free room upgrade! Hotels are usually very nice when it’s your birthday 🙂

Takayama village, Japan - 2016
Takayama village, Japan – 2016

Solo vs Group travel – This one is tricky. I have done both and I definitely prefer to have my people with me on trips. I think that memories are even more beautiful when shared with friends and loved ones. However, the coordination challenge is real. Between weddings, pregnancies and babies, vacation calendars that won’t synchronize, bosses who refuse to approve leave requests, and other unexpected life events, it is very challenging (sometimes impossible) to travel with your full squad. So, I have learnt to be content with travelling with just 1 friend, or joining a group of people where I know just 1 person. My trip to Gambia over the Easter break in 2014 was with a friend and 3 other ladies who were her colleagues from work. It was awkward for like 5 minutes initially and then we became a real crew over the 5 days we spent together. And today, when we see each other, we do warm hugs and try to catch up real quick on life. Now that I think about it, this is actually a good way of expanding your network of acquaintances and people you know.

Banjul, Gambia - 2014
Banjul, Gambia – 2014

Technology – Unfortunately, I am one of those late adopters of new technologies/apps (e.g., I only joined Instagram last November) but once I eventually get with the program, I definitely max it out. I have found some apps and websites that have helped make my travel experience easier in one way or another. My personal favorites are:

  • Yelp – This app uses your location to provide a list of restaurants, bars, cafes, and all things related to food, complete with ratings and reviews. The best part is that it provides directions to your chosen destination, and gives you the option to call and make a reservation.
  • Splitwise – Great for tracking your spending and splitting bills when travelling with a group. You know how easy it is for money matters to scatter friendships!
  • Been – This app helps to keep track of where you’ve been around the world, and it’s simple, yet powerful, visual of the world map helps you see your ‘gaps’ and can be used to draw up your destination wish list.
  • Booking.com – Especially great for alternative accommodation options like apartment-hotels, and they almost always have a deal/discount for you.
  • Uber – This is one of the safest and cost-effective ways to get around a city- enough said!

That’s all folks! I hope with these few points of mine, I have been able to convince you, and not confuse you, that it is great to explore the world through travel!  A lot of my choices of where to go and what to do have been heavily influenced by this project of mine. The moral of the story is this: you have to be deliberate about achieving your goals, travel-related or otherwise. It won’t just happen.  You have to make it happen for yourself, and with a little discipline and a lot of motivation, you can surely achieve it!

“Kemi, where are you headed next?”, you may ask. “What is your next travel goal?” Still undecided, but I have a long wish list of countries that I would like to visit soon. Top on that list are Senegal, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, Cape Verde, China, Pakistan, India, Singapore and Switzerland. Any willing companions and hosts? 🙂

Cheers,

Kemi