Fire in the belly: Why some Kenyans are more ambitious… than you!

A Kenyan from Shags will sell boiled eggs in pubs at night which a born-tao from Nairobi would sneer at

Lap of luxury: Some Kenyans are content to live in congested estates like Umoja, others cannot sleep until they own houses that resemble embassies in upmarket Gigiri, Nairobi.

By GW Ngari


@Undercover KE

Have you ever wondered why some Kenyans-even from the same stomach- are more ambitious than their siblings?  

The same goes for school mates: one former dorm mate could be content living in a one-bedroom hole in Nairobi’s Umoja estate, the other,  lives in what can be mistaken for an embassy in Nairobi’s upmarket Gigiri estate.  

The same goes for workmates; employed at the same time, but five years later, one is poised to become the CEO, the other is still languishing at the same salary in Internal Audit.

 Just what happens?    

What separates the ambitious from those who are not driven? Is ambition specific to gender? Could ambition be influenced by ethnicity, geography, environment, schooling, exposure or genetics?

Undercover thumbed through tons of research and nipped the mind of local psychologists, behavioural scientists and the driven themselves for this article on Kenyans with more ‘fire in the belly.’

Sociologist Edwin Wanjawa, a lecturer at Pwani University once explained that your current state of affairs did not matter more than knowing where you”re headed. People, he argued, are not born ambitious. We are all dreamers. But the ambitious have, not just dreams, but also strategy and energy wheeling their ambitions. “Some are aided by socio-economic, cultural and geographic factors like good family, education and resources,” he offered.

The above explains why your former school mate who was not ;national school or university material’ still beat the rest of the class in the school of life.

Dr Ekuru Aukot has better brains than President Uhuru Kenyatta, truth be told, but placed head to head in a presidential race, the son of Jomo will be spurred by family fortunes and feathered by socio-economic resources trounce Aukot hands down as it happened in the 2017 elections.

Geography will also help Uhuru: he is from a vote-rich Central Kenya, Aukot from marginalized Pokot.

Dr Ekuru Aukot could have ambitions, but the aforementioned factors would hinder their attainment.

Ambition, just for clarity, is “an eager or strong desire to achieve something…or an object or desired goal” and the ambitious are known to make moves that inch them closer to the ultimate prize.

They get to study courses that align them with preferred career choices, they get to know the right people.

But does education matter when it comes to ambition? Is it not common for ‘C’ students to employ ‘A’ students?

Small beginnings, big dreams: Centum CEO James Mworia, his wife Joan and American President Barack Obama. He began as an intern filing records, seven year later, he was CEO of Centum who collects Sh 200 million in annual salary, bonuses and perks.

When Bruce McKenzie, a World War II pilot, came to Kenya to do farming in 1946. Always broke, he sometimes could not afford the Sh300 monthly rent for his flat in Nairobi West. But sizing up the political mood before independence, he realized something big could come out of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.

So, he befriended Jomo’s lawyer, Fitz de Souza who in turn requested for an appointment which was slotted for 5.30 am at his rural Gatundu home. McKenzie proved knowledgeable in which hybrid maize was better than what Kenyatta had and would yield four times as much harvest. The next time Fitz heard from McKenzie he was uprooting and planting new maize crops in Gatundu.

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When Kenyatta named his first Cabinet in 1963, guess who was Minister for Agriculture and Animal Husbandry?..Bruce McKenzie! The man who came to Kenya a broke butt later become very wealthy with interests in telecommunications, aviation and ranching. It was McKenzie who sold retired President Daniel arap Moi his Kabarak Farm before he died in a plane crash on May 4, 1978.  His daughter, Kim McKenzie holds the worldwide trademark for the kikoy, just so you know.

The ambitious also don’t mind small beginnings.

James Mworia, one of Kenya’s highest paid CEOs, began as an intern filing documents at investment giant Centum. With a background in law and accounts, he was able to read numbers to understand where the company was coming from and where it was headed. That was in 2001. He was 23. Seven years later, the alumnus of Alliance High School and the University of Nairobi who pulls over Sh 200 million in annual salary plus bonuses and perks was appointed CEO.

