Words, a wiser man than me once spoke, are like unswept glass. When you least expect it they can cut you. Nicholas Kanisa, the CEO of the Human Resource Management Professionals Examinations Board (HRMPEB) knows all about words. He has been called names, taunted, and even bullied.
But words have also healed him: how his grandmother used to call him Zogamba, my husband. How his grandmother spoke life to him that he would own a maswidis—her word for Mercedes.
Nothing is off the table today, he talks of how he learned the art of not taking himself so seriously.
Over an hour in his office in Upper Hill, Nairobi we paper-cut through his self-esteem and compare notes. Here I stand, he seems to say, that no matter how hard rain may beat the leopard’s skin, it will not wash out its spots. In the end, we say a lot. But I can’t help but think that sometimes, the loudest words are those left unsaid.
Since you examine people for a living, is it easy for you to read people?
Yes. I have been in the HR space for a long time. In fact, I haven’t done anything else in life apart from human resources and public service. Eventually, you learn that however experienced you are, you cannot lie with a straight face.
What’s one thing you struggle with when it comes to people?
I find people who forget appointments very strange. We are meeting on Friday at 10am, yet some people won’t even remember they gave you an appointment. I also have a problem with people who lie. Life is about relationships and integrity and that is why in the village, if you are having a small meeting and they are looking for a chairperson or treasurer, they will tell you who is the best person and say for example “Wachana na Mama Boy.”
What is something many people don't believe about you?
I am a very soft person. But looking at the size of my body, I do not look very friendly. Those who know me know that I am a teddy bear who loves women, children and vulnerable members of society. It hurts me when they are not able to get food—but if you look at me when we have not interacted, you’d think I am an Iron Man. Behind the iron lies a very soft person.
What was your nickname growing up?
I have had quite a number. I was born big-bodied so this [points to self] is not as a result of eating. I was bullied throughout my childhood, getting called “Kafatty” “Kanono Mafuta,” “Mafuta Kimbo,” and “Teddy Bear.” But the funny thing is they never call you that in your presence.
As a child that must’ve been crushing. How have you been able to maintain a positive self-image through the years?
Bullying is something that we sweep under the carpet but it is not the best. When you are young and different people say “Unakula sana” (you eat a lot) so you take a small meal, then they will again say “Hutashiba” (you won’t get satisfied)— this affects children.
But as you grow you learn that life is not uniform but a variety. Just look at the way children’s cartoons are portrayed: those who have grabbed properties are shown as overweight, with shirt buttons almost bursting. I don’t know if you have observed but most criminals are slim! This obsession with cartoons that if you are a thief you must look big and unkempt reinforces that stereotype.
The challenge is that being overweight and lack of exercise is what should be addressed. I am not defending myself but my family members look like me. Yes, I was bullied but I have come to understand even slim people are bullied. It’s not right but that’s society for you.
What remains unchanged about you since childhood?
Even my enemies will tell you, I keep my word. I have worked in the civil service for ages and sometimes it is a thankless job, people can blame you for things that go wrong. I was looking at my leaving certificate in primary school and there was a comment that read: ‘This is an honest, straightforward young man.’ When I tell you I will do something, I will do it. My word is my bond.
What is the hardest test you’ve gone through?
I lost my parents, and as a firstborn of eight, I was called upon to show directions to others while still a child. I have been given assignments sometimes and I doubted whether I was ready for them. People will tell you all manner of theories about swimming but until you are in the water, you will never know how it feels.
What’s a memory you would like to relive, especially with your parents?
My grandmother had a soft spot for me. She used to drink the local stuff, and when she got high, she’d call me Zogamba from my name Ogamba before starting to sing: “Where is my husband? You will grow up and buy a maswidis and drive me.” She used to call Mercedes maswidis. I have not bought a maswidis yet but sometimes when I am driving I just wish she was around so she can see what her Ogamba has grown up to become.
Are you raising your child the same way?
My firstborn is a girl but you never know about children these days. We are close but parenting these days is not what it used to be. People of my generation were extremely responsible. With Sh100 you’d budget to a T. The kind of children we are raising, you give them Sh1,000 and they tell you they bought ice cream haha! I grew up in the village but they are growing up in towns with challenges of urbanisation. I grew up in a single community, but they are multiethnic. But I am trying my best.
