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Life lessons from Sunday magazine's 2023 profiles

 JKUAT founding VC, Prof Ratemo Michieka. (Courtesy)

1.The disciplined change society for the better: JKUAT founding VC, Prof Ratemo Michieka

Professor Ratemo Michieka ran JKUAT with the same fervour with which he ran his life, from its very beginnings as a university to giving it a sterling reputation – it was the only university of its time that never had the riots that plagued others, and employers virtually waited at its gates to snatch up the graduates it produced, as they were known to be top-notch, excellent employees.

Even as a young boy, he was a stickler for rule-following and discipline. He recalls an incident where he unjustly got into trouble as a prefect in primary school.

 “Those days, teachers would teach their wives in adult education. I was supposed to report everyone who came in late and they would be whipped, so when this teacher’s wife came in late, I reported her,” he says.

The teacher savagely beat him till he was bleeding and swollen in various places, a harrowing incident that he recounts in his autobiography, Walking the Promise.

“He beat me because I had reported his wife to him,” he tells me. “Why did he tell me that those who come in late should be whipped? What was the difference between this student and other students? So other animals are more equal than others. Why was she in my class then?”

That trait was once again evident when he became a banker. The professor did not immediately go to university after his education at Kisii African Government School. After his O-Levels, he qualified to go to forms 5 and 6, but decided to work at Barclays Bank instead.

He was one of “about 30 or 40 people” interviewed by the bank and was one of the 10 who qualified and were posted to Queensway Branch.

“Queensway is Mama Ngina now. I was put in a section called the Intelligence Department. Companies from all over East Africa would apply for loans and it was our duty in that department to verify if they were qualified,” he says.

One time, he says a company from Tanzania applied for a loan and did not meet the required threshold, so he disapproved the request, according to the bank’s procedures, and despite being pushed by a white higher-up, he refused to approve the loan.

“And that’s what I have endorsed up to today. I can’t just sign anything, including certificates of degrees and so on until I have understood it very well in my mind. So that was a big turning point in my life,” he says.

Such incidents, where training and proper procedures are not followed stay with him, but he took the good and learned from the bad.

“What I learned and what I did at that time stayed and made a difference for me for a long period,” he says.

At its height, JKUAT was a shining star in Africa because of him. In his eyes, students weren’t just learners, but also future contributors to society. He wanted them to understand the importance of professionalism, responsibility, and integrity.

Love is what keeps families together, like this family that has been having get-togethers since 1968.

Around 1967, the children of two first cousins met in Nairobi, fell in love, and decided to get married. They had no idea they were related. When they went for dowry negotiations, the families were mortified, and the wedding plans were quickly abandoned. The two eventually married other people, but the incident had left its mark.

Around the same time, a young man from the family came up with the idea of having a get-together so that he could get to know his family. With the near-marriage incident, the family did not need much convincing, and the first get together was held in 1968. They called it the cousins’ party, and they still refer to it as such today.

Despite a few hiccups in the beginning, today, 55 years later, the descendants of Nathan Ngugi and Agnes Nyaguthii number over 500, and the family continues to get together every year.

They call themselves the NguNya family. ‘NguNya’ is a portmanteau, coined from a combination of the words Ngugi and Nyaguthii, the couple that started it all. If there is one thing every member of the family we talked to mentioned at their get-together in August this year, it is that the two loved each other very much, and they passed this love down to their children, who then carried on that legacy.

Their only living child out of the nine, the seventh born, Ruth Njeri (Ruthu), is proud the family still comes together all these years later.

“They brought us up with a lot of love. On Sundays I used to feel like we had a celebration, so much that we would attract other people to our place,” she says.

Even during Covid lockdowns in 2020, when meetings were not allowed, they met over Zoom. Ngugi says that the meetings enable the family to get to know each other, and all the new additions to the family that are born every year. 

“The love is what has made us stay together all these years because even in the original family we loved each other and we didn’t quarrel, so we have taught our children the same thing.”

The family has a coffee table book that is not for sale titled Makinya ma Wendo (A Legacy of Love), and every family has a copy of it so that their descendants and generations to come can learn where they came from and of the love that has kept their family together.

3.One must travel to understand that the world is round: Thor Pedersen

This year, Torbjørn ‘Thor’ Pedersen made history become the only human being ever to travel to every country in the world in one unbroken journey without flying. He has used nearly every mode of transport to travel, other than flights, from boda bodas in Kenya to his longest bus trip, a 54-hour bus ride.

