Patrick Gatonga: From a little mabati hamlet to C-suite


Patrick Gatonga. PHOTO | POOL

Dr Patrick Gatonga, the AAR Insurance Group CEO is a man of many words. Words tumble out of him in a staggering viscosity. But then again, he is a man of a great journey and men like him need words to illustrate these expeditions of life.

For him, it is from a little mabati hamlet of Maasai land to Starehe Boys where the love of music captured him, taking him to the very doorstep of medicine and the intrigues of human anatomy.

Now he finds himself a leader, an executive coach, board director [AAR Insurance Group CEO] at 37 and he is learning to step back and let some things play out, to run their course.


You grew up in Maasai land, how did you end up there?

To be frank, I don't fully know the history, but I think in the late 60s people started looking for places to live out of Nairobi. People who had moved from upcountry, especially in the then, very populated Central Highlands.

So when my parents moved to Nairobi, they found it difficult to go back because most of the land was inherited and the little that was available for sale was getting smaller and smaller.

I don't know exactly how they got wind of it, but they learned that there was land up for sale for settlement in Kajiado. The land was cheap and they were among the very first people to settle.

I remember open land, plains literally. We lived in a tiny mabati (iron sheet)house and when you opened the door you'd see giraffes crossing or an antelope just springing out of the bushes. That entire area was one animal migration path, connecting Nairobi

National Park down to Kajiado, into Tanzania, the Serengeti, Ngorongoro. I grew up like a typical Maasai boy.

What did you want then, as a typical Maasai boy?

Life was simple and the ambitions were very basic. Nothing too wild. Because of the wildlife then, and the route to the wildlife areas, there were lots of tourists.

So once in a while, you'd see a tourist's vehicle and you want to be a tourist vehicle driver. In the early 90s, they [investors] started digging quarries, developers would source building stones from there and if you saw a big truck, you'd then aspire to be a truck driver.

When planes come to land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), they would turn around Ngong Hills, to face the JKIA runway. Once in a while, you'd see an airplane and say you want to be a pilot. So the ambitions kept changing depending on what appeared in front of you.

So where did medicine come from?

When I was nearly finishing my primary school education, my mom fell ill. Her legs swelled and she was taken to a local dispensary but didn't get better as days turned into weeks.

Then the decision was made to take her to Kikuyu Hospital in Kiambu. At that time when you heard a patient was taken to Kikuyu Hospital or Kenyatta National Hospital, you knew it was a big deal. It turned out that she had a heart condition, Rheumatic heart disease.

Until her diagnosis at Kikuyu, she had gone from hospital to hospital, but doctors couldn't find the problem. That was my very first memory of thinking that maybe I should become a doctor so that she doesn't have to go through this again. She's still alive.

Interestingly, after high school, I was offered two musical scholarships; one to Japan and the other to Sweden. There were not too many people who would play instruments in those days.

I can't tell you the reason I declined, but, I just didn't even bother. Instead, I went to university to study medicine.

And where does the music come from?

The church, I think. As a child, over the weekends we would hang out around a Catholic church because there was a football field next to it that we would go to play in.

The nuns there would bake biscuits and offer them to us. The priests sometimes would dish out mandazis. It was just a nice hangout area for all the children around there. I was an Altar boy, in fact all my siblings were.

One of the Tanzanian priests was studying music in the seminary and he was very good at it. He started a programme that would train children to play the keyboard. After football, we would all attempt to play a few keys, you know, children just messing around. I stuck to it and he started teaching me more and I enjoyed it.

Starehe Boys had a very well-structured music programme. I joined a music class that was taught by a professional trainer, a really good piano teacher. I participated in competitions against students from high-end private schools.

My teacher then decided to expose me to an alternative audience. He was from the UK so he had links to schools over there. I learned a lot more of piano. From then, anything I've done has touched on music in some way.

Is there an intersection where music and medicine cross?

There is the healing power of music but I also think music in itself brings a lot of creativity that can be applied in how we develop medical treatments, how we see patients because music is a lot about feeling and expression.

Music and medicine are ultimately very connected but we don't spend enough time blending the two worlds. In areas this happens, it becomes a very beautiful story.

Do you believe in prayer?

I do. I’m both spiritual and religious but I think ultimately the real question is do I believe in God, or an existence of a supernatural being somewhere? I truly believe there is. I studied human anatomy and enjoyed it.

As humans, we are designed very intricately and I spent some years dissecting human beings, understanding every single part of the body including at a cellular level. I don't believe there's a way that just happened, there must be some supernatural power behind it.

And if you look at it from a science perspective, it's so organised that it's almost predictable. You can measure the speed of sound and light.

You can measure how fast the earth rotates and it's consistent. You can derive formulas for how everything operates. I don't believe it's just by chance.

What are you currently praying for?

I'm married with two children. They are the centre of my life. I pray for many things but the one consistent prayer is that they have good health, basically the well-being of my family.

What's your biggest struggle now as a man?

My children are still young, the eldest is five years, the youngest is two years old. I worry about their future and whether I am bringing them up well and such. I mean, you can never be too sure.

What do you find that you are most insecure about at this stage?

(Pause) I'm beginning to think about what happens in retirement. It sort of crops into my mind once in a while. I'm not too close to it. I'm 37 now, so I imagine if retirement is typically at 60, I've got about 23 more years to go.

Sometimes I ask myself whether I will do enough to be fulfilled, to live comfortably in my retirement. Once in a while, I wonder whether I'm doing the right things now for that period.

Talking of fulfillment, what does that mean for you?

Fulfillment is to feel I made a difference. Over the years, it's become clearer to me that it's important to do something meaningful, to make a real impact in the world. So right now I'm obsessed with how to solve problems of healthcare and education, majorly because of my background.

There must be a way people can live without healthcare taking them back to poverty. I saw that with my parents, every time my mom fell sick, the first time she had to do surgery, it would set us back financially.

The impact on our family was massive. In terms of education, I don't think that we are at a point where we can consistently say we will produce people who can change and grow the continent.

I believe education is a big part of the change we need. I've been a big beneficiary of scholarships. I got a scholarship towards the end of my primary school and throughout high school.

My music education was, I mean, almost 100 percent through scholarship. I was lucky to meet people who were interested in my talents. So I believe good education can change the world. And I still don't believe we have cracked how to educate [our] people.

What are you trying to unlearn at your age?

The last few years I've spent a lot of time understanding myself as a leader. I doubt you can be an effective leader if you don’t know yourself. It’s very difficult to lead authentically unless you're very comfortable with yourself.

As a musician I used to think I could sing, but one of my biggest unlearning is that I couldn't sing. I can teach people how to sing, but I can't sing. The other unlearning is not feeling some type of way by stepping back and letting people do what they need to do.

I took up coaching last year and found a lot of meaning in being an executive coach and leading as a coach, which means focusing on what people can do and helping them to do it better, as opposed to trying to just bring your ways.

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