Kamau Kiarie: Why image is everything

Kamau Kiarie, CEO of East African Educational Publishers.

Kamau Kiarie is writing his chapter as the CEO of East African Educational Publishers.

Photo credit: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

It is my fault that I did not ask Kamau Kiarie if he still listens to the radio—a motif that reared its head over and over in our conversation. Back then life was breezy, he says. His past is a museum we visit often: people were more honest back then. We could eat everything back then, and not worry about anything. I could have seized some opportunities back then. He bends his knee at this museum, under the weight of imagined futures: can I be better?

Maybe, maybe not. His gift is that he can live in the present, where he is writing his chapter as the CEO of East African Educational Publishers. Underneath that patina of meticulous philosopher, lies a lover. I mean, he listens to Julio Iglesias. Not occasionally. Ordinarily.

Outside, Nairobi's Lavington sky is patchy blue and scudding gray, Kamau pours me scalding tea as we chat. What if I had asked him if he ever wanted to be a radio presenter?

What do Kenyans read?

Books across the board. From children to novellas for young adults and full-length novels for adults, from literature to fictional stories. But Kenyans love motivational books; unfortunately, most are foreign published unless we talk about biographical works by high achievers.

As a professional publisher, do you ever read books, just for fun?

Definitely. I go to bookshops to skim and find interesting books. I am reading From Third World to First by Lee Kuan Yew.

Being a publisher, can you judge a good—or bad book—by its cover?

Haha! Image is everything, so it is important to have the right cover for a book. The blurb is also essential because sometimes the cover can be misleading.

What’s the most boring part about reading?

Haha! When you read and reach some chapters, and ask yourself, “So what am I reading?” which means it might not be making sense, especially if the author is rambling.

What kind of reader are you?

Multiple books simultaneously. Especially when I am travelling, I’ll go with four books, so I can space and digest the books, and reflect on what I have read. You gain more because you are not likely to get carried away by so many things in one book and forget the nice nuggets.

What’s the last book you read that shifted your perspective?

Urm, this one by this Singaporean fellow. You want to read only 10 pages and reflect on it. It requires such a monumental task to change a country—when you change the mindsets of a people, then you can achieve much more. There is a phrase in the book that talks about making sure our toilets are clean. It is a metaphor for changing our mindsets—addressing areas that can make us stink in private and public.

Were you a reader as a child?

Yes, but unfortunately, the reading materials were not as many as they are now. I grew up on Weekly Review and Readers Digest—which has since been shut down.

What do you remember about your childhood?

Aahh. The current rainfall is not like the one we experienced as children—it rained then with hailstorms, and indeed, there has been climate change. In our time, the rain beat much harder, but we would be playing outside. Our immunity was stronger, not because we had good diets but because we just ate what was available.

How are you raising your children different from how you were raised?

To encourage them to know what they want to do early and let them explore the world. I wasn’t a good footballer but I loved listening to football commentary and one of my boys is so passionate about football. I let him run with it. The other is keen on engineering-related stuff, I let him fix things as opposed to the way we were raised, “Don’t touch that!” “Don’t start your father’s car!” “The radio belongs to the father.” Once you hoard items, the likelihood is they will want to rebel and therefore mess.

Do you have a special ritual that you do, just the three of you?

Hm, we play badminton, but at an amateur level.

How has fatherhood changed you?

It’s a good thing. You realise this young fellow is treating you as their hero, asking questions and expecting answers. I believe that the best counselling psychologist is the parent, if it doesn’t happen within the confines of the family, it might not work as well out there.

What has fatherhood revealed to you about yourself?

The link between me as a father, and a CEO. From 2020, people embraced working from home and the children will treat that time as a formal office, but when you step out of that office, you transition to a balancing act between father and CEO.

How are you like your children?

That’s difficult. That is best told by an external person. How would you describe me?

You seem calm, and thoughtful.

Okay, see my firstborn son is very thoughtful too.

Which one is easier—running a business or a family?

Both have their own complexities. Family starts from zero and you see it grow, with many strands of home, school, holidays, etc. My experience is that difficulty in raising children runs across the board. Even your mom right now, at whatever age, will still wonder if you are safe out there, right?

Right. Are you a better husband or a better father?

Philosophically, when I am a good father, I am a good husband.

When you first met your wife, what struck you about her?

Image is everything. I was attracted to her outside beauty when I got to know her inside beauty. It was a beautiful harmony.

What’s the most beautiful thing about her?

She is a very good listener. She listens, digests, and takes time to give an opinion, especially if it is a family decision. And also respect—respecting you and your views. If she wants to differ, she will craft words in a beautiful way that you have no choice but to accept that she has differed. I didn’t know we would veer to this aspect! The interview is becoming more complex than I thought.

Final marital question then. What do you fight about now?

Maybe not fight but defer on ideas of investments. Sometimes I have such a brilliant idea and she will poke holes into it—and vice versa. This challenges us to think deeper.

Speaking of, what is the most absurd thing you have bought?

I spend money on souvenirs when I travel, and sometimes I get conned when they are overpriced because the price is never fixed, one vendor sells it at one price, and you go the next and find that it is much, much cheaper. But then, I have no reason to feel cheated because I will have this souvenir for life—including reminding me that I was conned!

What is that item you bought for less than Sh10,000 that you use often?

Shaving cream. I shave daily. If I let my beard grow for a month, it will be quite a scene.

What will I be surprised to learn about you?

I have great taste for music, almost all genres.

What’s your go-to song?

Soul and country music, then rhythm and blues. But it cuts across the board.

What song takes you to a particular place and time?

Songs by Julio Iglesias. Especially When I Need You.

How do you unwind?

I play golf but I am not very good at it. I exercise and go for walks. There was a time when I was into theatre.

What will people mourn about you when you are gone?

I am quite meticulous, especially in this publishing world. Here lies a meticulous guy.

What matters more than you thought it would?

[long pause] Health. Never take it for granted that you can do the things you do. It’s one of those things we assume but until it is gone, you won’t understand the gravity.

What’s the one question you keep asking yourself?

Can I be better? What should I do to be better? Especially with the resources that I have been granted. There is a Kikuyu saying that says, “Things drop from heaven and they are distributed to people by the maker.” What do you have in your hands?

Which chapter in your life shaped who you are today?

Form 1 to 4. I immersed myself in serious study, shedding off luxuries and distractions—and anything that would have derailed me. I passed my Form 4 exams, and that was the starting point of my journey.

East African Educational Publishers (EAEP) CEO Kiarie Kamau

East African Educational Publishers (EAEP) CEO Kiarie Kamau makes his remarks during a book launch in Nairobi on February 9, 2024.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

What have you finally come to terms with?

I cannot become a politician. It is just not my thing.

What are you thanking yourself for?


What are you apologising to yourself for?

Not seizing certain opportunities. If I had, maybe I would have a turnaround in my life.

Have you forgiven yourself?

Not yet. We grew up during the era of picking quotations from newspapers and magazines. I still remember one: It is never too late to be what you might have been. This is why I have not yet forgiven myself; I still think I can pursue and achieve.

Which hack can make my weekends better?

It’s an observation that health is everything.

What’s life’s simplest pleasure?

Health. Your systems are working, and that matters a lot.

What is that one line from a book that best summarises your life?

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart where he says, that when a child washes his hands, he can dine with the elders. I can see in a small way, that it has happened in my life. Sometimes you find yourself in places, and you wonder, how did I get here?

Who do you know that I should know?

Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He is not just a literary scholar, but a sage as well. Sitting with him, you leave filled with wisdom.

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