ABBAS GULLET has turned around the Kenya Red Cross Society into a robust, relevant organisation that is well co-ordinated in terms of disaster management regionally. He spoke to PETER MUIRURI
His face is most recognisable in times of disaster either when he is sending out passionate appeals for humanitarian aid or crisscrossing the country assessing the effects of drought, floods, fires and other life-threatening emergencies.
Abbas Gullet, the resilient Kenya Red Cross Society’s Secretary General and mobiliser per excellence, is a firefighter who is ever ready for a call to action.
Each night, he goes to sleep knowing too well that his sweet slumber could be interrupted at any moment by a distress call. ABBAS GULLET, secretary General the Kenya Red Cross Society, [PHOTO: FILE/STANDARD]
ABBAS GULLET, secretary General the Kenya Red Cross Society, [PHOTO: FILE/STANDARD]
Hard work and determination have been the hallmarks of the man who became a humanitarian worker by accident.
Born in Modogashe, Garissa, 52 years ago, Abbas was orphaned early in life and would have missed out on life’s opportunities were it not for a modest family in Mombasa who adopted him.
The young boy was enrolled in Buxton Primary School and later Mombasa Technical for his secondary education.
Life in the 1960s and 70s was rather slow but exciting.
"I used to get 25 cents as bus fare every day. However, I would opt to walk to school rather than spend ‘all that cash’ on transport. That was a lot of money then for a small boy."
His first salary of Sh998 may not amount to much by current standards, but then the Kenyan currency was strong. Even after tax deductions, Abbas could still save between Sh300-400 monthly.
Abbas’ life could have taken a different course were it not for his enrollment in the President’s Award scheme back in 1973. The programme, aimed at helping young people develop skills according to their needs and abilities, required that one learn a volunteer skill such as First Aid. Abbas registered as a volunteer with the Mombasa branch of the Red Cross, a move that set in motion a career in humanitarian activities spanning 38 years.
His sojourn in Mombasa paid off in other personal ways as well. It was here that he met and fell in love with Zaratun, the lovely woman he married in 1989. Together, they have four children — two boys and two girls.
A workaholic, Abbas is the first African to rise to the post of Deputy Secretary General of the International Federation of the Red Cross in Geneva, a post he relinquished in 2004.
He returned to Kenya and became the treasurer of the Kenya Red Cross Society and in the following year, its secretary general.
For his efforts in reforming the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) into a robust and well-respected organisation, Abbas was the recipient of the prestigious United Nations in Kenya Person of the Year award in 2007.
Observing military discipline has been his secret to success. On the day of this interview, for instance, Abbas had woken up at 4.30am (as he does daily), inspected two construction projects being undertaken by KRCS, dropped his children to school and was in the office by 7am for another grueling day that would run late into the evening.
Despite his high profile calling, he likes to keep things simple. For a start, he has no favourite meal. Reason?
"Some people talk of preferred meals because they have a choice. I have met many Kenyans who consider themselves fortunate if they have one decent meal of any kind in a day. Whatever my wife cooks is my favourite," says Abbas.
Whenever stress, which comes with his work, weighs him down, Abbas always falls back on his family.
"I can never thank them enough for their continued support, understanding and patience. We try to do things together while we can since duty can call at any time. Since Mombasa means so many things to me, a family holiday there is always on the cards," says he.
For Abbas who played field hockey and cricket in school, sports occupy a special place in his life.
"I used to walk to Nyayo Stadium from my home in Nairobi West during the 1980s to specifically watch AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia matches, though I was supporting neither team. It is a pity that poor management has greatly interfered with the smooth running of football in a country that has great potential for producing soccer giants like it has in other disciplines," laments the ardent Arsenal fan.
Besides sports, Abbas loves reading books authored by African writers, his favourites being The Lion and the Jewel, a play by Wole Soyinka, and The River Between by Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
Due to his seemingly inexhaustible energy, well-meaning Kenyans have posted messages on social networking sites urging him to consider taking a top political post and fix the many ills afflicting the country. His take?
"I have never harboured political ambitions since I believe one can serve humanity without being a politician. The success of the ‘Kenyans for Kenya’ campaign sent a message to politicians that the country can actually survive without politics," says Abbas.
Paradoxically, the political events of 2007-2008 contributed to both his saddest and happiest moments.
"My lowest point was to see hundreds of thousands of fellow Kenyans suffering during the post-election violence. My happiest moment was to see Kenya Red Cross Society being able to penetrate the violent hotspots while other aid agencies watched from the sidelines," says he.
Abbas owes his very survival to society’s acts of kindness. It is, therefore, not surprising that he hopes to continue serving humanity for as long as he can.