I shouldn’t have made so many mistakes but I did

“When I am alone I take the stairs,” he says. We are standing among a group of students on the lift lobby of University of Nairobi Towers. Our destination is 10 floors up. And while I am not one to trudge up flights of stairs on a hot day, I also don’t want to look like a wuss, so I suggest that we could still do it. He looks like he might say Yes, and I die a little inside. But he shakes his head and says, “No, let’s just wait for the lift. You would die!”  I am not even miffed at that remark because he could be right. 

His stair-taking efforts have paid off though. Bitange Ndemo, now 59, is literally half the man he used to be. In his hefty days, he was Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication. This was between 2005 to 2013. And as the new government came into power, he wasn’t reinstated. And that is when his world went silent. “The day I left office, my phone literally ceased to ring. My “friends” had moved on. I found myself checking my phone to establish if I had inadvertently put it off. The phone was fine.” He previously wrote. And it was a lesson for the man. A study in society. He was now irrelevant.

It wasn’t the first time he had lost a job though.   

The first time he was much younger. He had left a cushy job in the US in 1993 where his sleepless nights had seen him rise through the ranks from a Cost Accountant after university to becoming a Senior Financial System’s Analyst, earning a monthly income of $5,000.

It was good, but he quit to come back home. Home to his mother. He came back to Kenya assured in his mind of a job, only to find the reality on the ground quite different. So he resorted to selling vegetables. Not bad, but his mother was not having it. So when a position opened up at the University of Nairobi for an accounting system’s lecturer, he applied and got it, starting as a tutorial fellow earning Sh7,000 shillings per month.

Following his stint as a PS, he is now an associate professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Nairobi’s Business School. We caught up with the father of three, who delves into a little bit of his fascinating life story.

What did you learn from losing your plum government job?

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I did not expect the outcome. But I was OK with going back to teach. That transition taught me that I did not know people’s nature that well. People are fake and that is a very good lesson to learn. Some friends you have might not be genuine ones. The moment you lose what you have, they are no longer interested in you.

After coming back from the cushy job in America, you had to sell vegetables. Was that humbling?

Listen, I will do anything to survive. I would not be ashamed that I have been a very senior civil servant and say I have to wait for something at that level. I believe in climbing a ladder. I left teaching at the university as a senior lecturer for the government job. I came back to the same position and did not insist on being given professorship. I have been working to get to that and God-willing I will get it this year because I am now an associate professor. So, I believe that even if you knock me from up there, I will look for another ladder and climb to get back up there, without shame. Whether I am a full professor or not, to put food on the table, I will even drive a matatu. I will place objectives to drive it, then maybe in a year I will own it, the next year I will buy another one, until I get myself where I want to be. My plan for now is to attain full professorship, so I have been writing and doing research. I do not want any favours.

Do you have any regrets?

I regret having come to the university. I would have made so much more money, but I did it for my mother because she felt bad that I was selling vegetables. She felt ashamed because people were telling her that I was selling vegetables in Nairobi. I never wanted to offend my mother. We lost her seven years ago due to a doctor’s mistake.

You don’t shy away from talking about the mistakes you have made in your life. Which ones stemmed from societal pressure?

Kisiis believe you must build a house in the village. I did. And that was a mistake on my part. I should have found shelter where I lived in Nairobi. The money I got in the US was sufficient to buy something in Kileleshwa but instead, I was paying rent here in Nairobi with a home upcountry. Younger people should learn from this. Take care of where you are at the moment and the rest you can do later. People would say that the electorate wouldn’t vote for me if I didn’t have a home upcountry, yet I wasn’t even into politics.

What financial mistakes have you made?

Every company I started collapsed. I tried to set up a consultancy company but it failed miserably. Also, if I wanted to make money I should not have gone for a PhD. It was never in my plans. There were so many other things I would have done to make money. Another mistake was when we were buying vehicles duty free. I went and bought a brand new Subaru duty free. But that is not what I was earning a living from. You see, I was enticed. I would rather have stuck with my VW and built investments. You need to take risks when you are young. Yet another mistake was buying land in Runda. It was Sh700,000 a piece at that time. I started building a house on it and then did not have money to finish it. Yet if I had spent Sh2 million to buy four pieces and waited, I would have sold one and built easily and still had more land left over. I also tied myself into a mortgage that I am still under. Land is a finite resource whose price will only go up. If I had done things right, by the time I hit my 40s, I would have been smiling.

But again, money is not everything…

True. Also, a lot of money is not everything. Happiness requires so many other things. You can have good money without a good marriage. I would rather have the good marriage because then I can sleep peacefully.

Speaking of marriage, little is known about your wife…

I met and proposed to my wife in one day. She thought I was crazy. I had gone to visit my brother who was working at a medical school when I saw the beautiful lady. I invited her for dinner and told her I wanted to marry her. It was crazy but it worked. She did not say yes on that day because she thought I was joking. But she eventually did. We have been together now for 27 years.  

Why rush it?

I had come from the US and I had five days left before I went back. What should I have done? Wait for years? I had a mission and I accomplished it.

You also have three children together. What is the one thing you absolutely know about parenting

Parenting is hard. My son shocked me when he said he wanted to drop out in Form 2. He now says that if I had not been hard on him he really would have dropped out. Those are the things that scare you to death as a parent, because if he hadn’t done what I said, what would I have done?

Only God helps. So pray, and involve them in church. I think it buys you a few more years so that you at least get them to 21 years when they will have matured.

You are from a polygamous family and you have 39 siblings. Are you headed that way?

No. But you do know people say that if you marry more than one wife, they fight among themselves and leave you alone (laughs). It however isn’t something I want to do.

What could you say was the greatest lesson your parents taught you?

I lost my dad when I was seven. I didn’t see much of him so the person I learnt a lot from was my mother and that is why I talk about her a lot. She had to wake us up very early in the morning to pick tea or coffee before we went to school. That habit helped me when I went to study in the US. I had to work throughout to pay my school fees.

I did everything -- washed toilets, I have cleaned everything you can think of. I usually worked during summer to raise fees. I worked 22 hours out of 24 to raise fees. I used to wake up, clean toilets from 6 to 10, then clean tables. From 2pm it was dishes, then get on a bicycle to a factory and around 3 or 4 distribute newspapers to people’s homes.

 Do you think a young Kenyan can make enough doing that here?

There is a lot of work to be done even here. When I came back to Kenya from USA, there were no jobs and I was afraid my wife would walk away. So I had to sell vegetables. That is why I say life cannot be life if you are comfortable throughout. You have to have ups and downs. Now we have what we call the gig economy. I get frustrated with students because they do work online, then they get frustrated and decide they want employment. When I am very broke even I do those jobs. It does not mean we do not have something for people to do. It is that belief that as a graduate they are above those jobs, but you should be humble.

What is the one thing you live by?

Treat every human being as equals. That has helped me. I actually get calls from people who are grateful that I never discriminated agaist them when I was in government.

Do you have fears?

Yes. My fears centre around young people and the future. That is why I write mostly about that. We will disappear into oblivion if we do not keep abreast with the rest of the world and we are not doing it. Multinationals are getting big data, analysing it and taking advantage of it, and yet we are not teaching big data, data analytics and artificial intelligence. That is the future.

What do you have in store for your own future?

I want to write about two books. I am teaching myself how to code, to understand some of these technologies and I want to write about my life.

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University of Nairobi TowersBitange NdemoPS