I’m at the University of Nairobi’s Business School in Lower Kabete. It’s 11a.m, on a Wednesday, and I’m about to meet Dr. Bitange Ndemo.
At his office, there’s a lady about to leave, there’s me waiting to get in, and there are two, briefcase-carrying gentlemen, waiting to go in after me. It’s a busy day for Bitange.
Bitange is an associate professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Nairobi. He has, under his belt, a PhD in Industrial Economics, a Master’s in Business Administration, and a Bachelor’s degree in Finance.
He is also an expert writer for some of the country’s top daily papers.
We are sitting on opposite sides of his desk, in his extremely minimalist office, when Bitange tells me about his childhood. He has 39 siblings, they grew up in poverty, and things like bread, were such a luxury for them – they only had it for Christmas.
Bitange then narrates to me the survival tactics he used while living abroad as a working student, they are sobering tales to listen to; but Bitange narrates them with ease, thought and occasional laughter.
Having finally graduated from university and become in-demand in the US workforce, Bitange thought returning home would be nothing but a breeze. He would find employment, rise to the top of the corporate ladder, and live well. Until he realised this was just but a dream, the reality on the ground couldn’t have been more different.
Eventually, Bitange travelled to England, pursued his PhD, and came back to the country. It was at this point that he got into government. It was a luxurious job, comfortable, testing at times, but manageable.
Bitange was riding high: he had political contacts, friends, power, and everything that came with a job in government. And then he was fired. And things came tumbling down. His life was suddenly quiet. His phone wasn’t ringing. What just happened?
Bitange, dressed in a stripped shirt and blue denim pants, comfortably leans back on his seat, as he talks to me about what that period after leaving office was like. He tells me about the confusion, isolation, self-doubt, and pain that came with being a public figure that no one called anymore.
Below, Bitange and I talk about: the days of his youth, his stint in farming, regrettable investment choices, surviving life after government, and where he is now.
Bitange, your first name is, “Elijah,” is that right?
Who calls you, “Elijah?”
(Laughs) Well, my mother. It was given to me by her. She wanted to give me, as Catholics do, two names. So the first was to be, “Benedict.” But because she didn’t go to school, she used to call me, “Bantigito,” which is what you see on my Twitter handle.
Then later on is when she called me, “Elijah.” But she remains the only one to call me that.
Do you like the name?
Well, there was a time when we didn’t want English names, but, it’s my name. It’s what’s on my birth certificate, and my mother loved using it. So, you know, I own it. (Smiles)
Earlier, you were telling me how you worked 22-hour days while at university in the US. Since a lot of youth are generally, at that age, always socialising and having a good time, do you feel like you missed out on anything?
No. Nothing. Because a lot of the people who were having a good time, ended up not completing their studies. Whereas for me, I achieved more than I would have achieved, if I did other things. So, no, I didn’t miss out on anything.
Was that what your 20s were made of, lots of hard work?
Yes. Extreme hard work. But I’m thankful I went through it, because who I am today is based on the work ethics I developed then.
And your 30s, what were they like?
In my early thirties, I was in the US, earning 60,000 dollars a year, working as a cost accountant. Then I grew to become a senior financial system’s analyst.
Then I thought because I was in so much demand in the US, if I came back home, the transition would be a piece of cake.
Oh my. Absolutely not. (Shakes head) I got here and no one had heard of my qualifications. No one. Nowhere. Completely.
I couldn’t get a job, until the University of Nairobi advertised that they needed an accounting system’s lecturer. That’s when I applied.
What what were you doing to survive, before the university job came along?
I got into farming. I had been helping someone export vegetables to the US, and I was very comfortable doing it. Until someone else went and told my mother that her son is selling vegetables. And, Yvonne, let me tell you, it sounds very bad when said in vernacular. Very bad.
How did your mother react?
She was upset. She couldn’t understand what was going on. She asked: “How can you be selling vegetables like you never went to school?”
