Christine Nkonge’s fears in midlife self-discovery

Christine Gakii Nkonge, Katiba Institute CEO.

Photo credit: Courtesy

If you listen only to the words Christine Gakii Nkonge speaks, you will only hear the sound she makes, one of self-assuredness, shed off from all fat and conjecture, simple and concise, delivered with the air of a monk meditating on a mountain. The phrase wise beyond her years was made for moments like these, for people like her.

But if you cross-examine further, if you Iisten to what’s not being said, you will hear the colours and understand that perhaps Christine is afraid that she is running out of time. “As I exit Katiba, will I still have the energy to chase after the things I postponed?”

Perhaps it’s not that she is running out of time, but that time is catching up with her. It was ever thus: one day you are cock of the walk, the next a feather duster. This is the law of the universe.

As the Chief Executive Officer at Katiba Institute, she knows a few things about the law. How it courted her. How she fell in love with it. And now, what next? But any narrative 'Kiki’ spins about her life is not just an act of interpretation—it’s inevitably one of imposition. She is smart, yes, and that makes it easier. But it doesn’t make it easy.

Knowing what you know now, is it easier to bend the law à la tax avoidance and tax evasion?

[Chuckles] That is not even ethical, neither from my Katiba Institute role nor my law profession. We ensure full compliance with the law, we cannot break what we are trying to enforce, haha.

What aspect of the law do you struggle with?

The leadership and integrity chapter, mostly because in terms of compliance this is citizen-led. Since Parliament is elected by the people, and said parliamentarians tend to fall short on that chapter, enforcing and implementing the Constitution becomes more difficult.

Are the laws made for the people or do the people determine the laws are for them?

Both. We are in a democracy, and because the majority elect certain people, the people should vote on the basis that the people they elect into power share the same principles and ideologies—sort of a mirror. It’s a way of the people themselves making the law, but sometimes the law does not favour the majority but brings law and order in society. We give over power to certain people and those people in turn protect us through the laws and policies and taxation. Sometimes the law is made for the pole, and sometimes by the people.

Were you a rule follower as a child?

Yes. Haha. I never got into trouble in school for any sort of misbehaviour.

What do you miss most about your childhood?

Freedom to make mistakes and experiment without being judged harshly from an adult lens. I can make a mistake and recover—that always assists in people having a sense of adventure and being curious and being able to define their characters more quickly and deeply with that kind of freedom.

What was your nickname growing up?

Kiki from my name Gakii.

What remains unchanged about Kiki since childhood?

Mhh. I am still an easy-going person and playful. What has changed is that I have had to cut my sense of adventure based on the different roles I have taken up, a little bit more conservative in my views, from different perspectives.

Some would say the older one grows, the more they shed the straitjacket and embrace the freedom only old age can give…

I think my generation, people born in the 80s, was the last decade of innocence because we grew without a lot of technological advancement that does not impede your sense of growing organically. One has to be extremely aware of the different audiences one is speaking to because there are ways now that information can be manipulated.

What does the 80s Kiki tell the Kiki now?

This Kiki will tell the younger one to always be curious because that helps you discover new things and see things from different perspectives. And I would tell her you never know till you try. Just try.

But what would that Kiki tell you now?

It’s never that serious haha! The older you get, you realise you don’t have an infinite amount of time, simply chart your way and face your challenges through your lens.

Christine Gakii Nkonge, Katiba Institute CEO.

Photo credit: Courtesy

What is that one thing you want to try but keep on postponing?

A long sabbatical. I have been working right out of university, not taking any time off, high-stress jobs for many years. Not even an academic sabbatical, but somewhere I can relax and discover who I am at this stage of life.

What is that one place you want to go?

I have always wanted to go to Asia, but I am not sure which part. Just because it is a very different culture, and that is the continent I am yet to visit. I want to experience the developed culture of meditation and self-awareness and self-care.

What does Asia say about you?

