Nelson Mandela was a global Icon with a worldwide impact like no other. Despite his challenges, he remained focused on his mission and vision to free his country. With the worldwide pandemic and other global threats, leaders today are not tackling the issues globally. Learn how leaders need to be a crusader and lead by looking at all aspects of the problem and with a worldwide perspective. Join your host Anne Pratt as she sits down with a multi-awarded businesswoman. A leading bank executive recognized globally, the Director at P & M Investment, and the founder of Makini Schools, Dr. Mary Okelo. Mary shares her journey from being the first woman bank manager in her country to founding Makini Schools. Learn how she transformed a conservative industry and led financial inclusion in Kenya. Find out why education is the most important tool to change lives. How to balance discipline, order, and love. Discover how Nelson Mandela led with forgiveness. Start leading the change with love and purpose to create business success and impact today!
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Dr. Mary Okelo On Global Leadership and How Mandela Changed Everything
An African Trailblazer’s Journey Crashing Through The Glass Ceiling
In this episode, our bold leader joins us from her tranquil farm in the beautiful Lake District in Kenya, East Africa. For those of you who love country living, we are serenaded by the songs of rural country life. She is the winner of the African Enterprise Excellence Award, the former Senior Advisor to the President of the African Development Bank, the Founder of the Kenya Women’s Finance Trust, and of the high-performing Makini Schools, celebrated by the US Ivy League Columbia School of Business as a business case study of success and a super brand of East Africa.
Stay tuned as we uncover and explore the power of love and her heartfelt purpose and passion for children’s education, how she trailblazed and blossomed through the glass ceilings. The conservative world of banking opened the doors for other women to follow, raised the ceiling, and transformed the industry. The empowering example of Nelson Mandela as she mourned the grief of her tragic and unexpected accident and the loss of her loving husband, a trusted business partner, and a lifelong friend. We warmly welcome my adopted mother from Africa, Dr. Elizabeth Mary Okelo. Welcome to the show.
A warm welcome. What a joy to speak to you, Mary Okelo. Thank you so much for joining us from your beautiful farm in the Lake Region of Kenya.
Mary, I’ve been inspired by your story. I know you’re a retired banker, an educator, a very successful entrepreneur, and of course, a gender rights advocate and crusader, but our life story often does define our leadership story. I wanted to take you back a moment in time. Can you share with us briefly your early childhood? What shaped you when growing up?
I grew up in a large family. I am number 14 over 17 children. My father was a clergyman, and my mother was a nurse and a teacher. They worked together in the parish. When I was growing up, there were no institutions for people with special needs. In my home, it was like an institution because we had people with special needs. We had the blind and deaf; it was also a home for those who have run away from unhappy marriages. We grew up in a very large compound. It looked like an institution but with a lot of discipline and order. It was like a military camp regarding discipline areas but very loving.
We had very loving parents who cared for a lot of people and also cared for us. In Christian values, we were given responsibilities from a very early age. For example, I knew I had to walk the blind man to crossroads or to go places. We grew up knowing that we had to be responsible for other people as well. We had a lot of fun. Christmas was a big celebration. Boxing day, we had wrestling, and people competed in many different games and sports.
One of the things that we remember fondly was my mother showing other people that they needed to participate and run when she was expecting my brother. He became a great sportsman because he competed in the Olympics. When he was at Harvard, he set a record there that hasn’t been broken for many years. We had a lot of fun growing up but also very heavy responsibilities. We had to practice Christian values of integrity and compassion. I had a very happy background.
I believe that your siblings are also remarkably successful. You’re number 14 out of 17. To what extent has your sibling shaped you and who they are as wonderful citizens and as powerful leaders? How have they shaped you?
We looked up to my older brothers, for example. One who became a Vice President of the country. When he was Minister for Home Affairs, he made prison reforms and improved prisoners’ quality of life. He was a reformist. My brother Nelson, a surgeon, did the first kidney transplant in Eastern Africa. He did this for a child who could not pay. He did it for free. When he died, many people turned up for his funeral, paying tribute to the compassionate treatment he gave people. We grew up looking up to people like that.
