Nancy Karigithu’s love affair with water starts the furthest place from any big water mass; Mwea. That’s where she grew up, making paper boats, getting a shell from a relative who had visited the Coast and constantly listening into it and hearing the murmurs of the sea that was calling her.
Inevitably, she ended up in high school in Kilifi, close but not so close to the ocean. She later joined University of Nairobi to pursue a law degree, then did a Master’s degree in international maritime law.
She worked at Kenya Ports Authority as a legal officer for six years, left and started her own law firm, worked for 10 years, left to join Kenya Maritime Authority as director-general. Now she’s a principal secretary, overseeing Department for Maritime and Shipping Affairs in Ministry of Transport.
JACKSON BIKO met her in her office in Upper Hill.
I have always wondered the relevance of this visitor’s book that you find in government offices. Do you sometimes, when you are bored, pick it and read the comments people leave there? And are those comments even honest. I don’t see someone writing bad things in this book of yours.
(Laughs) It’s standard procedure. It’s a long standing feature of the government, I guess. It’s a record that you engaged us. We can also get your contacts from there...so it’s like a reference point. I doubt it exists in the private sector.
How does it feel to have a massive Kenyan flag standing behind your desk?
It’s awesome. It inspires awe. It reminds you the responsibility bestowed on you. That yours is a duty to the nation and you have to deliver.
When do you stop being mheshimiwa Nancy, the PS, and start being Nancy, the Kenyan, the mother, the friend, the sister? When do you separate yourself from the office or is this office something that follows you everywhere like a shadow?
Can I surprise you? I'm just me. The other day my son and I went shopping in a mall and when we were done he said, “Mom, this is ordinary, there was no fuss of people stopping you.” This is me.
The title has never been something that stopped me being who I am. My security and I part on Fridays, unless I have an official function. So over the weekend I am my own person.
And what do you do over the weekend?
I work in Nairobi but live in Mombasa, so mostly I spend my weekends in Mombasa. But if not, my husband will be here. It will be time to see family. But I'm a very private person.
My off time is my me time. I love reading and gardening. My husband and I are involved in the Church. Alongside his business interests, he’s served as an elder at our church— PCEA Milele Church for the past three years. So I am a church elder’s wife.
Do you find that it's more challenging for somebody like you with a very strong Christian background to hold office that comes with politics? How often do you find church conflicting with politics of the State?
Politics of the state how? I'm me. When I'm here, I'm working, I’m serving my country. When I'm out there I'm different, I’m serving other interests that doesn’t involve the State. The only difference is my faith influences much of how I work. My conscious is very sharp. I’m clear on what lines I can’t cross.
Talking of lines, because we are an African society and we expect one of our own who is in the office to help raise our profile in society, how do you handle the wider family expectations for jobs and positions in your docket?
(Chuckles) I know what you mean. (Pause) If you ask anyone in my family, it’s been commented that “huyu hawezi kusaidia mtu.” How do I put this across? I'm a very strong stickler to governance issues. I'm here as a custodian for Kenyans, not my family. And I would never want that to come out of me as part of my record that I skewed or bent in favour of my family—including my own children. They know. And we've grown up with them knowing that it won't happen.
I have three boys—the eldest is 30 and the youngest is 26, I didn’t plan properly. (Laughs) And I have one foster son. My children adopted him. They met him, loved him and they begged us to include him in our family, so we did officially. That was a long time ago, now he’s a big boy in Form Four.
What has adopting a child brought into your life?
It humbles you, and you realise this is not your assignment. It's God's assignment. You're partnering with Him to help one of His own. And it helps you realise that you're a mother yes, but even to your own children you're just a guardian. So for me looking after him is like I'll do good to him because it takes a village to raise a child. Even mine will be raised in other ways by others.
Also, it made my children appreciate life, to know that it's by the grace of God that they are here. Through Him they became nurturers. My last born changed, he stopped being the little boy of the family. All of a sudden he had somebody looking up to him and he took charge. It’s been all positive.
Of course, some of my relatives didn't understand. I could have gone and picked a child from the village. But I said this is who God wanted me to have. If I was asked I would have chosen a girl because I would have loved a girl in my house. But God gave me another boy. So maybe I was meant to be a mother for men.
Which part of this job do you least enjoy?
Do you want me to be honest?
That would be nice.
(Laughs) The politics. I know it's part of the office but that's really difficult.
Is politics something you learn on the job or some people are just natural at playing it? How do you learn to play politics?
That's a difficult one because nobody teaches you. There's no book you read, situations are different, circumstances change day by day. So you can't say that you master it. There's so much you have to manage. Mostly the tasks are not enjoyable, they are tiring and draining and take a lot of time. I wish I didn't have to do that. But it comes with the territory.
What do you fear the most now?
Not being able to enjoy my exit here when it comes. I don't want to get out of here with the baggage of a scandal or corruption. I want to leave with a clean conscious to go enjoy my grandchildren and my other life without a cloud hanging over me. That's my fear.
Do you think this job, this office, has changed you?
(Pause) Living away from my family has changed me. I used to teach Sunday school but I’m unable to because I’m always here. As you know, serving comes with sacrifice.