Coming from a thriving career in the private sector [Director of Human Resources, Aga Khan University] Terry Ramadhani finds herself, waist-high, in the deepest and murkiest end of public service as the CEO of the (infamous) Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (Kemsa).
It has been seven months since she bit the bullet and in her office on Embakasi Road, she - while balancing her lunch on her knees - talks about balancing politics and service delivery.
For as long as she remembers, Terry has always wanted to join the army and fight the good war but her mother wouldn't hear of it and thought she was out of her mind.
However, running Kemsa is as close to being in the army as she will get, seeing as her role feels like constantly being in the trenches.
Tell me something interesting about your childhood.
(Chuckles)First, between me and my siblings, there is a big age difference so I pretty much grew up as an only child.
My dad was an ardent supporter of the girl child and shaped my worldview. I was a tomboy, the girl hanging upside down on railings and trees in the compound. I'd run down the hills around Nyeri and quite often hurt myself.
My mother took me to the local dispensary for tetanus injections so many times until she got fed up and told me, "listen, you know where it (dispensary) is, take yourself".
I also had very strong women around me. Both of my grandmothers had lost their husbands earlier in their lives and therefore brought up their families by themselves.
My dad’s mom, a very brilliant lady, was a no-nonsense little old woman. She used to sell bananas by the road. During the war against the Mau Mau, she moved from place to place with her young children.
She was also a very spiritual woman caught between her Kikuyu culture and Christianity.
So she would have certain reactions that are very Kikuyu-like and then somewhere along the way she'd be like "Ah, I put Jesus Christ down for a minute, forgive me, I've taken Him back". [Laughter]
As a strong woman raised by strong women, is there some sort of weakness that comes with great strength?
Hmm. Very interesting. [Pause] For me it's not being able to ask for help. I have always struggled with that. I don’t know how to talk about the struggle.
I don't know whether it's because of my culture or maybe in my upbringing we didn't have space for one to articulate a struggle.
We were encouraged to suck it up and do what needed to be done. Sometimes I feel guilty because I push my children to that kind of thinking.
Two of them are very emotional and often I find myself pushing them toward more logical thinking. Yet here is the funny and contradictory thing, I am very emotional myself even though I don't express my emotions.
I feel deeply for myself and others, I’m an empath but because I'm also quite disagreeable I will not allow myself to express that emotion, particularly when it's negative. Does that make sense?
Completely. Do you find wearing emotions on your sleeves to be a weakness?
I find it completely unacceptable. I just don't know what to do with it. Nowadays my daughter controls her emotions a little in the sense that she won't burst into tears in front of people but when she gets sulky, or whatever, I never know what to do with her.
If I have one of my close friends around I usually request her to go and talk to her because I fear if I did it, I'd be hard on her and won't appreciate what she's dealing with. I have no tools for those kinds of conversations.
How have you survived romance with this disposition?
Terribly! (Loud laughter) You have to know me well to appreciate my kind of salty love. I will struggle to say I love you or I appreciate you. I will settle for sarcasm.
That's my way of letting you know that I'm fond of you. However, that's the exterior. Deep down I’m a teddy bear.
I have so much love and emotional goodies but you can't get to them unless I open a little door to allow you inside.
What are you protecting?
I honestly don't know. I've asked myself that question many times and as I've grown older I've been trying to learn how to articulate it. But I think I am afraid of rejection.
What do you want your daughter to know now that you knew quite late in your life?
That she's enough. I wish I felt that I am enough when I was in my early teens and my early 20s. Maybe it wouldn't have made me so afraid of loss, of rejection.
Maybe it wouldn't have made me feel that perhaps I need to be affirmed. And even as I say these things, I always know how they are in such stark contrast to who people perceive me to be, even without factoring in my CEO role.
I don't come across as somebody who needs to be affirmed or who's afraid of loss or rejection.
And then to imagine that every time I'm digging deep and wondering why I feel the need to just close people off and not let them in, what am I so afraid of?
What shakes you?
(Chuckle) Being ignored. The feeling of rejection. [Pause] It is my idea of hell. It cuts very deep.
What drove you as a young girl?
I was this child who couldn't wait for her father to come home to get the newspapers and read from the front page to the last.
I had read all the books in that house. My mother says that I was a very inquisitive child. I loved learning in school, I was the teacher’s pet. I love conversations, I get bored by aimless talk.
Are there any of life's questions that you're asking yourself in this season of your life?
(Pause) Why are matters of the heart so complicated? I'm struggling with figuring out if it's just okay to follow your heart even if what it wants is not what everybody else is willing to accept.
