In Conversation With Makini Schools Founder, Dr Elizabeth Mary Okello

August 29, 2022

Dr Elizabeth Mary Okello prides herself as a woman of many firsts; she was the first ever woman bank manager in Kenya in 1977, founder of Kenya Women Finance Trust, first woman advisor to the president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), the vice president of Women’s World Banking, a member of the External Consultative Gender Committee, World Bank, and the founder of Makini Schools and the Kenya Private Schools Association.

Now retired, Dr Okello recently relocated from her family home in Karen, Nairobi to the village.

She spoke to Jackson Biko for the Business Daily.

This place must have quite some history, a library of emotions over the 40-plus years.

Yes. The feeling is of hope and happiness. I enjoyed living here. I raised my children here but a time comes when sometimes you have to let some things go. Besides, it’s a big house and I’m alone here. So I think it is time to move on and go somewhere else.

I’m not exactly leaving everything behind, the memories will go with me. I have pictures and sad memories of when I lost my husband. There have been very happy moments; my children’s weddings, parties, grandchildren running around down there in the garden, ceremonies…

What do you remember of your childhood?

I grew up in the village. It was a very happy childhood. That’s one of the reasons I started a school [Makini School] because I wanted to see children happy. My home was not normal, in the sense that my father was a clergyman, a pioneer clergyman in the Anglican Church.

And at that time there were no institutions for needy people, the disabled, blind, or deaf. So these people used to be sent to churches to take care of them. So my father had to create space in his home for those people.

So we had the blind, deaf and sometimes the mentally unstable people staying over. We had girls who were in unhappy marriages take refuge in our home. We even had refugees whenever there were problems in Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. It was home but more like an institution that took care of many people.

At any one time, there would be like 60 people. It was very regimented, and disciplined because when you’re looking after a lot of people you have to have order and discipline.

So I grew up in a very disciplined home with a lot of orders; bells ringing to wake up, bells for food…[laughter] when I tell my children that they laugh like you are now.

You studied history in Makerere. Why history?

Because when you know your history you learn everything.

Well put. Did you ever feel that you were destined for something big or did all these just happen?

I don’t know (Chuckles). We were brought up to believe that each one of us was created for a purpose. God has put something in you that is different from everybody else and you must use that gift. Remember the story about the three servants?

You shouldn’t be like the servant who buried his one bag of silver. You have to make use of what God has given you to make life better for everybody. We saw our parents looking after needy people, so we had no choice but to also learn to look after other people.

What’s the greatest lesson you think you’ve impacted on your children?

They have to be themselves and find their purpose on earth and fulfill that because at the end of the day we will be accountable to our Maker. And we will have to tell Him what we did with what He gave us.

What did He give you?

The empathy to support and encourage people. And I think wherever I have been, I have tried to do that. When I was in the bank I fought very hard to see that women got access to credit. I started the Kenya Women Finance Trust and mentored women at Barclays Bank to empower them so that they could rise from being just clerks and tea girls.

And I look back and say “thank you God for having enabled me to do that”. When I was appointed senior advisor to the president of AfDB, one of the things I had to do was to formulate a policy for the then 52 African countries, a women and development policy paper to encourage them to be inclusive when it came to matters about women.

I did that with a team and it was adopted. I’m happy that I was instrumental in establishing institutions or organisations that would help empower women but most importantly, put money in the pockets of women. Because money has power, if you give women money you empower them to do things that they cannot normally do.

What are the lessons you learned from running Makini School?

It’s always difficult to make people see your vision and adopt it, so you have to continuously work hard. The motto was Fanya Kwa Makini… whatever you do you have to do it diligently.

In what season of your life did you experience the most friction and difficulty?

Balancing a career, raising children, and being a wife can be very difficult to manage. Sometimes I’d get an opportunity for promotion or advancement as I had in 1973 to be made a manager of the Nakuru East branch of Barclays Bank, but my children were small and my husband was a lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

There was no way he could be transferred to Nakuru. So I had to turn down that opportunity for the sake of giving my family stability, a chance to grow together.

Is there any regret there?

No. It’s a choice I made. But during the time you’re making such a choice {as a woman}, it’s always difficult because (chuckles) you don’t know whether you will ever have another opportunity. But it is a question of deciding what is more important now; a career or a family?

I chose a family and I was lucky to have a very supportive husband. I would still marry the same man. I tell girls all the time; you know a career you can come back to, but a family when it’s gone it’s gone.

And it’s not you who chooses the family, it’s God. So, if you are choosing something before what God has chosen for you, are you not displeasing your Maker?

What are you looking forward to in the village?

I’m enjoying myself and my freedom of dressing. And I’m having a great time. I wish I had retired many years ago. (laughs) It’s wonderful just to be myself, to do things when I want, and how I want.

I like the word “freedom.”

Yes, you have to work for it. I worked hard. Freedom comes with time because I struggled to raise my children, but now they’re old enough to be on their own. However, one of the biggest freedoms I tell people is purchasing power. You have to have the money to do the things you want to do.

On Saturday my grandchildren came to visit me and I was telling them that the three things they have to do are save, invest, then spend. And you have to watch what you’re spending your money on. Because if you don’t start managing money when you are 10/11, by the time you get to my age, it will be too late.