My brother, the one who I mentioned, was at Harvard. When he was in the Parliament in Uganda (he was Ugandan), he brought a lot of reforms to the government and fought for people’s rights. He has since died. One of the things he was talking about was that we have a lot of elderly people who may have a lot of assets but have no cash flow. He looked at ways that some of these wealthy people but poor in cash could be assisted. I grew up looking at older siblings who have always been very conscious or very supportive of other people.
That’s remarkable. What strikes me about your story, Mary, is this contrast. You said it was a very disciplined household, on the one hand, and very strict but, on the other hand, very loving. Can you share with us a little bit about how these two things work together and the importance of discipline on the one hand and structure and order? We often see the intense striving for individualism, particularly in Western economies.
Often, that takes people out of their sense of community and this whole need for making personal decisions. It’s a very fine balance between giving people independent thinking on the one hand but still creating discipline and order and supporting that with love. Can you talk to us about how you balance discipline, order, and love? How do you do this?
My father practiced it. I think we were Anglicans. It’s a church of order. There is order and discipline, but at the same time, he practiced the values of Christianity, love your neighbor as yourself. You are your neighbor’s keeper. We were taught to be caring for other people. We said we had with the other people. He demonstrated it.Love your neighbor as yourself. You are your neighbor's keeper. Click To Tweet
He brought in people who had special needs and needed support. He used his gardens and farm to share techniques and methods for improving crop production. We grew up sharing, at the same time, being disciplined. We had bells ringing for prayers, for food, and for going to work. It was done with a lot of love.
I can only say my parents demonstrated it by taking care of people and us. They bought us new things for Christmas to show how much they cared for us. We went to Uganda. We bought new clothes. We had special food. We brought in people who could help and improve things. We saw love all around us. The way we were brought up and treated. We had special names, my one and only. We had pet names. We were given names from our ancestors. My father used to call me his mother in a loving way. It’s a cultural thing. You endear yourself to your children and show love. You pamper them. The way that I was pampered, I was shown, love. I enjoyed love. I love people because I was loved.
You had such a fun, loving, and remarkable family. Can you take us back to a moment in time that was a difficult, tough, and perhaps a darker moment in your life that was a defining point, a crucible? Is there a moment in time when life was difficult? What was that moment, and how did you feel at the time?
The death of my parents was a difficult time, but I think in later life, my husband died suddenly in a mysterious car crash. The day I met the person who caused my husband’s death was very difficult. In my mind, I questioned. I wanted to ask him, “Was it an accident or deliberate?” I wanted to get this answer by looking at his eyes, but unfortunately, my eyes were blocked with tears, so I couldn’t get that answer from him. What I knew from Mandela’s forgiveness I realized that what was important was to forgive him and not to find out whether it was deliberate or accidental. What was important was to show forgiveness and even compassion for him. That freed me from the prison of bitterness, resentment, and anger.
I’m sorry for your loss. I think that’s a remarkably courageous action. Can you take us through how that process worked? Did you forgive him immediately? Did you go through a step-by-step process? How did that play out for you?
It was a process. I have many questions in my mind because I kept wondering, “Was he going to come for me now that my husband is dead? Was he going to come for the rest of the family?” There were many unanswered questions, but I kept feeling that until I came to a point where I forgave him, I would not be released from all this baggage of emotions.
How long did that take you?
It took me quite a while. There were moments I thought I had forgiven him, but when I got myself in a difficult situation when I was facing challenges, then again, it would come back, hitting me. It went on for a little while before I could completely forgive him.
What was the a-ha moment? When did you realize that is what you needed to do? What moment did you realize that was the course, the path you needed to take?
I think when I felt that it no longer bothered me, whether he did it deliberately or an accident, then I felt that didn’t matter. What mattered was to let it go.
