Juggling the right balls as a woman


Dr Esther Njoroge-Muriithi. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

“A smile is the shortest distance between two strangers,” Dr Esther Njoroge says with a smile. You have to believe her because she’s in the business of smiles as the Senior Vice President Global Medical Programmes at Smile Train, the world’s largest cleft charity.

[No-so-fun Fact; every three minutes a baby is born with a cleft]. Smile Train supports free cleft repair surgery and comprehensive cleft care for children.

They also empower local medical professionals. So far they have given 135,000 children smiles in 40 African countries.

How Dr Esther landed this job is stuff for the books. In 2008 she was at a small birthday party for a friend’s son when the host said, “there is an organisation that has head-hunted me and I’m all alone.

I’m looking for some people to volunteer.” At that time she was a medical officer at Kihara Sub District Hospital, Kiambu, up to her sheen in the trenches fighting the good fight.

She saw no harm so threw her hat in that ring and for the past 13 years, the wind of success has gradually blown her to this point in her career as the first sub-Saharan woman in that role.

This conversation happened with JACKSON BIKO by the swimming pool of Nairobi Serena Hotel. Daktari had a cappuccino.


What motivated you to volunteer at this organisation with no pay, and where is this host now?

[Laughs] Oh, that was Dr Githinji Gitahi. He’s now the Global CEO of Amref Africa. He was my boss for seven years. My motivation? I was young and looking for any opportunity to advance my career.

The organisation wasn’t even aware I existed [chuckles], and I did it for three years during which Gitahi was paying me out of his pocket. I liked what they were doing, I felt like they were truly doing God’s work.

I believe anybody who helps children is doing God’s work and is there a greater purpose? Had I continued in my clinical path I would probably have become a pediatrician. I love children. So that was the hook.

So from volunteer to Senior Vice President, what’s the ingredient of success and please don’t say these old annoying ingredients we read in management books; determination, passion, hard work, and making your bed early in the morning. Give me something with a face.

[Laughs] All that is true but I would also add relationship building because they say if you're not in the boardroom, you better have somebody who will speak on your behalf in that boardroom.

That's relationship building. It’s relationship building with your seniors, but also with your juniors because they also speak of you. Staying the course is also important. I could have been distracted and gone for HIV health management, but I didn’t because I believed in what we were doing. You have to believe in what you are doing.

Most importantly, put God at the centre. Another thing, I’m a family person. I have three children, all born while I was in my career and sometimes in that ambition we drop the family ball.

I have dropped it sometimes, but I always say you have all the balls in the air; some are made of glass, and others rubber. For me, family is glass. If it drops, putting it back together is very difficult, but if my career derails, it will bounce back. So know what you want.

When you are at the top like you are, do you sometimes look down to how far up you are and fear falling?

It is a constant thought and if anybody tells you they don't think about it they are lying. You've built this empire, life, this comfort with your family, and network and you wonder what happens when they tell you, ‘we aren’t renewing your contract.”

Yes, I'm not afraid to start over, but it’s daunting. I'll give you a metaphorical example. Three weeks ago, I had dreadlocks that I put on in 2017 just before my last born was born. So I did away with them and you know how growing dreadlocks is not easy...

It’s like growing a palm tree.

[Laughs loudly] Yes, it takes a long time, a lot of loving and I have gone back to square zero because I want something different. So I'm not afraid to start over.

However, and this is something I'm very passionate about when I talk to women; I’m keeping a nest egg for the family because you people [men, she means] bless your hearts, you sometimes go into a deal head, shoulders, feet, everything, do or die.

It's called faith. Try it sometime.

[Laughter] I have faith in God, thank you. Anyway, then it goes belly up in the end. I believe a woman should be able to keep some resources for the family. Not for you and not as an exit plan. For the family. So I do that as well.

Why did you grow dreadlocks in the first place and when you cut them was it symbolic?

I always admired dreadlocks. They are beautiful and also give a woman this aura of fearlessness. Like I could do anything. I always thought when you look too soft in a boardroom people start walking over you, so I needed to look tough.

[Chuckles]. Cutting them represented a turning tide. I'm turning 40 in a month, so I'm feeling I'm at the cusp of a different direction in my life. I’m no longer climbing, but solidifying. Solidifying relationships, family ties and getting rid of some. I’m settling in as a woman.

What baggage are you leaving in your 30s?

Not being able to say no. I’m learning to use no as a statement and not think about the consequences.

Earlier we were talking about faith and God. What do you struggle with when it comes to your relationship with God?

Being consistent in faith and questioning God. I lost my mom three years ago, someone I thought would outlive me. I ask God questions. I have six children but three gained wings and are with Him. They left before they were born.

It sends you back to a dark place. I ask God questions. Imagine being hit by a 10-tonne boulder 10 times. That’s how it feels to lose a child.

Now, imagine it three times over. It crashes you completely. You don’t get over it but learn to live with it. I'm lucky that I have others [children]. You know, some have lost and never gotten one.

I'm sorry for your loss. What do men and husbands need to know when their spouses lose a baby?

Men sometimes deal by going away to grieve. But they need to be present. Don’t even talk, just be present and listen to the silence. Because there's nothing you can do, she has to walk through it herself.

The time I need you around the most is now; be around me, hold my hand and do nothing else. My husband was very good at that. He was very supportive and that helped a great deal.

You work with children, who is the child in you, and what brings her out to play?

[Laughing] Sometimes we leave the husband behind and we do a lot of long drives, me and the kids.

One day my daughter said, when dad is in the car you behave very proper but when he’s not you are very silly, like a nine-year old. [Laughs]. So the child in me comes out when I’m with my children.

Having said that, I would not want to discuss the kind of child my husband brings out in me. This is a serious business paper, after all. [Loud laughter].