The Unwritten With: DR. WALE AKINYEMI – ON BETRAYAL, HAWKING, AND TRANSFORMING LIVES

I am in Dr. Wale Akinyemi’s home, in Karen.

Outside, the compound is green, and lush, and large.

Inside, the house is magnificent, with warm earthy tones for the decor, interesting black hardwood for the dinning area, and photos of him, his wife and their three, now young-adult children, on the walls.

Nothing about Wale’s home is pretentious. Nothing.

On the mid-morning that I arrive, it’s a busy home, full of life and activity. There are delicious aromas coming from their open-plan kitchen, there are people going up and down the stairs with cameras and lights, and his two sons are also around, going about their own business (their sister is in school).

As I wait for Wale, his wife, Taiwo, serves me a glass of water, and we make chit chat.

When Wale finally joins Taiwo and I in the living room, I stretch out my hand to greet him.

Wale then says, “Yvonne, you’re in my house, and you want to shake my hand? Ah, ah, what is this? We hug around here,” and so we hug instead, laughing.

Wale leads me up a flight of stairs, and we end up on the second floor, where his home office is located.

Dr. Akinyemi is a brand strategist, a newspaper columnist, and a motivational speaker. But the one title he prefers to be known as, is an author. He has, so far,  penned 13 books, and he wants to publish much more.

For a man who is often easily identifiablby his rich baritone voice, and colourful African regalia, it’s interesting to see Wale at home, now casually dressed in an all-black attire.

Sitting on the couch in his office, Wale tells me about: his wild younger days, the tough times he endured hawking books in Nairobi, people who’ve deeply betrayed him, and the love he has for transforming African lives (Especially for those living in Mathare Slums).

On a lighter note, Wale confesses to me, laughing, that his love for Fanta Orange borders on addiction; for sports, he thoroughly enjoys swimming; and his favorite kind of meal, is one that is extremely spicy.

Here’s more, on Wale Akinyemi:

***

Wale, thank you for inviting me to your home…

(Smiles) Absolutely Yvonne. You’re very welcome here.

Your name, “Wale,” what does it mean?

My full name is Akinwale, it’s a Yoruba name, I’m a Yoruba boy.  So “Wale,” is just the short form. But the full name means, “A victor has come home.”

Wow. There’s a lot to a name, huh?

Yes. Certainly. My last name, Akinyemi, means, “I am worthy of being called a victor. ” So, I’m a winner by nature. (Smiles)

Seeing as you’re of Nigerian descent, were you born in Nigeria?

(Nods) Yes, I was born in Nigeria. In my early childhood I lived with my parents in England for a while, and then went back to Nigeria. But I’ve lived in a number of places, including: Nigeria, the UK, the US, and now here, in Kenya.

How did you end up settling in Kenya?

Kenya is a very interesting one. The very first time I came to Kenya, I came as a personal assistant to a pastor who was having a meeting here. And when I got here, something just connected,  and I came back.

And now it’s home…

Now it’s home! (Smiles)

Looking back to your younger days, what were your twenties like?

Wild! (Pauses) Okay, twenties, maybe not too wild, my late teens were the wild years.

How so?

I kept the wrong company. I’d began making money at a very young age, and when you have money without responsibility, you can really just mess things up.

Right. 

And so before I knew what was happening, I was doping, and I was getting into a whole lot of stuff, bad stuff. (Shakes head)

How were you earning the money?

I’m an entrepreneur by nature. I played the keyboard, (He’s an excellent player of it) I played in clubs, I sold firewood, I travelled to the Northern part of Nigeria to bring leather to the South, I did it all. And that’s where the money would come from.

And so how were your twenties, were you more grounded then?

Yes, (Long pause, then nods) I think, “grounded,” is the word. I was more grounded. Primarily because that was the time God found me, and I got saved. That was also the time when I got a deep sense of purpose and destiny.

And your thirties, what where they like?

My thirties, wow, my thirties was my period of learning.

What were you learning?

I was learning how life works. Because I had come from this, very idealistic view of life, that people should treat you well, and that they should be on your side. And I got very disappointed by people around me who I thought I trusted.

