When it started getting late, the kind of lateness that could potentially get you in trouble with the wife, Peter Njenga walked out of the bar. Home was still not any further than dawn. At the parking lot, he was befuddled to find his car missing. “The police towed it away,” shouted a security guy from the depths of his dark dank booth. At the police station, the police demanded that he open his boot because someone at the bar had reported “blood all over” his boot. When he popped it open, lying there was a goat that he had earlier bought from the butchery to take home and that he had all forgotten about. The cops stood there laughing at the goat. This was over 20 years ago when he was a wee lad and had not invited Jesus Christ into his life.
Now Engineer Njenga is the new chief executive officer of KenGen, having ascended to this position after 31 years in the energy sector. His previous post was General Manager for Infrastructure Development at Kenya Power. He is coming in at a time when the company seeks to increase baseload electricity generation in the next 10 years.
A sharp dresser and an avid storyteller, Engineer Njenga seems to start all his statements with, “Let me tell you a story…”
You grew up in a massive family with dozens of siblings...
Yes. My father had three wives. First wife had nine children, the second had 11 and I’m the firstborn of the third wife, my mom, and we were 12. Then there was a son who joined the family. So 33 children. I was the 12th child.
Did you feel lost in that sea of siblings?
Let me tell you, the first wife was living in a separate region, but the other two were living together in the same house. And interestingly, it didn't matter where we took our meals. As long as there's a meal in whoever's house it is or kitchen, you went and ate. We were all treated as children belonging to one mother.
So I grew up not distinguishing the difference. But of course much later, as you grow older you start seeing the tensions and intrigues of polygamous families. At some point, I told myself, I don't think this is a good life because as the man grows older he is not able to cope with the fast life. So you will always tend to lean on one side because you can't cope and that brings a lot of tension.
Do you think he was happier to have three wives?
I think because of the traditions it was okay. I think he managed. He was fairly well-to-do. He was a salesman with Leyland. Most of the time he was out in the field and we never saw much of him. But whenever he came home and because I think he knew boys are cheeky he would call us and remove his belt and start whipping us while saying, ‘I know you boys must have done something wrong while I was away!’ [Laughter]. We grew up as a very united family. Even today if you meet my stepbrothers when we are together you wouldn't know who belongs to which family.
So what do you think your dad did to make that happen? This unity.
I think number one, he provided. We were born in Kiambu, a place called Redhill before we migrated to Nakuru County in 1973. I was born in 1967. He bought this Mzungu settler's land in Nakuru, a huge chunk of land, almost 800 acres. So he became a farmer, a large-scale farmer, growing wheat, and barley. He called himself Lord Mao (Chuckle). He was an organised man. I admire him even today and I have very sweet memories of him.
Did he die a happy man?
Oh yes. (Laughter) He enjoyed his life. At some point, as he grew old, he leaned towards spirituality. He became sick and because my wife is a doctor we had the privilege of taking care of him when he came to live with us. We would take him to the hospital. One day we went to see a doctor and the doctor- pointing at me - asked him, do you know this man? He looked at me and said, “Yes, I remember him. We used to work with him.” (Laughter).
How did that make you feel?
It made me feel so sad. My father is not able to recognise me anymore. He died in 2001 at 78, so he had lived his life. When I was told that he had died I shed tears. I remember driving to the hospital and crying so much I couldn’t see the road, so I had to pull over on the side and cry. It was a very tough time.
How did growing up in a polygamous setup, with a man like that, inform the man you eventually became?
One of the things that I borrowed from my father is that he was a stickler for time. You noted I came here on time. That’s my dad. He was also a very clean guy.
Like you, I’ve noticed that you are impeccable.
Oh no, I’m no match for my father. The only person who might come close to my dad’s cleanliness is my brother, David. He’s a replica of the man. David washes his hands for so long everybody gets concerned. (Laughter). My dad always only wore very white shirts and nice suits. He had many pairs of shoes. I remember all of them because I used to be the one to polish them every Saturday. Even to date, I shine my shoes because nobody can shine my shoes like I do.
It must be challenging for your wife to live with a man like you.
(Laughs) Let me tell you another story. When you get married you imagine that your partner will do the things you do. We used to quarrel a lot with my wife at the start. I’d ask, “Why don’t you shut the door?’ I used to wonder why she couldn’t do things the way I do them. But after some time I realised that she is a different person. Her background is different. And when she told me that growing up they lived in a single room, they never had a door to lock because there was only one door to go out, so it seemed natural for her to walk out of rooms and not close the door or switch off a light!