And that’s how you applied to teach at the university…
What was the new job like?
Well, at the University of Nairobi, I started at the very bottom. I started as a tutorial fellow, and the salary was 7,000 Shillings per month.
While having a US degree?
(Nods) Yes, with a US degree, having been earning 5,000 dollars per month.
From 5,000 dollars, to just over 70 dollars, per month?
Did you think of going back to the US?
I did. I actually really thought of going back. Because it was around that time that I got married. And of course you begin to worry that your partner may leave you if the money problems don’t come to an end.
Also, when I was selling vegetables, I was able to live in Kileleshwa for 12,000 Shillings per month, suddenly, that reality was no more.
Then I’d also made some investments in Kisii, and they proved to be bad, so there were no returns coming in. Ah, so many mistakes in the 30s. So many. (Shakes head)
What investments had you made then?
Ah, horrible investments. (Shakes head again) It was a house in Kisii that had cost 3 Million Shillings.
My goodness, with that money, at the time, I could have easily secured 3 acres in Kileleshwa. If I only think of what that piece in Kileleshwa would have become, seriously, I could almost be a billionaire today.
The housing investment, would you consider that to be the biggest mistake of your 30s?
(Shakes head) Too many mistakes in my 30s. Too many. (Pauses)
Bitange, how do you forgive yourself, for the costly mistakes you made in the past?
Well, you just have to forget about the past, and work towards a better future. There’s no use continuously beating yourself up for what’s already done.
Government, how did you get into it?
That happened during that phase when I was really trying to make a better living. But to get into government, I needed to have a PhD. Pursuing a PhD had never been in my mathematics. At all. But here I was, so I went to England to study for it, and then I came back.
When I returned I started helping some politicians with policy work and other related tasks. I did my part and forgot about it, and then one day, I saw myself named as a Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Communication. I had no idea what on earth that was. None. (Laughs)
Did you enjoy your time in government?
Well, it can be enjoyable, but it is also very difficult to work in government. There’s a culture there, and for you to succeed, one must change to fit in with the culture. Government is not a place for the faint-hearted.
But I did my part, and I tried to execute, and be as effective as I possibly could. It was such an experience in itself.
How did your time in government come to an end?
I was fired. The new government had come in, and they’d made promises to other people, so we were served with notices, and that was that.
And then you wrote about your life right after leaving government, and the article spread like wildfire…
That I did not expect. I did not expect the reaction that article got. At all.
Could you tell me about that? What was your life after government really like?
Quiet. (Laughs) It was really quiet. My phone truly did stop ringing. And that was what I was trying to depict in the article.
While I was serving in government, my phone would start ringing, every day, from about 6a.m. It was all kinds of calls, including the usual, of people needing help, or someone wanting a job. The phone was always ringing. But here I was, at 10a.m, and there was no sound. That’s when I decided to ring it, to see if it was working.
To ring your own phone?
Yes. Can you imagine? (Laughs) The phone was fine. That was a shocker.
Wow. Was this new reality tough to accept?
It was beyond tough Yvonne. It was like being hit, hard, with a large stone. (Pause) And then I told myself, ah, it’s okay, I can deal with this.
Until one day I went to Nakumatt, and I saw someone. And because my personality is very easy-going and friendly, I was ready to greet him and hug him. As soon as he saw me, he hid under the aisles, and ran away. And that’s when I realised, now, this is serious. (Laughs)
What? Was this someone you knew?
(Nods) This was someone who used to bother me almost every single day with phone calls and requests. (Laughs again then shakes head)
That must have been really hard to take in Bitange…
It was, Yvonne. And it is. It’s tough. I talked to so many retired people, and they asked me, “You didn’t know? This is what life is like.”
Some were actually very bitter, and I tried to console them, I told them, “If someone doesn’t want to greet you, shauri yake!”
How did you recover from all this?
