Nancy Aburi has been on the United Nations and international NGOs’ grind for two decades now, living and working in London, Dublin, Rome, and New York. She’s now back home as the senior adviser to the special envoy, Horn of Africa United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
After her undergraduate degree in Design from the University of Nairobi, she had a successful career, a useful MBA in Strategy, Creativity Innovation and Change from the UK, two divorces, one apple of her eye (her son), and invaluable lessons around compassion, kindness as values to face the world with and the role of women in leadership.
At 46 years, and back home after a long stint outside the country, she’s also now deeply exploring the meaning of her roots and what “home” is for her and her son.
Open, brilliant, introspective, and good-natured, she tells JACKSON BIKO about this journey in a Zoom call.
Where do we start?
At Alliance High School which was a great equaliser for me, but which also brought discrepancies because during visiting days on Saturdays you’d have parents with big cars coming to visit while some of us from Meru (laughs) would not even have anyone visiting. But eventually, it didn’t matter whether you were from Turkana or Meru, you were there on merit and our ethos was hard work and not your father’s name.
Then I go out to the world and end up in a place like the UN and one time, I was in New York in the UN secretariat building during General Assembly week. By then I was posted in Ireland. I bumped into a Kenyan delegation, excited to see some Kenyan leaders, I went over to introduce myself proudly as a Kenyan because come on these are my people. One of the ministers— who I shall not name (laughs) says, ‘what’s your father’s name? How did you end up here?’ He assumed that I must have ended up there with the right family name, not my education or experience or qualification. I was so crushed. So I was conscious of these nuances very early that I got into my career without any connection or family name.
Sometimes it works for me because I don’t have baggage, but other times I’ve also missed out. But I would say, broadly speaking, that it’s worked out. I’m very happy when I look back at the values I’ve brought with me and I’m proud.
What’s your experience being in your position of leadership. At the top, is it lonely, what sort of battles do you find yourself fighting up there?
Sometimes it can be lonely, especially as a woman. One of the things that bother me is the lack of support amongst women. It’s how we can build each other but also how we are our own worst enemies. Honestly, it’s not a very comfortable topic to discuss with you, a man. When I look back at my career, the times that I have been screwed over— excuse my language — the times I’ve had a problematic boss, the times I have been most stressed, has been with a woman as my peer or my boss. The HeForShe campaign (solidarity campaign for the advancement of gender equality, initiated by the UN) for instance, I believe has done better, in gender equality. I truly believe that men who believe in gender equality in that workspace have done more than women are doing for each other.
Why is that the case?
(Pause) I think successful women who have been through so much suffering, from a patriarchal culture, to get where they are tend to forget the struggle when they get to the top. I think it’s the responsibility of these women to make it easier for the rest to come behind them because they know the challenges. Then there is another crop that is so competitive with each other. Those who hold the misconception that if you light another person’s candle yours will go off. It’s an unhealthy competition because you are being competitive with people you shouldn’t be competitive with.
What useful philosophies of life have you gathered in the trenches over time?
Kindness and compassion work everywhere, every time, especially at the workplace. Lead with kindness, not fear. And that there is never a bad decision, just a different path or a different lesson to learn. I have never been someone afraid to make decisions, not to mean I’m never unsure, but I was sure that no matter the outcome a lesson awaited me. I spent my 20s discovering myself. In the last decade, I’m learning not to conform to anybody’s expectations, that I will get out of people what I put in them. This works in a relationship as it works at work. I think the same values should apply in both work and personal relationships.
You mentioned, fleetingly, something about your passion for mental health before we started this interview, what’s that about?
I grew up with a mother who suffered depression, so mental health is something I know intimately. When I was young, my mother was always unwell. We were told she had malaria and she always had to go see Dr Njenga. (Frank) Then I grew up and discovered Dr Njenga is a psychiatrist. (Laughs) My brother (also now deceased as is my mom) also had schizophrenia, never really diagnosed well, never really discussed. Mental health for me is something I always knew I’d throw my weight behind but I haven’t gotten round to this passion.
How was that, growing up with a mother who had mental health issues?
Well, I’m the last born of six children and I suspect it was post-partum depression. I think her friends saw me as the miracle baby because my mom would walk along the river with me and leave me by the riverbed. Someone once picked me next to a snake. I remember the snake, by the way. Or how when I was 12, I had to walk for 25 kilometres to go look for my dad because I had been left alone in the house in Meru with a sick mom. Or me writing to Mwai Kibaki at seven years asking if he could adopt me. I attended 11 schools by the time I was in Standard Five because I would be shipped out to live with different aunts, most of them teachers.