Some of our children - we have three - have taken after her so they don't lock doors. (Laughs) But I decided I would not bother anybody. I just go and lock the doors and turn off the lights. And I'm a happy man.
How has been your experience climbing up the corporate ladder?
I graduated from the University of Nairobi in 1990, electrical engineering….but the other part of my story is maybe because of my father's influence, I married early. My father married his first wife when he was 24. I married when I was 23, so I beat him. (Chuckle) So you can imagine that I had some struggles initially. I have a wife and we have a daughter because my wife fell pregnant when we were in university and that didn’t faze me one bit because she was the right woman for me.
Remember I grew up in a home that had many children. My wife was still in medical school. I lived in a single room in Ngara where she would come over the weekend. The room was divided by a curtain. I got a job at Kenya Polytechnic University as an assistant lecturer before getting into Kenya Power as a graduate engineer and within a very short period, I had risen to become a senior engineer.
There was one year I was promoted twice. I worked in Nyeri for a while, I recall. This was in 2004 when I was just putting up a house in Ngong. I left my family behind and would shuttle between Nyeri and Ngong in Nairobi every Friday and Monday morning. It wasn’t easy, of course, because we were close as a family and time apart was not easy.
Let me tell you a story. I’d leave Monday at 4am for Nyeri. The children were away in boarding school, so it was just me and my wife. Sometimes I’d take my tea before leaving and there are days I’d find the cup I used on Monday at the same spot when I went back on Friday. One time I asked my wife, what is the problem? Why do I find this cup every Friday when I come back? She told me, ‘Because I’m lonely in this house when you are gone, seeing that cup there makes me feel you are around.’
So touching! Did that make you sad?
It made me sad, very sad. That’s also why every Friday I’d dutifully fuel my car over lunch hour and just wait for 4.30pm sharp to start moving so that I’d get home in time to be with her. It also gives you a perspective of life and people, and how things aren’t what they seem because you see them like that.
Would you consider marrying many wives like your dad?
Do you know what happens when you marry many wives? You can’t treat them the same all the time. Your allegiance keeps shifting, And guess who suffers when she is a villain? Her children. I saw this and I promised myself I would have one wife and one family so that I provide for them and the environment would be the same continuously.
What are the pressures of being the man at the top, being a CEO?
The pressure of carrying the organisation on your shoulders. Anything goes wrong and fingers point at you. You have no shelter. Remember the famous blackout at the airport? I was maybe a week old in this role when it happened and some people were blaming me for it. 'He must be the one who has caused this problem,' they said. These are things I have to accept. What’s important is to try and make everybody work as a team, for each one of us to start seeing ourselves as a part of that leadership.
How different did your life change when you accepted Jesus Christ in your life many years ago?
When I got saved, people were asking me, we thought you were saved. (Laughter) My nature has always been non-antagonising. We always went to church as a family, every Sunday without fail. Devout Christians. Before salvation, I’d enjoy life on the other side. And I did enjoy it without regrets. I balanced my family and that life because I never wanted anything to come between me and my wife. But of course, my wife used to be worried that sometimes I would go out and not come back home at a good hour. And she would wonder whether I'm committed.
Let me tell you a story. I remember one time I went to a joint on Thika Road. I had gone to buy meat for my family in some place, Kiamaiko. I think we were having some party at home or something the next day. On the way back, I decided, ah, let me go and have two before I head home. So I went into the pub, got my drinks, enjoyed myself, and at some point when I was leaving, I went and found my car was not there. I was told by the guards that the police towed it. So I went to the police station. These guys told me, open your boot. I opened the boot and they found I had a goat. Do you know why they towed my car? When the guy was putting the goat there was blood on the boot and someone thought there was something fishy in my car.
So you can imagine going back home very late and telling your wife these stories, she can’t believe you! (Laughs). So in the early 2000s, I really reviewed my life and I decided that even though I tend to enjoy life on the other side, I think it is safe to be on the side of God. Because when such things come and you call upon the name of the Lord, I always say, he's a strong tower. The name of the Lord is a strong tower. When you run to it, you're safe. Proverbs 18:10.