That is powerful. Moving to your business career, Mary, you’ve had a remarkable lifelong career. I know you’re a passionate educator, but you’ve also been an incredible crusader of gender equality. I know you had an early life in banking. Can you share with us an example, a moment in time when you were pioneering your way through the ranks and banking? What was that moment? What was the challenge?
I was the first woman bank manager in my country, and when I got into the bank, women were cashiers, clerks, tea girls, and secretaries. That is as far as they could go. I took it upon myself and asked to try and ask these girls if they could aspire to get out of those manual jobs they were doing in the bank and become supervisors and managers. It was not easy. What I did I had come back from London where I did my professional banking studies.
I used to use my notes and my books from the Institute of Bankers London. I photocopied my notes and shared them with the girls at the bank. I started a mentoring program for them, so to speak, and encouraged them to study and to think because they are very intelligent, and I tell people that they too can be supervisors.
Whenever they did well when doing their studies, some of them got the qualifications. I made myself their voice, so I would mention what they are doing and the qualifications they have gained to lobby for them to be considered for managerial positions. I was very happy. In 1972, they were the first woman supervisor. Her name is Agatha Obari. From there, I kept encouraging women to move from lonely places. Through the mentoring program, indeed, we started seeing women become managers.
At one time, Barclays Bank is the country’s highest number of women managers. I am also happy to say that Barclays Bank was the only listed company on the Nairobi Stock Exchange, with 50% of its board members as women. That little mentoring program grew and helped women and encouraged women to move into managerial positions.
At the same time, I noticed that there were no women clients of the bank because the rules and the regulations were very discriminatory. Women had no contractual rights. Even if they have bank accounts, they could not borrow or get access to certain bank products and services without the guarantee of a male. I started lobbying within the bank to get women to get access to financial services. I used to go to the marketplaces to talk to women.
I took the bank language and requirements to these women to talk to them and explain to them how they would come and have an account. Because of the rules and regulations, it was not easy for them to have an account where they could borrow. What I did was I persuaded the bank to open an account for children. This enabled women to come and save money through their children’s bank accounts.
I was very happy about it because at least you give these women an opportunity to have accounts and save their own money. That happened, but at the same time, we were lobbying for the rules and regulations to be changed. I wasn’t very happy. I think it was in 1998 that the government set up a task force on laws relating to women. That high-court judge headed it. The first woman high court judge, Justice Effie Owuor. She chaired the Task Force. We were very happy that the recommendations of that task force were turned into law. All laws that were discriminatory against women were removed.
It was a high point for me in my career because, before that, it was very difficult for women to get access to loans. I remember a case where a very successful businesswoman who wanted to buy a car needed a bank loan. She was a single woman. She was a divorcee. She did have a husband who could come and sign for her, a guarantor to get her loan. I took a risk and gave her the loan. I was scolded. I was told that I had done something irregular, but it was okay to take a risk for another woman. The lady managed to pay her loan very well. That was a good example of how women can have these loans. The laws and rules discriminating against them are just causing agony for people.
After the laws were removed, more women came in to take the bank facilities and services. In 1982, together with the women and lawyers, we started Kenya Women Finance Trust. This was another year for Women’s World Banking to help women access credit and financial services. We set up Kenya Women Finance Trust, which has grown and covers the whole country.The Kenya Women Finance Trust helps women get access to credit and financial services. Their goal has always been financial inclusion. The KWFT has now grown and covers the whole country. Click To Tweet
When we set up Kenya Women Finance Trust, I was also with Women’s World Banking. They took me on as an African regional representative to try and help set up similar organizations in other African countries, which we did in Zimbabwe, Uganda, Senegal, and Zambia, to mention a few.
How you scaled is remarkable.
Now, there are many more affiliates in Women’s World Banking. We have set up organizations that are helping women access banking. Our call has always been for financial inclusion. I’m happy to say it worked out well in Kenya, so banks now realize that women are good market segments. In fact, at one time, many banks went out of their way to market their services to women, creating products specifically targeting women. I think we have made very good progress. We have not arrived, but at least now, women have access to financial services. There are no laws that discriminate against them. No practice tells them you must bring a man before being granted a loan.