There are stories there that need to be told, to create more awareness. I’ve never had this conversation with anyone else but my family.
How does a life like that shape someone, growing up in a largely unstable environment?
Because I was the youngest everybody had gone off to boarding school and for the longest time I was left home alone, I learnt to be independent at a very young age. I had incredible relationships with these aunts I lived with but that also meant that I had to grow up too soon. Also, I never had a relationship with my mom like most people say they did. I guess that’s also one of the reasons I left the country as soon as I could.
What are the negatives?
Trust. I don’t know the kind of childhood most people talk about. It’s alien. What that did to me…oh gosh, I’m going to get emotional. (Pause) I guess as a result I don’t trust easily. I never grew up without parental guidance— my father was very busy working, mom was unwell. Sometimes I ask myself the biggest question of my life is ‘what if?’ What if I had had a different upbringing? What if I was able to sit down with my mom and talk about relationships, would I have had two divorces?
I’m fascinated by how our childhoods form us as adults. We—amongst my friends, always say that we somehow eventually turn into our fathers. Do you ever wonder if you might turn into your mother?
I’m scared to turn into my mother. I’m scared because I think the later part of her life was very sad. And lonely. I don’t want to be that person. I look at my mother’s life and learn a lot, but a lot of it is sad. She didn’t leave the best life she could have. She was an incredibly talented woman who for that generation didn’t have a lot of support.
I think it’s sad when you say your mom never lived her best life. Are you living your best life and if so, when did you start living your best life?
On a scale of happiness, I’m at 7. It was a lot worse. Right now, I’m doing a job I love, raising my child the best way I want to. Most people who know me say I’m courageous, but I don’t see myself as courageous, I survive. I made decisions. When I was in a relationship and I knew it wasn’t working I just knew it wouldn’t last until my 45th birthday. That thing of not living my best life as my mom is constantly in my head and for this, I have walked out from a marriage. My life is not too bad, maybe a few things need to happen for it to be the best.
What needs to happen?
I need a home. I’ve never had a home. I’m 46 years old and never owned my own home. I’ve moved so much. I left Kenya when I was 24, I’ve lived in London, Dublin eight years, came back to Kenya, I’ve worked in Rome, New York, and every time I move I lose everything. When I start again I start with Ikea furniture. I’m done with that life. (Laughs) I need roots now. I’ve never had a home even as a child as I mentioned, so I’m at the period where I need roots somewhere, a soil somewhere with a tree I can come back to. A sense of home and belonging is key. My son is mixed race, for instance, American, Irish and Kenyan, where is home for us, where do we belong?
I’m curious to know about your relationship with your father?
It’s had its seasons. What season do you want to know? (Laughs) He’s a man I see in many spheres; as a father, husband, and human being and I have different relationships with him in all these spheres. He has been an incredible father, raised six children with his wife who had depression since 1974 until he buried her last year. He never left. He always took care of us. He taught us as girls, four of us, that no man should lay a hand on us. He’s 87, comes from a generation that beat their children, but he never beat us, maybe our brothers. He set the bar for us early. As a husband, it’s complicated. I tell my male friends that children will always be aware of how you treat their mother, regardless of how well you treat them. The signals you send have to be consistent. But all in all, my father is a good man, flawed as we all are as human beings, but a good man. I choose to see him as a human being.
I once interviewed a lady who told me that her mother once told her that she should judge her father only as a father, not a husband but let her judge him as her husband. I found that profound.
I like that very much. I think that’s the only way. But it’s difficult to do, huh? It helps to look at him as a human being.
Does being divorced have any impact on you as a career woman?
Oh yes! Not just being divorced per se, but being a single parent. I could have been probably two steps higher than I currently am. There are jobs I couldn’t take because I had just gone through a divorce and I wanted to come back to Kenya. I figured going to Copenhagen would be tricky with no social network, to start from scratch as a single parent. So I chose to raise my child over my career. It impacts ones career. There are also jobs I can’t take, like in Afghanistan. I think it impacts single women and those with no children more.
Will you get married again?
I don’t know, but I’m not opposed to it if the right person comes along. I mean, I have been divorced twice and that’s another story. (Laughs) But I have never felt bitter about marriage and men, it just reinforced my belief in the right person, who hasn’t come along. So when he comes along, I will get married again. I do better in a healthy relationship, that adds value to our lives and we add value to them.
Do you think you are easy to love?
I think so. (Pause) That’s a very interesting question. (Laughs) You just need to take time to know me, to know my insecurities and my passions to love me well.