Okay?

Then I got to America, I started learning about human relations, and I realised that I had been living in an idealistic bubble.

And I think a lot of people are in this idealistic bubble, which says this is how things should be. But the pragmatic view of life says this is how things should be, but this is how things would work, this is how they are.

When you say people disappointed you, could you elaborate on that?

(Shakes head) At the time, I had placed my trust in some people, and they betrayed that trust. It was my first experience of grand betrayal.

So I wasn’t ready for it, because I thought everyone was going to treat you nicely. I thought that when people pledged loyalty to you they meant it,  and then I was handed a tough lesson to the contrary.

Did you eventually get over that betrayal?

I did. I had to, if I was going to move on with my life.

For those who struggle to let go of things, what would the lesson in this be for them?

Always know that there are people who will like you for who you are; there are people who will like you for what you have; and there are people who will totally dislike you, but because of what you have, they will pretend to like you.

Right. 

Let me tell you where I am at now Yvonne. I’m very generous with trust, and I give people an opportunity, to either prove that they deserve that trust, or betray it. And once they betray it, I shut the door.

Shutting the door, does that mean you cut them off?

Completely.

So, when it comes to such people, there’s no grey area with you?

No. None. No access to me or anything that concerns me. Nothing.

My space is very precious to me. I am very protective of it, and I don’t give anyone any room to contaminate it.

Cutting people off, is that a concept we should embrace more? Especially when it comes to romantic relationships?

You know, I was speaking to a lady while I was working in Tanzania. I think in her head, she thought she was sounding very intelligent, but in actual sense, she was sounding very foolish.

She said, “Oh, I’ll never trust a man again, all men are this, and that,” and she went on and on. Apparently she’d been married and it didn’t work out.

Okay…

And I told her, “Look, my background is in statistics. One man, out of billions of men, is a very poor sample. You cannot base, the whole male race,  on the activities of one idiot, you can’t.”

Alright.

And now she’s holding herself back. Come on, no one should do that.

Having a sense of intrinsic purpose, can that contribute to moving on?

Absolutely. Look, my life is not going to be tied down, by any individual. No individual is big enough, to tie my life down. It’s not happening.

WaleI heard a story once, that you used to hawk items in Nairobi CBD, is this true?

Oh, yes, I used to sell books at Uhuru Park. I’ve been chased by kanjo before.

How long did that experience last?

Mmh, how long did that last actually last? (Long pause) Not too long, it was a brief stint.

How did you get through that season of your life?

I just stayed in it. And because, again, I’m a very pragmatic person, I thought,  I’m young and broke, but I need to feed my family, what can I do? And I did what I had to do.

Was that period rock bottom for you?

(Nods) It was. I mean, I’ve actually had a number of rock bottom moments, but that was definitely one of them.

That’s incredible Wale. Why do you think a lot of young people don’t have that kind of grit?

Oh my goodness, young people, (Shakes head) that’s a problem right there. Everyone wants to make it, but no one wants to start small.

Right.

There’s a gentleman who wanted to work with me a while back, and I said sure, it’s possible.

So I called him the next day, at 9.30a.m, and he was still in bed. I hang up and I said it’s not happening. I don’t understand, how can the sun wake up before you? Young people. (Shakes head)

Wale, you’re known to be an expert on a lot of things: a brand strategist, a personal branding expert, a motivational speaker, and an author, do you enjoy all these titles?

No. (Laughs) I first saw myself being called a, “Motivational speaker,” on a Kenyan newspaper. And I was so confused. (Laughs) I didn’t understand what that even meant.

What would you prefer to mainly be known as?

An author! (Broad smile) Because being an author points and speaks to what I love doing most.

Alright, let’s talk about that, writing. How many books have you written so far?

13. But I want to see if I can somehow get to write 100 books, in the next three years.

100 books? Wale, because 13 is not enough already?

No. It’s not. (Laughs)

As a writer, do you have any writing rituals?

No, not really. But I have something called TTR (Thoughts To Remember), so when I have an idea, I take out my phone, and put it in the TTR, in my phone’s notebook.

