Dr Mercy Mwangangi is easily the most visible face in coronavirus briefings held outside Afya House.
The night before Mercy Mukui Mwangangi was appointed chief administrative secretary in the Health ministry, she was weighing her options on three lucrative health economist job offers.
The following morning, as she was rushing to attend a meeting, Dr Mwangangi, ran the three offers over in her mind.
Which one would she pick?
But then minutes later, her world changed after President Uhuru Kenyatta named the chief administrative secretary for health.
“It was surreal. At some point I thought it was a prank,” she says of the announcement.
It caught her by surprise, as it did everyone else who wondered, who is Mercy Mwangangi?
Today, everyone who watches daily press briefings on the Covid-19 pandemic in Kenya knows Mwangangi as the soft-spoken yet firm young doctor who, in the absence of Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe, steps in to give Kenyans, and the world, updates on the virus’ spread.
She is the CS’ right hand woman - the two work side by side.
Born in Machakos in 1986, Mwangangi went to Pangani Girls, Nairobi, for her high school education, and then went on to graduate from the University of Nairobi in 2009 with a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery.
She joined the Machakos Level 5 Hospital for a one-year internship. There were five intern doctors at the hospital, and Mwangangi spent her time there by patients' bedsides or in the theatre, only dashing to intern quarters to catch a breath and change before doing everything all over again.
Her first posting was in Meru South, and it was not exactly what she had expected. Mwangangi had expected to continue working with patients. Instead, she found herself in the public health department.
Her father, who she describes as her greatest cheerleader, encouraged her to take up the posting.
It was at Meru South - currently Tharaka-Nithi County - where the young doctor began her career in the public health sector. Her first order of business was a meeting with the District Health Management Team (DHMT).
Not easily intimidated
Then in her 20s, no one in the meeting was as young.
Still, nothing intimidates Mwangangi, who says she thrives in situations where somebody is needed to step up, organise and get things going with a certain goal in mind.
“I learnt to take my seat at the table and make my voice heard, because for your voice to be heard you have to speak out loud,” she says.
During her school days, Mwangangi was a team leader in her class; a convener in both class and extracurricular activities.
Later, a master's degree in health economics and policy from the University of Adelaide in Australia gave her a wider lens with which she viewed Kenya’s health sector.
Mwangangi credits her two years in Australia with laying the foundation of who she has become. There, she says, she observed a different culture doing things that taught her the value of integrity.
“Back in Kenya, I always worked to make sure that every penny counted,” she says.
Mwangangi’s journey to the top has been anything but easy. She first volunteered to work unpaid for 18 months in the Health ministry while devolution was taking shape, before she was posted to the ministry’s monitoring and evaluation department.
Here, the young doctor got a good view of the entire health sector by interacting with all spheres in the ministry.
Soon, she was part of the team evaluating performance contracts and appraisals for the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF).
After five months of working on reports and presenting them to senior managers, at 29, Mwangangi was promoted to head the health financing division, which at the time was struggling to craft operational strategies.
In no time, the division was on its feet.
“This is the time we put together the Linda Mama programme for free maternity services, the health insurance strategy for the poor and many other initiatives, including the conditional grant framework for county governments,” she recounts.
Mwangangi served in the position for a year and a half before being moved to support the crafting of the Universal Healthcare (UHC) agenda into an actionable plan, together with four other officers.
During one of her presentations in Washington DC, the then Health CS Sicily Kariuki noticed the talented young doctor who was working in her ministry, albeit in obscurity.
Before long, Mwangangi, who would rather keep to herself working on figures to make sense of a certain health intervention, found herself serving as a technical advisor to the CS. Her biggest task was piloting UHC.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Mwangangi was synonymous with UHC. If anyone needed to know how a certain population should be included in the plan, she was the person to ask. If one needed to know how much money would be needed and how to finance UHC, she was the person to ask. To date, she says UHC remains close to her heart.
As the chief administrative secretary, the introvert was suddenly thrown into the limelight. She would no longer be the advisor to the Health ministry’s leadership, but be a leader herself.
And just when one would think that she has it all, that she has reached the pinnacle of her career, the soft-spoken doctor pulls another surprise: she still wants to become an orthopaedic surgeon.
After moving from a general practitioner to working in the public health sector and becoming a health economist, Mwangangi sees her current position as the second-and-a-half phase of her life.
“I believe in five iterations in one’s career. By the time you die, you should have five versions or five different spaces in which you have served,” she says.
She picked the mantra from Julie Bishop, one of her mentors, during her studies in Australia who took her through a leadership programme.
Although the position she holds has traditionally been clouded by politics, there is no strand of political ambition inside Mwangangi.
She says politics is not a priority at the moment, not with her hands full, learning how to translate the needs of communities into actionable plans and effect change, and dealing with the demands of the coronavirus pandemic and the UHC agenda.
“My mother says I’m married to my work,” she says.
Her mother could be right. The firstborn of two children, with a 10-year age gap between her and her younger brother, seems to be in no hurry to settle down.
Although she now sits in a bigger office, Mwangangi says she misses running up and down the wards at her first posting as a general practitioner in Meru. It kept her physically fit, she says.
“I’ve added weight from sitting in the office with no time to work out,” she quips.