'Scariest Moment of My Life’

Irungu Houghton, Amnesty International Kenya executive director.
Irungu Houghton, Amnesty International Kenya executive director. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

Irungu Houghton speaks fast. He connects thoughts and ideas quickly, dotting the line as he goes along and delivering them with a nice bow.

He is 52-years- old (but looks 35) and for over two decades, he has been putting his back into civic leadership and management.

He has worked at Oxfam, ActionAid, Chapter One, Society for International Development, and now he is the executive director of Amnesty International Kenya. He has a lifetime achievement award for protection of public spaces and has been cited among the top 100 influencers in Africa and top 10 communicators in Kenya.

He met JACKSON BIKO in his new office.


What do you remember about your childhood?

I was born to a blended family, my sisters and brothers have different fathers and mothers. I grew up in Kilimani until the age of 11. My father was British, he was a publisher with Oxford University Press. He met my mother who was then working for VOK as a news reader and beautician. At the age of 11, we moved to the UK.

I then went from being Kenyan mixed race to a Black child who neither fitted among Caribbean children, or other African children, or the Black British as they were called. So I had real questions about identity. And I am always grateful to my father who introduced me at a very young age, I think at the age of 14, to reading Martin Luther King, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, Malcom X and listening to Nina Simone music.

He always told me part of his responsibility as a father was to help me make sense of my racial identity.

Are you able to conclusively resolve racial identity?

I don’t think so because identities continue to evolve and to expand particularly for those who are making strategic choices about how they want to live and what they want to be remembered for. Identity is a constant evolution for me. There are moments in my life where I considered myself very Kenyan, other moments very African, and there are moments that has not been that important to me.

My description of who I am relates more to what I am about, to what it is I create out there in the world rather than my identity as a mixed race, middle-class, professional, grandfather, father of seven kids, all that stuff.

What is it I’m offering the continent? So you could be a black person that is unable to understand goodness and humanity of a white person. Or you may be a heterosexual male and not be able to understand there is value and integrity and value in a lesbian or a gay person.

Do you think you would have still set on this path of activism had you not been born from a mixed race union?

Well, I’m probably one of the very few mixed race human rights activists in the country. I think if you just went by law of average, it’s more unlikely that a mixed race person would be in a human rights space and not a non-mixed race person if I can put it that way. But I think the ethnic identity is with most human rights activists being quite diverse.

What I do think was important for me, my mixed race identity gave me an Africanism. It made me go beyond ethnicity and nationalism to think about the continent as a whole. So I have been a fervent Pan-Africanist all my life. And I recognise that Africa will be strong and proud once it’s unified and it will speak powerfully to the international community.

Which animal is bigger in you? The fighter or the lover?

The two are together. (Laughs). So I don’t fight anyone out of anything than the love for justice, the love for freedom, dignity and cohesion. Somebody once asked me, ‘do you describe yourself as an enemy of the state?’ And I said no, I am not an enemy of the state. Actually, I believe in a just state, I believe in a state that is responsible for its citizens, that uses its taxes efficiently, and first and foremost protects its citizens against those who try to hurt them.

So when we remove the noun “justice” from Irungu, what do we find? What’s left?

You’d find humour, commitment but not an attachment to things. You’d find a sense of self deprecation. I keep my ego in check, it grows but I have to shrink it again. My soul is more important than my ego.

How do you shrink your ego?

I laugh at myself. I tease myself, I don’t hold it. I time my disappointments.

At 52, what’s your least admirable quality?

This would be a great question for my wife to answer. Impatience and the desire to run faster than the people around me is my least admirable quality.
I also struggle with listening. Listening in terms of what matters to people. So I am very good at hearing people, but occasionally I am trying to drum a point or trying to make a point and I don’t listen for what’s important to people. Sometimes it’s not even what I am speaking to them about.

Talking of wife and marriage, what’s your success rate in fighting “justices” in your own marriage?

(Laughs) I’m a feminist, which means that for me power and privilege in my home is not something that I uphold. So in my home we don’t have daddy’s chair. We don’t have the kitchen as out of bounds for me. I know what’s in my fridge. I don’t cook as much as I could, but I don’t have it that that is the role of my wife.

I also give licence to my children to be critical. My proudest moment as a father was my son challenging me on my integrity, he was 15 by then, he said, ‘Dad, that has no integrity,’ and I had to ask him for a moment just to sit back and reflect.

How old are they now?

Oh my kids? The youngest is 17, the oldest is 32. I have seven children.

Seven children? How hard is that?

It’s a blended family, so I have several children who are adopted and some that are biological. But I don’t do step children. I don’t do biological or adopted. I just do children. There have been moments where it’s been challenging. Part of the uniqueness of my family context has been that I have come in and out of my children’s lives at different points. So there have been moments where I think managing teenagers has been challenging.

What I have learnt from that is command and control, subordinate and dominant models don’t work with young people, particularly if you want children to grow up to be adults who are independent, that are responsible for their own behaviour. I am very blessed to have children that have a sense of values, they are achievers in their own way, and also are not reliant on me for their life choices and for their dependency, I think.

When were you most scared as a man?

In 2010, I was attacked in a car while coming from Namanga to Nairobi. It was at night. Five thugs with rungus and machetes.I was with my son Eric in the car, my eldest, who was 28 then. They beat us, cut us and left us for dead. I was left with more stitches than a pair of Levi’s jeans.

Two years before my son had been attacked and lost one eye. Now he was beaten until he lost his one good eye. And that’s the moment I realised that this was going to be his future. It was probably the scariest moment of my life.

I’m a great fan of something we call Landmark Education Forum, which is a personal transformation and training course. One of the distinctions is freedom from the past. That regardless of your background, good or bad, you have the power to reinvent yourself and to make choices in any moment now, tomorrow, and the day after. And that our choices are always more powerful than our circumstances, if we are choosing powerfully.

So within two months of that incident, Eric went through the landmark forum. He hadn’t even learnt Braille and we were...we were worried that (He gets emotional. Takes a deep breath)..sorry, this gets me emotional. (Pause]).

He chose blindness after that forum, he said ‘‘I choose my blindness. And I need to give up my eyesight in order to have my vision.’’ And I knew at that moment he would be fine. Eight years later, the four things which were very important to him that we thought he was going to lose, he has gained all of them.

He’s now married, the woman he thought would leave him became his wife, he invests, he has projects, he got his Diploma in Project Management. So I have seen the power of transformation. I have seen the power of essentially choosing powerfully.