Weekend with the CEO
Githinji Gitahi’s love for Tumbukiza and walkingThursday February 09 2023
Good advice is like a nutrient-rich broth, made from boiling down the bones of life. If that is true then pull up a chair and have an entrée flavoured by Dr Githinji Gitahi, the global CEO of Amref Health and an interviewer’s wet dream.
He’s also served at Smile Train International as the vice president and regional director for Africa; had a stab at Nation Media Group as managing director of Monitor Publications in Uganda as well as GM for marketing and circulation in East Africa.
And of course, that stint at GlaxoSmithKline.
The 52-year-old has been through it all, or most of it anyway: married at 23, divorced, entered a long-term relationship, broke down, and remarried. It would make for saucy dumpster-fire tabloid-esque fodder, one the paparazzi would trip over themselves to cover with characteristic vigour.
Not one for self-flagellation, Dr Githinji doesn’t throw pity parties à la old man shouting at the clouds—neither does he take himself too seriously.
He is a serious person, yes, but he does know how to have serious fun if your idea of fun is walking 9,000 steps daily with the dedication of a Shaolin monk.
That’s where I meet him, at 6pm, in a lethargic Karen that is jerking itself to sleep, where he takes me down through winding paths and quiet roads, having replaced his loyal daily companion, an affable dog called Daisy.
I, the unfortunate gringo who gets to walk 9,000 steps (turns out walking ain’t no walk in the park hehe) as he croons about how he picked up walking and lets me in on the secret that he is the local Tumbukiza legend.
Tumbukiza (Swahili for submerge) is a famous dish made from boiling meat until it begs to be eaten, fried and mixed with vegetables.
Some say it is a great cure for a hangover but Dr Githinji knows better: it is his monopoly card when he wants to bring the family together. Walking is not a physical exercise for Dr Gitahi; it is a somatic shiver.
Why are we walking this fast?
I started walking (as an exercise) in November 2020. Initially, I’d just sit in the house and occasionally hop on the treadmill, but I was not consistent.
It’s actually Covid that led me to start the 9,000 steps. I will walk up to 30 minutes on the treadmill, covering about 2km. Then after that, I go to work, park the car far away just so I can accumulate my steps.
Then in the evening if I have time, I will do a one-hour walk. If I don’t finish, I’ll walk around the house at night. I take it easy, doing it cumulatively.
What does walking mean to you?
Walking has become part of my life. I am kind of a lazy guy so I don’t like to exert myself, doing things naturally and authentically. Unless I have to, I won’t wake up at 4 am.
Why? And that also explains why I don’t run. Running is not natural! Haha! Animals only run when they are the prey or predator!
Has your family picked up walking?
Maybe my wife. We walked quite a bit then she moved to CrossFit, and tried to get me into that gospel. I don’t believe in her church because she has started falling off and doing other things. Haha!
I believe in consistency, not intensity. But my daughter, Wambui has started working out, going to the gym, and lifting weights. She also does kickboxing.
Walking takes time. What do you do while walking?
I listen to my audiobooks. You will rarely catch me reading a physical book.
Is it not tough keeping up with audiobooks while walking?
I actually rewind a lot. I was just reading The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians [by Peter Heather]. It takes time but I find it sticks for me.
What kind of books do you prefer?
History. But not just for the sake of it. For instance, how was Rome so powerful? Where is the world going? How was it before technology? I am not into fiction; in case you can’t tell. Sometimes I’d peruse books like Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. But I can’t do self-help. You go help yourself first.
What’s the favourite part about walking?
It’s my personal time. I love it because I can construct my thoughts. I take a lot of notes when I am walking.
What’s the last thing you wrote?
‘You can’t shave a man’s head in his absence.’ If you are planning to change the lives of the boys in Kakamega, you can’t do it while you are in Nairobi. You have to be there and learn what they need.
The other thing I wrote is 'if you are absent when decisions are made, and the consequences of those decisions come to you, there is no discount for having been absent when said decisions are made'.
What’s the part about walking that bores you?
Disturbance. Motorbikes especially. Although now it has improved, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic insecurity was high. Plus, our infrastructure for walking is non-existent.
How has walking changed your life?
I feel healthier and more energetic and I love my personal time. I have read more books and it has given me a purpose. People know I have to walk, and it has changed the way I take meetings.
Walking is still an activity and gets your mind engaged. When do you ever really let it go?
That happens when I travel with the family upcountry and sit by the river. I used to act with Mbalamwezi Players at the French Cultural Centre. My theatre life died and was replaced with the other theatre.
Haha! I also do a lot of social media engagement in a light way about the things I am passionate about. Don’t shout this but I also joined TikTok!
Do you follow a diet?
I tend to like organic food. Not because I want to be healthy, I just love githeri! I will re-cook it the way I want. My regular meals are githeri, meat, ugali and some veggies.
I love bananas, easy to eat. Oranges and mangoes are too complicated with things just trickling down! Office mandazi has also destroyed a lot of people haha!
Do you cook?
When I am here, I am the mashakura king. I mix the food—everything that stayed overnight and add some olive oil. It is lovely! I also love making tumbukiza with chuck beef, potatoes, garlic, and some veggies.
I cook enough for three meals. My tumbukiza is legendary, ask around! Haha! It's my monopoly card when I want the children to come home early. I think that meal deserves to be in the Louvre.
What do you do on Saturdays?
I will probably sleep in and do a lot of social media. A walk here and there. Later I will go out shopping for hardware stuff, or visit a friend or see my brother, Dr Kiama Gitahi (Vice Chancellor, University of Nairobi), he's my confidante.
Or I’ll go upcountry and come back the next day. Sometimes, rarely, you may find me at the bar, drink in hand.
Sundays sleep in or church?
I have been bad with church lately. I am split, unless there is a particular service that we need to attend.
Are you happy?
I love my life. I have minimal stress, and because I have chosen not to. I take things as they come. Even as my career has grown, I ask myself, ‘Is there something I can do about it?’ If not, I move on. I also don’t over-commit. Que sera, sera (whatever will be, will be).
What’s a weekend hack that not many people know—apart from tumbukiza?
Learn to just stay in bed. Enjoy the moment. People believe you have to work hard and if not then you are lazy. No. We like to create activities so we believe we are busy. Stay in bed.