Wanjeri Kihara: How losing a child changed meFriday May 12 2023
Wanjeri Kihara knows a thing or two about starting on a disadvantaged footing.
Being born to a teenage mom in a tea plantation, raised by her grandparents and realising that only education would get her out of that circumstance. And it did.
There was also the need to get married and have five children. That also happened even though she lost one along the way.
Now, as the Head of the KCB Foundation, she’s keen to extend the magic of education to the disadvantaged, especially girls like her who were born to teenage mothers. “For every 1,000 students we support, 100 are teen mothers,” she says.
“We go across this country looking for teen mothers or girls that have been forced into early marriages.”
What do you remember about your childhood?
I was born in Marinyin, a tiny village in Kericho. It's located in one of the farms within the African highlands, a very serene and green place. My mom had me in her early teen years. The difference between our ages is 14 years.
So I'm a teenage baby; I didn't even breastfeed because as soon as she gave birth to me, she had to go back to school and sit her exams.
We moved to Njoro, where my grandma raised me. Mom passed her exams, joined a teacher's training college, and became a teacher. In Class Five, I joined her back in Marinyin, where she taught.
She studied hard and now is an MBA holder, which I'm not. I tried it when I was pregnant but couldn't hack it with a big belly. Anyway, I had very humble beginnings.
How was it being raised by your grandma?
It was challenging. I had to walk to a small school that was about 10 kilometres away, most of the time barefoot. Education is an equalizer.
I always knew that one of the things that would get me out of that rat race was education, and luckily I was bright. I was one of the five top girls in Kericho District. So I was admitted to Maryhill Girls, then Kenyatta University.
I worked at BAT while still in the university, graduated in 1999, and moved to the Kenya Women Finance Trust, where I started working with many women groups.
I joined Housing Finance, rose the ranks, and then KCB poached me. My grandmother was very hardworking and tough. She taught me to stand up for myself. That’s my childhood.
Of course, later, I got married. I met my husband at university and always wanted five children, even though we have four.
Why five children?
I have a brother who is 14 years younger than me. I essentially raised him because he came when I was already a young adult. I grew up as the only child before he was born.
I wanted that big family. Coincidentally, my husband also grew up with one sibling. When he proposed marriage, I asked him, 'Are you ready to have five children?' He said, 'Sure, let's see how it goes.' He must have thought that was hot air. [Chuckle].
We have four children now - we lost the fifth a day after she was born. My firstborn son is at the University of Nairobi doing medicine in surgery. He's in his second year.
My second-born son is in Form Four. So I have two candidates, my son and a daughter, who is in Class 8, and then the last born, a baby. I respect moms who lose their young ones because I almost lost it.
How did losing a child change you as a person?
Wow. It has a very, very big impact. It has everything to do with my coming back to KCB. As a career woman, I realised your support system is crucial because you can’t change the facts.
You’re a mother and a wife, but also expected to perform at the workplace. It has also had a significant impact on my career decisions.
I’ve declined job offers because losing my baby made me realise how important family is and how my choices are crucial.
I tell many young women that there are many times they will have the option of a career and family, and unless they find a balance, they’ll end up unhappy. I’ve seen many bankers end up being senior spinsters. Others have broken homes.
Choosing the right employer that gives me an environment where I can work, knowing that family is still at the core, is critical. But losing my baby just underpinned the importance of that.
I also realised that many career women lose in some form or another. It could be through miscarriages or even struggling to get a baby. It prompted me to start a group within the bank that supports women who have lost babies, gone through miscarriage, or are frustrated trying to get a baby.
It was important because, besides being workers, we are also human beings, and getting a child is at the core of many of us. Without a support structure, it can be challenging.
This is a question I should probably be asking your husband, but how do you think he dealt with losing a baby?
It wasn’t easy for him. I think he struggled with questions; would I have done something differently? Should I have let her be a stay-at-home mom instead of the two of us being at work?
And the problem with men is that they don’t talk. He didn’t talk about it then, but later we did. I realised he was terrified. When he saw the dark hole I was in, I could tell he felt responsible.
Then the other thing is that men react to situations by trying to fix them. So he quickly went into the fix mode and asked himself, ‘What do I need to do so this girl can feel she doesn’t have to work very hard?’
There’s probably little he could have done because I’m a career person, and I love what I do. I told him that my career pursuit had nothing to do with losing the baby, and that people work at home and still lose babies.
But it’s good. Such experiences push us to do things right. In our case, he made certain investment decisions to secure our future. I’m glad he did that.
Your mom left you to pursue her education and you only reconnected many years later. How was that experience?
Growing up, I was naive. Everybody called my mother Milly, so I called her Milly. For a long time, I knew my grandmother was my mother and my mom was Milly.
But mom made sure she was very present in my life. She would always come home, always with very nice gifts. Only in Class Six did I become aware she was my mom.
She made it easy because she remained connected to me, so it was not very hard for me to live with her.
Was there a time you were ever curious about your dad?
Interestingly, never. I only asked mom about my dad when I became an adult. It's not something that preoccupied my mind. Growing up, I never saw him.
But my grandfather was a very influential male figure in my life. He was very calm and loving and had a lot of respect for my grandma. He influenced my choices for a husband; many of the values I saw in my grandfather, my husband embodies them. We will celebrate 23 years of marriage this December.
Most young women get into marriage expecting the man to be the sole provider. But I got in knowing it's a partnership, so we work together.
When did you last let yourself down?
When I lost my baby. I allowed myself to drawn in sorrow. I almost lost my sanity. I used to hallucinate. Grief took complete control of me.
Should it have not?
I don't know. I think I would have been stronger. Yeah. I would have been stronger.
So in this season of your life, what do you want for yourself?
I have it. I have the family I wanted. I'm happy with the progress that my children are making. I'm happy with my career.
I love what I'm doing right now because it's connecting to the same things that built me, the background that I came from.
At the Foundation we support children whose parents or guardians cannot pay for their education. And one of the things I've made sure I've done is to have teen mothers as part of those children because it reminds me of my mom.
Had she not been given that opportunity just because she got a baby, then I would not be where I am. I'm happy because it feels like I'm giving back to the society.
Talking of education, what do you think you're learning now in life?
I'm learning to unlearn, and it's not easy. There are things we do that get us to where we are but that is not enough to get us to where we probably aspire to be.
So I'm beginning to unlearn and part of it is also by listening. I have become more spiritual and I’m trying to make sure that my family also gets more connected to God as a pillar.
I'm at a stage where it's not about my career, it’s about my purpose and values.
Why gold and not silver?
I like fine things in life. I think gold is fine. I go for fine things in life (chuckles). I'm sure you've seen there's a lot of gold [in the office]. I actually don't have silver things. And I don't mix.