Profiles

Dr Asha Mohammed: Kibera keeps me grounded

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Kenya Red Cross Secretary-General Asha Mohammed during the interview on January 25. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

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Summary

  • Dr Asha Mohammed is a proud Nubian.
  • She grew up in Kibera at a time when girls were supposed to study just enough to get married.
  • She was smart and had a father who held her hand, and supported her dreams until she was out of the woods of societal dogma that prevailed that time.

Dr Asha Mohammed is a proud Nubian. She grew up in Kibera at a time when girls were supposed to study just enough to get married. She was smart and had a father who held her hand, and supported her dreams until she was out of the woods of societal dogma that prevailed that time. You could say she is self-made, and given her journey, why not?

She is now steering the humanitarian juggernaut Kenya Red Cross as a Secretary-General. But she is also other things; a wife, a mother of six (two from her womb and four from her heart).

She has over 25 years experience in humanitarian work having worked as the Head of Operations at International Federation of Red Cross and Red Cross Crescent African Zone in Johannesburg, Head of East Africa zone office in Nairobi and Movement Partnerships Advisor in Geneva where she was for four years.

Around the office she’s simply called the ‘Queen Mother’, a befitting title given her tender disposition but with a firm crown of grace. JACKSON BIKO spoke to her in her office recently.

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I don’t know why I thought you were a Somali.

That’s what many people imagine. When I got this post, people on social media said, ‘oh another Somali.’ (Chuckles)

Turns out you are a Nubian...

That’s right. I grew up in Kibera, a place called Kambi. I think we are about 80,000 from the last population census. Over time, a number of us have moved out of Kibera.

But I always go back, to visit family, for weddings, funerals… My sisters and aunties still live there, so does my brother.

I also mentor girls living in Kibera. Together with other professionals, we have a foundation focusing on education, mentorship, and coaching. We have supported many girls and boys from Kibera to join the university.

They have even formed their own Nubian University Students organisation that mentors others. I was the founder chair, but now I sit on the board.

What kind of childhood did you have?

I think the biggest challenge for me was culture and perception when growing up. At that time, education wasn’t for girls. I was the best pupil when I did Class 7 KCPE {Kenya Certificate of Primary Education} at Langata West Primary but yet I was to get married to a Yemeni. Thank God my father, who was a businessman and well informed, refused. I joined Moi Girls Secondary School. But in Form 6, my grandmother said I ad ‘read too much, I needed to get married.’ Again my father said no. He told me to study to whichever level I wanted.

You know, I was brought up by my maternal grandmother from when I was eight months old. My mom, gave me to her.

Why did she give you away?

She was my grandmother’s sister and didn’t have children of her own. She had a few children under her care and I was one of them, even though I was my mother’s first born. I asked my mother why she gave me up yet I was her first born. She told me she didn’t have a choice. My mother was never confrontational.

I didn’t know that she was my mom until I was 13 years old. Also, the man who I called father was not my real father. He was my uncle. My father died, I didn’t know him.

Who were your greatest influences growing up?

Jane Kiano, Wangari Maathai... But my greatest was Truphena from the book ‘Truphena City Nurse.’ After reading it, I knew I wanted to be a nurse or a doctor or in the medical field.

When you do humanitarian work, you give yourself to others. And because you have done it for so long, how have you learnt to take something for yourself, to reward yourself?

My daughters would say that this is my biggest weakness. When I’m not doing Red Cross work, I’m at the foundation in Kibera or a medical association women’s group.

By evening, I’m exhausted and the cycle starts the next day. It’s a difficult balance. But I also find time for friends in a chama, we meet, dance, eat and laugh.

If you were to go back and change something in your life, what would that be?

(Pause) I believe that everything happens for a reason. Therefore, I don’t dwell on such. I always think, there was something that came out of it.

What’s your biggest extravagance?

Vitenge. It is my daily wear. I don’t know whether to say it’s my identity. They are multi-functional. You can wear them to the office, a social event.... I’m always buying vitenges and my daughters say, ‘Mom, the wardrobe is already full.’

Would you describe yourself as a good Muslim?

(Laughs) Yes, in the sense that I try to do all that is prescribed. Perhaps the only lapse would be I don’t wear buibui and hijabs every day. I pray as required, my prayer mat is in one of my drawers. I attended Madras, so have my children.

On a scale of 1 to 10 where, 10 is very happy, how happy are you in life right now?

I would say 9. I’m very good at being content.

How do you arrive at a point of contentment?

In my religion, we are taught to be able to accept and believe in the will of Allah. I can beat myself all I want, but if it was written, this is what it’s going to be. At the end of the day, I always say I have two most important responsibilities; one is to Allah, and the second one is to me.

Then I think that as part of your contentment you need to work on your purchase of vitenges.

(Laughter) No, no, no! That one I will never be content with.

Is your husband also Nubian or you cast your net outside?

(Chuckles) He’s a Nubian from Kibera. He grew up in Makina, just near the mosque. We met in the community, got married, lived in their family compound in Makina. We got our adopted children from there, then our two daughters, before we moved from Kibera.