Mworia began small, had the right educational background, but does education matter when it comes to ambition? Is it not common for ‘C’ students to employ ‘A’ students?

Our sociologist at Pwani University explained that education provides useful skills and knowledge that might speed up our goals, but when it comes to ambition, socialization and exposure are more important. This is the reason why many companies in Kenya rarely get CVs of jobseeker who attended International School of Kenya and other high end schools which are known to produce high achievers irrespective of how the achiever performed academically.

 Former Attorney General Charles Njonjo slaved for a law degree for nine years. That means he was not that bright at Alliance High, Kings College Budo, Fort Hare University and Gray’s Inn in London. But his power was a colonial era chief who began as a houseboy for the Richard Leakey family. This explains Njonjo’s Anglophile mannerisms and aristocratic mien. President Uhuru Kenyatta was also not the brightest at St Mary’s School Nairobi and Amherst College, USA. But his early socialization with power elite, exposure to power politics and proximity to statecraft, his father having been Kenya’s first president, makes him wear the presidency with some pedigree that is lost on Deputy President William Ruto, PhD.

Geography also helps. Those from Central Kenya had early exposure to the ways of the Whites having been the first to resist colonialism, meant that they aspired to live like them when they left-which most did and still do: the big cars, big houses, big money.

That Central Kenya was near Nairobi meant supplying essential commodities and with it, business as brokers or traders and the money economy nudges ambitions hitherto in slumber.

Reversed circumstances can also drive ambition. Like being orphaned at early age

It runs in the family. Jeremy Awori, CEO of Absa bank (formerly Barclays) is a scion of one of Kenya’s most formidable families-the Aworis. The two biggest contributors to levels of ambition are the family that produced you and the culture that produced your family.

Reversed circumstances can also drive ambition. Like being orphaned at early age. Or being told by teachers and relatives how you will never amount to anything. Or losing your ancestral land like Jews, now the richest people in Europe and America. Or being an immigrant. Like Somalis in Eastleigh, the Muhindis of Biashara street, the Kisiis everywhere doing transport. Outsiders are not bound by cultures of host societies. A Kenyan from Shags will sell boiled eggs in pubs at night which a born-tao would sneer at. Outsiders have to succeed no matter what, spurring their ambitions, and this explains why the same born-taos pump gas and wash old cucus in America but which they cannot do here in Kenya!

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Does then upbringing matter?

Wanjawa was of the opinion that upbringing matters since ambitious parents mold ambitious brood: The 16 children of Canon Jeremiah Awori for instance, produced a heart surgeon and Professor of medicine, bankers, luminaries in business, academicians, engineers, educationists, corporate honchos and politicians like Moody Awori, one-time Kenya’s Vice President.

Being brought up in a liberal and warm democratic family can take one places if you blend a restless spirit into the mix. Amolo Ngw’eno, not only attended Harvard University like her famous father, the veritable media veteran Hillary Ngwe’no, but also spearheaded the Internet in Kenya when she founded Africa Online with Ayisi Makatiani and Karanja Gakio in the early 1990s. Before then, Kenyans knew postal letters not e-mails!

This restlessness sees the ambitious among us spot opportunities which the rest are blind to.

 A trip to Italy in 1976 made media mogul SK Macharia realize there was money to be made in toilet paper which was imported by a privileged wealthy few and five star hotels. Although the trip to Italy was to see how cows interbreed with buffaloes to produce superior beef, SK had other plans after watching an Italian family make tissue from waster paper. 

He embarked on founding Madhu Paper International that manufactured Rosy brand of toilet paper and which still graces many shelves today despite the company having changed ownership in politically charged circumstances.

Had he retained ownership of Madhu Paper, SK Macharia, owner of Royal Media Services, would be the richest Kahuna since Kenya became a republic.

Not all ambitions are positive. There is negative ambition. Like retired President Daniel arap Moi’s 24 year dictatorship in Kenya and his grudge with SK Macharia over a woman they both loved led to him losing Madhu Paper. It was bought for a song in 1988 by con artist Ketan Somaia, now cooling his heels in a British jail over multiple fraud charges .

