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Celebrating Collymore’s rich legacy

Bob Collymore
Former Safaricom Chief Executive Bob Collymore who died last week. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

“We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.” -American novelist and freelance journalist Chuck Palahniuk

I want to borrow these beautiful words as we reflect on something the late Bob Collymore created – a rich legacy of service.

When I received the early morning news from Steve Chege, Safaricom’s corporate affairs chief, I just couldn’t believe it. I had talked to Bob just days to his death, and he was in his usual high spirits. It therefore came as a shock to learn about his demise. It may sound stupid, but what occupied my mind that morning was one question: What exactly triggers death?

Medics know and they call one of the triggers, apoptosis. I found out from Google, of course, that in most cases we die because of cell death, that is when biological cells cease to carry out their functions.

I first met Bob in 2007 when I was in government, at Safaricom’s inaugural board, which he used to attend as an alternate director. He never said much, but his wide, intense eyes betrayed his astute alertness.

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More recently, I worked more closely with him, particularly after I joined the board of Safaricom. At times, we would skirmish with our key investor around critical decisions that ultimately made the company what it is today. Often, Bob would quietly mediate and we’d be back on track. He was diplomatic in approach and swift in execution.

He openly spoke about his failures, making him more human than most people I have met in my life. “Bitenge (he never got to pronounce my name correctly even after 12 years of knowing each other), I never got a college degree,” he once told me at the United States International University (USIU), where we had been invited as commencement speakers.

That brief revelation remained with me. I began asking myself why we hide our failures instead of using them to help those around us to shape their destiny by avoiding mistakes we made.

Bob was always the first one to tell young people that they must aspire to go to college. But he did emphasise that if that was not possible, they could learn from him that there is power in personalised learning. The common denominator between these two choices is hard work, which he embodied.

He would always say that he wasn’t perfect even when you couldn’t see his imperfections. If he had any flaws, he overcompensated with humility of a different kind. He mingled with those living in slums with similar vigour as with the high and mighty.

His gigantic front-page photos served as a testimony of his character and personality. In the history of this country, few have received such attention from the media.

I admired him most for his voracious reading habit. The man loved books. Sometimes, he would quote from them and sometimes share the ideas he’d find interesting.

We argued on many work-related issues but he was always graceful in accepting new ideas and often brought in his technical staff to gain deeper understanding of a different perspective. That is how life should be. I will dearly miss him on this.

Bob was always happy in his uniqueness with fashion. I once asked him why he wore a brightly coloured suit. At first, the question threw him off balance. “Actually, this suit looks good in London,” he said.

“By the way do you know that this is one of Ozwald Boateng’s fashion creations?” he asked.

“I hope I am not exposing my ignorance, does that mean that your multi-coloured happy socks are also a work of art?,” I posed in return.

He chuckled heartily and asked me if I knew Boateng, the renowned British fashion designer of Ghanaian descent. ‘‘Of course, I have heard of him,’’ I replied.

“The only problem is that his prices are not African,” I quipped. “At least you know,” Bob concluded.

Born in Guyana and brought up in the United Kingdom, he worked in many countries including Japan, South Africa and Kenya. He was truly a citizen of the world but in the end, he loved Kenya and made it his cherished home.

To his wife Wambui Kamiru and children, we share your grief.

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