But I'm not sure as CEO whether I should be having such things out in the public domain.
Because you're human first. When were you on the shakiest of grounds?
Hhhm. I think April/ May 2021 is the hardest period yet of my life. It's never been harder. I lost somebody who meant a lot to me.
That death had far-reaching repercussions on many crucial relationships in my life. At that point I experienced darkness in my life, I just couldn't see any light.
What has surprised you about this job, about working for the government?
(Sighs) I'm surprised by how deeply self-interests can keep up a fight at the country's expense. They just don't run out of steam, they fight relentlessly.
Have you learned how to fight them?
Yes, by focusing on service delivery. But the noise continues. We have a few strategies to deal with them, including communicating what we’re doing more effectively, hoping that that will overwhelm the negativity.
But I cannot invest too much energy there because that distracts me from the job that I should be doing. And in a way, that is what these distractors want - me not to perform.
How much would you say politics affects this office?
This is a highly political role so, if you're looking at a percentage, anywhere upwards of 70 percent is politics. This is a hot seat, it has many self-serving interests that would rather have whomever they think is malleable here.
So, every other day there's a new fight at my doorstep. I find ways to sort of try, I don't want to say ignore, but to tactfully train myself not to focus on the noise.
You had a decent job before, what drove you to this cesspit of…marauding monsters? Did you not like your life before?
(Laughter) Oh my God, the question of my life. At Aga Khan and I had this wonderful boss called Carl Amrhein, he's a professor. When I was first appointed to the board (Kemsa), I informed him it was something I wanted.
I remember he said to me, in his Canadian accent, "every newspaper I pick up there's always a negative story about Kemsa. And then, there is Terry, running right into the fire".
[Chuckles] I laughed and said, "I don't know, maybe I'm a sucker for pain." And so you can imagine then, deciding to quit the board and apply to be the CEO was a moment of a lot of soul-searching.
I was quite happy in the private sector, I could continue serving the board, why do I need to go this way?
But you have to understand, Biko, the one year I was on the board, I spent so much time together with my board colleagues, trying to figure out how to get the institution back on track.
One of our biggest challenges was that the system within the institution was not allowing changes to start taking root.
But I'm one of those people who believe that in this life, there has to come a moment when you need to do things that are bigger than you. I'm always up for a good challenge.
You know, I had wanted to go into the army when I finished high school but my mom stopped me. When I left university, I tried again to join the navy because Kenya doesn't have any enemies on the water so I figured mom would be fine with that.
She still refused. Then I said, "how about I serve in Kakuma, the refugee camp?" She asked, "what the hell is that?"
But why the army?
Because I love discipline and order. I think we have so much to do as a society and without discipline and order it's difficult to move things along.
When my friend’s children want to come over for a sleepover I’m always very blunt. I tell them, "you are free to bring them but you know I run my house like a military camp. So my rules are going to be the rules to follow. If you're not happy with your children abiding by my rule system, please don't bring them".
They're like "no no no, actually we should leave them with you for a few weeks to straighten them for us". Order and discipline are important because I don't think that you can achieve anything in life without them.
And where does that come from?
My mother. She was very militant. She had a place in the kitchen chimney where she used to keep a stick just for me.
Whenever I misbehaved, she would use it on me. She was very liberal with her beatings. (Chuckles) And so I have a higher affinity for discipline, I like things done well, no half-measures.
If you've got a job do it well. Even if it takes a lot out of you, do it well. I find it difficult to accept things that are not properly done.
Do good intentions matter in politics?
(Chuckles) That's a very interesting question. I think they matter because again, I am one of those people who still believe in the goodness of humanity.
I believe you can find the very best and the very worst in us. Yet I don't believe that there is somebody who is completely good or completely bad.
The issue is always trying to figure out how to awaken the good that you're trying to tap. I love this quote and I forget who said it, but Obama used to use it a lot; "we imagine that we are inheriting what we have today from our ancestors. But actually, we are borrowing our children's future. Whatever we do today will determine what it is that will happen to them".
I hope the little I do today may contribute to the future of my three children.
Have you considered that all this could just go pear shape?
Yeah, I have. What I haven't done though is allow myself to dwell on it. I'm also a strong believer that our realities are made of our thinking because our thinking impacts our actions.
I prefer to spend time visualising and imagining.
I also believe that there is a higher power, whether you want to call it the universe, Allah or God or Buddha, there is something about when you bring your best energies to bare and your best intentions and the goodwill and wishes that you have, that the universe does conspire to make that happen.