What do you think was the tipping point, Mary? What do you think from a corporate point of view persuaded the banks to open up? It was a systemic approach. You were advocating. You were sitting on regulatory bodies. What do you think was the tipping point that helped Kenyan banks understand that financial inclusion makes good business sense?
I think of the women themselves because whenever they borrowed, they repaid. It was a new market segment that had not been explored. The fact that there was loan repair and because of education, more women were getting educated. Women are the backbone of our economy because they are in all sectors, especially agriculture and small-scale businesses. They generated income and revenue from there and formed what we call Chama’s Groups. In these groups, they were saving and investing. It became very attractive to bankers because Chama controls quite a bit of money. You have a pool of women bringing their savings together, investing in different things. They became attractive to bankers. That’s why the bank has started offering specific products and services targeting women.
It needed somebody like you as a pioneer to champion the cause. Once the doors were opened, and the banks could see that this was a good business proposition, it sounds like it grew from there.
I think it did. I would give credit to women because they paid when they borrowed. Also, women tend to be good money managers but again, appointing women to managerial positions proved that they could do it. For example, when I was assigned the Manager of the Westlands branch in Nairobi, it was around our branch unit. It was loss-making. The morale of the staff was very low. I don’t know why I was sent there because it was in a bad state. I don’t always like to deliberate, or whether it was, but by the grace of God, I turned it around. I helped to bring the staff morale to a very motivated level. The culture changed to a very productive and people’s attitudes changed. They became more effective, productive, and caring about the bank business.
I think turning that around, and in 1982, there was a customer service competition. My branch was number one. Seeing a woman being effective in their work also helped the promotion of other women because I carried this heavy responsibility on my shoulders, knowing that if I didn’t perform well, exceeding well, it would affect other women who are aspiring to be bank manager’s or joining the bank service. I had to work hard. I was multitasking.
Do you think you were held to a different standard?
Yes, and they were always watching. I don’t know whether they’re watching for me to fail or to succeed. I’m not very sure, but your expectations from you are higher than other people.
What would you say to empower another woman, Mary, who is pioneering a path? What would you tell them about the steps they need to take to fortify their strength and resilience to break through these barriers and ceilings?
We always have to remember we are each other’s keepers. I will take you back to when I was in school. I was in a class of thirteen girls selected to start my country’s advanced Cambridge certificate. From the very day we arrived at school, we were told that if we didn’t perform well, the government was not going to invest in higher education for girls. That was a responsibility we carried for others right from the time we started the course. Therefore, any woman carries that responsibility. If they don’t perform well, it affects other women. They have no choice but to excel and do well in whatever they do because few women are in senior positions.
The few who managed to get there have to go out of their way to try and bring others up so that we can have a critical mass of women in leadership. We carry different gifts from men. We are more empathetic. We are more caring. I don’t think women have this syndrome of winner takes it all. We are more inclusive; therefore, we need more women to support one another to get to the table where we can make decisions to help women improve.
That is very powerful and true. In fact, Mary, our company in South Africa, was a top executive search company that helped with the top leadership in the country. We did the first qualitative research around women on boards and the business case in the nation. Is there a business case? Do gender-diverse boards improve board decision-making? The answer was clearly yes. What was interesting in that research, which confirms what you’re saying, is that women had this unique gift. I think some women have made the mistake of trying to emulate men rather than bringing the uniqueness of women to the table, which is many of the qualities you’ve highlighted.
We need to sensitize that because sometimes we expect women to know it, but they do not. We have a duty to educate ourselves that we need our solidarity, that we need to live with one another, and that we need to carry each other.
What strikes me about your family story, you had this wonderful family of boys and girls. What puts you on this path of crusading for gender equality rights?
My father always cared for gender equality, and we were never discriminated against. We were given equal opportunities as our brothers, but we saw it even in his work. He always advocated for girl child education. He spoke out for women and promoted them wherever they could. I was very happy we had the first woman bishop in the Anglican Church in Kenya.
