What I learnt from my mess


Jennifer Karina, Kenya ReInsurance Corporation board chair and coach. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NMG

There were men on Jennifer Karina’s roof. They were mending the roof of their 35-year-old house in a leafy neighbourhood. It is a house of great history. It’s the only house she has lived in since being married 45 years ago, at the age of 17, raising three children who all have their own children.

It is in this house that she has transformed from a housewife to a woman who continues to burn her path with education, passion and determination.

She is the chairperson of the Board of Directors and non-executive director of Kenya Reinsurance Corporation, a psychologist, a certified coach, an energy leadership practitioner, an acclaimed speaker, an author, and a PhD student in Educational Psychology.

Hers is a museum of great mutation.

Jennifer has ascended to the apex of her career. The men labouring on her roof offer a metaphor for where she is at the moment.

“There is a critical moment in one's life when you have to ask yourself, what was this all for? ” She posed to JACKSON BIKO on her patio recently. “What am I leaving behind?” she said.


What do you remember about your childhood?

I remember being homesick because my father, a banker who worked all over Kenya, decided to take all five of us to boarding schools. We were young. I felt rejected.

We lived in Embu, Murang’a, Nyeri and Kisii. I can speak Kisii. [Speaks Kisii] I even have a Kisii name. We finally settled in Nairobi, and we’ve lived in Ridgeways for many years—just down the road from here. I chose to settle here so that I could be close to my parents. It worked well in their older years, being able to take care of them in their sunset years.

My father was my friend. I got married young. I was 19, so my father served not only as my best friend but the man who supported me financially. Before his accident in 50s, that made him stay in the house until his death, we went places together; cocktails, we met his banking friends, went to Mombasa with my siblings...

What about your mom?

She was a teacher. We didn’t have a great relationship. She wasn’t very active in our lives. Being a psychologist today I believe she must have been going through depression. But I never thought it that way. I thought she hated me, that she didn’t like her children. That she didn’t care.

But I recognise that she was unhappy. Something tragic happened in her life. She lost two babies, my brothers. One of them choked in his sleep and died, the other one died in a home car accident. I don’t think my mother ever recovered.

Looking back I don’t know how to recover from those kinds of losses unless you go through extensive therapy. And in those days there was no therapy. You come home from school, you find your dead brother on the bed, he’s just been hit by the car that your father was driving. It was so traumatic. Now I wish my mother was alive to be able to deal with those things.

So yeah, I blamed myself for never being good enough. There is nothing I could have done that was good enough. Let me tell you Biko, I was so fed up that I decided I will find a man. So at 17, I found Bob, my husband. [Bob Karina, founder, and chairman Faida Investment Bank]

Where did you find Bob?

You attract that which you’re looking for. I was in church with my mother for a wedding at All Saints’ Cathedral.

He was the photographer. As he was taking photos, he got to where we were sitting and took a photo of us, moved the camera, and looked at me, our eyes locked and something magical happened right there. [Chuckles).

So as I walked out of the church, he followed and he told me, ‘my name is Bob. What’s your name?’ I was like ‘can’t you see I’m with my mother?’

[Laughs]. I met him on the bus thereafter, call it destiny, call it fate, I don’t know. We started dating. At 19, I walked down the aisle at All Saints’ Cathedral; on December 17, 1977

My parents were very disappointed. Everybody was. I was crying. This December we are celebrating 45 years of marriage. Next month we’re celebrating Bob’s 70th birthday.


Yes, and I have never left my home for one night, one day, one minute. We have been very stable. By 23, I had three children. Then I chose to go back to school because it was important for my father. He said “Jenny, you have to get a degree. You cannot just be a housewife, God created you for better.’

So I signed up and I have been on a path of studying all my life. I’m always developing myself. The value of education was very high for my father because he grew up in poverty.

He was denied a bursary to go to Alliance High School because his father had just married another woman and that was unacceptable for a Christian.

However, an uncle who believed in education sponsored him to Makerere University. Biko, that is why my father valued education and that’s why I never got lost. He mentored me, he pushed me.

Bob was also so gracious to allow me to do what I needed to do.

What has been your most important education in life?

Seize the day and seize the moment. Yesterday is gone. Today you have an opportunity to show up in your best version.

I think for a larger part of my life I lived in regret of what I should have done, and what I could have done. A lot of lost energy. There are no guarantees about whether you will see tomorrow. And when you see it tomorrow, make the best out of it.

You say you have doggedly pursued education all your life, education, and knowledge. What would you say are the downsides of an abundance of education and knowledge?

Sometimes when we pursue something it is a result of our fears, self-doubt, and many times the imposter syndrome. You’re so good, you’ve learnt so much, but you have self-doubt.

I have a big file of certificates and somebody said to me one time, ‘Jenny, it’s not just about the certificates that you accumulate. It’s about the application of what you have learned.’

Many people pursue knowledge so that they can get the confidence to start either a business or find a job.

Biko, nobody asks me for my certificates, they just know Jenny Karina is an expert in relationship strategies and energy leadership.

The truth of the matter is you don’t need certificates to be an expert in an area. Look at the late Bob Collymore. No college degree but look what he achieved.

