"So, I'm pretending that I'm an editor passing a note to a CEO somewhere, bored out of their minds and need more humor in the office. I'm definitely a mix between Greta Thunberg and Trevor Noah, so yes I am funny but I get the work done. I hope this ages well."
I once stumbled upon a LinkedIn article about how living abroad can bring about a clearer sense of self. As I delved deeper into the article, it felt like I was peering into a crystal, and every word resonated with me, causing my heart to pound with every clear truth I read. It was a relief to know that I was not alone in feeling restless and suffocated in a familiar environment.
I have always felt a certain restlessness, and I often find myself choking up whenever I am faced with the end of a pursuit. "Is this it?" I would ask myself. Yet, even in the depths of the Swedish winters, there is a certain warmth that I feel whenever I hear Steve Kekana sing, "All I need, is right here in Africa". It is a reminder that my roots are still firmly planted in Africa and that no matter where I go, it will always be a part of me.
So what is causing this restlessness, you may ask? Trust me, wearing thermal wear is not something I would do willingly unless I am scaling a mountain.
As an African, pursuing further studies is what we do with big dreams. I left my big, cozy family, the sun, the endless savanna, and even my precious goat, Daniella. And let me tell you, keeping pet herbivores is a lot easier because they don't have separation anxiety. It is also common in the African household to get a sermon about education roughly at every meal, with hardly any talk about success from being a creative, which is kind of sad. And free will? Forget about it. Free will doesn’t work ordinarily with African parents. Imagine if I interjected my African mum by defending my dreams?
Initially, my career aspirations revolved around archaeology and wildlife conservation. However, I couldn't shake off the feeling that these fields were reserved only for the Africans of European descent, and I didn't belong to that category. My parents, who didn't have the opportunity to attend university, advised me to opt for a more practical and commercially viable degree such as business. Although I understood their rationale, settling for a degree in business felt like settling for my least favorite option. I felt that the market was already saturated, and the prospect of succeeding in it seemed daunting.
But eventually, I pursued the course that I preferred over a business degree - International Policy and Diplomacy. I mean, I wanted to change the world, and I couldn't do that without understanding the world order. Then, I pursued something even more personal - Tourism Destination Development - in honor of my family members who have served in the industry. Out of six members, five of us have worked in the industry.
The industry felt comfortable and homely, and my "baby shark" moments were endless films on "Londolozi" and "National Geographic". My grandfather was a wildlife ranger and hunter, my dad was a safari guide, and my mother used to work as a reservation specialist for a Safari Air charter company. But I was interested in having a deeper understanding of tourism behind the scenes. It's very much intertwined with culture and history, and this mix tends to hold a lot of historical details and a deeper understanding of the people, their land, and the subsequent power struggles that come with such encounters.
So, I'm definitely the unique blend of all these professions. And because I'm a hard-wired radical, I make things interesting by asking if the space occupied by Africans in tourism has evolved post-colonization. It's a question worth pondering.
Crafting a career in the tourism industry was my goal, but as fate would have it, I found myself at the mercy of a dreaded creature known as the "Job search." Just like in any fairy tale, there always seems to be an ogre lurking somewhere. Despite having three academic degrees under my belt, I soon realized that the job search was not going to be a walk in the park… more like a walk in Jurassic Park.
Recruiters, my knights in shining armor, advised me to tweak my resume, but even after endless revisions and damning down my qualifications, I still found no luck. That's when the King of job searches, LinkedIn, stepped in with advice to find my dream company and reach out to their employees. I was bombarded with terms like ATS, Boolean search, and interview tips, not to mention the endless cover letters and rehearsals showcasing my versatile academic work for every job I applied to.