When was that, Mary?
It was sometime in November 2021. I’m happy she is in the diocese where my father started his work. We are very happy about this first woman bishop in the country. We are praying that she will be supported and that she will do such good work that the church will promote more women to be bishops.
With your support, I have no doubt she will.
I have already reached out to her. I have told her I would support her as much as possible so that she demonstrates that women have the qualities we need on the table.
I got to pivot a little. We’re living in a pivotal global moment. We have big challenges in the world, and we know that in this global pandemic, COVID-19, only 10% of Africa has been vaccinated thus far. We have another form of the deep divide and inequality. What big issues in the world now, Mary, keep you awake at night? What are the major challenges that worry you about the future?
We have mentioned one. This inequality in vaccinations. If they say that in America, according to what I heard, WHO said 54% had been vaccinated. We are talking about 3.5% in Africa, which is a global thing. Doesn’t that show poor leadership? If it is a worldwide thing, it should be tackled globally. You cannot have pockets or places which are moving forward, and the pandemic is affecting everybody. There is an issue there about leadership.
What would you say to the world leaders now? Those that resist or are not doing enough to ensure that the entire world is vaccinated? What would you say to those leaders around their leadership? What is it they need to be doing differently?
They should lead. When exercising leadership, you look at all aspects of a problem. As we have said, this is a global problem, so it should be tackled globally. You should not have pockets of areas being left behind, which will affect areas already moving ahead. I think we need courageous leaders who are prepared to take the right decisions and actions rather than leaders who are very selfish and look only inward.
We are all affected so you cannot afford only to look at your little territory. You have to look at the global thing, but I’m not seeing leaders taking that bold position on the horizon to tackle global issues. You will see even countries are now breaking away from organizations. We have seen Britain exit from the European Union. We should look at global issues by getting closer to one another instead of breaking away.
What is the risk to leaders resisting this more collective, collaborative, cooperative approach? What is the risk in terms of them not overcoming that more individualistic, nationalist approach?
It is going to hit them in one way or another. We are so interdependent and interconnected that the selfish dance cannot work anymore. Look at even the climate. If we don’t do collective action to tackle things like the environment and the climate, we will all suffer in one way or another. We need bold leaders who will take the right decisions and actions to save the world and the continent we live in.
What do you think causes these leaders to think, act, and lead differently? If so, what comes to mind about one thing leaders need to do differently now?
I think they must stop this selfishness of “the winner takes it all” and the exploitation of other people because the exploitation also affected those who are exploiting.
Can you tell us more about that?
Africa has been exploited. Don’t you see people running to the countries that have been using Africa now? When they go and get there, they have issues that they have to deal with. I don’t know if I’m making myself clear.
I understand that.
If you exploit Africa and if Africans find it difficult to live in the country you have exploited, they will migrate to you where you have taken their resources, but you may not welcome them there. They are following the resources that you have expropriated from their continent.
We know that migration is an increasing global problem.
That’s following the things that are being taken from here to there to other countries. We have even situations where sometimes even soils in Africa are being moved.
Apart from the pandemic and climate change which are big global issues, is there any other particular issue for you that keeps you up at night?
The issue of women. Women have not arrived. When you look around the world, how many women are in leadership positions? How many women are on the decision-making tables? The pandemic wasn’t the situation of women because women have been the caregivers, the ones who have to deal with the day-to-day issues, which is even undermining our gains.
We are now so preoccupied with putting food on the table that we cannot look at the bigger issues we need to address. Women’s advancement is almost stagnant because we do not have enough voices for women. We have big decisions that are being taken. That silent voice, that absence of voice, that voice is not helping solve a lot of these problems.
I completely agree, and the numbers don’t lie. We know Madiba, Nelson Mandela loved women, appreciated and valued women but moving to the conversation of our iconic and beloved Nelson Mandela, I know you’ve had many Mandela Moments in your life. Can you take us back to a time when there was a big Mandela Moment for you? What was the situation? Where were you? Can you describe a situation for us?