What’s been your relationship with money?

I love money, but I also know it is important to look after it otherwise it will not look after you. (Chuckles) Money makes things work so I respect it. I was lucky that my father taught us about money when we were very young.

I think the first year, they opened a savings account at the post office. We used to collect seeds and sell them because my father was into tree planting because environmental conservation was very important for him. So, if we earned pocket money, he guided us to save.

We would go to the post office and my father would give us the coins to hand over to the cashier.  So as I said,  from a very young age, we had a good relationship with money. Money and faith are the things we grew up knowing as important.

When were you ever broke and what did it teach you?

There are times when I was running the school that I would get broke. A school runs on fees and there are times when you may not collect enough to meet the needs of the school. When the economy is bad, and you cannot collect fees, and you have salaries to pay, you have suppliers to pay, you can get into very hard times.

And many times we did. And many times we had to run to banks to support ourselves. That’s why, when you are in business, you have to have a very good relationship with your bank.

What challenges do you think school children will face in the next 10 or 15 years based on the current system of education?

Our education system needs to be looked at. Is this education system serving us as Africans or are we copying other people’s education? How much are we instilling in these children that they are Kenyans, they are Africans, and they have to appreciate being African? We have copied so much from outside.

When I was at school, we were taught completely useless things. Some of them were lies. For instance, we were taught in Geography that the Mississippi is the longest river in the world. We even sang that song. [sings the hymn] That was an American teacher teaching us.

Then we discovered the Nile later in life. Is the Mississippi river longer than the Nile? Not at all! Our identity is compromised. Let us focus on teaching children to be African. To know and be proud of who they are. We don’t have enough in our education system for that.

We need to go to history, the discoveries, and the things that Africans have contributed to civilisation. Learning Mississippi is the longest river, what does that add?

But if you tell me that my grandfather did ABCD, at least it will give me a sense of pride, a sense of dignity so that when I am in New York streets, and somebody makes a racist remark, I will feel strong enough from within not to care. Who can break you when you are affirmed from the inside?

You mention God a lot. He is our Father and sometimes our fathers disappoint us. When did He last disappoint you?

[Chuckles) God has never disappointed me. I may have felt a bit frustrated and impatient, but I will not say that He has disappointed me. I’m dependent on Him. He never disappoints me.

Is disappointment or frustration a sin against God?

He gave us free will. (chuckles). Let us not go into all that. When it comes to God, one has to tread carefully.

Who have you met that left the biggest impression on you?

My parents, because of the things they did, the challenges they faced. And I keep telling God if I could even just do a little of what they did, I would feel happy.

What makes you very happy now?

That I am a child of God and that God has brought me this far. I am a happy person generally. God has blessed me in many ways. First of all, He has given me a bonus year to live, as you know 70 is the cutoff point, so I am enjoying extra time. Isn’t that a cause to be grateful?

You were holding some key positions in corporate at a time when women were not considered for them. How did you navigate those spaces full of men? What language did you have to use?

Emotional intelligence is what one has to apply. You have to understand people. During the time I was a bank manager, we used to have these old colonial settlers whose attitude towards Africans was very bad. So you can imagine, a man comes in, he wants a loan and finds me, a woman.

He would ask where the manager was and I’d say I’m the manager. He would walk away only to come back on realising he had to deal with me, a woman who also happened to be black, concerning his financial affairs. It was unheard of. You have to use a lot of psychology to engage a person like this.

It takes patience as well. You have to be careful not to step on their ego. And it wasn’t always easy. You also got to have a lot of support from some men. For example, it wasn’t easy starting Kenya Women Finance Trust.

I was fortunate to have a very supportive managing director of Barclays Bank called Thomas Miles. Thomas Donald Miles. He paid for me to attend international meetings in Amsterdam, places where I had to gather information on issues about women.

So, if you have supportive executives, it makes it easier. You need to have key people in different areas that support issues. And the issue of women and money is always very delicate because some people are completely against giving women access to decision-making, to capital. After all, they think if women have money they get big-headed. [Chuckles].

Are some people born with emotional intelligence or do you acquire it somewhere?

It’s both. But you have to develop it also. Everything you have you have to develop. When you are thrown into a situation, with practice you have to assess each individual. What applies to you may not be what I will use for somebody else.

So it is training, it is practice. I also grew up with very intelligent high-achieving brothers, so maybe that played a role in knowing how to talk to them.

On my way here I was on the phone with a lady friend who asked me to ask you this money question. It’s reported that you sold Makini school for Sh1 billion. You are retiring, children all adults with their own families, what do you intend to do with the money?

(Laughter] I find it hard to answer that question. [Pause] First of all is that figure even factual? Second, aren’t there any liabilities to be paid off because when you are running a business like that you will have major liabilities…

Exactly. But still, it’s substantial money no matter how much is left after. And you said yourself that money is freedom, she just needs to know what kind of freedom this offers you.

[Chuckles] Well…[pause] I can’t complain. Money gives you freedom but time is the biggest flex in my opinion. [Pause] Money is good for when you grow old because if you don’t have that money nobody is going to take care of you.

I will tell my friend that you never answered her question.

[Loud laughter]

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