Driven by the desire for something different, I moved to Sweden for the hope of a better career. As African expatriates, we often face the reality that our first job with our impressive degrees may not be a formal one. While these roles may provide a means of survival and hold their own level of dignity, it can be a shock for many Africans who compare these jobs to those in their home countries. It's true that these jobs can help clear your bills, but there is something else at play here. In order to secure what Africans refer to as a "career job," it takes a few years of eating sand before you can secure a career job. Luckily, there are no hierarchies in Sweden, and that is actually fantastic.
The term "African ex-pat" can carry a lot of weight, especially in Europe where people tend to see you as just another immigrant rather than an ex-pat. It's a bit of a funny-sad situation and you can laugh because I am too, but it can be challenging for people to understand the distinction. To simplify, think of it as being an economic immigrant, which has a less negative connotation, but it's important to acknowledge the difference.
Regardless of these complexities, LinkedIn is the go-to platform for job seekers and professionals alike. It's where we go to showcase our achievements and connect with others in our field. We might see updates from “Sarah”, who landed her dream job at Google and feel the pressure that perhaps you need to take a premium Linkedin course to be more noticeable to recruiters, perhaps even write a sappy story like, “my visa is about to expire and I need a job to get a new visa”... “please don’t ignore this post”, It’s not even a mockery its just facts of the job search life. Swedish Linkedin is about asking a connection whether they are up for some ‘Fika’ at some Espresso joint to have a chat and convince them you’re personality is cool enough for a job.
The job search process has changed significantly over the years. In the past, my parents could simply respond to a newspaper ad and secure a job without a degree. I doubt I will be missing the job searching years. The contrast between then and now is truly staggering. However, it's important to maintain a childlike wonder and go with the flow. Embrace the things that make you unique and write authentically, like this witty piece. Don't try to conform to everyone else's expectations - leverage your differences to stand out in your career.
Job fairs had become the new parties, but I had always struggled with interviews. Companies were hiring based on cultural fit, which added to my anxiety. I lacked the ease I normally had when decoding a Game of Thrones episode. Being an awkward newbie, I often felt frustrated because it took me a while to feel a sense of belonging, and only then did my English sound intelligible beyond that of an elementary school student. Even though many Africans are trilingual from birth, I sometimes found myself at a loss for words.
Living in Sweden taught me a lot about myself. Interacting with people from different cultures allowed me to study myself and gave me a renewed sense of pride in my own culture and my values. I was happy that my culture was able to help me adapt well to the Swedish scene. Making friends was not easy, but I remained unapologetically myself.
The interview processes were often lengthy and despite feeling confident in my ability to execute the job descriptions I saw on job posts, the companies frequently opted to go with "an internal candidate that was referred to them". In essence, the job market in Sweden relied heavily on references. Failing the last interview with HR was not something I wanted to repeatedly discuss with my mother, as I found myself asking her, "Do you think I have a great personality?" to which she would inevitably answer yes, being my mother. I knew I could articulate myself better than I did in interviews, but perhaps the pressure of making a good first impression or aligning with the right interviewer had yet to come. Or maybe, I could excel in an interview over a glass of wine - nothing seems impossible when searching for the perfect candidate. It was essential for the recruiter judges if a job seeker will act accordingly in office parties.
The next hurdle is P.
P stands for “Personnummer”, which is essential for any aspiring African ex-pat hoping to establish themselves in Sweden. Without this crucial identification number, you'll be nothing more than a glorified tourist. Even if you do manage to enter the country during a Covid ban, you won't be welcome within Europe if you're from a "no mask" country. So it's just you and your elusive job, with little chance of success. You'll have a better chance of spotting a disgruntled middle-aged Swedish man shouting at a moose in the forest to scare it away while picking berries.
So what exactly is challenging the African ex-pat? You don’t speak Swedi… not in that short period of course but I’m getting there, it will only be my 5th language. Fortunately, there are plenty of companies in Stockholm that operate in English. But what about internships? Sure, but they're not always paid. The United Nations might love that, but it's not economically viable for most of us. That's where Jobbsprånget comes in. Or does it? You'll need to register with your personal number or coordination number, What?! No one told me how important it was to have these numbers. It's laughable now, but I've had to take several seats in this Expat 101 class.