I explained to you that one is about forgiveness. When I had to deal with somebody who had caused me deep pain, I had to remember that even Mandela had to forgive his jailors. That was one of my Mandela Moments, but another one came in a very indirect way. In July 2014, Mandela’s grandson visited Makini Schools, Ndaba. Ndaba’s posture, his mannerism is very similar to his grandfather’s gestures. When he came to the school and raised his hand in the Mandela way.
He spoke, empathized with the children, excited them, and gave them wisdom, telling them to work hard, to put their continents at heart, and all the things he talked about, the importance of education. It was like Mandela had come out of his grave. In fact, the children were asking, “Is he still alive?” He had died for years.
It was like Mandela was speaking through his grandchild. To embrace the values of integrity, compassion, caring for each other, and taking education seriously because, without education, you cannot achieve much. When he quoted his grandfather’s quotation that education is the most powerful weapon to change the world. The children were ecstatic because they were in an education or institution. That moment brought us very close to Mandela.
That’s wonderful, Mary. If you could share with us a little about your Makini Schools. To share with our audience, I know you’re a passionate educator. What inspired you to start this school after this remarkable banking and international finance career? Tell us a little about the school. What brought you back to creating this wonderful school?
We started the Makini school in 1978. Kenya’s population was growing at 5% per annum at that time. I think it was one of the highest population growth in the world. The government could not build schools fast enough to cater to the number of children we were producing. The government schools had a very high population. The ratio of children per teacher was like 70. The quality of their education was going down because the teachers were cringed.
Also, we were very passionate about giving specialized education, especially for the very gifted and talented children, because sometimes people don’t think that they need special attention because they are good and are gifted and talented, that they are ignored. We thought we would start our school to help the government because we needed more schools built. Since they were not building schools, we built one with special attention to these gifted children was required.
For the particular need for children that were gifted?
Yes, but we soon realized that it required a lot of resources and a lot of trained teachers. We started at school as our center of excellence to help reduce the congestion in government schools. I had a very happy upbringing and wanted to share this with the children. I am very passionate about giving children special attention and finding out what children are good at, and encouraging them to follow their gifts because, at times, in government schools, there isn’t enough attention. We wanted specialized attention for children so that they could realize their potential. If I tell you who is good at music, we would pick up that one and try to help that child not lose that gift but continue.
We wanted quality education and a center of excellence. We also wanted to develop children’s self-confidence. As a subcontinent, we have been in an education system that has eroded our self-esteem and self-confidence because we have been bombarded. Africa is poor, Africa is this. We wanted to have an institution where we could tell the children that Africa has great potential and is a great continent. Africa, for example, has had one of the wealthiest men in the world. I think he is still up to now, even though he was in the 14th century, Mansa Musa of Mali. We wanted a place where we could bring up our cultural dignity to help children grow up feeling confident and proud of themselves because we have been too bombarded with our poverty. This is what motivated us to start a school that help change a bit of the narrative.
The school has been very successful, Mary.
It has. We thank God we have had very good people working and we’ve had good support. It’s an East African brand. It was a case study at Columbia University as a success story. We have produced outstanding students who have gone out, like our school’s first woman captain of the Dreamliner and many others who have gone out there and become leaders. We are also proud of ourselves for having mentored leaders.
For example, 24 of our former teachers have gone out there and started their schools. Taking the values that we instilled in Makini. We are very proud of what they’ve been able to do through Makini. We have had challenges. We have also had difficulties in Makini, but those challenges have taught us many things.
Is there one that comes to mind? What was the moment? How did you pivot out of that?
I don’t know whether I have already told you, but we took a loan from the World Bank, the IFC, and the International Finance Corporation to start an international baccalaureate course. We targeted international students, but unfortunately, due to political instability in the country, our international students canceled their applications, so they did not come. We were left with that dollar loan without dollar income to service it.
