Sieka Gatabaki: Born privileged with a wild side

Programme Director for Mercy Corps AgriFin, Sieka Gatabaki.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

Dressed in a powder blue caftan, Sieka Gatabaki meets me in his Nairobi’s Lavington driveway looking like the heir apparent to a wizened African traditional king. All that is missing is a Sankofa…and scissors for that hair. He is growing baby locks now, which makes him look less like a scion of a colonial chief and more like a deluxe prodigal son. “I am not my hair,” his hair says. “I am challenging conventions, I have earned my stripes, people can look past my hair,” he says.

Maybe. He is after all Programme Director for Mercy Corps AgriFin. He’s led a privileged life. But it would be simplistic to equate Sieka’s rise to his family—although it doesn’t hurt to come from pedigree. To be born into a rich family is to win the first prize in the lottery of life. Hold on. This is starting to sound like a “What my friends would say about me…” He grew up here, a few blocks from where he lives now. Here, where his childhood was erratic…or eclectic. Where his adulthood is now eccentric…or ecdysial. Where he chooses to be a part of, rather than apart from. Because sometimes even after we leave, we haven’t really found our way out.

You’ve grown up everywhere…how does that affect how you live your life?

Someone said I shouldn’t say that nothing is off the record, haha! See, by the time I finished campus I had gone to almost 30 countries, I have had girlfriends from, name a country and I was loved there, haha! It makes it harder to integrate into society because you see things in a certain way and most people have their social norms.

Two years into my marriage, some friends from overseas came to stay over, and we had just got our first child with my then-wife. After a month or so my wife was like how long are they staying? I was okay with it but that’s not how she wanted to bring up a family—so there are always those culture clashes.

Your then wife?

Yes, we separated about 3 years ago.

How has that shift been?

Transitions. It was interesting because many of the changes we went through during the pandemic made many people realise there is a lot they need to get out of their lives. I went hiking and climbed Mt Kenya. I reflected a lot, who am I as a person? My children were much older—my daughter is 18 now, son 14—they could handle the context under which it happened.

How does such a separation change the way you approach relationships?

I am very conscious about social contracts. How we have established the social contract of marriage needs an update: how do these two people come together, how does the community confirm this coming together and how do you interact beyond that point—but that’s not my purpose. I have a partner now, someone I know from a long time ago, and we have a similar arrangement. We are happy.

Doesn’t the term “partner” make it sound so transactional?

I agree, the reason I am using partner is because I am too old to say I have a “girlfriend”, haha! Or a chic! Once you have been married, there are some terms you can no longer use [chuckles]. Partner is more encompassing, no social contract, just an agreement between us.

What did your last relationship teach you?

It is important to be self-aware of what you like/dislike and how you are changing over time. When I started that relationship, we were both different people than we became toward the end. That awareness, that you are constantly growing, that some things will change you, add to you, or subtract from you such as traumas that make you a bit more defensive and/or reserved.

What season are you in right now?

Accelerating my purpose. I was born in privilege and I would sit at the gate with the askari who would tell me how his life is a struggle. I learned I was born into this situation out of pure chance, and I could do things with that privilege that other people can’t. I wanted to make a difference to resolve poverty. I have since changed that to wealth creation rather than poverty alleviation. I have seen how technology can make a difference in making people’s lives better—currently, I am supporting technology agriculture; and health tech and in the future, I want to do something in edutech.

Speaking of wealth, were you ever made to feel guilty for your privilege, wealth shaming so to speak?

Most of the time I was around people who were much wealthier than I was, haha! But I engage with people in different strata and I don't get that, mostly because I mirror the situation. I am a human development person, an unstructured coach doing mentorship for several people.

Being footloose, does that give you a rootless feeling?

Cliché coming: I am not African because I was born in Africa, I am African because Africa was born in me. I have always carried the identity of my place, my mother is from Sierra Leone, and my dad is Kenyan—people couldn’t place me. My people are African—and it helps that I am dark-skinned, haha!

What do you remember about your childhood?

There was a river back here where we used to search for tadpoles. Well, we thought they were fish [chuckles]. We tried bird hunting with the feyas [catapult] and played Shake. Sports grew on me in high school when I sought to redefine myself. I had a girlfriend in Standard Eight whom I told I needed to focus on my studies so I could go to a good school, an “it’s not you, it’s not me” situation. I made it to Strathmore, joined the rugby team, was much louder, became the sportsman of the year, and held the 400m record for maybe 10 years after I left. I played basketball, rugby and athletics.

What do you miss most about your childhood?

Mmhh. Interesting, never thought of that. Maybe that you are not responsible for things and you live life freely. Now I am responsible for people, an image—getting these dreadlocks is a bit of an awakening, I want to challenge that convention that you need to be a certain way. I think I’ve earned my stripes for people to go beyond the hair.

What was your nickname then?

Baki, from Gatabaki.

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

We are talking more about purpose. I make sure they take time to think about their journey and how they will figure it out for themselves. I allow them that freedom to explore. My daughter now is into animals, previously she was tinkering with psychology. That's impressive considering that some people my age haven’t discovered what they want/who they are and are just working to live.

How is co-parenting as compared to marriage?

I have more time, haha! I can work a bit longer but I find myself coming home earlier than before. The fundamental differences are not many, I am actually pursuing a Master's now, and I was doing that even when I was married. Not much has changed.

What remains unchanged about you since childhood?

The spirit to make a difference has been there since I was a young person.

You have this calm aura. Were you always like this or did you develop this as a persona?

I had my wild side. See, I was supposed to be Sportsman of the Year for Strathmore High School but my name was removed from the board, and I won’t allow you to research on why, haha! I was elected by the people and removed by the institution so we can still say I am the people’s sportsman [chuckles].

