CEO with an ego, the healthy kind

World Animal Protection country director Tennyson J.C Williams. PHOTO | COURTESY
World Animal Protection country director Tennyson J.C Williams. PHOTO | COURTESY  

Eighteen years in the development sector, Tennyson J.C Williams finds himself as the country director for World Animal Protection responsible for Africa’s, well, animals. Before that, he was dealing with humans in UNHCR and before that in research at International Livestock Research Institute, Nairobi. He also worked at ActionAid International as a country director.

Originally from Sierra Leone, Tennyson loves talking about animals and why they are an important link in the future of the ecosystem.

He met JACKSON BIKO at a cafe in Lavington.


You have been heading organisations for 15 years now. What would you say it takes to get at the top of the professional food chain?

This is one of the most critical questions that one needs to always find an answer to. So why you? What do you stand for? Have you made your presence felt? Have you impacted people’s lives? Not necessarily by giving them financial assistance, but by allowing them to grow. I cannot fool myself that no one else is better than me. We were about 128 people who applied for this job globally.

I got appointed not only because I was the best, but because I was able to market myself at interviews and follow through in that marketing. Leadership is about new ideas, it’s about seeking for alternatives, it’s about opening doors, it’s about having a very clear message.

Were you an animal protection advocate before this position, or were you persuaded into this thinking after you got this job?

It was the latter. As an African boy who grew up in a rural community, that’s the extent to which my association with animals went. You know, you take the goats out, you have dogs in the house...That changed only four years ago. Today, I’m a proponent of the whole notion that until the world makes animals part of the development thinking, even our own problems as human beings will never be solved.

How so?

The reason is, even Mahatma Gandhi said nations are judged by the way they treat their animals. A nation that treats its animals seriously is a reflection of how far that nation can go. Biblically, animals were there before you and I. Communities are successful because they have strong livelihood systems. The whole value chain conversation that goes on now, animals are part of it.

In Africa, we are struggling with feeding ourselves and staying alive from Malaria, why would we care if our chicken and donkeys and dogs are happy?

Animal welfare is not a Western concept. Perhaps if it was referred to in a Luhya language, it may not have been seen as Western. But who says you cannot refer to it in Maa? Maasai love to own cattle. Is that not animal welfare? Is that not a relationship? You can’t beat a donkey that ferries water and firewood for you and expect the best from it. It feels pain. Do you know when you chase a chicken for 20 minutes to slaughter it the meat tastes different from when that animal is captured in a much more careful way?

In Africa, chasing chicken is a ceremony.

(Laughs loudly) Yes it is.

So, do you keep any domestic animals?

Oh! yes I do. I keep a dog.

What breed is that?

It’s just our own… what we call Kangemi breed. (Laughter)

How old are your kids?

I have a 24-year-old son who is in Cape Town studying in a motion picture school and I have a second one who is 18 also studying business commerce abroad. My last daughter,Tyra, is at home with me. She’s still at Braeside School.

You’ve been very privileged, you’ve been very lucky…

Oh! Very much. Not only have I been privileged professionally, but also at the family level. My family has been sacrificing for me to be away. I think I have seven or eight used passports, and this is because of official travel.

I suspect that men like you have gotten to the top, but it always seems like to get there it leaves the responsibility of raising the kids to their wives...

Oh, absolutely. I see my wife as my pillar. She held the family together. She’s very prayerful. Men need that in their lives. I believe my wife going down on her knees to pray has actually helped the family stay together.

Teaching the children Christian values has helped. She also has a very strong personality. I have made mistakes driven by my ego and when she complained I said, “…this is about development, you ought to understand these things,” and she’d tell me, “I’m not talking about development, I’m talking about life, my friend.” (Laughter)

Talking of ego and being on top, what has been your experience with ego and leadership?

That’s very a good question. We must have egos, but it’s about controlling it. In leadership, you cannot demonstrate emptiness. So if you can’t offer anything, if you can’t give solutions, then you are in trouble.

Of all the milestones you set out to achieve, which one has evaded you?

I wanted to start a community initiative which can outlive me. I’m working very hard towards that. I want something that the community can own. I’m concerned about when I will do that because I still have children in school. Plus when I’m done I wonder if I will still be strong enough to do it.

Do you sometimes feel like you are running out of time?

Sometimes I do! I’m 53 now, so yes, I worry sometimes.