It's unfortunate, but a European expat with average education will almost automatically be in a managerial position if they apply for a job back in my home country. International experience is preferred over local degrees. However, getting an office job in Sweden with overwhelming degrees is a journey equal to the revolution of the earth around the sun. My African people comforted me by touching my shoulders saying, "It's around the corner, it's coming." I'm a pessimist just so that I can manage to read the email that starts off with, "Thank you for your application, but we have decided to move forward with more qualified candidates."
Shall I use my certificates to light a fire and make a sacrifice in the forest for Odin? Am I manifesting this wrongly? You can laugh in secularism, but the ancestors are as important to Africans as "Cocomelon" is to a toddler. So what happens when you've spent your adult life managing reject letters? You become professionally stagnated, and no job makes any sense anymore. An existential crisis ensues. Some of us are sure of ourselves and where we belong, but the universe has just not come to terms with our audacity of being sure. Or perhaps we are still learning. No, not learning to code, because someone has to tackle social and environmental issues. The best tech work I can do so far is geographic information systems, but I am open to anything. Yes, you can laugh at that too. I personally identify as fun, and I'm just laughing as I write every sentence.
Now it's about fighting tooth and nail to be great for the company culture without feeling like a diversity hire. Fighting to be as good as the locals (not language-wise, though) and to be competent where it matters. You know, to get the job done and spread all the awesome transferable skills that I have from studying "The Cuban Missile Crisis" and "Managing and Interpreting World Heritage Sites." I love to learn. If I teach myself code now, I will feel like the medical doctor who became a Navy SEAL and eventually a NASA astronaut. Since an interview can barely measure humor, unless of course, the interviewer's cat wafts its tail on their face, I have to wonder if bringing Daniella the goat to the interview would help me get the job.
So, I'm pretending that I'm an editor passing a note to a CEO somewhere, bored out of their minds and need more humor in the office. I'm definitely a mix between Greta Thunberg and Trevor Noah, so yes I am funny but I get the work done. I hope this ages well. More and more companies like Alva Labs say they are, ‘hiring people and not CVs’ and I cannot wait to see this talk, walk.
The number of Alva Labs tests I have in my trophy closet is hilarious to look at. The interviewer always asks, ‘Do you think the test results are accurate? I respond with ‘Oh absolutely’! Once the reject letter comes in I often wonder if I was too enthusiastic about how I answered their questions. In Swedish reality, even though I am not really a ‘yes man’, on the test I am 100% agreeable because the Swedish unwritten culture rule dictates that you should avoid conflict for the love of the 7 gods and baby deers. I figured I could write because my therapist (the small voice in my head) said that my wit might find a home on Linkedin because they introduced a laughing emoji . Companies hire people and not CVs and they are now looking for people that will bring humor to work, so they say.
Now let me take my mental health walk that I despise even though the sun is out and the air is getting cooler with beautiful changing colors of autumn and murderously loud seagulls. This article is a dedication to all my Expat's Job Journey comrades to cheer them up in the foreign lands of Odin. And yes, I did get inspiration from watching TikTok, like every other millennial, and if it turned out to be a loss, I’ll toss it into the work reject folder that most of us now have in our Gmail accounts. Laugh a little because Winter is Coming and we will be chewing vitamin D gummy bears and omega 3 supplements to stay sane and melanistically pale. Now to whoever is hiring the funny people in the office, my non-negotiables are negotiable, rotten fish (“surströmming”), jam on pancakes, bitter coffee without sugar every 5 minutes, a work permit that takes 9 months to get from the time of application to only be valid for 3 months and to pronounce Arbetsförmedlingen eventually. I volunteer as a tribute.
Did you enjoy the read and would like to connect and talk about similar experiences or for networking purposes? I am happy to connect.
/ Njeri Mundati (original article written September 2022)