You probably don’t know of Peter Manyonge Wanyama of Manyonge Wanyama and Company Advocates.
Before he hang his shingle, he worked at Mohammed, Muigai & Company Advocates for four years, cutting his teeth in policy and legislation. There, he was involved in consultancies in 32 sectors. He has also participated in the drafting of 32 legislation/statutes for government bodies.
If you have your ears to the ground, your radar might have picked him on social media as a young, smart and flashy lawyer. If you haven’t picked him yet then it’s only a matter of time.
We meet in his office at Commodore Offices on Kindaruma Road, Kilimani. We spoke about many things, all which somehow hinged towards his poor and challenging upbringing.
You are now seated at the respected table. How did you earn your place here?
I owe it to the French philosopher, Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville who said that key to success and leadership – and the reason Americans are who they are – is to exaggerate your abilities. But then you also have to strive to meet the high targets you have set for yourself.
I do a lot of reading. With the demand for legal services, you find yourself competing at the top. I recently secured a good client in Uganda in matters pertaining to taxation.
What are some of your own personal abilities that you think you have exaggerated?
(Laughs) I haven’t really exaggerated any. What I mean is that you have to set high standards for yourself and meet those targets.
What’s your biggest target in life currently?
Last year in January I said I wanted to build a house in my village in Bungoma and on January 24, I set off to do it. By the end of the year, I had built a Sh50 million house, one of the biggest in the county. I managed to achieve that in a short period of time. [Shows me a massive house on 24 hectares]. This house cost me about Sh12 million to furnish. The main house has 12 rooms, then there is a servants quarter.
Did you finance it with the bank?
I built it from my legal fees, not from the bank.
Why would you build something so humongous? Have you always wanted a massive house in the village?
No, not really. People keep asking me, why build deep in the village? What people don’t know is that I come from a very poor background. We were the first victims of tribal clashes in 1992. We [the Bukusus who were staying in Mount Elgon] were evicted from our homesteads because we were deemed to be supporting the Opposition.
Now if I show you the house we were living in when I was in university, you will be shocked. Anyway, using my Helb money, I bought my parents a quarter-acre piece of land and built this house. [Shows me two grass-thatched houses]. And so my decision to build a big house in the village is simply to compensate for historic injustices. (Laughs)
That’s funny, historical injustices! Your parents must be thrilled?
Unfortunately, they both passed on last year, but yes, they saw the fruits of my hard work. Their standards of living had changed before their deaths. I think wherever they are, they are proud.
What did growing up in such a humble background teach you?
You know, I’m probably the only Kenyan who did his high school for only three years. I skipped Form 2 because of those difficult circumstances. When I stayed out of school in 1997, I read furiously until I finished the Form 3 curriculum. I eventually scored an A-minus.
From Mount Elgon, we moved to a place called Naitiri – where we live now – as squatters. We were so poor the villagers used to call my parents witches. I worked as a farmhand for so long, there is no farm in my village I haven’t worked in.
Girls reject you, they say wewe ni mtoto wa maskini. It’s now that I’m getting friends. Most villagers thought I was a devil worshipper and only knew what I do for a living when they started seeing me in the newspapers.
Devil worshipper? Come on!
I’m serious. In fact when they saw me on TV during the impeachment of Governor Wambora and Governor Chepkwony that’s when they thought, “this guy is actually a lawyer!” What has brought me this far is my robust enthusiasm and verve.
Do you find that now that you are in a position of privilege you attract more friends and how do you feel about that?
Unfortunately, that is the reality. People just tend to associate with people who are deemed to have resources. I believe you can explain it in a different perspective, I don’t know. It doesn’t make me cautious or anything. I interact with everybody, even those we used to work with on the farms.
What quality from that time of struggle do you hope you don’t lose?
The ability to work hard. My mother taught me how to work hard. I used to brew chang’aa... yes, we sold chang’aa. That’s how my mother managed to send me to school. We are a family of seven but I’m the only one who is privileged. I took everybody back to school despite the fact that they were much older and now they are all in different positions and can fend for themselves.
You must be a big inspiration for guys in your village.
That’s what they say, yes. But for me, I just need to do what I do best. For instance, if you are a university student in my village and you don’t have money, I will pay your fees. I paid fees for 25 students last year, spending about Sh600,000. I also sponsor students in high school. What I want to do is inspire my village mates.
What inspires you the most?
Uhm, (pause) I always go back to that spirit of that French philosopher. I set benchmarks and meet them. I have just finished an assignment with the Higher Education Loans Board and they are happy with my work, I surpassed their expectations. I like it when I leave my mark.
While working in the farms of Bungoma looking for fees, I suppose your dream was to triumph over poverty. But now that you have done that, what dream keeps you on your toes?
I have realised my dreams half way. I had a big wedding in Karen, which was aired on Citizen TV. It cost me about Sh3 million. I have built a comfortable home. Right now, my dream is to build a formidable law firm. Eventually, I want to merge with another law firm and follow that path.
You are doing everything in abundance; big house, big car, a big wedding, are you trying to make a statement?
(Laughs) You know I plan to build a home near Banda School. I have one acre there. I want to build a house similar to Ahmednassir’s. Give me a few years. I also want to build a hotel and possibly buy two choppers, but for business, not pleasure.
Which lawyer do you admire the most?
I admire the Attorney General. I am what I am because of him. He inspired me. Although we are now adversaries, I still respect him. I admire his ability to build consensus. I learnt one skill from him, the ability to make a presentation. You might not be prepared but if you present well, you will sail through.
What does money mean to you now that you have plenty of it?
If you look at our society, we will always engage in primitive accumulation of wealth which most of us are trying to do. But you should also give to those in need. For instance, if you pass your exams well and you can’t pay fees we will step in and help.
Will money eventually change you?
I don’t think money will change me.
What can change you, power?
No. I’m under a lot of pressure to go into politics, but I’m not interested. My input can be better in a different sector, like policy and legislative participation.
Your house in shags is very central to your life, almost like a metaphor. Am I right?
It is. People don’t understand the journey I have been on. That house represents a journey. I also have 1,000 acres of land in Kitale. My hobby is to buy land. When I go to the village, I normally have to carry about Sh1 million to invest in land.
How much do you think you are worth now?
I don’t know, maybe Sh200 million?
As a boy who brewed chang’aa, do you drink?
You know that experience of brewing chang’aa really drives me. It’s my main inspiration. I’m defined by it but I don’t drink really, maybe a glass of wine. But even that unsettles me. My father was an alcoholic, so learning from experience, I stay away from it.
So what’s your mantra in a nutshell?
Work hard. Like Mutula Kilonzo used to say, we didn’t go to law school for the sake of it. We can do pro bono and we do that all the time. But when it comes to the bourgeoisie, the owners of capital, those we charge according to scale.
By the way, you have all these phones... what do you need six phones for?
(Laughs) It’s a hobby. I buy every new phone that comes out then give it out when I’m tired of it.