Sarah Shibutse's eight-hour lazy lunches and blue skies - VIDEO


Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya (ADAK) Chief Executive officer (CEO) Sarah Shibutse poses for a picture after the interview at her office in Parklands on January 16, 2024. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

Sarah Idieva Shibutse swears she doesn't know the secret to eternal youth but I don't believe her. Okay, she credits God for her genes, and especially, reaching this age. Which age? You know a girl doesn't say her age. "A girl is forever 18."

She’s 18 with decades of experience. She is the CEO of the Antidoping Agency of Kenya. She was once a fish in water, swimming was her shtick. Now, she stays afloat, an exercise here, a gym there, but what she really loves is books.

At her office in Westlands, her hair is set into a smooth dome like a band shell for the presentation of that long-running act, her face. She laughs through her OCD-like neatness, not a button out of place, her clothes colour-coded, her chuckle coquettish and elegant, her answers spare and sparse, until she mellows down and becomes Mami, the little girl everyone used to call her. Mami, the little girl that loves kienyeji chicken and chapati.

Oh, by the way, a girl didn't tell her age. But a girl is fifty-something.

Were you sporty back in the day?

Yes, in primary school, I was a swimmer. My secondary school, Moi Girls’ High School, did not have a pool, so I ventured into netball. They made us do cross-country every Saturday morning.

How does one get here?

It’s not easy. I have been in the Ministry of Sports since 1997. I started at the district level as Nyeri’s head. That was my first time outside Nairobi. My elder sister was working in Karatina and took me under her wing. Then I was transferred to Kasarani, later Thika, for 10 years before coming to the headquarters to be the Personal Assistant of the Secretary of Sports. Then, doping issues started cropping up, and the officer in charge was assigned other duties, so I took over. And now we are here.

Which sport do you most identify with?

Athletics because I worked a lot with athletes at the district level in my early career days. And swimming too. Most Kenyans think swimming is an elitist sport, but anyone good in water should be able to make it to the national team.

What swimming lesson do you apply in life?

Resilience. The training is quite rigorous. We always see the athletes breaking records but not what they have gone through to get there. I don’t think I can wake up at 5am to do the 42km morning training, go to the gym, then do an afternoon training mixed with a camp. You need to have resilience.

What was your nickname growing up?

Mami. I was the first daughter born into the Shibutse homestead after my dad’s mom passed away, just a week after she died. So, I was named after her. My dad took to calling me Mami [corruption of mom]. Even now, when I go home, my older cousins call me Mami.

Sarah Shibutse's eight-hour lazy lunches and blue skies

What do you miss about your childhood?

Freedom to just be. To have people looking at you and not judging you, the CEO, for your behaviour. When you are a child, you don’t think of such things. I miss that freedom.

What remains unchanged about Mami since childhood?

I am a neatness freak. My mother tells me I used to love white clothes, which was unnatural because “Si mtoto anaenda nje kucheza.” She used to hope that my sister would not pick up similar tendencies.

Neat people are very structured; how do you remain spontaneous?

Once in a pink moon [chuckles]. The only time I might is when doing lunch, especially with my siblings. I usually send a message to our family [WhatsApp] group asking who is available for lunch.

Were you closer to your dad or mom?

I was a daddy’s girl.

Do you remember a special memory with your dad?

My dad was in our lives in totality. He would come for PTA meetings, check on our homework, among other parental responsibilities, and even take us to Ngong Racecourse to see the horses racing while we ate cotton candy, and he would hang out with his brother.

What would you change about how you were raised?

Nothing really, because I was born in a five-sibling home where we remained close to each other. In a small sibling home of, say, two siblings only, you miss the camaraderie of having your siblings as your friends. The only thing I would have wanted is because my mom is a Bukusu, and the Bukusu ask for many things for dowry, so we accuse my mom of making my dad broke, haha! I only wish we were exposed to holidays outside Nairobi. I am a Cerelac baby born in town.

How are you like your dad?

