James Mageria is board chairman of Karen Hospital, but what he really is, is a guru. He fills conversations with wisdom. Everything he says eventually oscillates towards his faith and humanity. And why not, he is a trustee of the Bible Society of Kenya and a church elder. He has sat on dozens of boards. Ironically, he was once a cop in the 1960s, leaving as officer in charge of crime and investigation. He was also a co-chairman of the Police Oversight Board. JACKSON BIKO met him at work.
When you ask most people who they are, they always tell you what they are. It’s complex isn’t it?
It is an identity issue. I’m the chairman, but that’s not my identity. I have a friend who refused to get out of the position of a managing director because what would appear on his business card if he left? Without titles, most people feel that they are nothing. First, I’m not what I do, because I’m a human being, not a human doing. It’s dangerous to define yourself with what you possess. When I was a young CEO of American Express and I came from the police, all of a sudden, they gave me a house, a cook, a gardener, a guard, a driver and a black Mercedes Benz that I had to sit back left. It was easy to imagine that was my identity and hang onto it.
So who are you?
I was a police officer, I’m no longer one. Now young police officers stop me and say, “mzee leta licence” they don’t know I trained their commissioners when I was at Kenya Police College. I was once a bachelor, it’s gone. (Laughs) I was not even a father, then my children made me a father. These identities are temporary and they go but the one thing that will last is that I’m James Mageria, a beloved child of God!
When did you have clarity, a point where you figured out the man you were and what that demanded of you?
When I was growing up around Mount Kenya, many people were being killed by the Mau Mau if they suspected that you had anything to do with the white man. I saw many people die; black, white, young and old. At 14 years, I discovered that life was temporary and what matters is what you do between the day you are born and the day you die; the value you add to others during this time.
God gives a lot but if you don’t give, you rot inside. That realisation changed my life. It’s freeing. You are not free if you hold onto things; if you take and don’t give. It doesn’t matter what car you are driving, won’t we all get to Karen shopping centre if we leave now? For 24 years, I had a Toyota before it was stolen not long ago. It served its purpose. When I discovered that I had to live my life out of function rather than fashion, I was free.
How do you reward yourself?
By results. Who is the best manager? The best manager is not the one who works with angels and produces a lot. The best manager is the one who works with devils and changes them into angels. So, like now, I’m working on a few who are terrible. (Chuckles) I usually say, this is a beloved child of God, there is something good in him so how do we get it out? That’s how I reward myself.
Why do you think all of a sudden we are a society that is hell bent to print fake money, to steal and enrich ourselves?
Selfishness. Because you don’t have shoes, you get shoes and you want better ones. Because you don’t want dust on your better shoes, then you want a big house in a great neighbourhood, then you get a car, but it’s not as big as the neighbours, so you get a bigger one then one day your meet someone who owns a helicopter … it’s a bottomless pit which you can never fill.
During what part of your life did you look at yourself and say I don’t like this person I am now?
When I was growing up I was scared of death. When I put my life in the hands of God, my life changed completely. After I attended Alliance High School, I joined the Police. I wanted to be a peacemaker because I’m a child of war. My peers were shocked, they expected me to go study theology because then the police was ruthless. But I knew it’s in the police that I could create peace.
What’s the secret to a happy marriage?
It is to know that you’re there for your spouse. Many people marry for what they get out of the person; can she cook and iron? I wanted my wife to be 10 times better when I married her. I came from a family of 10, and I was the eldest so I did all the house chores. I’m a very good chapatiologist. (Laughs) That’s what my children call me because I make great chapatis.
Anyway, my wife’s mum died when she was 10, so she never really was a child. When I married her, I said, 'now I will be your mother and father.' She had left school at standard 8. I told her, ‘I will not stop until you get a PhD.’
So she went back to school, did Cambridge school certificate, then got a diploma, went to Daystar University and got a Bachelor of Arts degree, then got a Master's degree and she was studying with my son Mwaniki, who she beat in class (Laughs).
I wanted her to always reach the furthest level she could because it filled me with happiness. That’s a happy marriage, giving yourself to your spouse.
What’s your biggest insecurity?
(Pause) I’m 78 years old now. I have seen many of my friends get prostate cancer and the other day I asked myself, ‘now I’m that age and my prostate is larger, suppose I get cancer?’And I said, 'why not? Why is it OK for the others to get cancer and not for me?' If it comes, I will have enough resolve to fight it and if I die, that’s a favour because I would have no more cancer. Very few things scare me.
There was a time in 1969 when a senior officer at the Kenya Police College was picking people to go under oath.
The principle of the oath was that there was competition between Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and we were to take an oath for our community. These guys were not even acting on the president’s orders. I refused to take an oath, but I was scared to be killed because my children were small and my wife was young. Then I asked myself 'why am I scared?' People were dying and leaving their children. God is there to take care of them.’
I got so courageous that I went preaching in Kenya Police College and other places, saying I didn’t take the oath, asking those who did out of fear to repent because Judas betrayed Jesus, so did Peter.
You seem to have led a very virtuous, principled life. Is there something you ever did that you are not proud of?
(Long pause) Yes. I can’t forget this but I’m glad God forgives. (Pensive pause) When I was a police officer, I saw a six-year-old girl raped by a young man of about 18 years. I was so angry and I remember beating the young man, I beat him so badly I can still see blood on his face and how it had cuts. I’m ashamed of it because many people — even the criminals — used to call me a preacher policeman because when they stole, instead of punishing them, I would sit down with them and make them see their error. Yet I really assaulted this young man. I repented but I still remember that young man and his bloody face. I think that is the worst thing that I really ever did.
Did he not deserve it?
He did not deserve it. You don’t fight evil with evil. If I had talked to him, maybe he would have repented; maybe I would have turned him to be the one who champions against rape. But what did beating him like that achieve? I feel bad about it. Very bad.