What’s the toughest conversation you’ve had?

The one with my children about what’s happening in my marriage and why we had to separate. It was a great conversation because I had to do it with a lot of humility…I was like, "I am not perfect; we have challenges and we love you all the same." That was tough.

At the risk of prying, how did they react?

Quite well. My son was quiet about it, but my daughter was like, "We love you both and we want both of you to be happy." There was a good understanding of it.

Is the PlayStation I see here yours?

No that’s my son’s. But I do have a golf game that I play occasionally [chuckles].

What’s your handicap?

My index is about 20.

Is that good or bad?

It’s average. 18 is a gentleman’s agreement.

You are not using your privilege well…

That’s because I have development work to do, haha! My real go-to for stress release is Muay Thai, or kickboxing. And then I work out. Several senior leaders I know are doing martial arts.

Sieka Gatabaki's wild side

Do you guys know something we don’t?

Yes [chuckles].

When and why did you pick up Muay Thai?

I was influenced by a friend, about five years ago—he even went to Thailand to learn a bit more. I never looked back.

Have you got the chance to practice it on someone?

No, that’s the last thing you want to do. With great power comes great responsibility. The more you know how to do something, the less you are likely to abuse it.

What’s your son into?

He’s into soccer, a wizard at it. He is on a programme called ‘roadblock’,  he has even created his own game where they are paying him money because people are coming onto his game.

What have you learned from him?

That everyone can be a master in their world. There was a day I caught him watching a YouTube channel about existential things, like how particles behave in a particle accelerator. I was like, "Why are you even watching that?" [chuckles]. He told me about how people were making money from coming onto shows and I wanted to tell him we should play Monopoly so I can teach you about money, haha! I am from the time when we used to call dating, “pushing”, haha!

Programme Director for Mercy Corps AgriFin, Sieka Gatabaki.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

You both sound eccentric, how else are you alike?

He is going through his identity building, so I can see him having those existential questions. I asked him if he has a girlfriend, and he told me there isn't time for that, he has soccer, he is building a business [chuckles]. I am waiting eagerly for the next phase, where he is going to go wild, haha! We are pretty similar.

Which apple has fallen closer to the tree?

They both have elements of me and their mother. But my daughter says she is unhappy because she got my big hands, haha!

What’s your biggest insecurity?

I recently listened to a podcast and they were talking about how men are afraid of being afraid. It is a very powerful statement. Society has made it important for us to be a certain way so we are scared of not living to that potential and that causes lots of challenges. That’s my insecurity, that you can be afraid.

What are you afraid of?

Haha, now you are becoming my psychologist! I am afraid of not doing all the things I want to do for the betterment of society, creating wealth and wealth mindsets in people. There is that sense that time is running out. Have I made the right calls?

Is there a special ritual between the three of you?

We share our life stories, where we are at different points, now I am playing more golf with my daughter, sharing our experiences. Ditto my son when I take him to soccer practice.

Men also rarely have time for themselves. What do you do just for you?

Golf! I like to write as well, and reflections. I like it when people share their stories and experiences in life.

What do you need more of in life?

Time? I have enough money and I will make enough money; the question is how soon? Time and energy—I can’t create more time, but energy through working out keeps you fit to do the things you want to do.

Other than work, what takes up most of your time?

Mostly work [chuckles]. Working for the NGO is a huge responsibility, managing the team and representing the organisation in different fora. Throw in golf, family, and friends, and that’s it.

You seem to have figured it out, so, can one have it all?

If you have it all then you have no reason to live for one must be constantly learning. I think it should be something that you are moving toward, it’s a journey without a destination but one that you must walk through.

Speaking of, are you into cruise ships?

I love the Kilifi New Year Festival. Water has a lot of symbolic value to me. I am a water spirit.

Can you swim?

I am a damn good swimmer. Medal holder in fact! Backstroke in primary school, everyone in my family, even Diallo, my younger brother can swim. But I like driving too.

What’s the one place you’ve gone that calms your spirit?

Anywhere with water. I have gone camping at Lake Naivasha, I have fallen for Kilifi, I want to build a house there by the creek, and listen to the breeze, it is poetic.

What’s your favourite thing about you?

The ability to understand complex patterns and translate them to simple ideas. One of my former girlfriends in the university once told me, “Sieka, you lack original thought.” It’s not that I lack it, but I like to see the pattern and make those make sense, rather than reinventing the wheel. We are not naming names, however, haha!

What’s the soundtrack of your life right now?

T-Pain, Mainoo, All of the Above.

What are you thanking yourself for?

For the good life I’ve had. Even though I have come from privilege I do not take it for granted that it has remained so, because things happen and statuses change. I thank myself for being true to what I believe; and the support I have from family and friends.

What are you apologising to yourself for?

Is this something to share in public, mnh? I am sorry I didn’t practise enough for the last round of golf. Opportunities have come and I have taken them. No apologies.

What’s a weekend hack that can make my weekends better?

We are living in a world governed by scientific thought but it does not always answer the questions that need answered. Find a ritual that allows you to contemplate your existence differently. I play with Tarot cards, not because I believe in them, but because they are descriptions of possible outcomes that could happen in anyone’s life, and think how does this outcome impact everything else? Find that ritual that allows you to think outside the conventional approach.

When you think of the weekend what food comes to mind?

Nyama choma in Nairobi. By the ocean, I love my seafood and meat. I have never been vegetarian, but I have been a pescetarian. Vegetarian with a side of fish. Or a vegetarian that adds fish. A brave new world.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

It could be alcohol. I am in my gin era but moving to tequila—taken neat with ice and a slice of lemon. Get the essence of the drink in one shot.

Who do you know that I should know?

My children. Professionally, otherwise, we would be talking about other things, haha!

PAYE Tax Calculator

Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.