At that time, we didn’t even have enough local students to generate local funds that we could translate into foreign exchange funds to pay the loan. As if that was not enough, we had to go back to the World Bank to renegotiate and ask them to give us a long time so that we would find funds to pay. The worst part was while we were still struggling to figure out how we would pay, I lost my husband, my soulmate, and my business partner. I was left there alone, feeling very vulnerable. That’s the time you don’t know what to do. You don’t know where to look, but fortunately, because I was raised as a Christian, I have to turn to God for wisdom, strength, and comfort.
Fortunately, I was positive, and they agreed to extend the time. That enabled us eventually to pay off the loan, but it was tough. That is where Mandela’s lessons came in handy because we were saying even when Mandela was facing many challenges, he never veered from his vision or mission of transforming his country or freeing his country, even us. Many people came to us when we were going through these challenges and said, “You are struggling, and you are sitting on real estate. Why don’t you sell it and pay off the loan, and you’ll be okay.” We said, “No, that’s not what took us into school business. We came into the school business to give quality education. It doesn’t matter what challenges we face. We shall remain focused on our mission and vision.” By the grace of God, we managed to repay after the extension of the payment period.It doesn't matter what challenges you face, focus on your mission and vision. Even Mandela faced many challenges, but he never veered off his mission to transform and free his country. Click To Tweet
What do you think Mandela would say to the older generation now, the senior leaders?
I think he would ask them to share their wisdom because of what he meant to his grandson. His grandson wrote a book about what lessons his grandfather passed on to him. I believe he would tell the elder generation to share their wisdom and their lessons from the experiences they went through so that they can create a better country.
What do you think you would say to those leaders still in power now?
First, they should unite the continent because it is still very fragmented. They should get together. He had tried to say this even before when he said, “I dream of the realization of the unity of Africa, whereby its leaders combine the efforts to solve the problems of this continent.” He dreamed of our forest, our desert, and our wilderness. I think he would tell them first to protect what we have because I’m not sure we are protecting. There is another scramble for Africa.
I’m sure he would have been involved in taming this scramble by protecting the continent. He would also have told them to know when to exit. He knew when he exited. That’s an example also that helped us. After 40 years of running Makini Schools, I exited. Sometimes, you cannot overstay. I think he would have been telling African leaders, “Don’t overstay. Exit when it is time to exit.”
A very powerful lesson and one that many leaders could learn from. What strikes me about that too, Mary, is that Africa, I think, 75% of the continent is below 30 years of age. We also need to make space at the table for younger leaders coming up through the ranks.
Yes, and that’s when I think you would know when it is time to exit or to overstay. There is a saying, “Fish and visitors if they overstay, they stink.” They have been saying, and maybe some of this is now stinking.
We won’t ask you to compromise yourself or name any of those, Mary.
You asked me what he would have said. He himself is an example of exiting when it was time to exit.
Pivoting a little, can you share some fun facts? One fact about yourself that very few people know about? Our friend Teddy shared something with me. Perhaps it came independence in 1964, you had some pretty good training as a sharpshooter and also worked in the prisons.
I did. I am a sharpshooter but this one is something that I inherited both from my father and my grandfather. My grandfather’s name was Sharpshooter. He was named the sharpshooter because, during his time, I’m talking now about in the 1800 or 1900, like in the 1860s or thereabout. When there were many elephants and they were destroying people’s crops and harassing people, the people used to hire my grandfather to go and kill the elephants so that they could have peace. He was very gifted in a way until they called him Sharpshooter.
Mary, I didn’t know that when I called you a sharpshooter.
In my language, it means a sharpshooter. I happen to have that one because in all of my school days and even at university, I played netball and hockey. I was always put in the shooting position. I don’t think we missed any games because I had that advantage.
You’re a sharpshooter in more ways than one, Mary.
Even when I was in the prisons department, I remember Major Bannister. I was the only woman. I can’t remember but I was young but I could shoot. I would go to the range and finish all those targets. It was very easy because when you have it in you, it’s not a problem.
You learned. That’s remarkable. Did your grandfather teach you? Who taught you how to shoot?
