A Shot To Lessons

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I went over to interview Serah Katusya at her residence. [No, trust me, I’m not abusing this word]. She broke her leg in circumstances that we won’t get into here and now hobbles around with a rather fancy cast and a cane like a virulent temptress in a violent drug movie featuring a man with an eyepatch and an old deaf dog. Anyway, because of her little leg situation, all the mountains now go to Mohammed which has its rewards because when I got there a very delightful grilled sandwich awaited me. And a salad. It was a very tasteful home, everything either white or off shades of white. I’m clumsy, I would never live there, I’d be spilling shit all over and getting screamed at. (The carpet in the dining area was white so I sat with my feet raised off the ground the whole time. Great core workout.)

Oh, I’m sorry, you don’t know Serah? She is a powerhouse that comes in a svelte frame. Sharp as a whip. She’s now the CEO of Belva Digital but before that, she was an eminent ad-woman for close to 20 years before she walked away at the top of the food chain as the Group MD – East and Central Africa- for WPP/ Scangroup. She is also a “serial entrepreneur”(her words) who started – among others – companies like WildMango and Changekraft. Her LinkedIn reads: CEO | Founder | Growth Catalyst | MarTech | Edutech | Climate Tech | Cherie Blair Foundation Board Member | Here unlock Sustainable Growth for Individuals & Businesses | HBS | Hult Business School | #InvestinWomen | Break a leg. 

[Ha-ha, that last part is mine.] 

Her small sister was also home. She’s called (you will never guess) Angel. Good heavens. And she was in the kitchen knocking pans and pots and telling me over the sound of some hissing kitchen appliance, “It’s been so long, Biko, you look so young!” which made me think twice about that sandwich because…wheat? Angel owns a clothing brand called Kokio Label on top of her day job. They are a many-balls-in-the-air kind of sisters. They come from a long line of exemplary women who put their backs on things. In that same spirit, I put my back into the sandwich. 

The interview was supposed to be about Johnnie Walker Blue and International Women’s Day but then it just turned out to be about life, which as you will discover is what drinking fine whisky is all about. 

***

I’ve always seen – and been around – working women. Women who never made excuses, who got on with it. Work, for me, has never been a toil but an ethic. A value system. It was never an aspiration but an innate responsibility that you naturally rose towards; like a plant seeks light. The first woman I ever saw working was my maternal grandmother; Serah Mwikali. She was a news presenter on KBC before her husband saw her on TV and said to no one in particular, “That’s going to be my wife.” He married her and she went to Kitui where she later became the lead for Maendeleo Ya Wanawake. I grew up in the village and I remember sitting in her office every Friday after school, drinking a soda as all manner of women walked in and out. These were women who belonged in women’s groups, women talking, sharing, consulting about contraceptives or education for their children, and talking about money and investment and independence that came from managing your finances. They were all working women; teachers, kiondo sellers, market traders, a motley lot. I was only a little girl but I understood without understanding that I was in the midst of a shift in this room overarched by commerce and camaraderie. I was happy to sit quietly with my soda while watching my grandmother hold court. I admired her. She didn’t need to work; her husband – my grandfather – was the chief. She could have stayed back at home like most women but she wasn’t most women. Work was what she was, not something she did. 

She was tall, slim, elegant and graceful. Her hair was always done. She wore lipstick! Can you imagine? Lipstick? In those days? She had nine children but she ran her household most calmly. There was never chaos around her. She was soft, yet powerful. I never heard her shout once during my entire childhood and teenage-hood until she died when I was in my 20s. I learned about power from her. Some people think that to be powerful you have to shout, be abrasive and show your teeth. She was the exact opposite and she accomplished a lot. She handed her children – daughters and granddaughters – the blueprint of women’s role. 

Then there is my mom, the go-getter. She’s retired now but she’s the busiest person I know in my life. She’s got such a huge heart and likes to fit everything and everyone in there. So she’s always educating some children, building a house for a woman without a house, sending a sick woman to the hospital, stressing on women to take their children to school because she was a teacher and understands the value of education. She has great ambition and tenacity, you can never put her down. I don’t even think I have yet to get to the tenacity my mom has. She wasn’t just a teacher, she was a business person, a corporate person, she sang in the church choir, and she supported women in the village. In her last job, she was the Chief Officer: Administration and Coordination of county affairs for Kitui. So you see, from her, I learned that you can’t just be one thing and do one thing. You can’t go anywhere with my mom, she will stop to say hello to a hundred people. Sometimes I tell her, Mom, can I just wait in the car? And she is like, No, you come with me. 

And then she’s married to a guy with three friends. [I laughed so hard I almost put my feet back on the carpet] I think my dad had five friends, two died. He is left with three. I think if you have a big personality like my mom you have to find someone who can take your personality. Otherwise, if you are the same you’re going to kill each other in the house. My dad is a very calm gentleman. When I’m feeling very harassed I know he’ll calm me down. You will go to him blowing your top and he’ll tell you something that just helps you calm down. His decisions are so pragmatic it always feels like he’s been thinking about them for very long. They’re like day and night, literally.