I usually also go to bed at around 9p.m, and wake up at 2.30a.m to write.

2.30a.m? You work when everyone else is asleep?

Yes. 2.30a.m. It’s when I’m most creative. It’s also very quiet. I love it.

Is this a creatives’ thing? Where many creatives do things their own way?

(Nods) I think so. (Smiles) My wife keeps telling me, “There’s a thin line between insanity and genius, and I don’t know where you lie?” (Laughs)

I heard you ask once while you were on a panel, “Who wants to be normal?” Could you speak more on that, on the importance of fighting against the need to fit in, and not being conventional if one can help it?

There’s something I call the National Average Level Of Thought. Where people for example think, oh, this is not possible in Kenya, oh this, and oh that. People have been saying that, and yet, companies have come to Kenya and done marvelous things.

As long as you subject yourself to the National Average Level Of Thought, you’ll live an average life. And the human life was never meant to be average. If being unconventional will make you more impactful and successful, do it! Don’t settle for average.

So for instance, if one is able to work at night, and they’re most productive then, should they just do it? Regardless of what everyone else around them thinks?

(Nods) Absolutely. However, for a lot of creatives, they don’t have the luxury of not working 9-5, which is unfortunate. But this is why I also have something I call Progressive Rebellion, I think we need to slowly rebel against some of these things.

Are writers born, or are they made?

Oh, that’s a great question. That’s an interesting question (Long Pause). I think anyone who has a story to tell can write. The problem is that we don’t value our stories, we value other people’s stories.

What, in your opinion, is the number one skill one must have, in order to excel in writing?

You have to have an ability to see what others don’t see. You must be able to see beauty in what nobody else can see.  You have to be able to see and hear beyond the obvious. That skill can make one an exceptional writer.

Okay, and what would your top advice be, to an aspiring writer?

Just keep writing, and keep putting it out there. I used to write for the Nation, and my writing on that column is what opened so many other doors for me and escalated everything. Just. Write.

Working for experience and or exposure, would you recommend it, or not?

Look, how exactly is anyone supposed to know what you can do? You have to show people what you can do, so that they can know, see, and then pay. When I was starting out in consultancy, even I did it, I worked without pay. There’s no short-cut.

Right.

The other day, oh Yvonne (Laughs), these young guys approached me. They wanted to create something for me, something to do with a website. I listened to them, and then I said okay, I’d like to see a demo.

Okay?

When they came to me, the first thing they did, was to hand me a piece of paper, with a bill of three million Shillings. (Pause) I said, “This meeting is over,” and that was it, I walked out. Yvonne, what is that?

I’m speechless.

(Shakes head) A lot of young people are driven by money alone, and it’s quite unfortunate. If you do great work and you do it well, eventually, someone will pay. Always remember, money follows value.

Wale, could you talk to me about the importance of authenticity, in relation to success?

That is the key! Authenticity is the master key.

A lot of people are trying to be other people, how could you possibly succeed like that? How? The ability to be authentic is such a beautiful, liberating thing. Stay authentic.

And, failure; how does one bounce back from a career stumble, or failure?

I’ve found that success is the sweetest form of  revenge. I always say, if you fail in one area, go and succeed in another. Just do well, your critics will eventually keep quiet.

Wale, what are you most afraid of?

Irrelevance.

What makes you really sad?

When any member of my family is not happy about something.

And what makes you really happy these days?

As I mentioned earlier, I’m very entrepreneurial, so I’ve handled money, but nothing makes me as happy as when I see the transformation of my children in Mathare. Nothing.

(Leans forward, speaks softly, almost whispering) Sharon who was lured into a gang at 16, now transformed. John, a former gangsta who was imprisoned, now transformed. Mike, who had a rough childhood, lots of rage, and burned a house down, now transformed.

Yvonne, that! That is such a joy I can’t explain. For me, that’s more fulfilling than seeing a million dollars come into my account. (Leans back)

Any last words, Wale?

Be authentic. Be you. Everyone else has been taken.

Also, one of my philosophies is, those who live ready, never have to get ready. So, I’m always expecting the next big thing to happen, but I’m always prepared for it.

 

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