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Health voice in President’s ear

Dr Wangari Ng'ang'a
Dr Wangari Ng'ang'a UHC Technical Advisor Presidential Policy & Strategy Unit. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Working in the shadows of the Covid-19 pandemic are scores of medical professionals, some operating silently from the unlikeliest of areas, like the Office of the President.

Dr Wangari Ng’ang’a is one of them. She is the lead interlocutor on Universal Health Coverage, a technical adviser at the Presidential Policy and Strategy Unit in the Executive.

She holds a Master’s degree in Health Policy, Planning and Financing from the London School of Economics and Political Science and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a medical undergraduate degree from the University of Nairobi.

She has done her rounds working in leadership roles and service delivery in urban and rural Kenya in both public and private health facilities.

She had a conversation with JACKSON BIKO

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How does one get a job in the Office of the President?

I was picked out by my boss. I don’t fully know why, and I might never know but I hear I was recommended. (Grins). What I know is that I wasn’t even the first choice, I was third best. Number one, a good friend of mine, a health economist, super smart, couldn’t take the job because they were in the middle of their PhD then. Number two, my friend Mercy, who at that time had just been appointed to a job and so the minister said, ‘no, you are not leaving.’ Then someone said, ‘try Wangari’. Wangari had just resigned from her job in Murang’a and was about to take a job in Eswatini. Then my boss called and said, ‘come we talk before you start packing.’ And that was it.

What was your first impression of your job?

You feel the [weight of the] country on your shoulder. It was probably bigger in my mind than in reality. Our responsibility is to take care of the country’s health, but I have translated my role into a translator; I translate the presidency’s dream in health to practicalities that can be implemented nationwide through the various stakeholders.

I also translate the realities on the ground back to the presidency. In that sense, I’m just a broom brushing through (chuckles). But I’m present when things happen in rooms. It’s no small task because you know what the right thing to do is and because [of that] the burden is even heavier. The other thing is I’m younger than the average age of the political elite. I’m 33 years but I’m blessed to be in a position to influence policy for my unborn children and grandchildren. So there is a long-term view.

How do you find the dynamics working in government and the bureaucracy that marks it?

I have always worked for the government so this is the only animal I know. So you can imagine how scary the private sector looks for me. Not to sound narcissistic but it’s very powerful to be in the government, and I’m not talking about personal power. If there is an area you can make the change it’s in the government and so why be in the periphery when I can be at the centre? I will tell you one thing; the government is the easiest place to do the right thing. I mean, if you don’t want to do the wrong thing nobody will fire you or get a pay cut. The worst is a transfer.

In the private sector, it’s about profit, so if you are selling a drug that you are not too confident of, the bottom line is making a profit. The macro picture where I am now is important because our decisions affect the future. The government has more permanence as opposed to say the private sector. Lastly, I find my age to be an advantage because I can do more.

Look, Mwai Kibaki was about 33 years when he wrote the Sessional Paper Number 10. Tom Mboya must have been younger when he was making change, so this is a great time to be young and a fantastic opportunity to do great things.

From where do you get your greatest sense of optimism, is it from youth, intellect, and experience?

From knowing that we can. I know that I can. I don’t see any barriers.

The greatest thing working for the government?

It has reaffirmed in me that the greatest power is vested in the government, and I’m not talking about the power to exercise over but the power to be.

What frustrates you about your role?

(Pause) It’s like having 15 husbands. The process can be painful. It’s not enough to be qualified, have the right papers, be good at your job, you also have to have great social skills to deal with people, to walk the process. And that takes time.

I’m also more aware of how relationships are at such a high level, trust and not merely on facts or technical capacity. It’s not enough that you know the technical, you must be trustworthy. That they don’t teach you in school.

Does the system make you aware of your gender?

This isn’t unique to only the government and I’m sure many women experience it. For instance, it’s just government practice not to walk into a meeting with something that shows your shoulder.

Because it just might upset a group of men and change the serious process of government work?

(Laughs) It’s in the protocol you are taught. It helps that I have been one to dress conservatively so it’s not a big deal for me. But let me put it this way, when I enter a room, I’m not first my official title, I’m an African girl first. You just have to learn to navigate these nuances.

You are young and very busy, so how do you make sure that you are living your youth and not getting sucked in work?

After 18 months on this job, I realised the need to intentionally make time for the things that I love outside work. A baby doesn’t grow the right then the left hand, they all have to grow at the same time otherwise the baby will be distorted.

For fun, I love modern architecture. I love watching shows on buildings, I visit construction sites. I love watching Grand Designs TV shows. I spend a lot of time arguing with my father about how his house is not of a grand design.

I love road trips, but I will not drive. One of my best trips was via the Garden Route from Durban to Cape Town.

Have you found your purpose?

I found it a long time ago and I keep running into opportunities to embody it and manifest it. (Pause) I hope that doesn’t sound too churchy. But yes, there is no doubt that I’m highly blessed.

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