Neatness. My dad is the kind that slides his finger on a chair to check on dirt. He knew exactly where everything was and would know if anyone touched his things. See how these books are? Exactly. I don’t have any unread emails or documents saved on my desktop. I open folders for each, personal work saved on Cloud, and office work on Microsoft One Drive. I have a folder for everything.


Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya (ADAK) Chief Executive officer (CEO) Sarah Shibutse poses for a picture after the interview at her office in Parklands on January 16, 2024. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

Is there anything you let go of?

As you mature, you learn to not interfere with other people’s lives. If I don’t do this, it does not mean the end of the world. It’s a learning curve.

How do people love you?

Oh wow. By prayer, gifts, and speech. I have people in my life who say out loud, “I love you, I prayed for you, and I wish you well”. And others just buy me gifts.

What is a special treat you do just for yourself?

Buying books. I love reading. You can imagine my home library. At any given  moment, I have  five books I have not read, but I will pass by Bookstop at Yaya Centre and ask them, “Do you have any new books?”’ I tried Kindle, but it’s just not the same. I immerse myself in the book and get lost in there. I love my books.

What is one book you read that has stayed with you?

Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Famous Five were my first loves. There were few African writers then, but now, I am into Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. There is another by a Ghanaian writer, Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me. The other book I enjoyed is The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives [by Rotimi Babatunde], haha! We assume that someone educated will make better choices, but this one is educated and still agrees to be the eighth wife. It’s an amazing story.

What is something about you people might be surprised to learn?

I am a perfectionist. I also talk a lot, especially when I am comfortable with you. In my 20s and 30s, I was very quiet. But as I have matured, I talk a lot. I am the noisemaker in our family.

How are you different from the person you were 10 years ago?

I know what I want and am not scared to go for it. Ten years ago, I would be thinking, “What if I fail?” Nowadays I ask myself, “What is the worst that could happen?” Why not go for it and see what happens?

What matters way less than you thought it would?

People’s opinions.

What’s the hardest part about being you?

Hmm. Since I am a perfectionist, I expect it from other people, and you never get it, even from yourself. So you have to come down and meet people halfway and show them how they could do better. It is hard. Your first instinct is to get upset because you imagine people are in your mind and should be able to understand.

What memory do you want to relive?

When we were all at home together as siblings. My mom would ‘chase’ away the house help during the December holidays, so we had to assign ourselves house chores. We would hurry so we could watch the Hallmark movies, haha! Even today, we are such a close-knit family right up in each other’s business. Now that we are all older, we have to purpose to make time for each other. We ensure we celebrate all birthdays in our family home. Every December 26, we meet at my brother’s place, and on January 1, we head to my mother’s place. This has been our tradition. Carol, my elder sister, is like a mother to us, the rock of our family.

What’s life’s simplest pleasure?

Seeing a blue sky. It just makes me happy.

I figure you are a beach person then?

I love the beach but the countryside too. Especially the drives. Even when going to Meru, I would rather use the Nanyuki route because it is scenic. I also don’t mind doing staycations in Nairobi when everyone has gone back home.

Describe your perfect weekend…

If I am not meeting my girls, I have a lazy lunch that starts at 12:30pm and ends at 8 pm or 9 pm. This happened a few weeks ago, haha! It’s a bonding session, you know? Especially when it is a cold, rainy day and you sit in the house with a throw blanket deep in a novel or watching a movie. Paradise.

What is the soundtrack of your life right now?

Gospel. Elevation Music, The Maverick City, and Don Moen, who is ageless to me. I also listen to new-age musicians like Erick Smith and Mercy Masika. I am trying to listen to Kenyan Gospel more.

What’s your go-to meal?

Chicken kienyeji. Recently, I had it with chapati.

How often do you stare outside your window at this stage of your life?

A lot. When you get to this stage, especially now when there are so many reported murder, femicide cases, you thank God you you are still alive. The stresses of life are increasing, so to reach my age, I thank God.

Does a girl tell her age?

A girl is forever 18. Haha!

How have you managed to remain youthful?

I tell people it is God. It is nothing that I have done. I am no exercise freak; I don’t even watch what I eat. I am only intolerant to milk. I think I have a high metabolism, maybe from my days as a swimmer.

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