The Making of Upendo

The making of Upendo

MyStory

My journey to Upendo began a long time ago, though I only realize it now.

I wanted to create an environment that would satisfy a traveller like myself—someone looking for the comfort of a home as beautiful inside as its blissful surroundings. An eccentrically furnished, artfully serviced, chic, modern haven—right on the beach!

In retrospect, I realise my whole journey with Upendo was also about spiritual and emotional growth. I went from total financial independence to complete vulnerability, but I never lost faith in myself (except perhaps on a fleeting Sunday afternoon, eight months after arriving here). I always believed I would make it happen. I always believed and knew from experience that hard work pays off. I never doubted I’d find my feet.

Still, I could never have guessed Upendo would become what it is today. It has grown organically. Our stunning home is rooted in love and support, faith and connection—thus the name Upendo, which means love in Kiswahili. It has been my blank canvas to create what I will through food, fashion, art, design and people—and that’s the best feeling in the world.

 

My path to Upendo truly began with my own self-development, when my dreams and creativity took shape.

I was born in Nairobi, Kenya to Indian parents. They, too, had been raised in Africa by Indian parents, but were born in India. They moved for the family jewelry business. When I was six, the political situation in Kenya forced my entire family to emigrate. We had to leave everything behind—factories, workshops, businesses—and flee to the UK to start a new life.

Eleven of us crammed into a two-bedroom council house in London. Later, my father would separate from the extended family group and strike out on his own. The sole breadwinner for his wife and five children, he had to be disciplined. And he was.

While employed as the manager at a well-known jewellers, he also started his own business. He held those two jobs in tandem for years, and I worked many a late night by his side. Like his father, he believed in working for himself. I guess it runs in the family…

"My journey to Upendo began a long time ago, though I only realize it now."

In 1995, I graduated high school and went on to college. I loved the process of learning. I loved the power it gave me—the confidence. College was also an escape for me. (Think “Bend it Like Beckham.”) My time there gave me freedom of expression, creativity, and friendship. Like many, I began to really understand myself there.

It was in my early twenties that I truly spread my wings and learnt to take control of what I wanted for myself. I enrolled in a business degree in North London without telling my strict orthodox parents. I put myself through university, as they would never have supported it. After all, why did I need more than a high school education when they would be carefully selecting a wealthy suitor for me?

My years at university consisted of many different jobs, very little sleep, and constant travel across London. My university was at one end of the city, my jobs were all over, and we lived somewhere in between. It was a difficult time, but it taught me how to structure myself and develop a drive for what I was determined to do. I’m grateful for it now!

After I completed my degree, I started looking for work. My ambition and dreams had always been in fashion. I loved fabrics, colors, interiors—everything about that world. (I still do.) Growing up, I used to design a lot of my own clothes, and my mother would make them up for me. With five kids in the house, we couldn’t afford to buy clothing from the store. While at the time we thought it was an unfortunate situation, I realize now that it was such a blessing.

After four years in the fashion industry, however, I grew disheartened. When an opportunity presented itself, I made the move into media. The vibe and the buzz of the industry excited me. It was cosmopolitan, high energy, hard work—all the things I thought I would get from fashion, but never did. It was, of course, brilliant skills development too and laid the foundations for my professional confidence.

From my position at Turner Broadcasting, I was headhunted into investment banking due to my exposure to cutting-edge technologies at the time. For a girl whose dreams were in fashion and fabrics, the last thing on my career list was banking and computers! However, I knew that I needed to make a decent living if I wanted to eventually follow my passion for design. I spent fourteen years in the industry—four at NatWest, and ten at Deutsche.

It changed my life, but it was never meant to be forever.

I was blessed in my career. I took every opportunity, worked incredibly hard, and gained a great deal of knowledge and experience. I traveled a lot. I collected art. I ate at incredible restaurants. I rubbed shoulders with fascinating people. By the time I left Deutsche, I’d had various key positions in a global investment bank. I’d been with the bank for ten years, a key player in multi-billion dollar programs whilst working for the COO office, as well as many others.

But ultimately, it wasn’t really me. It was brilliant—I enjoyed every moment, and I’m so thankful for what I’ve had—but it didn’t satisfy me at my core.

I took a little time to be still and figure out what I really wanted. I had reached an inevitable glass ceiling in my career. It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened, because it woke me up. I realized I’d been fourteen years in investment banking, and I had to take stock of what I really wanted to do.

I asked myself some important questions and reached some key conclusions: I was done with corporate life. It was time for me to go off and do something for myself. The question was what.

The answer came the following year when I booked a long weekend in Tarifa, Spain that completely inspired me. I met a wife and husband team who had taken over an old, nine-bedroom house and created a stunning bed and breakfast. They pursued their passion for art while their business sustained them. I thought that was magic—and I realized I wanted to go back to my creative roots.

I believe there are always signs in life. The very same signs had already gifted me an amazing career, and now it was clearly time for me to come back to my real passions.

The wheels started turning. I had briefly visited Zanzibar before, and I’d always wanted to go back and see it properly. There was something captivating about it. Well, that chance came in 2006, when I needed to use up my annual leave. I wanted to vacation someplace beautiful—a gorgeous beach to take myself and a good book. And I remembered Zanzibar.

I booked a two-week vacation in Bwejju, and after just four days I found myself looking at land. The rest is history. After that first day of looking, my gut told me it was the place for me and my dream.

I would come back to the island nearly every month for the rest of that year, until I found the place I now call home.

"Fate has its secrets, though; sometimes you just have to believe in it."

In January of 2007, I found the land on which Upendo sits today.

The minute I saw it, I knew it was the right place. Something spoke to me—maybe the gorgeous view I could never tire of.

By April of 2007, I’d paid my deposit and was looking to leave my job. In May of that year, we had the financial crash. I’d planned to sell my apartment in London and take the equity to start my project, but my dreams suddenly seemed pretty hopeless, as selling was impossible.

Fate has its secrets, though; sometimes you just have to believe in it. I told myself, “If this is meant to happen, I’ll find a way.”

Sure enough, through the love of my family and friends I did find a way, and it all came together. (Thankfully, I was able to pay most of them back later that same year.)

We say here, “The island decides if it’s going to like you or not.” It has its own personality. Many people don’t stay, because they can’t handle the intensity.

When I started this project, I didn’t know anybody here. I came alone, myself and the workmen. I didn’t speak Swahili. Yet, I carried building materials myself in my pickup truck. Every nail, every piece of wood, every piece of furniture—I have personally transported, touched, designed, and managed it. There’s no other way here. You are in every element. So, I am in every piece of Upendo.

Zanzibar is not an easy place. Its people are both incredibly generous and particularly challenging. There were immense risks at the beginning of this project, and extraordinary moments of hope and triumph.

In December of 2009, the villa opened for business. That first season, my father had an accident and passed away. I owe the discipline and work ethic in my life to him. The values he and my mother instilled, I believe, shaped my life dramatically. I learned early on that without putting in hard work, I wasn’t going to get anything out of life. My friend covered for my first set of guests while I went to India with my family for his funeral.

We have since overcome countless other hurdles—emotional and practical.

So when I speak about my journey to Upendo, people always ask me the same question: What made you do it?

I think this was the journey I was supposed to take. I never planned it, and perhaps that’s the secret. That’s how I managed to get here. Had I thought too much about it, I may never have followed my dream. But having accomplished so much in my life, knowing that I could work as hard as anybody else—I knew I could do anything. I still believe that.

This has been my unique journey to Upendo—to love and passion and a meaningful life—and it couldn’t have happened any other way.