Reflections from edge of a cliff

As published on on November 26th 2022

Where does the road lead to after 30 years in insurance, starting as a management trainee to the helm of Minet as Group CEO? After dabbling in the management of rugby, specifically Kenya Harlequins, in your youth. After you have raised grown girls who have fled the nest. After you have been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for Think Business 2021. Where does it all lead Joseph Onsando?

Well, you buy 30 acres of land in a place called Lodariak in Kajiado, a rocky and ragged piece of land that ends on a cliff overlooking a wide, long valley filled with the constant sighs of the wind. There, you start constructing something else you have never built before and by doing that you unknowingly start building a metaphor for the life you have lived.

[This interview happens from a stone on the cliff.]

What’s happening here?

I don’t know. I bought this piece of land on a whim. A friend was shooting a film here so I came to see and the owner of this land, Mzee Daniel who is still a friend, mentioned that he was selling eight acres that were overlooking the cliff.

It was pretty ragged than this. I loved it and bought it and then his son who owned land over there on that hill said he was selling, so I said why not.

There was no plan. I have had many ideas, maybe trying ostrich farming, maybe keeping goats, and many bungee jumping spots, then I came up with the idea of building a steel and glass house that hangs from the cliff, right here.

To be honest, it’s more of a hobby enterprise than a commercial one. I’m a very outdoorsy person, a bit of a loner. If I had a house here I’d come alone on Friday and leave on Sunday.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Nairobi. My dad moved from Kisii to Nairobi in the early 60s. I went to Our Lady of Mercy Primary School in South B and Visa Oshwal Primary School in Parklands and Nairobi School. Then the University of Nairobi.

Stable childhood, stable family environment. Always loved rugby.

I’m the second born of seven, my older brother Jesse, then me, then my younger brother Ham. Jesse and Ham you might know them from rugby.

I’m meeting a lot of 63-year-olds! I interviewed a 63-year-old yesterday, the Norwegian ambassador. Is this a good season for you?

It is. My mom tells me that when I was young I’d say that whatever job I did would have to involve travel.

My career has fulfilled a lot of that. This year my wife and I were in the US, Chicago, Minnesota, and Philadelphia, next year probably planning for Asia.

So I’m glad that my career has given me both the means and the ability. I’ve had a successful career.

I always had the mindset of knowing that I will do this job until a certain age, retire and then pursue other things but then Covid disrupted all of this. It removed the romance from the retirement of staying at home. I’m more pragmatic now. I’ll work as long as I can.

Covid allowed me to rediscover the passions of my youth like painting, and music. I paint a lot. I’m always doodling during meetings. I write. I’m pursuing all these creative pursuits now and it’s fulfilling for me.

Is that a stark difference between you of now and you of 53?

I would say that the 53-year-old me still felt very much like the 30-year-old me. [Chuckles] I could do anything I could go anywhere, I was always moving. Some of those things don’t matter so much – the competitiveness, the get aheadness, is not as important.

But at 53, I had three children in universities abroad so there were bread-and-butter issues. How do you pay the fees? I was hungry.

As you grow older you realise ah, ‘what are you running from? Relax. Take it easy. Chill.’ You are a bit more relaxed, and a bit more attracted to quality over quantity.

You don’t want to put away a bottle of whisky in an evening, which was a macho thing to do when I was 50. [Chuckles] So I would say I’m more chill now. But it’s still hard to get rid of lifetime habits.

I still want to get in the car and drive to work even when I can work from home. I still buy newspapers even though I can read online. Those habits are hard to break, but again, I’m not actively trying to break them. I’m quite comfortable.

What do you fear more now?

I fear less now, not more. Of course, there’s the issue of mortality. As you’re getting older you’re getting closer to, what did Pink Floyd say? Each day you’re short of breath and one day closer to death. So there is that aspect of it but again, and it was heightened by Covid because we saw our agemates vulnerable and dying.

Of course, your own mortality becomes an issue that you have to deal with but again you deal with it in the sense that you’re also at an age where you realise it’s nothing avoidable. It’s inevitable.

[Pause] But fear is a strong word. I don’t fear where I am, I don’t fear where I’m going. I think fear may be a factor in your age group bracket than mine.