I think you can become a mad person as a woman in leadership. Mental health is a great component of leadership. Just imagine the pressure of being a woman in leadership. Sometimes you’re the only woman at the top where everyone is a guy. You then have to take the pressure of home, the pressure of work, and the pressure to not look like you’re falling apart even if you want to fall apart, because you need to be strong. Your mental health has to be sturdy because it helps you navigate work and life. There’s no such thing as a work and life-balance. You just have to find a way of marrying the two. I’m a chick with no children or a husband and I’m talking about life-work balance but can you imagine if you have kids and you have a husband and you’re the MD of an organisation?

My self-esteem largely comes from my mother. My mom never imagined that any of her children could fail. It’s not possible, she says, not when I have given you all the self-esteem you need to go out into the world and conquer it. 

Success is doing what is beyond you. But I don’t think these principles come to you immediately, like everything they take time and living and failing and trying again. Honestly, for the longest time, I felt I had to chase a successful career in corporate Kenya. It’s hectic but then one day you wake up and you’re like, I don’t think that’s what I want. Success stopped being just a career or a title. You start thinking about purpose and your later years. You start thinking about financial freedom. How do you make sure you aren’t a burden to anyone when you are 60? How can you be doing something you enjoy at that time? I started working with young people when I was in my mid-30s to find solutions to unemployment. I enjoy it. I see myself working with young people when I retire, helping them in business, helping them know that it doesn’t feel like walking into a forest. 

When I was leaving ScanGroup people were like, how can you leave? You are going to a startup? Are you sure? What they didn’t know was that the idea of success had shifted for me and it wasn’t being the MD of the largest agency anymore. I wanted to work at the center of what young people are doing. And what young people are doing is digital and tech. I’m the oldest person in my office and my interactions with these young people gives me meaning. I think at some point in our lives, we have to centralise meaning. 

What’s my relationship with money? I have a beautiful relationship with money; I like spending it. I don’t want to be a burden to anyone later in life so I need to plan for retirement. I met a chick, Caroline, and she said, it’s not retiring, it’s rewiring. So my rewiring space means I have to plan. My relationship with money is to get to a place where I’m safe when I retire. But also I’m very whimsical because what if I die tomorrow and Angel takes everything and you can believe that she’s going to have all the fun with the money I saved? Oh, I can bet your life. [Laughter] I don’t want to be the person who saves everything and doesn’t enjoy today. But I also don’t want to be the person who spends everything and has nothing tomorrow.  [As my friend Awino likes to say, ‘You don’t want to have life left at the end of your money.]

People always ask me why I’m not married or have children at my age. [She’s in her 40s

My paternal grandmother was never married. 

She had 5 kids. Her mum had married a lady before she died, someone to hold her land as she had only girls. I grew up on the back of my grandmother, she carried me everywhere. She was such a strong woman, I could always see it by the respect my dad had for her. And she never once looked like she was bored or needed someone else to come and make her feel complete. So I think perhaps that socialisation gave me the freedom to not feel the pressure to get married when I was in my 30s and everyone around you is getting married or having kids. And honestly, I’m glad my parents don’t ask.

One time I asked my dad that same question. I said, “Dad, how come you don’t ask why I’m not married?” He was like, “It’s not in my place to ask you a question like that. I mean, do you want to get married? If you want to get married you get married. If you don’t want to get married, don’t get married.” My father never asks me if I met someone or when I’m getting married. He always asks me, ‘How did that pitch go? How is the new place you work in now? Are you happy?” And I say, I’m happy and he says that’s nice. So I think my creed has always been: this is your life so live it as fully as you possibly can and if you end up in a partnership that becomes marriage well and good. If it doesn’t, then maybe that’s how life was supposed to be.

The greatest lie of humanity is that we think we have control of our lives. Just because you can wake up and go to work and book your holiday and go for it and come back you think you have control. You don’t. You are inconsequential. You’re just a tiny, minute, living thing, a small stitch in this big cloth. When we plan we think we have power and we take things too seriously then we confront our mortality without enjoying the joys and fruits that are before us. Nobody is getting out alive. Some of the best things that have happened to me, especially in my career, were not planned. My boss said We are going to Tanzania for three weeks to help set up the media there. I stayed there for six years. I always say Tanzania was the best decision ever made for my career. I didn’t plan it. Enjoy the moments. Celebrate the small and big ones. 

I have had this bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue for a while. A long while. It was given to me by a friend. It’s a great bottle of whisky according to those who understand whisky. I decided then that I would only be taking a shot every time something nice happened to me. This bottle represents triumphs and wins. Once we drank quite a bit of it after we won the Coca-Cola account for Africa. It had been a one-year-long process of pitching and waiting and biting nails. I would have had a shot had we lost because losing is a matter of perspective. You can lose but win lessons. So, a shot to lessons. But we won. For me a premium drink like this is for celebration, something you drink because you have earned it not because you “feel like a drink.” So I can look at this bottle and tell you the achievements of it. 

