Dr Aysha Edwards: The Caribbean girl leading top Kenyan hospital

Dr Aysha Edwards-Remy during the interview on June 27, 2022.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, the southernmost island in the Caribbean, is about 11,000 km away from AAR Hospital in Kiambu Road, Nairobi.

That’s where the CEO, Dr Aysha Edwards, hails from. Growing up in the land of the Hummingbird, as you imagine, was filled with fruits, fish, beach walks, calypso music, and intense religiosity. “Watching visiting missionary doctors give of themselves triggered a sense of purpose and duty for humanity in me,” Aysha explained why she pursued medicine. “It was like an inner voice calling.”

With her postgraduate degree in Emergency Medicine from the University of The West Indies she worked in medical institutions in her country for five years (and dabbled in politics briefly as an independent senator in their parliament) before coming to Kenya in 2017 where she joined Nairobi Hospital for three years. She later joined AAR in 2020 as the Director of Clinical Services and worked her way to her current position as CEO.

You wouldn't tell she’s an island girl by looking at her but you can hear it in her pronunciation; Thika Road is Tika Road, birthday is Bat-day, and afterthought is after-tot. Her laughter is unmistakably from the islands; monatomic, bulbous and filled with sunshine and the whites of coconut.

How's growing up on a small beautiful island, in paradise?

[Laughs] You don't know it's paradise until after you leave it. I grew up in a fishing village, so I ate a lot of seafood. It was a very close-knit community, very religious. I remember as a child going to the Methodist church with my maternal grandma at 7 am then after that, I’d go with my aunt and my paternal grandparents to the Anglican church at nine. So two services. Then Sunday school in the afternoon.

For the first 11 years of my life, I was an only girl. I had an older and a younger brother. After 11, I got two younger sisters. I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandmother who moulded me into who I am.  A lot of my beliefs came from her. When I lived with her, she’d wake me up at 4 am to read the Bible and pray together.

My grandma was the first female ambulance driver in Tobago. She worked hard as a working woman, a wife, a grandmother, and many other things. She gave of herself and gave to the less fortunate. For my birthdays, my mom would take us to give to the less fortunate. I was loved and protected as a child. My dad adored me and thought that I was the star - until I got younger sisters. [Laughs]

Did you spend a lot of time on the beach, feet in the sand, eyes closed, smelling the sea?

Yes, I spent a lot of time at the beach. It was literally a walking distance, less than 10 minutes. Summers were fantastic. Before we moved to Trinidad, a bigger island, we lived in Tobago but my dad would work in Trinidad.

Tobago is a smaller island, maybe with a population of 1.4 million? I remember when I just moved to Kenya, one of my friends' mom, she's a lawyer, asked me, ‘where are you from?’ I told her. So she Googled quickly, saw the population, and asked, ‘Do you people have roads?’ [laughs loudly].

Why did you become a doctor?

When I was about five, I saw a lot of missionaries come to our island. Pentecostals. Some of these missionaries were doctors and teachers and I was wowed by the things they did.

That triggered an inner sense of duty and purpose for humanity. My mom wanted me to be a lawyer but in high school, I discovered that I was very good at sciences and I recognised that it's what God placed me on this planet to do. It's my service to Him.

How did you know for sure that God wanted you to do this?

[Long pause] That's a hard question, but I like it. Did I know that He wanted me to do it or did I convince myself that God wanted me to do it? [Pause] I think there is an inner calling in us that tells us where we should be.

Then there is a desire for yourself. Sometimes the two converge. For me, that inner calling is just God’s voice.

Are you surprised that a girl from a faraway Caribbean Island of just over a million people ends up in Africa as a doctor running a major hospital? Or are you like, ‘I saw this coming, I’m a very ambitious lady ’.

[Laughs] No, I am not the person who takes it for granted. My mom reminded me that as a child I would say that I would live in Africa, but I think I thought maybe in Ethiopia. In medical school, I thought I would live in Botswana because I met a lot of guys from Botswana and Malawi.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the concept of moving to Africa is not foreign to us. Granted, I didn't plan to move but the time I moved I knew a few Kenyans living back in Trinidad and Tobago. But coming to Kenya I immediately felt at home. I look at some people and they could be related to me. I don’t stand out physically, I might pronounce things differently.

Yes, like bat-day instead of birthday….

