Jackson ‘Cobra’ Muli: A country’s president equivalent to 300 lives

Kenya Orient Life Assurance Limited Principal Officer Jackson Muli poses for a picture after the interview on December 5, 2023, at Serena Hotel. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

You can accuse Jackson Muli of many things except boredom. Other people may say things, him, he has things to say. And he says them in a lucid monotone, like the grey suit he is wearing, slaloming through anecdotes ranging from didactic to backslapping cool-story-bro and dotting uxoriously at his wife whom he calls “My supervisor.”

It’s his wife whom he texted when his plane almost crashed in Uganda. It was his wife whom he texted when he was in Malaysia, and he was afraid that his plane would disappear. It is also his wife, who will find out today that he squandered money in Dubai. See, fun is a leitmotif in Muli’s existence, this principal officer at Kenya Orient Life Assurance. That’s their cool way of calling their top dog.

His bark though, is as good as his bite, and I’d love to be his bartender, only that he doesn’t drink—between Sunday and Thursday. Friday and Saturday? Well, I have brought you to the river…you know what do to. Over an hour, we have samosas and dawas and later lunch at Serena Hotel in Nairobi where he tells me stories, most of them off the record, things I could—but won’t—tell you.

What’s it like being you?

I am okay with what I am. I am up at 5am between Monday and Friday. I am very time-conscious, and I am very impatient. Once we agree on a task, if it is not delivered on time, it irks me.

How does one get here?

Hard work, resilience and prayer. I am a prayerful person.

How did you pick up praying?

I grew up with parents who told us to go to church. From there I went to a Catholic secondary school who are quite strict with mass. My immediate mentor, when I joined the university, was my auntie who was a staunch Catholic and we would never miss church. I later married another Catholic. I just got on with it. My firstborn went to a Catholic primary school.

Do you believe that we marry our mothers?

Somehow. It might not be plug-and-play in terms of characters but there are similarities, especially in religion.

Were you a mother’s boy?

No, we were very divergent. I would say I am my father’s son.

What do you think your father learned from you?

We are four siblings. My parents are teachers, and their vision was to align us similarly. I am the only one in my family who isn’t a teacher. My father wanted me to join the police force. The first cadets in the police in Kiganjo, were in my year, 1998. The assistant commissioner then, Geoffrey Mwathe was the PC (Provincial Commissioner) of Nairobi and was in charge of Kiganjo where I had previously worked.

My dad and Mwathe talked. They agreed that I should join the premier class, where there would be a good hierarchy of growth. This was just a month before my graduation on October 16. They did not involve me until the last night when my dad told me to meet Mwathe the following day. I could not sleep thinking over how I would miss my graduation. I told my dad I wouldn’t go.

He was quite upset leading to a fractious relationship with him until I joined GlaxoSmithKline and later insurance. There is a retired army commander who we met once over Christmas at a bar and he insulted me that I will amount to nothing. Now I am the one who gives him a lift. I think my dad would learn that what man thinks is not God’s reality.

How are you raising your children differently?

I walked four kilometres to school every morning because my parents taught there. My dad was the headmaster and my mom was the lower primary teacher. I said my children would never go through the same, and I have always paid for their school transport.

What was your nickname growing up?

I had two. When I was young, I was called Itumbi. In Kamba, that means when you lie you become a log because I loved sleep. I was always sleeping as a child. At the university, they called me Ole. I played football and I would dodge them with the ball, jumping over them like a Maasai, hence the moniker Ole. Interestingly, I run a small farm called Ole Enterprises.

How does that work?

In 2018 I started soliciting for funds to get water in Ukambani, culminating in a borehole in 2019. I am supporting society by growing onions, tomatoes, spinach, cabbages, green peppers, Sukuma et al. but on a small scale. I wanted to make it commercial but the market is topsy-turvy. I am selling 12 tomatoes for Sh20 rather than 8 for Sh20. It’s my way of serving society.

Which decade of your life had the most impact?

The 20s are the pillar of who I am today. But my 30s were a mixture of both good and bad. When I started working, I’ll tell you for free, I had nothing to show after six years. My social circles then were not the best, and all my income was going to waste. Until I got a supervisor, my wife. Now this same man sat here cannot touch alcohol between Sunday and Thursday. Look for me on Friday or Saturday [chuckles].

What was the longest day of your life and why?

