Lebanese national, Mohamad Khechen, who is the managing director of Zen Construction and has lived in Nigeria for 16 years shares his bittersweet experiences with Damilola Oyedele
He seemed at ease as he welcomed this reporter into his Life-Camp, Abuja, office. Was he in the office on a Saturday because of work or, like many expatriates, to pass time? “No, no, no, I have a lot to keep me occupied weekends. I go to the outskirts; I visit friends. I also go to Wuse and other markets myself. But we are doing some renovation work here in the office. You can see many of my staff members are here,” he replied.
Meet Mohamad Khechen, a Lebanese, who has been fully resident in Nigeria for about 16 years after stints in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Khechen is a civil engineering graduate from the American University in Beirut.
He first lived in Kaduna where he explored the city’s interior to discover the world of Makossa dancers. “It was not hard at all for me to adapt here. I started driving within a few days of arriving in Kaduna. I used to visit the interior parts of the city where they do Makossa dances. I used to be the only white-skinned person there; but I was never afraid,” he said with a huge grin and added that although he came to Nigeria on account of a job offer with a firm, he now considers it home, with Kaduna as his hometown.
“Africa has always been interesting to me; my family has been in Guinea Bissau and Senegal for past generations. I grew up in Lebanon, but we had African friends of my father always coming to visit and staying sometimes up to weeks. I also love African art. So when I got the offer, I saw it as a chance to better discover Africa and be exposed to the art.”
Now, he lives in Abuja, where he started Zen Construction a few years ago. He however often visits Kaduna to relive the old times and visit friends. He cites the similarities in Lebanese and Hausa cultures as the reasons he adapted fast to life in Nigeria. He also finds kinship in the Igbo’s business savvy.
Not one to be cooped up in just familiar territory, he has explored many cities in Nigeria by road: Kaduna, Kano, Jos, Bauchi, Katsina and some by air - Lagos, Port Harcourt, Benin. He recalls his experience in Bauchi visiting the Yankari Game Reserve with a laugh. “We had booked accommodation at the Games Reserve, but when we got there, it was not reserved and there was no space. We had to go and stay in Zaranda Hotel, but there was no air conditioning and it was extremely hot at that period. But it was worth it because I saw live elephants for the first time ever and I experienced the spring with the constant 31 degrees temperature.”
With fluency in Arabic, English and French, he did not quickly grasp the accent here, but now he has started to understand the Hausa language. He however fears that learning to speak Hausa would not be an easy feat in a contemporary city like Abuja where he only gets to communicate in English.
He gets to pursue his love for African art though; he has visited the popular Benin sculptor, Reuben Ugbine, just to meet with him. He is also a coordinator for Nigerian artists and has become good friends with many of them, exchanging visits and getting to know their families.
What does he consider the recipe for integrating better in Nigeria? “When people move here, I advise them not to stay at home, but to branch out by themselves. The people here are amazing; go to the local market by yourself to get your own things. Even if you do not make the best choices initially, you would eventually do better. It would teach you a lot of things, help you get comfortable and at ease.”
Khechen goes to the markets alone and even has specific traders he buys from. He has also become good at bargaining Nigerian style, but does not haggle very much with his “customers”. He however still compares prices from time to time to ensure he is not getting the shorter end of the stick.
“Nigerians are happy people with good hearts; do not shout at them though or lose your temper. Just communicate nicely and you earn their respect. I take my time to explain instructions to my workers, we respect each other and now we are like family. You can see some of them here on a Saturday even though it is not a working day for us. On days I have to work late, they stay around and help, without asking for any extra pay,” he added.
Zen Construction has therefore adopted the practice of getting its staff trained and educated. Charles, an employee who was good with figures and as a store keeper (who just reeled his figures offhand) was encouraged, first to enrol in a computer school and later at the University of Abuja. The company allows him to work part-time so that he could study part-time and earn his degree in accountancy. There are others like Charles who is enrolled in computer programmes at the expense of the firm.
Khechen now feels an affinity with Nigerians and has stopped noticing the differences. He recalls an experience in Canada where he needed to conduct some transactions in a bank. “Among the staff who attended to people, one of them bore a name tag bearing Wale. I asked if he was Nigerian, and the person I asked said she did not know, but she knew he was from Africa. I went to him to transact my business. Automatically, there was a sentimental attachment,” he recalled.
Sadly, it has not been smooth sailing. The firm took a big financial hit two years ago when it purchased two plots of land in Lagos for the construction of its branch offices. Khechen was excited at the prospect of expansion. Unfortunately the land deal turned out to be a swindle and the firm is yet to recoup its loss.
It was big shock and Khechen feared for the survival of the firm, but he eventually cooled down and accepted that although a few are evil, a majority of the people are wonderful.
He was particularly pained because he had come to believe that he was so integrated into the system that no one could swindle him. He closed his businesses and offices in Lagos.
“I do not believe in negative things, but maybe it was a sign from God, and now I am extra careful. I am still alive, I did not die,” he said philosophically.
Some philanthropic projects of the firm also suffered setbacks. Its NGO named MY Foundation supports education. Also the help centres that were about to start in Abuja at the time were not able to. But his good experiences which are many have helped to ease the pain of the few bad ones, he said, with a determination to continue his life here.
Born in Lebanon into an average family where reputation is the most important thing, Khechen has adopted the philosophy that “anything worth doing at all is worth doing well”.
His younger brother moved to the country five years ago and is starting not just to understand Hausa, but to speak it. His mother is also about to visit. Perhaps with him, a new generation of Khechens in Nigeria has been born.