Because you guys are fearing things: will I be a success? Will my children be successful? I’m beyond that. I guess people like me fear losing status, loss of power or title. But for me as well I guess as I told you, and a lot of my friends will tell you, I have not changed much. I don’t care for being called Sir.

Did you suffer from what I hear they call the empty nest syndrome when your girls all left?

Kidogo. (Chuckles) But again, I mean, two of them are not very far. Iman, my youngest, runs a gallery in Lavington. Aisha, my oldest, works in an NGO but she also stays in Lavington. My youngest one is married in the US and doing her PhD, she’ll be home in December.

I miss them, but in this day and age, we have the technology to bridge that. My birthday was last week, my children organised a nice dinner and came, had a sleepover in the house and we had a good time. So no, I’m okay. I have a good relationship with my wife as well. We have a friendship so we keep each other company in that sense.

Sometimes the house does seem a bit big but it’s the way of life. Nothing stays the same forever. It’s good to have a sense of perspective as well. I’ve got a lot of my friends who in their families did not develop the capacity to leave home and their children are staying at home. And I see what stress does to them and the children. So you can’t be wishing to move backwards, surely.

What was the most challenging bit of raising children?

Letting go and trusting them. Guiding them but trusting them to make the right decisions. Too often I think the danger is we stifle our children and try to impose our values and our worldview on them not knowing that in the grand scheme of things, our values and our worldview are what are going to melt away.

They will come up with their own, not even their worldview. The world we can see now is dramatically changing. This is not our world anymore and our values might not all apply.

Did you ever desire to have a boy being a Kisii man?

[Laughs] Yes of course. But I think for me the birth of my second daughter came with such extreme joy and ecstasy that I just came to appreciate a child is a child. It may sound fake, but I’ve not missed it. I have some excellent nephews as well. So I don’t miss it.

I miss it in the sense that I would have loved to see what this guy would have looked like. Would he look like me? [Chuckles] But it’s not something I kick myself over or I have any regrets. I have too much to be thankful for that I can’t say I was denied anything.

What has been your greatest loss?

The death of my father, not the fact that he died because everyone does, but the fact that there are so many things I’d have loved to talk to him about. There are so, so many things that I could see in his eyes, but I couldn’t understand, but which I can now feel in my heart. Now I know exactly how he was feeling. I don’t know if you get what I’m saying. There are some conversations I wish I could have had with him knowing what I know now.

What’s the one conversation you’d have with him if he was here for an hour?

[Pause] I don’t know if this is too deep, but I would just tell him I understand his loneliness.

He was a lonely man?

No. He wasn’t. He was a very outgoing guy but I think, [Pause] What can I say? I think in men, there is always a certain separateness, especially within the family unit, where the mother’s roles are very clearly defined while with the men… they sort of lose their space. And my father’s generation would be that generation that we’re moving from, a very traditional household to a slightly modern one and I think that came with loneliness. I wish I could tell him I understand. [Pause] I hope you will be able to capture that properly that it’s not a regret or sadness because I had a great relationship with my father…

When were you lonely yourself? Have you felt isolated?

In corporate leadership, there are certain times that you make decisions that you know are hurting people, but you also know you have the right decisions for the greater good. And it’s very hard to explain to some people why you are making those decisions. Yeah, that’s lonely. [Cups a palm against the wind, and lights a cigarette.]

How long have you smoked?

[Laughs] Twenty years, on and off. I quit for two years and come back. It’s a bad habit. You know, things change so fast. At some point, I used to get on a plane and ask for a smoking seat. I’d fly all the way to New York and I’d light up anytime in the plane. But now the social stigma is higher. People look at you strangely when you light up. And my wife hates it.

Is there any silver lining to smoking?

No. None whatsoever. You just get hooked. You’ve never smoked?

No. Maybe an occasional cigar when I succumb to a moment.

Don’t even start. I wouldn’t advise anyone to start if they haven’t started. We came up from a different generation where James Bond used to smoke. All our heroes smoked. Superfly used to smoke. These are guys you don’t know.

Superfly. He sounds interesting. I will Google him.

[Laughter] Yeah. You do that. Listen, thanks for coming out. This has been a good conversation, and I have also learnt something about myself. [Crashes cigarette butt underfoot]. Come, let me show you another cliff with an amazing view.