What’s the silver bullet of wealth? Isn’t that the question that dominates our lives? Financial security. How do you make enough money so you never have to know or care how much things cost? Never to look at a price tag and gasp? Stress over inflation. Or stand in a queue behind a man with hair that smells of ginger to get into a plane [then rub elbows with another man with elbows that feel like sandpaper]. Or worry if the standing order will go through, if you have paid tax, how long the layover is? Will I get a room with a view in the hotel or a room where I can hear housekeepers laugh over the racket of brooms and buckets? Has school fees been paid? When will it be paid? How will it be paid? Will my medical insurance cover this ache in my prostate? You want to make enough money for rooms to expect you. For double doors to open before you reach for the handle. To be able to have the freedom of choice. When what’s left for you is to waft through life, invisible and capable people tending to your every whim, while you worry about existential ideas like legacy and purpose. And why owls don’t blink.
However, wealth changes people. Some of these folks are repugnant, loud and entitled, demanding to be acknowledged. Others you will never know. They stand in the shadows. They don’t have bodyguards. They drive themselves. They queue in supermarkets. They aren’t on social media, posting pictures of themselves in yachts in Monaco or their latest automobile acquisition. They wear their wealth like you’d wear your spectacles; so absentmindedly that only others draw your attention to it.
I went to interview a man like this. Bereket Goitom. Even his name sounds tycoonish. I’d never heard of him. You’ve probably never heard of him either, I’d bet. I went to meet him at the Royal Tulip Canaan hotel in Kilimani which – it turned out – his company owns, amongst other businesses. It was midmorning, bright light beaming through the large glass windows, soaking the carpet in sunshine. I walked into the restaurant downstairs but there was nobody there that looked wealthy. Mostly they looked like jetset businessmen in their business suits that smelled of suitcases, hunched over their late breakfast/ brunch. I was slightly early, I figured he’d make an entrance later like the big kahuna he is. I settled in a corner and prepared to order a coffee and wait.
A gentleman suddenly appeared at my table and said,“Biko?” He looked like a footballer. Or those trendily dressed coaches and managers by the field during football matches. He was slight and fit and wore skinny jeans and a white cotton button down shirt. He had the face of a guy who looked like he didn’t mind waiting for things. I figured it was Bereket’s right [or left] hand man. The guy sent to fetch writers and the laptop from the car. I said, indeed I was Biko. He smiled and extended his right paw. When he did I remember having the same feeling I had while watching Freddie Mercury smile for the first time in Bohemian Rhapsody – only with better dental structure. “I’m Bereket,” he said as I stood up to shake his paw. His name didn’t sound like you are reading it. It sounded like a ripping tarpaulin.
I wanted to first ask him how one makes a fortune. How does one become wealthy? And none of that rhetoric about spreading your bed, reading two books a month, making eye contact and drinking warm lemon water at the start of your day. Because we all do that and we still queue behind men in airport queues whose hair smells like beetroot. I wanted the soul of it.
He led me outside to the terrace, then he led me farther to Mendefera, a small town in Eritrea where he was born. He was born in the middle of a raging war. Eritrea was fighting for independence from Ethiopia. His father had left for war, joining other men in the frontline. He was left with his siblings and his mom but soon they packed and left for the village to stay with his grandparents. But war swept inland and followed them, soon there were Ethiopian soldiers and gunshots and death right outside their hut. Their mom decided to flee with them. They left everything behind and walked for two weeks to Sudan. He was five. The only thing he remembers from that journey was his mom constantly hiding from soldiers and praying behind bushes.
They arrived in a town called Kassala – built on the banks of Gash River – and settled there in a camp together with other refugees. They lived in tents that flapped in the wind and were so hot during the day it felt like your face was melting. Hordes of women cooked outside on three stones. He joined a school that was sponsored by the Eritrean Relief Association, a humanitarian arm of the Eritrean revolution and financed by international organisations. They sang songs in class. They did math. They played in the dust. The sun set and rose. Then one day his father came back from war.
“It was the first time I was seeing him, which was an odd and unsettling feeling because you know this man is your blood – he looks like you guys but he’s different. War changes men. They can’t come back the same.” His father moved them to a better house in the city where he later joined a UNHCR supported school. As he grew older he started realising that this wasn’t home even though the Sudanese were very hospitable. “You just feel you aren’t a part of them, that you don’t belong. Not belonging challenges your very identity.” He would overhear his parents talking at night, talking about peace and dreaming of going back home. “As a child that keeps you in a state where you don’t fully grow roots where you are, no matter how comfortable the place might be.”
In 1991 the war ended. There was jubilation in the camps. Eriterians danced in the streets and in their homes. In 1995 – after he finished his high school – they packed their belongings and left Sudan for their motherland. “I cried a lot. You are torn between two places; the place you have called home all your life, the place that welcomed you when you were unsafe and unwelcome in your own home, a place where you experienced kindness and forged friendships and then this new idea of home where you belong, to ‘your people’, the joy that comes with that but also the uncertainty.” He says. “So it was one of the most difficult things I had to do. We cried saying goodbye to our neighbours who were also crying.”
It was difficult adjusting back home. “There is loneliness. You want to go back to where you knew as home but now you are here at a place that you envisioned as home but it’s not the same home you had in mind. Everything is so different, it takes time to adjust, a longer time given that now you are older.”
He then joined Asmara University to study civil engineering.
Why civil engineering?
Here is the question that perhaps starts answering my initial question about how one creates wealth, the type that stops you from smelling anyone’s hair in an airport.