[Chuckles] Funny thing, when I go back home people say, ‘Oh my God, you sound so African!’ And I get so offended. What do you mean I sound African? You know, the first time I came to Kenya I was like, ‘My God, these are my people. I can identify!’ I didn't feel out of the way. Secondly, growing up the pictures that we saw of Africa were poverty. Everything was bad. When I told my friends that I was moving, they were like, ‘To Africa? Are you serious? To live next to lions?’ And these are adults, by the way. [Laughs]

Anyway, I expected to see poverty, which I saw. But I did not expect to see wealth at the level that I've seen. Africa is such a paradox. I was also struck by the sheer size of Kenya. My God, my whole country can sit in one part of Nairobi. When family and friends come to visit, they are usually like, ‘People don't tell us that Africa is this big. They make it look like it's a small thing, an afterthought.’

Nobody talks about the power that the continent harbours. I’m struck by the beauty of Kenya, and the warmth of the population. Guys are smart here. Sometimes I wonder if they have some of the exposure that the children, let's say, in America, have. Can you imagine what this country can achieve if we just invested in the youth?

But how did you end up here?

My husband, who's also from Trinidad and Tobago, moved here for work but before he did, we had a discussion. Do we have a long-distance marriage for two years or do we both move here for two years? We decided to move together. At the end of two years, he was like, ‘Okay, can we go back?’  I was like, ‘What? I’m staying here, I like it here. You are free to go back.’ [Laughs]. So we are still here. Against his will.

He must miss home terribly.

He does. I wonder if he can say he’s settled here fully. If he could hop on the next flight out he would. I - on the other hand - don't miss home terribly. I've become so Kenyan. Kenya is home. I'm going nowhere.

Are there challenges that you face as a female CEO that are unique to you?

There are so many. As a woman, there's still this perception that you're so supposed to be very quiet. A lady shouldn’t have and express strong opinions on a matter. It’s unlady-like. Speaking up is bad for a woman. You are supposed to be a wallflower because this must be a ceremonial role. I've been in meetings where I’m the only woman in the room, so I have to demand to be seen, to be heard.

Someone told me I needed to be like the German Chancellor. “You must have no emotions to survive in this pool,” they said. Because if you show emotion you are emotional. But that’s not who I am, I’m a vessel of emotions.

There's this much older gentleman that sometimes I talk to for advice, and he said, “You're young, you're learning. When I was your age, I went through similar things or worse. I think you're in a better position than I was. When you get to the table, stake your claim. Don't be a wallflower. Hopefully, what got you there is not being cute.”

But does being cute help, though?

Does cute help who?

The person who is cute! Does it help to be a physically attractive female leader?

[Long pause] That's a really interesting question, Biko. A hard one this one. [Pause]. I don’t know. I know it helps to be an attractive male leader, for sure. But for women, it could also cut both ways in that should you fumble and fail, it will be reduced to your beauty. [Pause] But it’s a question I will think of some more after this.

If your life was a wall and you stepped away from it and looked at it holistically, from a distance, which cracks would you want to fix?

Where on earth do you get these questions from? [Laughs] interesting. [Pause] I keep saying that I need balance but I don’t believe in work-life balance. Different things have different priorities at different times. My community is what I'd work on a bit more. I am an extroverted introvert but by nature, I love to be alone, yes but also family and friends.

Now that you are in management, do you miss practicing medicine? Do you miss hearing a patient’s heartbeat through a stethoscope?

Yes. There are days when I'm like, ‘Yes, but am I in the right place at this time?’ To become a doctor you study for many years, you sacrifice a lot, and then at some point, you pivot into management, and you wonder ‘So you went to school all these years, couldn't you have just gone and done a management degree? Did you need to go that way?’

When did you last see your mom?

Just before Covid, 2019.

What! Don’t you miss her?

But I see her every weekend when we video call. My dad as well. My parents are now divorced. My dad is such a funny guy. If I told him that I’m coming home to visit he’d probably ask me, “Why? Are you coming for money or are you bringing me money?” [Laughs loudly]

What is your nickname back at home? What does your grandmother call you?

For the longest time I thought my name was Knock. Everybody called me Knock. It’s only when I was, maybe 4 years old, that I was required to learn my name for some entry exams I was doing that I learnt that my name was actually Aysha and not Knock.

It turned out that Knock was actually my nickname because as a child I would walk into rooms without knocking and someone would shout, “Knock!” Even to date, I suspect I have uncles who don’t know my name. They just know me as Knock.

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