Sebastian Groth’s fear of missing out

Sebastian Groth, German Ambassador to Kenya

Sebastian Groth, German Ambassador to Kenya, during the interview at the ambassador’s official residence at HighRidge, Nairobi on May 29, 2024. 

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangeresi | Nation Media Group

Given enough time, a person can get used to almost anything. Personality will grow around adversity the way tree roots will grow around a rock, shaping itself in response to the immovable.

That is how I imagine Ambassador Sebastian Groth’s Kairos moment when he turned 50 and had sort of a midlife crisis and realised maybe this is it. The runway is getting shorter. Winter is here. He thought about the possibilities: he could have been a famous jazz player. A philanthropist. Both?

But he emerged from the curtain and onto the stage as Ambassador of Germany to Kenya—no mean feat. In his navy-blue suit, he marries simplicity with authority: he is smart, silken but impersonal—the stateman’s stateman—for this is the rhapsody to power. But Mr Groth is anything but.

Beyond that veneer of impenetrable stoicism, is a man trying to live a relaxed life, moving to the rhythm of his moment—this moment—like a sonnet that flickers in the background of the ambassador’s residence in Nairobi's High Ridge, like a candle about to set fire to a curtain.

What do you like most about you?

I ask a lot of questions, to myself and the environment, and I doubt many things, including myself. It opens up new spheres and perspectives. I am 51, not very old but also not young—I try to be open.

What’s the one question you keep asking yourself at 51?

[Pause] Several questions. I read a lot about philosophy, politics and history. But mostly, it is how to be at peace with myself and my environment.

And have you found peace?

Yes. It is not my general mode because I am full of energy. I do a lot of sports and music. I have a family. In these moments and the conversations that come with them, I find peace—but music plays a big role, especially when I practice by myself for an hour or so.

When did you pick up music?

I started with classical piano when I was eight years old.  When I was 15, I got into jazz. Playing here is the most satisfying thing I have done.

Tell me about your childhood.

Urm, I grew up in a small village. It was a mountainous area, and I remember the first sort of spring. Winter is gray and cold, but in spring you felt like life was coming back. We did trips and bicycle tours around our village.

What do you miss most about your childhood?

When you are a child, you take things as they are without prejudice. As you grow, you compare things, but as a child, things are absolute.

Did you have a nickname?

I had friends who called me ‘Professor’ because I knew everything better. My sister always calls me ‘Basty.’

What remains unchanged about Basty since childhood?

The interest in aesthetic things in literature, arts and music, and politics. In my childhood, I was reading heavy newspapers, and even now I am addicted to newspapers.

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

Kairos by a German author, Jenny Erpenbeck who recently won the Booker Prize. It’s a strong book, both literally and historically. I read another book by Annie Ernaux who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2022. It is about herself; growing up in France in the 50s to 90s, and how she picked up small contemporary things in her life and constructed a bigger story out of these small things—and from a female perspective, which is quite important. I lived in France, and I am quite attached to it.

How do people show you love?

Haha! I like it when things are not too stiff. More relaxed and not formal.

How have you moulded the ambassadorial role to fit you?

It’s not easy because you have a lot of expectations. We are 90 people in the embassy, and the sort of respect given to you due to your position was new to me, especially out of Nairobi. I didn’t expect the media to be so intense with me either.

Sometimes we trade the measurable for the immeasurable. How have you balanced your lifestyle?

The ideal is 50/50. I took a three-month leave with my first child. But if I were being honest, I worked a lot. Now, if there is a two-hour gap [in my schedule], I can head home and spend time with my family.

Sebastian Groth, German Ambassador to Kenya

Sebastian Groth, German Ambassador to Kenya.

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangeresi | Nation Media Group

Which is easier, being a father or an ambassador?

Different. Being a father is an existential challenge, and being an ambassador is a task you have to fulfil. The relationship between a parent and a child is a unique thing.

What has fatherhood revealed to you about yourself?

My limits. There is this idealised role of what a father should be, I try but I am not always successful. The older your children get, the more you have to let loose. My sister told me the most important thing is to keep the channels open and not lose contact with your children.

What do you struggle with in fatherhood?

Time and energy. In the weekly rhythm, having quality time together can be quite hard.

If success is a tradeoff, what would you trade your success for?

To try and have a musical career is tempting, either in jazz or the classical field. I have a job, but I can do the music on the side.

What’s an insecurity you have?

Everyday things can happen, politically in your host country or own country. As a man, I have moments when I think, 'Did I act the right way? Have I been too harsh, did I set the right priorities?'

If it were all to end in six months, what's the one thing you would do that you have been putting off?

Pff. That is a difficult one. When I turned 50 last year, I talked to our housekeeper—she was with me here when I was in Kenya 20 years ago too—she told me congratulations. I was in a sort of midlife crisis, maybe not, and I told her it was a bit hard for me. She told me, 'no, be grateful.' There is this FOMO [fear of missing out]—a symptom of society that you have to be part of everything, and if you miss this party or event, or thing, you are not in the avant-garde anymore. Just be relaxed.

How do you relax your mind?

Music, sports, reading, sometimes watching TV and sitting in the garden. Unfortunately, I am not quite gifted at doing things myself. We have a dog now, too.

What’s the soundtrack of 50?

It was a beautiful year, I think. A short and compact tune with a nice melody. It was a beautiful first half [chuckles].

Have you figured it out?

No. In a way, especially from 30 to 35, you pretend to know a lot. I am more ready now to talk about doubts and failure than I was then. The more you try to understand, the more questions you have.

What are you apologising to yourself for?

[pause] I admire people who put their life into duty for others. They are trying to serve their communities and I think sometimes I should do more in this regard, but my time is limited.

What are you thanking yourself for?

I am a relatively open-minded person. I judge too much but I try to do it less and accept people more. I try to be cooler on things, and now I just said relaxed for the fifth time, haha! I trust the people I work with much more and let them do their job and come in only when necessary.

What’s your superpower?

Improvisation. From the musical aspect, you have a certain pattern and harmonies, but improvisation is something I learned through music.

What makes you happy right now?

Talking to you is nice, haha! What makes me happy is looking into the garden and seeing nature and monkeys in the trees—the way I feel living in Kenya now affects your senses. It’s very sensual being here. The air, the vegetables, the music et al. I appreciate this very much.

What’s the best compliment you’ve received?

Someone once told me I am likeable.

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