All those certificates…at the end of the day perception is the reality. At some point, I recognise that the reason I pursued education so relentlessly was that it was my pain point.

I was considered a failure because I got married early and I did not pursue an education. So I had to rectify that, to prove something.

When in your life did you experience the most freedom as a person?

I like that question, Biko! [Pause].

You know, I never knew that my greatest value was freedom. I felt stifled in marriage, initially. But I must say that my husband learned very quickly that I don’t thrive in being put in a box.

I need my freedom. To think, to do, to go... I must admit that I have more freedom than any average person. I do what I want, how I want, when I want. I have freedom of speech.

My husband gave our family democracy. Every Monday, from when my children were young, we could sit at the dinner table and everybody shared how their week was like, what they liked, and what they didn’t. We shared everything.

So because of such a democratic environment, I have found that sometimes I apply myself in the same manner in different spaces and it doesn’t always work.

Sometimes people don’t appreciate the truth. So I have freedom of mind, I have freedom of speech, but now I have the emotional intelligence to know what to apply where and when.

If you were a young mom and a young wife in these current times, what do you think you’d be struggling with the most and how would you solve them?

Balancing my family, work, hobbies, and interests. I think work-life balance cuts across every generation. What I have discovered, though, is that work-life balance is a fallacy. It will never happen. It’s a question of integrating your work, life, and love.

This means, that if I have a new lover, I need a time out from a couple of things. If I have a career that I’m growing, I need to have intentional conversations with my family and say, ‘you know for the next six months, I will require a bit of time.’

I remember when I was in school, I would do my assignments the whole night and Bob would be like, ‘Jenny, does it mean that you won’t come to bed?’

What I have learned is to have ample support and delegate. But as a young woman, you want to prove to yourself, to your family, to the world, that you are a superwoman.

So you get burned out as a result. Now I delegate. I involve the right people. I prioritise.

I help young people to design their love life so that they can live purposefully, love passionately, and thrive unapologetically.

I teach them based on my experience, research, and a curriculum that I have developed. Nobody taught me. I messed up. Big time. I learned from my mess.

How did your marriage survive for 45 years?

Thrive is the word you want to use, not survive. I’m in a good space. Bob and I are great friends, good lovers. He’s my life. A 17-year-old and a 22-year-old can grow up and be very divergent. But we have been very intentional about growing together, intellectually, in terms of our intimacy, and our communication.

We are committed to our course, it doesn’t matter what the sideshows are. We have learned to resolve our conflicts. We have bigger goals and visions together. Finance is an area that makes families fall.

Do you know I would give Bob my payslip and all the money I made? Because he was a better money manager. After many years you develop trust, I think that’s the biggest part of everything.

How do you maintain individuality in a marriage while also moving along as one unit?

Good one. When I got married, Biko, I knew I would be with Bob 24/7. Doing life together in everything. I minded that he had a circle of friends that I was not a part of.

I minded that he was playing squash and golf. He had a life outside us and I wanted to be in it. I cried a lot when I wasn’t part of that— I needed to be with him.

But as I went through mentorship I realised that marriage is not just about entering into each other’s lives. When you lose your individuality in marriage it’s over for you and that marriage. Why my relationship has worked is because I am an individual that is 100 percent independent and so is Bob.

We don’t need each other for emotional, mental, or intellectual power.  I don’t need Bob to complete me, and neither does he need me to complete him. We are complete in our individuality. Marriage is beautiful but it is about finding your space.

Bob is my number one cheerleader, but he doesn’t stifle me. If I get an assignment to go to the US next week, I will just pass it through him, and let him know that I will be going. He won’t ask me, why, what ... This is because I earned my freedom.

How did you do that?

Being faithful. He can trust me, that when I go anywhere, my highest value is family. I will not be messing around, I will not be doing something that will bring dishonour to him. He knows he can trust me. So he gave me freedom.

He once told me that I am a river. That if he blocks me I will destroy and break through things to find a way. So he gave me the freedom to be the river I need to be. I flow. I change course. I am intuitive, creative, and very unpredictable.

What are you struggling with as a woman now, in this season of your life?

I’m progressing in age. In two months, I’ll be 65. I’m no longer that young woman. I’m thinking about succession planning.

What should happen in my absence? What will... [Bob shows up: Distinguished. Tall. Fit. Moustachioed. White stubble. Marble eyes.] Oh hey, Bob! [Hugs him. Touches his arm.] When I met this guy, he was earning Sh530.

BOB: It was Sh520. You’re giving me too much credit. [Laughter]

Bob, what do you admire most about her, and secondly, what have you struggled most with about her?

When I first met her, I just saw a very beautiful lady. She fitted what I needed in a girl; a beautiful body, good legs, black, and beautiful.

She turned out to be very resilient and quite industrious. She always thought of how to increase the family kitty.

She found someone who is like her so we were two workhorses in our small way, trying to survive.

We have a great friendship. We communicate openly. We compromise. We have no secrets in our family. She is also very loving.

That is what I have struggled with; she is too loving, and it can get extreme. I’d have to tell her, ‘please Jenny, you have to control this now. It’s too much. I can’t handle it.’ [Raucous Laughter].