By the way, how SK Macharia took the woman Moi also fancied to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and thus winning her heart, is a juicy Undercover story for another day.

But with all the good that come with positive ambition, what makes others to prefer chang’aa instead of champagne? Why is it some are content with 1000c.c. cars while others can’t gas anything below 3000c.c. with bullet proof windows?

Wanjawa is of the opinion that lack of resources can delay ambition as is taking parental responsibilities when orphaned early.

A trigger like the corpse falling from a badly done coffin so embarrassed a mourner in 1987 he ended up turning his carpentry business into what is today Umash Funeral Home

Like father, like daughter: Amolo Ngw’eno followed in his father’s footsteps, attending Harvard before trailblazing the onset of Internet in Kenya with Africa Online. She and her two partners later sold for the upwards of Sh 900 million.

But he reiterates that ambition is always there, lurking somewhere in the recess of a chest exploding with chang’aa, original Achwaka from Siaya, but needs a trigger to imagine and desire Dom Perignon champagne.

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A trigger like the corpse falling from a badly done coffin so embarrassed a mourner in 1987 he ended up turning his carpentry business, Umash Joinery and Painters to Umash Coffin Centre and on to what is today Umash Funeral Home.

Jeffrey Kluger writing for Time magazine in February 2006 notes that “the two biggest contributors to levels of ambition are the family that produced you and the culture that produced your family,” begging the question whether ambition can be genetically transmitted?

Wanjawa says there is no evidence to that effect, but eminent psychologist Dr Frank Njenga once argued that genetics dictated our intelligence, weight and even height and could play a role but having some members of the same family living in Githogoro slums while others live in nearby ritzy Runda estate is because “genetics is about differences in selection and mental characteristics” but that environment matters a great deal as those who grow up in competitive families internalize the pressure towards being ambitious than those who don’t.

The Awori family had grand children who became competitive not just in academia but also in sports: Barclays bank CEO Jeremy Awori was a Kenyan champion swimmer while the Wakhugu sisters, Susan and Dr Judi Wakhungu were champion tennis players in positive competition.

But then there are late bloomers who are stirred to greatness after years of living in the shadow of their potential and for which Dr Njenga explained as being a result of “our genes getting turned on at different stages in life.”  

Wanjawa said late bloomers are in a state of ‘diffusiveness’ until they hit the Mother Lode from years of changing jobs, spouses, businesses.

Psychologists have divided and boxed ambition into four family categories: poor and struggling. Middle class and the super-rich. The first two are screwed as they might be shackled by a culture of poverty which begets more poverty and are unaware of opportunities outside the Jangili Area of Mathare Valley. The super-rich have arrived and are there to stay, leaving the middle-class as the most ambitious in any society.

“They are in what is called ‘status inconsistency’ says Wanjawa, of not wanting to slide to lower classes but not still managing to climb up to where the super-rich are.”

They thus work their butts off to borrow and buy cars on loans, live on mortgage and some manage stupendous fetes by aligning their exposure, education, resources and appetite for the bigger picture to drive their ambitions.

We almost forgot gender. Are women less ambitious than men?

Naked ambition: The once broke Bruce McKenzie and Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Njoroge Mungai, who had unbridled presidential ambitions of succeeding Jomo Kenyatta. McKenzie was once planting maize in the president’s Gatundu farm, the next he was appointed Minister for Agriculture…and on to owning ranches and an airline.

Dr Njenga felt there are slight differences dictated by society as what both should and should not achieve. For years, although this has gradually changed, engineers were men and nurses were women “but ambition in its purest form is the same” just that culture can upset the apple cart in Africa where ambitious women ‘surprise’ society including their husbands leading to unstable families. The 1970s acrimonious divorce of politician Mwangi Mathai was by and large pushed forward by the overarching ambitions of his wife, the late environmentalist and scholar Prof Wangari Maathai-who went on to not only become an MP, presidential contender but also Africa’s first woman Nobel Peace Laureate. The same is not the case in the West where culture and gender are not impediments to ambitions for women.

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