What has wearing a cast taught me? That Kenya has no People with Disability (PWD) considerations. It has taught me patience, which is something I’m relearning. It has taught me to be very intentional about what I do, and who I meet because time is finite and even more finite when you have a fractured foot. So before I leave the house to meet someone, I will ask myself, do I have to? Is it the best use of my time? 

Yes. When this cast finally comes off my leg, I will definitely have a tot

***

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44 Comments
  1. Great read, as always Mr. Biko. May everyone who reads this post remember to ask people if they are happy, and not when they are getting children, or married.

    Onwards and upwards to the women changing the world positively.

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  2. ” She never once looked like she was bored or needed someone else to come and make her feel complete. ”
    my take away 😉

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  3. “Not Retiring but Rewiring ”
    “We are inconsequential ” – Kabisa
    “Kenya has no PWD considerations “- very true and unfortunate !!!
    Very inspiring story ! As usual Mr Biko brings his magic to each story!

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  4. You don’t want to have life left at the end of your money. – This sticks to me as i climb the long road to financial maturity

    well penned Biko

    On life – If you do it once , Once is good enough

    a life well lived

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  5. I’d say from a stereotypical perspective that the Kamba nation is among the most progressive in kenya given their accounts. and no. i am not one

  6. This article is simply amazing, wait, that’s an understatement. The last part really hit me hard. ‘Do I have to?’…anywaysss, Bikozulu all the way

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  7. Very nice story, with impressive and powerful ladies all through. Ati sister will enjoy your things, and your relationship with money…hahaha!! And that part “That Kenya has no People with Disability (PWD) considerations” – very true, unfortunately most of us only realise this when we or someone close to us goes thru this – my wife broke her leg last year and oh boy, did we not both realise this very quickly…even how our very own houses are so ill designed for PWD. Kudos

  8. As someone who broke a leg in August last year, i can totally relate to the last part of this. It teaches you to appreciate every single minute of life and that you really are not in control of your life. It reminds you to live life to the fullest.

  9. ” I learned about power from her. Some people think that to be powerful you have to shout, be abrasive and show your teeth. She was the exact opposite and she accomplished a lot. ” Lots of boss ladies need to read this every morning.

  10. “She had 5 kids. Her mum had married a lady before she died, someone to hold her land as she had only girls.”

    Someone tell me…..
    Is this statement written in Greek?
    I read it ten times and still didn’t comprehend.

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    1. It’s a culture in Ukambani where a woman married another woman if she had no sons
      History is incredible- we had cultural structures for various issues

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    2. Kambas do that or some African cultures or you marry a woman if you can’t have children and she can have children with your husband

    3. No, some cultures allow single women to marry, but they put conditions on who they should sire children with, put it this way, your mum is single and had only girls. At old age she decides she will marry another woman that young woman, will either come with her children, or your mum will decide who the young woman should ‘mate’ with, to continue her legacy, the point being to have sons to carry her legacy, and to hold her property. Do I make sense?

      1. This so interesting…..
        you say, if my mum is single ( meaning my mom has me as her blood child )
        but just because I’m female she would rather marry another female to sire a child ( a son not a daughter- God forbid-fingers crossed ) who is not my moms’ blood (my eyes are rolling here) to hold MY MOM’S property.???

        very interesting….

        I’m just grateful to God, He found it fit for me to be born in this century coz I can’t be able with this history.

      2. And here I thought it was a beautiful tradition of companionship kumbe it’s the patriarchy and its ceaseless search for sons, mmmph!

  11. “Success is doing what’s beyond you”

    Take it to the bank.

    Inspiring read&well written.

    Biko,you once asked that we make requests on the stories that need follow ups.

    There’s this story of a lady who was married to a heart guy.Blissful marriage but she was getting restless.Wanted to have a secret phone &lover that only does texts.. enough description.

    Can you track the lady &find out whether she eventually cheated?

  12. “The greatest lie of humanity is that we think we have control of our lives. Just because you can wake up and go to work and book your holiday and go for it and come back you think you have control. You don’t. You are inconsequential. You’re just a tiny, minute, living thing, a small stitch in this big cloth.”

    This is profound!!

  13. She had 5 kids. Her mum had married a lady before she died, someone to hold her land as she had only girls. I grew up on the back of my grandmother, she carried me everywhere.

    Am I the only one who didn’t get this part?

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  14. Lovely story. Nostalgic I must say, as you journeyed us through the memory lane! A great reminder of why our larger family has grit, tenacity and ambitious go-get-her personalities….it all was birthed from that lady…named after you, Serah Mwikali!

  15. There’s her dad, and then there’s my dad, I’m 30. nice read. I will get myself one such bottle of achievements. my take home, “you can lose, but win lessons.”