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Wise old men: What life has taught me

By Tony Mochama | October 13th 2019 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Sunday Magazine
Why not take a walk to Kisumu?


Mikhail Iossel, 60, Tenured Professor at the University of Concordia, Montreal, Canada.

Best decision I ever made? 

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That was in 1988 when I left my native city of Saint Petersburg in Russia, at 30, to go and live and study in San Francisco. The only English I knew moving to America was what I had painstakingly taught myself from an English copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, because I (obviously) had the original Russian version and a copy of a Russian-to-English dictionary.

I worked as a security guard by day in the Bay Area bookshops (where I could read novels by day, because who steals books?) and did night college from six to ten pm every evening for two years, to hone my English language skills. Then I applied and got into a proper university from 1991 to 1994, taking an MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) in Creative Writing and Comparative Literature.

Life definitely gets better

At my first post college job as an entry level engineer (in Russia) in the Department of Submarine Screening and Demagnetization at Leningrad’s Central Naval Electronics Research Institute,’ says Misha, ‘I was paid 125 roubles (about Sh 20,000 in today’s money) a month – which was enough to buy 6 000 one minute calls at a public payphone or 400 copies of the Pravda newspaper or three vacuum cleaners or two cheap bicycles or one very nice West German-made business suit.

Although he is too modest to talk about money, it is easy to find out that this tenured Professor of English – who barely knew English at 30– now earns Sh 10, 368, 895 a year (or Sh 864 000 a month) teaching creative writing.

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My life lesson? 

Sometimes you have to travel far away from your comfort zone, or even country, to live and achieve your dream. ‘Ars longa, vita brevis …’ Art is long, but life is very short. So, start now!


 Brigadier (Retired) Silvanus Oroo Omboga, age 65

The five life lessons my life has taught me…

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(i) There are no shortcuts in life, in spite of the quick paths to success that youth have been deceived about by our very crooked political leadership. Learn to work hard, and earn the benefit of your sweat.

(ii) To be able to live well in retirement, plan ahead and early enough, even starting to save at thirty.

(iii) Tribalism is the bane of Kenya. It kills ambition, whether in the army or any other sector of our national life, enables a lot of folk without merit to rise to the top, and turns a country into a mediocre State where nothing really great can be achieved.

(iv) If you want to die a happy man, invest in the well-being and stability of your near and wider family.

(v) Whether in business, at work or in personal life, do not focus on the competition or in comparisons. The stress, envy and pressure will kill you! Instead, focus on yourself and your own continuous improvement. Be your own corporal, who plans to improve themselves to become a General.

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Shaul Bassi, late 50s, professor at the Ca’foscari Universite, Venice, Italy.

The best decision I ever made:

This must be when my wife and I adopted our only child, our 10- year-old, from a Kenyan Children’s Home in 2013.

Worst thing I have heard in my lifetime.  

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This must be the Kenyan government’s decision last month to ban foreigners from adopting Kenyan kids, most of them either abandoned, dumped or orphaned, in a bid to curb child trafficking. It is a very lazy decision, and cruel on children who would have grown up in a loving and (well off) environment overseas, and gone to college to create a great life for themselves – but are instead left now at the mercy of overwhelmed orphanages who may not be able to provide for them beyond grade school level – which is how you end up with teenage boys and girls on the cruel city streets of Nairobi.

Life advice I would give?

We unwittingly carry more stereotypes of men and women than we are aware of, often with serious consequences. Genders should ‘re-learn’ their perceptions about each other.

My advice to women is that, whatever any book says, you can never learn any ONE general lesson about men – because we men are very fluid.


Jerry S. Ole Kina, early 50s, deputy secretary general of the Kenya Union of Civil Servants

The best decision I ever made...

…Joining the union leadership in 2005 as a branch official. If you feel you have what it takes to serve others as a leader, don’t be shy. Go for it.

 Something people learn too late…

A lesson many learn too late in this country is that if you board the band wagon of corruption, you may eat, but it eats you too. You put your snout in the gravy train, but it ends up swallowing you.

Best advice I have ever gotten

Success is a ladder that you climb one rung at a time. No one starts on top.

Worst advice I have ever received?

To take advantage of one’s position to amass wealth. Work as though you are accountable only to the Almighty God, and everything else ye seek shall follow.