I worked in Uganda between 2011 and 2017, and I was flying to and fro every two weeks. One day we took off and eight minutes later the crew told us the pilot had switched off the climbing engine. Before she even finished, the flight decreased altitude sharply. I brushed it off. Some moments later, we felt the altitude decrease again. And by the time it did that the third time, everyone was panicking, especially since the oxygen masks were released. I knew I was finished.

No one was talking until the pilot announced that we had run out of oxygen hence why we had to fly at a lower altitude. I texted my wife, even if there was no network and told her in case the worst happens what to do. I didn’t think we would make it because when we got to Ngong, the pilot was not given clearance to land, because I think the prime minister of some country was arriving. That’s when I knew a country’s president was equal to 300 lives. Were we 300? No, we were just 120 in the plane.

What lesson did you pick from that incident?

God will take you when he wants. Second, don't feel special when you are with people. In that plane, by the time we were landing, everyone, even the first-class fliers had joined us haha! I remember in the lobby was this lady who was in a different world than us, never talking to anyone.

During the incident, she peed on herself and had a panic attack. She couldn't even talk to anyone until other ladies started helping her. Treat everyone equally, you never know whose help you will need.

What memory would you relive?

In 2015 we went to Singapore for training. But the social life there was very sweet, and we had a lot of fun. I had already scheduled my flights and had mismanaged my budget, thus running out of money. I was supposed to land in Dubai and do a bit of shopping. In Malaysia, which was part of our roundtrip, I remembered the flight that had disappeared.

Fearful, I texted my wife, just like in the Uganda flight, just in case I disappeared. I was stressed because I had no money and a man without money is a wounded lion. The only money I could get was in some account in Nairobi and that would mean my wife would know I squandered the other money. I had nothing [chuckles].

Long story short, the visa officer in Dubai paid for my transport and Visa. In Dubai, I called a friend, Mwema Davis, in Kenya who organised for some Sh200,000, which I used to do shopping haha! Did I tell you they called me ‘Cobra’ in university? Now you know why haha!

What are Cobra’s plans for the holiday season?

I’ll share with my extended family —buy them some presents, and goodies for my neighbours back in the village. I’ll take my immediate family to Mombasa, and go back to the upcountry over the new year.

What remains unchanged about you since childhood?

Hard work. Academically, at work, and in society. And I love animals very much, I give them a good life. Cows, goats, and chicken. I keep 12 dogs in the village.

Why dogs?

Initially, I thought of security. I started with two and had up to 15 but my wife made noise so I reduced them to 12 haha!

Who named them?

I named the first two but my boys in the village took over.

Do you still play football?

Ah! Not anymore but I was a star! Number 10, top distributor, midfield maestro haha.

How do you let go now?

See when you are young you have no money but have all the opportunities to have fun. In middle age, you have the money but the time is limited. Now I have money—not a lot—but I do not have time. On Saturdays, I am out on my farm but Saturdays in Nairobi are when guys are in the ‘carwash’ if you know what I mean.

What's a special treat you do just for yourself?

I can walk to town and buy myself something very expensive. You see a very nice shoe, look at the Sh22,000 price tag, and you just say, ah maybe just this once. Let me donate to myself, but I hide the receipt and will disclose it at a later date haha!

What's the dumbest thing you've bought?

I once went into a supermarket and I did not know microwaves have brands until my wife came in. This one time our microwave at home was spoilt and I was in the supermarket at Moi Avenue, and I remembered my wife had a need. I bought it and took it home. She looked at it and asked me where I had bought it from. That microwave did not last four days. It blew up.

What will people mourn about you when you are gone?

My helping heart.

What's the kindest thing someone has done for you?

My wife has been very kind. People have given me a kind hand. I have had occasions at home, especially during my dowry and I got so much support.

How do people love you?

How you care for me. And communication. Checking on a person.

What matters way less now than you thought it would?

What people think about you.

What's your superpower?

They call me a comic. Last week at a training, they introduced me as "our comedian." Then they all laughed. Haha!

Is the comedian happy?

Eddy, this life is hard. If you can't make yourself happy, nobody will. There are things that one should care less about because if you don't, they will affect your well-being.

Who do you know that I should know?

Haha! My founder, the founder of Family Bank [Titus Muya]. He is twice my age but he has a lot of energy. I ask God to give me similar energy, charisma and focus. He has all the money but he keeps pushing for more. He tells me when you go to request assistance, once you receive it, don't stop there. Say, "Thank you and I will appreciate a little bit more" so that tomorrow you still have that door open.

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