I came back to the University of Nairobi, and asked them to give me classes. I wanted to teach. And that made me feel alive, and purposeful again.
Now it would be very hard to get me out of here, because I’m back to my usual self. Now I’m back to the normal routines of people coming in and out of the office.
Did you feel betrayed by those you had considered friends, who turned out not to really be?
No. It’s just human nature. It’s human behavior. I wrote that article just for people to know what it’s like to leave, “high,” positions or offices.
Most civil servants used to die. I think even now, very senior civil servants don’t live long after retirement.
Why then, do you think, there are still quite a lot of people who continue to chase these things: fame, positions, money?
It’s an addiction. If you look at MPs, when they lose, they still want to be called, “Mheshimiwa,” they want to walk through security without being scanned, and they even hire drivers so that they could be seen to be driven, so that the impact remains big. (Shakes head)
For me, I started driving straight away. I struggled with parking, had to deal with city council, and I just got back to it. That life can be very deceptive.
Right. Bitange, let’s talk about your weight loss, perhaps by first beginning with your weight gain, how did you gain most of it?
My weight gain was just due to government. I was so busy that there was no time to do anything else. And then of course, government has mandazi, every office you go to, a cup and mandazi. (Laughs) And, no matter how strong you are, you just look at the mandazi and you give in.
How much were you weighing then?
When I joined I was weighing 85kg, and then I shot up to 118kg.
And then medical issues started arising, and the doctors started saying, in passing, that I needed to watch my weight. Then I was notified that I have hypertension, and that it can lead to diabetes.
In my family we’ve had diabetics, and I’ve seen how much they’ve suffered, so I said, no way, here, I’m fighting. I’m willing to fight.
How hard was it, to lose the weight?
Oh, it’s almost the hardest thing you can do to yourself. It’s hard. It’s difficult. And it’s painful. Especially at the start. But now I’m used to it.
I remember I used to run just 200 metres, and feel like I’m on the verge of collapsing. But now, I can quite comfortably cover 10km.
Apart from exercise, is there anything else you did to help bring down the weight?
Diet was another huge part of it. It’s the boring essentials that always remain true. So I had to start paying attention to my diet.
I was extremely attached to bread when I was gaining weight, especially because while growing up, we only had bread for Christmas. But with the weight loss mission, I was forced to cut out a lot of that kind of food. Even chapati, now I only have one chapati for dinner.
Only one chapati?
(Laughs aloud) I know. And I usually eat by 7p.m, then nothing at all, until morning. The process requires a lot of self-control.
What encouragement would you give to someone who’s seeking to lose weight like you did?
It can be done. Stay determined. And don’t give up, push through the pain. Also, be careful with friends, they’re the ones who say, “People are dying bwana! Have some of this.”
That’s dangerous talk. Be careful with messy friends.
Bitange, if you had your life to live over again, is there anything you’d do differently?
I would avoid the mistakes I made around investments. (Laughs)
I would have also grasped all the opportunities that came my way, because now I know that there are opportunities that never come twice. There are opportunities I should have taken advantage of while in the US, but I didn’t.
Is there anything else you would have done differently?
I think I also shouldn’t have pursued a PhD, that was a mistake. I should have gone into business.
Are you satisfied with the life you’ve lived so far Bitange?
I think I’d be asking God for too much if I complained. I’m healthy, I have a family I’m proud of, I’m able to do many things, I’ve traveled quite a bit, and I’m invited to speak at different events. What more would I want? So yes, I’m satisfied.
Would you say you’ve fully bounced back to your former self since leaving government?
(Long Pause) I don’t know if I’ve, “bounced back.” But I’m okay, satisfied, and fulfilled. I’m thankful.
Any last words?
(Thinks) What bothers me most is that, several years after Independence, we still have abject poverty in our land. It just tears me apart to find someone begging on the streets. I think we need to do more, and we need to help where we can, whenever we can. Let’s do more.