Remembering Dr. Njoroge Mungai

A year ago yesterday I sat in a pew at the Church of the Torch, for the funeral service to celebrate the life of Dr. Magana Njoroge Mungai. I felt greatly saddened, but also quite upset with the man. For how could he do this to us? How could he deprive us of his inspiration, his knowledge, his sense of fun? I was far from ready to release Dr. Mungai, never again to enjoy the privilege of learning from him and laughing with him.

In the intervening months the feeling of deprivation was reignited each time his name was mentioned, and it was exacerbated two weeks ago when I attended the memorial service to mark the first anniversary of the passing of this great Kenyan. During the service, as at the earlier one, vivid treasured memories of my friendship with Daktari readily surfaced.

Twenty-one years ago, shortly after becoming engaged to Evelyn Mungai, the lady who was soon to become my wife, a bridal shower was hosted for her at the home of Julius and Jane Kiano, organised by my then fiancée’s daughter, Wacuka. I, together with a few other men, was invited to join them after the event, and imagine my surprise when I found myself ambushed for what turned out to be a symbolic pre-wedding mini-ceremony.

The central element involved our two “fathers” blessing the union. Given that neither of our actual fathers was still alive, Dr. Kiano agreed to play the role of my fiancée’s father and Dr. Mungai that of mine. The blessing involved the anointing of the floor of the family of the wife-to-be’s “hut” with the traditional brew, muratina, and my uninhibited parent insisted on following through with the ceremony – onto the plush white carpet of the Kiano living-room.

I also remember going to see him a few years later when, as chairman of the Kenya Institute of Management, I was to officiate at the Tom Mboya Memorial Lecture, the big event of the institute’s year. I was in search of relevant stories about Mboya, and Dr. Mungai, with his perfect memory, was at his best.

I asked him about Mboya the visionary, and he talked about the man’s pivotal role in the American Airlift and about his promotion of Pan-Africanism: great material for my speech. I remember Dr. Mungai also telling me what was important to him, then and later: health, education and poverty eradication.

One of the last occasions my wife and I were with him was at the residence of the French ambassador, when Dr. Mungai was awarded the Ordre Nationale du Mérite for his life of service. Not for the first time, we talked about how he was doing with his autobiography. Along with others, we had encouraged him repeatedly – even identifying a potential writer to work with him, and I had introduced him to voice-recognition software as a way of accelerating the process. Sadly however, there was no movement, and now it may be too late, at least involving his personal input – which would be such a shame, as his book would be in a league of its own. Not only because of his many achievements and adventures, but because of the charm and sparkle in the man. Not to mention his wonderful memory.

At last year’s funeral service Dr. Mungai’s successor as foreign minister, Dr. Munya Waiyaki, reminisced at length about their time together, from primary school to Alliance High School, where six of the fourteen students in their class of 1945 served as cabinet ministers at one time or another – Robert Matano, Kyale Mwendwa, Mbiti Mati and Dr. Kiano being the others. Mungai and Waiyaki then both headed off to Fort Hare University in South Africa (where their classmates included Robert Mugabe and Mangosuthu Buthelezi), and later they both studied medicine, Waiyaki in Scotland and Mungai at Stanford.

Mungai obtained his medical qualification at Stanford, and later became Minister for Health and Housing (during which time he launched the country’s first medical school) and also President Kenyatta’s personal physician. At other times he held ministerial portfolios for internal security, the environment and foreign affairs – in which capacity he was responsible for bringing the UNEP head-office to Nairobi.

President Kenyatta, the son of the man whose doctor Dr. Mungai was, also spoke at the funeral, describing Dr. Mungai as having been a father figure to him, his own father having died when he was only 18. Indeed, as was the case with me at my pre-wedding, Dr. Mungai acted as such at Uhuru’s wedding.

At the recent memorial service, one of Dr. Mungai’s five daughters talked about her father’s three great qualities: his courage (“to go to America as he did, with no money, and then to return”); his dignity (here she quoted Aristotle, who described dignity as “not possessing honours but deserving them”); and his determination (as evidenced by how he persuaded the UN to site the headquarters of UNEP in Nairobi).

“This is how he chose to be,” she reflected, adding that it was the same three words that have been used to describe Rosa Parks, who famously sat at the front of that segregated bus. “Onwards and upwards” was her father’s motto, and she and all of us continue to be inspired by his memory.