His journey, which he named ‘Once Upon a Saga’, was supposed to take three years, at most four, but it ended up taking him almost 10 years to complete, thanks to the pandemic and other unforeseen issues.

Kenya was his 121st country to visit, and it was here where he proposed to his then-girlfriend, Le Gjerum, a medical doctor, most romantically, on top of Mt Kenya. She had been unaware of the upcoming proposal but luckily, she said yes, otherwise, as Thor told the Standard, it would have been a very awkward trek down the mountain.

Thor’s highs during the journey included, “Getting married the first time, getting married the second time, seeing a rocket get shot into space and realising that’s the first time I’ve ever seen anything leave the planet. That was quite a moment. Being in a storm onboard a container ship, seeing whales jump about, being invited to a wedding in Sudan… so many,” he said in another interview.

He had some very low moments as well, and he told The Standard that he has had his life endangered sometimes. In January 2016, he got into a taxi racing towards the jungle of Congo and ran into three uniformed men who were very drunk and armed, with one of them being extremely vicious.

The threat of being shot or dragged into the jungle was very real but after what was probably the longest one hour of his life, the men abruptly let them go.

He also contracted malaria while in Ghana and during his travels experienced migraines for the first time, migraines that were so severe that they brought him to his knees. “I once reached a point where I was in so much pain physically and mentally and was facing so many problems that I decided I was done with the project and was going back home,” he told The Standard.

Having set foot in all the 203 countries on earth (a little bit more than the 193 UN member states), for a minimum of 24 hours in each, Thor has learnt more about the world, life and human nature than most people would in several lifetimes. While most people in all of time’s existence will never accomplish his feat, a little travel if one is able could one a lot of good, in terms of opening up one’s mind.

An entry he made on his blog Once Upon a Saga, at the beginning of his journey, now sums it up best:

“I could have stayed at home, gone to the library, watched documentaries, spoken to people and explored the World from the comfort of a chair in familiar surroundings. However, loosely translated from the Danish scientist, Piet Hein, I have read: ‘One must travel in order to understand that the world is round’.”

Showing an addict their good side, when no one else can see it anymore, might be the thing that saves them – Ann Mathu, former alcoholic and now Nacada vice-chair

Ann Mathu, former Miss Kenya runner-up, had just been thrown out of church while trying to get born again, seeking salvation because she was tired of the life she had been living. People had been avoiding her, calling her names and her self-esteem was in the dustbin. She had thought church was her remaining solace, but she had had a habit of insulting them every time she passed by when drunk so when got tired of her life as a raging alcoholic and went there seeking salvation, they wanted nothing to do with her.

The church turning its back on her was the last straw and she felt that the only option she had left then was suicide. Her brother found her unconscious and took her to hospital, where her family visited her.

 “When they came to hospital, one of the first questions one of my relatives asked me was, ‘Ulikuwa unataka kukufa uende wapi na umekataliwa mpaka na shetani?’” says Ann.

“So you can imagine you’ve just been thrown out of church and someone tells you that even Satan cannot accommodate you, that ‘utaenda kuharibu watu wake huko’ (you will go and corrupt his people there)’ So where do you stand? Who are you? Who is Ann Mathu now? Not in heaven, not in hell. Nobody wants to see you. Everybody else is calling you names.”

As a result, upon, discharge she attempted suicide two more times and her brother would save her every time. It wasn’t until one person saw the potential in her and saved her life, this time for good.

After a tumultuous life where Ann ended up in the slums with a very thin mattress as her only possession due to paralysing alcoholism, an old friend with whom they had been drinking back then, came looking for her and told her about rehabilitation.

“That’s the person who brought out the good in me. He told me, ‘Ann, you’re still very beautiful, you’re still very intelligent and you can still make a difference in this nation.’,” she says.

“He told me about his journey in rehab, how he came out straight as an addiction counsellor and was then working in a treatment facility. That’s the guy who gave me hope. That’s the only person who saw the good in me when everyone else saw the bad. This is the guy who revived me. Who gave me life. That is how I ended up going to Asumbi Treatment Centre in Homabay.”

She has now had 18 years of uninterrupted sobriety, a journey that has seen her end up as Vice Chair of the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA).

Showing an addict their good side when no one else can see it anymore, might be the thing that makes all the difference in their lives, while also seeking professional help. Ann also advises seeking therapy for yourself and joining support groups yourself if your loved one is an addict.

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