Leonard Njagi, 60, recently retired teacher

The best decision I ever made?

Leaving the Catholic seminary (where I was preparing to be a priest) to marry my wife Jacinta Muthoni.

Best advice I ever got?

What Mzee Moi used to say, periodically, throughout the 1980s and 1990s. That ‘Masomo ndio msingi ya maisha.’

I firmly believe that education is the key out of the cycle of poverty in the country. I do not believe the nonsense called ‘generational curses.’ Read and thou shall prosper.

The best legacy a man can have?

Children.  I have five, all of them now adults.

Best marriage advice I would give men…

...Men should drop their pride, and let the wife be their guide. If she is also your best friend, you will go far in life, and be happy together. The culture of ‘mpango wa kando’ and ‘sponsor’ totally destroys the fabric of family life. I know men in their 60’s, my age-mates, who mistreated  their wives and ignored their kids in their working years, some disappearing to the city and only showing up periodically in the village to pay school fees. Now their wives are forever in chamas or churches. Other women are invited to visit their children in the city, or even in America, as the old men rot away alone for long periods in their houses.


Morland Miles 75, British billionaire and founder of the Morland Miles Foundation (MMF).

Best decision I ever made…

To walk out of an international investment firm in the summer of 1989 and walk across France with then wife…

This is what happened.

By June, 1989, a 45-year-old Miles Morland had been living for 22 years on his London desk as an investment banker for the global trading firm, First Boston; and as with most workaholics, his marriage was on very shaky ground. So he decided to take a one month break, and go on holiday (a second honeymoon) with his 40-something-year-old wife, Ghislaine. And where better than the nice beaches of Nice, France, to rekindle the romantic spark?

But after a week, both of them bored of the sun and sand, they decided on a whim to walk out of the hotel and across France, and into Dover, England – instead of using the return air tickets they had purchased.

So off they set out, on a 555 kilometre journey across France that lasted 25 days.

The lesson here was a middle-aged couple abandoning a sedentary, comfortable, upper middle class lifestyle to do something utterly unconventional for their age and class … like walking across France.

But it was a life-altering walk.

Mr Miles found he couldn’t return to work just yet, and took a year off, pleading ‘work burn out.’

That winter, as the Berlin Wall fell, he went to Romania by train to join in the ‘out of USSR’ demonstrations, and by the spring of 1990, he was in Baghdad, just as they prepared to invade Kuwait.

Neither his job at First Boston, or his marriage to Ghislaine, survived his new found wanderlust.

Success can be borne out of desperation…

By 1991, Miles Morland was running out of money.

So he started his own investment firm, Blackney Management, in the backyard of his garden shed.

He had the connection and experience, but nowhere to invest any money he could get from clients.

‘All the Big Boys in the banking world were rushing to Russia and the other former Soviet Republics with billions of dollars,’ he says. ‘Nobody was bothered with Africa, because they said Africans are poor. They worry about eating food, not investing money.’

Which is how Miles ended up, with a few courageous clients, putting millions of pounds into opening up the first stock market of Ghana, getting into business with (now) S.A. president Cyril Ramaphosa (when South Africa black business got going in the mid-nineties) and buying up Lonrho Africa by 1999.

20 years later, Mr. Miles Morland is a billionaire, and Africa’s biggest literary philanthropist.

A journalist by training, the walk across France in 1989 led him to write the book ‘Miles Away’ that became a bestseller in Britain in 1993, and went to number five on the New York bestseller list.

You don’t carry your wealth into heaven

These days, he gives away at least 10 million shillings to four African writers yearly through the Morland Miles Scholarship Award, a sum that would take a hundred years to deplete his fortune.

‘We don’t go with it to heaven, so Africa’s wealthy should learn to start foundations, not only to help others, but so that their names outlive their lives. I mean, look at that guilt-ridden bomb-maker Alfred Noble, ignoble in life, but known only as noble a century after his death by all humanity.’

These days, Miles Morland occupies his time by riding a giant BMW motor-bike across different continents. He is 75 years old! And six months ago, he traversed the Gulf of Mexico on his Beamer bike.

His advice?

This December, take a holiday to Mombasa. Then walk the 700 kilometres to Kisumu.

The writer is a beneficiary of the Miles Morland Writing Scholarships

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