Before I close let me explain that Dr. Mungai’s parents were Godparents to my mother-in-law Marjorie Kimenyi, and that the late Hon. Jemimah Gecaga – Dr. Mungai’s sister – was Matron of Honour at her wedding. Jemimah was one of the earliest Nominated MPs, and I am told that my mother-in-law, the first African woman to own and drive a car, would give her a lift. Sometimes as they were about to set off, young Njoroge would appear and, we were often told by a laughing Dr. Mungai, they would condescendingly agree to allow him to join them.

Such was the lightness of the man, one of the many reasons he is missed so very much.

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The exciting but uncertain life of a consultant

In my last column I reflected on how I go about producing my regular articles for this paper, and while the thought of writing that piece was still only in my mind I found myself in conversation with a senior HR manager who envied me my life as a management consultant. She wanted to make a bigger and more varied contribution to organisational development than she thought was possible within the confines of a single institution, and so she was curious to know more about the world of consulting, where you are exposed to multiple environments and, she reckoned, you are taken more seriously.

As I listened to my instant analysis of the joys and frustrations of my profession, it occurred to me that it might be helpful to share my thoughts more broadly with Business Daily readers. So here goes.

First, let me readily admit that I love what I do, working with a wonderful variety of clients, from large corporates to family firms, from ministries and parastatals to NGOs and donors. I learn so much from each assignment, and the people with whom I interact are almost without exception as bright as they are friendly and respectful. (Perhaps because I find it’s typically those who are already strong and doing well who reach out for ways of becoming yet more successful.)

But as this comfortably salaried lady heard me talk, she realised that a consultant’s life is far from an unadulterated bed of roses. “How do I get into that world?” she started by asking, knowing it is not a straightforward question to answer. I remember that when I decided to reinvent myself as a consultant after decades of being – and being known as – a full-time IT executive, it took easily a year and a half before the market came to appreciate the reality of the new me.

Sure I had accumulated lots of experience and an interesting network of contacts, senior people who were aware of “Brand Eldon”. But in a very different context. So the challenge was to land the first assignments, the ones that would show I could perform in my transformed role. As I look back on those early days now I realise that my career in the tough IT vendoring environment actually prepared me extremely well for my third-age reincarnation. For trying to get organisations to apply the disciplined approach needed for effective automation, with its attendant inconvenient consequences of transparency and accountability, is essentially all about change management. It took some time before the penny dropped, but when it did it allowed me to feel comfortable labeling myself as the change management expert I appreciated I actually was.

As our conversation continued I turned to the perpetual uncertainty in which we consultants exist, seldom knowing which potential assignments will materialise and when. A sure bet will disappear; another will be postponed – or occasionally brought forward; and a good number will threaten to clash with an existing commitment, or at least a likely one. Of course I go on the basis of first-come first-served, but this principled approach is really painful when a more tantalising offer comes up later. Happily, it is also not uncommon for the earlier less exciting assignment to be moved or to disappear, allowing my preferred choice to be indulged.

Sometimes a month that looks to be highly booked appears increasingly barren… only later to benefit from fortuitous last-minute calls for my time. At other times I’m scrambling from one intensive assignment to the next with barely a moment to breathe, never mind to prepare adequately or write the reports I am typically required to do following an engagement. So early mornings, late nights and messed up weekends at the laptop are more normal than unusual.

We consultants only get paid for the days we work on an assignment, and for salaried folk this is an alien concept. It’s why when we quote our daily rate clients often express shock (maybe genuine, maybe feigned) at how high the figure is.

And here’s another aspect I have to come to terms with. Much of my life is spent facilitating strategic planning retreats for senior management and board teams, hosted at the nicest hotels and lodges in the country. Often, participants will have come from far away to attend, maybe by plane and probably at great cost. So it never ceases to amaze me that having spent so much money on transport, per diems and the venue, when it comes to consultant remuneration clients can inform us with a straight face that only a “limited budget” is available for our fees. How odd, when it is largely how we perform that determines the success or otherwise of the event.

A further point: with rare exceptions, consultants must do their own marketing and selling, their own proposal writing, and their own billing and debt collecting. None of this time is payable, and most of us act as our own PAs. (No bodyguards or drivers either!)

Then, when we try to interest a client in more of our services, some accuse us of only doing so in order to generate more fees. It’s as though we should feel guilty about suggesting further ways of adding value, building on what we have learned about the client and on what we have previously contributed to them.

Having said all this, I return to where I started: I thoroughly enjoy the work I do. All of it – often leading me to regret not having reinvented myself sooner. But then I tell myself that I needed to experience every moment of my earlier turbulent existence, to have acquired all those scars of battle, in the absence of which I couldn’t begin to do what I do now.

Where did these reflections leave my friend the HR manager? Deep in thought, having gained a fuller appreciation of the exciting yet volatile environment in which we consultants operate.

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