“Why civil engineering? Because I wanted to build houses.” He says. He explains why houses, not bridges or ships. When you are a refugee the idea of housing is usually a plastic tent in a camp. It’s one room. You hear the sun in it as well as the rain. You hear everything. As a family, there is nothing like personal space. You all stay in one room which is your bedroom and also the living room. You don’t get visitors and when they come you meet them outside, under a tree. Mostly, you bend going in and bend going out. The kitchen is outside, the toilet is outside, technically you are also outside. You are nature and nature is you. Your tent can be blown away by a strong wind. Or it can burn down if you light a cigarette and fall asleep. “The permanency of a home is lacking when you are a refugee, even when you move into a more permanent house, you always know that you don’t belong there, in that house, events can change at dawn and you will have to pack and leave.
“I wanted to build structures that would bring dignity to people, because a house brings you a lot of dignity, not something that can fly off or be uprooted at any moment.” He says. “At my grandmother’s before we became refugees we lived in traditional huts called Hidmo, these are mud-thatched huts with straw roofs. Humble spaces.”
During university, he joined the National Service, which was mandatory. He also started volunteering part-time at construction sites, getting his hands dirty learning bricks and learning mortar. In 1998 war broke out again, a border war. It was a big war. Lots of people were dying. All able-bodied men were required to join the army. He was able-bodied so he enlisted, not that he had a choice. “The media was full of public service announcements, ‘defend your country, fight for your country.’ Everywhere you saw were messages on paper pinned on trees or walls, ‘defend your country!’” He went into training. Meanwhile, his father fell sick and died in 1998. Just before he was sent to war, Ethiopia and his country signed a peace agreement in 2000. “But the absence of war doesn’t mean peace, you know that?” he poses. “The economy was very bad, no construction was happening. Many Eritreans were leaving the country, deserting because they were soldiers.”
In 2003 he graduated. His mom, who had worked in construction sites throughout, cooking food for the masons, came for his graduation wearing their traditional dress; the zuria. His grandfather accompanied her. They were so proud. There were smiles and hugs and back-patting. He was the first one in the family to get that far. His grandfather told him that the fate of the family was in his hands now. They put all their hope in him.
After graduation, with nothing happening in construction, he and his friend made a plan to flee the country under the cover of darkness, an illegal act. “During this time you never told anyone about your plans to leave the country because you’d be arrested, so most men just left mostly at night and walked to the border, a long journey done in the desert.” He brought the cup of tea to his lips but didn’t sip it “But I couldn’t bear to just leave without telling my mother. It would have devastated both of us. So one morning I told her of my plan. She was devastated. She thought we would surely die out there. She was just crying. She kept asking, ‘how can you leave me? You are the only thing I have.’ It was terrible. Just terrible.”
There was no other option but to leave or stay and perish in poverty. So they sneaked out and found themselves in Sudan. They stayed there for two weeks after which they heard that Dubai was the place where men went to make their fortune because of the construction boom. So off they went to Dubai and started making their bones there. By this time they had started a company, they named Canaan Group because Canaan was the promised land and they planned to get there, brick by brick.
They found a job in a construction firm and got cracking. They got experience. “At that time there were a lot of Eritrean businessmen who had left Eritrea and were doing businesses across Africa and they were looking for civil engineers, so word got to them that one of them wanted to build a hotel in South Sudan.” So they threw their hat in the ring and six months after landing in Dubai they were out, headed back next door.
“Having been a refugee before, it must be easy for you to pack and leave, isn’t it?” I ask him.
“Yes, indeed. We don’t get attached to places. I can leave Kenya and start anywhere tomorrow. That’s a good and a bad thing, this thing of not being able to stay attached to a place.”
They built three hotels in South Sudan (where he eventually met his wife) then the wind blew them to Uganda later ending up in Kenya. The rest is history. Canaan Group is now a conglomerate of ten companies and operates in seven countries.
His mother died in 2016 but not before she had seen his success and not before he had built her her dream house. “You know, my mom was a very sharing person. If you gave her something, she would share it with others who didn’t have. She sacrificed herself for others. When I built her a proper house, with a shop adjacent to it because even though she didn’t have to work, she was a trader at heart, she liked to do business and that small kiosk made her happy. She was very happy, I think.”
“Everytime I see a woman at our construction sites selling food, I feel a kinship with her because that was my mother. So I make sure that she is comfortable because she is also raising children as my mom did under the circumstances. You understand? She isn’t any less than my own mother and she wants the same for her children as much as my mom wanted for us.”
That’s all nice, but how does one become wealthy?
He doesn’t have a straight answer. “Consider this,” he says,” I went to school in a refugee school that was funded by UNHCR, right? That school was kept open and functional because some people who didn’t know, people who never met me and would never meet me donated funds to support this school. I would not be here seated before you had someone not funded that school, no matter how brilliant or driven I was, I still needed the generosity of others, of organisations that supported refugees to help me out of that situation. And people always look at organisations like these without a face but they just survive because individuals supported them. People like me and especially people in leadership like me can participate in helping others through these organisations.”
Still. I didn’t see the answer. Maybe I wasn’t listening enough. But I will get my answer from him end of this month. He will be attending an event called 36 Million Solutions – African Private Sector Forum on Forced Displacement in Kigali on 30th November to end of December. [If you are a socially conscious business leader and is reading this, you can attend it HERE ]
I will also be there, stalking Bereket. I will pull him aside at tea break and whisper, “you can tell me, what really is the secret of wealth?” Then I will report back to base.
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