Medical pioneer per excellence

DR CLEOPA KILONZO MAILU is a man of many firsts. He is the first African to become the CEO of Nairobi Hospital, an institution that has had European administrators for half a century. He spoke to LUKE ANAMI and PETER MUIRURI

For many people, common sense is not so common. But for Dr Cleopa Kilonzo Mailu, the first African chief executive officer of the Nairobi Hospital, common sense is key in whatever tasks he undertakes.

Apart from being an accomplished health administrator, Dr Mailu, who is also the first medical doctor to attain a Masters degree in Medical Genetics and went ahead to start the service at the Kenyatta National Hospital in 1989, beat a difficult early childhood to be what he is today.

"My early life was full of struggle. I lacked most basic things. I remember changing schools three times between Form One and Form Four," Dr Mailu says.

Born 55 years ago in Makueni, the soft-spoken doctor grew up in the semi-arid area surrounded by rampant poverty, more so after losing his father in 1973. Encouraged by his mother, Rael, he placed his hopes in education.

"I remember I got a zero out of 20 in CRE while in Form Three. I walked home and proudly placed the papers on the table. A neighbour saw the papers and asked my mother whether I was still interested in learning," Dr Mailu recalls.

"My mother answered in affirmative, "He can still do well."

Back home

This was a turning point for young Mailu as that was the last time he ever came back home with such results.

"The fact that my mother still believed in me encouraged me. I never looked back again," he says.

Armed with a determination to succeed, Mailu worked his way up academically, first at Kyulu and Kangundo secondary schools and later Friends School Kamusinga in western Kenya.

"When I joined Friends School in 1980 for my ‘A’ level, the school motto was as it is still today. "Use common sense". It is still my guiding principal," Dr Mailu adds.

"My life was most enjoyable at Kamusinga. The friends I met there remain my best," Dr Mailu said when he donated a Sh3 million dormitory to Kamusinga last July.

"This is where I grew up," he adds. Among the old boys of Kamusinga during his time include Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula and businessman Chris Kirubi among others.

He later joined the University of Nairobi in 1984 to study medicine and then five years later, a Masters in Medical Genetics from the University of Glasgow, USA.

"I met my wife Teresa while at the University of Nairobi. We are blessed with two sons, Dennis 25, and Alex 20."

Dr Mailu believes that he who cannot balance between family and professional duties may not make a good leader.

"Life is about balancing and family should always come first," he adds.

He first joined Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) as an intern in 1984. He was later appointed medical officer I. Within two years, he was appointed a manager but in an acting capacity. One year later, Ihe became the manager of the casualty department.

In 1995, he left KNH to join the Ministry of Health. Within a month, he rose to the position of acting director, Division of Family Health. He was actually the face behind the successful campaign to eradicate polio, running under the banner "Kick Polio out of Kenya."

In June 2000, he left the government to become a reproductive health adviser with an non-governmental organisation. He was to later work with Unicef and WHO in Geneva; positions that eventually saw him work in different countries including Malawi and Zambia, among others.

In 2003, he was posted to New Delhi, India, as a project officer for Unicef. He left the same year to take up the CEO position at Nairobi Hospital, a position he holds to date.

Expansion programme

Under his watch, Nairobi Hospital has undertaken an ambitious programme with capacity increasing to 300 beds.

"We also intend to bring the hospital closer to the people," Mailu says.

Currently, the hospital has opened outpatient posts in the city including Galleria Mall, Lang’ata and Warwick Centre in Gigiri.

Mailu was instrumental in initiating hospital management boards and performance contracts at the ministry way before such concepts picked up in other government departments.

"I had a good career with international bodies before coming to work in the local health sector. I am happy to have pioneered such ideas that were almost 15 or 20 years ahead of their time," says Mailu, a recipient of the President’s Elder of the Order of the Burning Spear in recognition of his efforts in initiating such practical reforms in the local health sector.

Local field

Citing his appointment as the first African to head Nairobi Hospital, Mailu, who also chairs the Federation of Kenya Employers, says the country has some of the best professionals in the continent.

He says: "I am convinced that there are hands in the local field able to run this institution should I leave. We should not leave our institutions in the hands of expatriates."

He feels the country has great potential to develop if only the resources are put in the hands of the right people.

Citing his stint at Nairobi Hospital where Kenyans have come to expect a certain level of treatment, Dr Mailu says it is a challenge maintaining that high level of trust that people have come to associate the hospital with.

"It is a humbling experience to be entrusted with people’s lives," says Mailu who is always at the hospital by six o’clock in the morning.

The country’s challenge, he says, is putting the right people to run institutions.

Given the hospital’s rigorous routine, Dr Mailu hardly engages in activities that may make him unavailable should duty call.

"I cannot play golf since I cannot switch off my phone. I prefer relaxing at home with my family," he concludes.

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Cleopa Kilonzo Mailu Friends School Kamusinga Nairobi Hospital