What are you learning about life from your children?
That they are different people from me. And if my own children are different, what about all the strangers I meet in my profession? I have learned how to appreciate variety. There was a day I broke my thermos flask and I was mopping over where will I get this “unique piece” and my daughter came and said but these things are all over Kilimall! Just go online and order. Me I have to see first before paying haha!
Interestingly, you can pay for something without seeing it first. (Chuckles)! And the way we schooled we had to get a physical book, but my girl just says she will get the notes online. This is not the world I grew up in.
Firstborns in the African setting are whispered in hushed tones as deputy parents. Is that where you learned to cook?
I am telling you when I was a young man, the ladies who would come to my house can confess. When I started working, Michael Learns to Rock and Wingfield were booming. When I got my first salary, I bought a radio—a Sony Karaoke with a mic. It was the thing then. Ah, how I enjoyed loud music. Extra Musica. Koffi Olomide.
Add good cooking to my well-arranged bedsitter and girls would complain, “Now if you cook this good what will I bring to the kitchen?” (Chuckles) Now I don’t enjoy loud music. I recently saw a sticker saying if it’s too loud then you are too old. (Chuckles) You know, once you marry, in my culture, you say bye to the kitchen and accept because society will tell you the owners have decided so you leave it at that.
What was your signature meal?
Fried liver. If I made you that, with ugali, you will smile. Let’s compare notes afterwards. (Chuckles)
What is the best part about being you?
I am fairly honest so dealing with me is not complicated. Take me to the village or the suburb and I will blend in. I am a problem solver. The world has enough problems. It is looking for problem solvers.
November is men’s month. What is one thing you are doing for yourself as a man?
Sometimes it is very tricky to be a man. There are a lot of expectations on men: we are not expected to cry or have time for ourselves. Mental conditions are now common and everyone is empowering the girl child but we also need the men to be empowered.
If I can have a quiet moment to myself with my boys for reflection and talk and compare notes and just be real with them. By the way, I also want to do law because lawyers believe they are the only people who have gone to school. (Chuckles)
When was the last time you cried?
When I lost my mom. I never saw it coming. We were having dinner when Timothy, my brother stepped in and said “We’ve lost mom.” It was very difficult for me. But the last time I cried was on August 31, which I had forgotten was my birthday. When you are past your 20s, you hardly remember birthdays…so this day my staff surprised me in our boardroom. I was moved and that day I cried.
Is there a place you want to go to before you die?
The coronavirus period rendered us all back to factory settings. That’s when I found time to read.
I have this culture where every month I buy a book – whether I read that is a different story. Twelve Against the Gods by William Ryall, Anna Karenina and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Where am I going with this? There is a place called Gbadolite, the hometown of Mobutu Sese Seko, a city he built in his village which in its prime hosted kings, but when he died, it died with him.
But I also like Asia, Bangkok and Vietnam. I like how they have used bamboo, something we too as Kenya can do. We can borrow a lot of lessons from each other.
What matters way less than you thought it would?
When we were growing up in the village, we thought people who lived in permanent houses and had cars didn’t have problems. I have since discovered they also have terrible problems.
What’s something you bought for less than Sh10,000 that changed your life?
I don’t believe in online trading but I saw this shoe rack. It was Sh2,000. But when it was delivered, I am yet to stop using it.
What is the dumbest thing you’ve spent money on?
I hope my wife doesn’t read this. I bought a toothbrush and I was told this toothbrush has automatic toothpaste [chuckles]. The guy told me you only put it in hot water, and not tap water [chuckles]. Then once you dip it in said water, the automatic toothpaste will just come and you will use it for three months without any problem haha! It was Sh500 and I was excited so I bought two, one for my wife as well.
I got home and “surprised her” and told her this has automatic toothpaste. That night I tried to brush but there was no toothpaste! I was very annoyed but my wife was there just asking me how could I get conned haha!
Who do you know that I should know?
Public Service PS Amos Gathecha. He is very helpful and he doesn’t like the glory. He doesn’t want any credit at all. I would love to meet the former Head of Public Service Francis Muthaura and former AG Amos Wako. Public service is tricky because things are rarely what they seem. I want to ask Mr Muthaura how he navigated it all. Mr Wako is because of longevity in the sector. I respect them because they are self-effacing, not vocal and they have this je ne sais quoi.