I think my father but some of these things, I don’t know whether they are inherent but it was not always the easy one because I was told to never throw a stone at anything. I remember I threw a stone and I killed a bird unintentionally. That’s when my father realized that I had these things. He told me never to throw stones or anything. Also, I nearly made my sister blind because I was angry with her, I threw something at her and it nearly hit her eye. Sharpshooting can be useful but it can also be a liability.
We’re very happy your sister’s fine. That’s an interesting story. Tell us one thing you’re excited about at this stage in place in your life.
Being able to enjoy nature, watching birds, listening to birds but also, I listen a lot now to people who are compassionate listening. People come to me. People talk to me about their problems. We talk and hope to find a solution but also be there for people, listening to people and offering a word of comfort or encouragement because I am one of them and I know what they would through. In Africa, if you’re a widow, you have lost not only your husband but your identity. Some of them even lose their properties. Encouraging widows to stay in there, to stand for their rights and not allow people to bully them or exploit them, gives me a lot of glory.
I also did a course in mediation. Corona has brought a lot of conflicts and depression. Many people are suffering inwardly and sometimes some of them become very aggressive. We are seeing a lot of conflicts. I’m glad that I did a course in mediation because that training is helping me help people resolve their conflicts amicably. In Kenya, we have this thing. Anytime people can have a problem, we shall meet in court but going to court sometimes doesn’t solve because one person wins but, in the mediation, everybody goes away happy.
That’s a very powerful point. In our closing couple of minutes, Mary, what are any final takeaways you would like to share with bold future leaders that are trying to navigate the complexity of this time? What are your final message and thoughts you’d like to share?
We have to go back to the values of integrity, compassion and humanity. We have situations whereby the winner takes it all and the rest suffer. I think we have to realize that we are each other’s keepers. We need one another, care for one another and we cannot afford to destroy one another because, in that destruction, we are going to destroy ourselves. We also have to look after the environment we live in but that the environment is inclusive of everybody who lives there.
Sometimes we talk about looking after the environment. We look after the environment but we are not looking after the people who are living in that environment. They are part of the environment. Let us be compassionate and empathic. Let us look after our environment as we look after ourselves. Know about old values of humanity.
Mary, what an absolute joy and privilege. Thank you for sharing your remarkable wisdom. Thank you for being the trailblazer that you are. It’s been such a joy, a privilege. I can’t wait to meet you in person. God bless you.
Thank you very much and for the privilege of giving me to talk with you. I have had wonderful work, your commitment, your dedication to improving the quality of life for people. I salute you, thank you and wish you continued success in whatever you do.
I have long admired Dr. Mary Okelo. I’m so grateful for the many leadership insights and wisdoms. What strikes me about Mary as a human being upfront when you meet her is her remarkable kindness, goodness, and compassion. It’s such a stark contrast to our preconceived ideas today that powerful leadership is about being strident and forceful and outspoken. Yet, she has a steely determination and iron fist with a velvet glove.
I love what she shared about her childhood, and the lesson of balancing love and discipline. The importance of discipline in a world where we have an accountability crisis, and so many people in powerful positions believe that they are above the law. Perhaps the most significant was her journey of forgiveness, her very sad and poignant story, but the liberating power of practicing forgiveness and the power of forgiveness when she found the key to unlock the door and released herself from the prison of her mind.
It reminds me of a quote by Nelson Mandela when he left prison after 27 years. It said, “As I walked out the door towards the gate that would lead me to my freedom, I knew if I did not leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I would still be in prison.” Until next time, remember that bold leadership is about making thoughtful, clear choices. Leading boldly is about taking bold action just one small step at a time. One step for you, but together, a giant step for humanity. Take care and take action.
- Dr. Elizabeth Mary Okelo
- Kenya Women’s Finance Trust
- African Development Bank
- African Enterprise Excellence Award
- Women’s World Banking
- Barclays Bank
About Dr. Mary Okelo
Retired banker, educationist, entrepreneur and gender rights crusader with vast and diverse experience in local and international finance, micro-enterprise, and international service in the public, private and NGO sectors.