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Profiles

Obath on Self Reinvention

To make one thing clear, Patrick Obath does not want to be referred to as a “serial director” but as a “professional director.” He sits in 10 boards, three of which he does pro bono. An engineer, he joined Kenya Petroleum Refineries in 1976 and spent the rest of his career in the petroleum industry in the UK, Malaysia, 14 African countries, ending up at Kenya Shell as country chairman and later chief executive. Now he is retired, sort of. He is a member of Rotary Club of Muthaiga and a golfer with passable skills.

Relaxed, eloquent, engaging and enjoying this part of his life, he met JACKSON BIKO for tea at the Aksum bar, Serena Hotel.

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Your phone ring-back tone is a rhumba song, Madilu System, if I’m not wrong.

(Laughs) Correct! I put it in myself. I love rhumba and a lot of music from that region — DRC, Cameroon … That was ‘ the’ genre in the years I was growing up. They had a band of 12 people and guys playing, a tenor saxophone, three guitars and three sets of drums and four people singing … that was creation of music and I still cherish that kind of music.

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I also love people like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and musicians from that generation. This particular song is the first I played when I learnt how to play the guitar. Something I learnt purely by listening. I was never taught. I also played in a band.

You played in a band? When? Where?

I started loving and playing music at Maseno School. We’d go playing in Kisumu Social Hall and at Siriba College. When I went to university in the UK, I couldn’t study music. So I learnt how to play country and western traditional folk music and blues. Together with friends, we would go around clubs playing for free beers. When I came back, I joined the National Theatre Club in Mombasa, about a year after I started working. I was part of a band called ‘Just Five’. We played rock and roll, rhythm and blues, country and western, jazz. We played mostly on Friday evenings.

Have any of your children picked that talent?

They all played some musical instrument at a certain point but they haven’t actually taken it up as a career. They can still play either the piano or the guitar. The youngest plays the bass guitar. Her guitar is in the house gathering dust. I did it for some time then stopped and then went back. So, maybe they will get back to it. I’ve got an old electrical organ which I’ve had in the house for the last 20 years, they used to play regularly.

Do you find yourself having a lot of time for yourself at this point of your life or it’s still pedal to the metal?

I retired from my 8am to 4pm job in 2010 and it allowed me to transform to things that are of my own interest. Now I have time. I choose what I do and I enjoy what I do so I first take time for myself because it is enjoyable. The plan was to jump directly into consultancy and I had set up an office and what not, but then I decided to take a year off.

In your 35 years working as professional, which part or period did you enjoy the most?

Both ends of my career. At the start you’re hustling, doing a lot of stuff, having fun, meeting friends … I was an engineer by day and an artiste by night. I was single and enjoying life. The end was equally satisfying, because you have done the work, made the name, and you are enjoying the fruits of that foundation.

The culture now is that most people want to start something of their own, a side business or a full-time business. Was that something you considered in your three-plus decades working as a professional?

No, the culture back then was two things; you are either an academic or a professional.

I have never been attracted to doing business. It’s something that I look at and ask, ‘What is business?’ Business is an idea you want to commercialise, a lot of the ideas that I had are commercialised through the employment that I had and basically that earned me money as I went up. That was my kettle of fish.

You are now 64 years old. When do you think you came into yourself as a man?

That’s a difficult question to answer because we’re always striving to be better men, to do something better. Even right now there are certain things that I’d love to do but the opportunities never came. So, I think in my life there has always been that continuously looking for reinvention of self. But you can also continue being one thing your whole life, like Franco who played music his whole life or Pele with football or Eliud Kipchoge with athletics and that defines you because you have an innate skill that works for you. So, becoming a man isn’t a thing for me because when you arrive at being that man, you stop reinventing yourself, you begin to rot.

Beautifully put! I like that. What’s your baggage now at 64 years?

There are things I would have wanted to do earlier in life and I haven’t been able to. I wish I had learnt how to read music. But I don’t have a lot of baggage now, people who know me will tell you that I keep no secrets. My wife will tell you the same.

Most people your age always tell me they wish they would have spent more time with their families when they were rising up the career ladder. Is that the same for you?

I think it’s the same thing. I would have a different relationship with not just the children, but the whole family. I started creating time to spend with my wife much later in life. I should have done it earlier, whereby you create time together, not time that is convenient for me, but time that we both agree on regardless of work commitments. It’s very important. That is contrived time, time that is co-created.

You mentioned that you were taken to boarding school when you were maybe five years old? What does that do to the bond you share with your parents?

Well, you don’t have that ka-bond where you are so strongly attached to each other. You still have the family bond but it isn’t what drives you. You become yourself very quickly. Even my brothers and sisters right now, we did not grow up together in one big noisy house, we were all sent to boarding schools. Are we close? We are not that close that we visit every week, but we visit regularly. We live our lives but we get together for a drink and meals, but we don’t live for each other.

You’ve lived a life in your own terms, I gather … are you happy with the life you have lived?

More or less. I’m not going to regret anything. I mean I have had opportunities so that I took some and some I didn’t but the choice was mine. If I look back, I had a good reason for doing what I did at that time and perhaps I could do it differently now but at that point in time I had different set of information and circumstances. The past is gone, I’m not one to anchor my future to my past.

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