Does it have to make a statement, haha! As I am going on my sabbatical, it’s a chance for self-discovery since at this point in my life and career, Asia aligns more with how I am now and what I am feeling now.

You come off as someone who pushes the limits, what is it you are running away from—or rather, chasing?

That’s an interesting way of phrasing it, but if you were born in the 80s, what was expected of us was that we needed to work and succeed. I adapted that attitude, so not really running but simply meeting societal expectations. But I happened to fall into a job that I like, and I think I am lucky, inspired by my history teacher. I just want to make a change in people’s lives through the law.

What’s the most boring part about being you?

Being a lawyer is very repetitive. Only once in a while will you get a new case that will be exciting—otherwise it’s the usual rigmarole, reading the same text, laws, and procedures.

How then do you remain spontaneous?

I try to have a diverse group of friends who can talk about different things like interior design, art, poetry, agriculture, organic farming et al. This removes my mind from the kind of work we do in the human rights field, almost living vicariously through others.

What does your ideal friend weekend look like?

Begins in the late afternoon, around 3 Pm for late lunch, then we decide if this is a weekend where we can meet and cook and have wine; or the kind of weekend where we meet in a park and play some games. I am not into strenuous activities like hiking.

What is a special treat you do just for yourself?

Buying books. If I feel I have done so well, I either buy myself a nice perfume or a book.

What is one book you’ve read that shifted your perspective?

Because I tend to lead an organisation, my books are skewed toward increasing leadership skills. The last book I read was from a friend of mine which opened my eyes to something you find in the Kenyan society where quite several lawyers are parliamentarians and politicians—and how they are part of the problem especially when they are in leadership positions. The book is called “Lawyers as Leaders” and it’s by Deborah Rhode.

As a leader, when do you get to park your brain and just exist?

Whoa. When I am a daughter in my mother’s house. Whenever I am at home, we don’t do legal stuff, we just discuss family and societal issues.

Were you closer to your mom or dad?

I am a daddy’s girl; I have a personality that is closer to my dad than my mom. But I am good friends with my mom too.

 What does your dad say about you?

When he was still around, and the older you get as a child, you become more of a friend to your parents as opposed to as a child. We would engage with my dad as friends, taking football, society, investments, and politics.

What would you change about the way you were raised?

Mmh. I was not raised in a traditional African manner, and that made me quite liberal. There were no gender demarcations, we did the same tasks and were taught the same things. I was raised in a way that did not constrict my views, maybe I would change not going to a same-gender boarding school because it helps in not having skewed views in certain ways.

What is your biggest insecurity right now?

I am going through change, just about to exit Katiba Institute. I am charting my path, and I feel time and energy allow me to do a lot of things. There is an energy that comes with youth, and time is insecurity, how do I define the second phase of my career, and whether I will have the energy to be able to do it the same way I did in the first phase full of energy and passion.

What are you thanking yourself for?

Being kind to myself. Even though I make mistakes, I am not extremely harsh with myself and realise I am human and move on. Failure is a part of life—you can have moments of lots of energy, passion, and determination but also moments of lethargy, questioning yourself, and not being as productive. That balance helps me to stabilise.

What are you apologising to yourself for?

Let me think about that a little bit. [thinks quite a bit] Not travelling more when I was younger or doing more activities that are social driven, because I tend to be a bit bookish and introverted. Maybe being less introverted and exploring nature and events with youth on your side.

Have you forgiven yourself?

Yes, I know I sound old but I am not haha! Maybe with this sabbatical, I will be able to do the things I never had time to do.

What is life’s simplest pleasure?

A good bottle of wine and good food. Those go together, don’t they?

They should. What’s your go-to meal?

I like a good soup. When you make a good broth, whether it be meat- or plant-based—a good broth is very comforting.

What is that one law that has governed your life?

Treat others as you would like to be treated. It has helped me in my dealings, and leading Katiba Institute. I treat everyone the same—your office assistant is of equal value as the chair of the board. You look at yourself as one part of the whole, and you need that one part to function optimally as the whole.

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