Amnesty International Kenya executive director Houghton Irungu spoke to Sunday Magazine about his work and personal life.
My 60-hour week starts at 6 am most mornings. A quick glance at my calendar informs what I will wear for the day. I have recently started back on a daily seven-minute exercise program. Within 30 minutes of this and before I start working, my first agenda is cereals and coffee.
Before the school runs, I hated working in the mornings. One of the many gifts my children have left me is the ability to get up and out early. The thirty-year-old me must be amazed by the fifty-three-year-old me.
I am a great fan of scheduling and calendars. I enjoy being in the office early. With life coming at me so fast, it keeps me intentional and purposeful. The quiet allows my mind to shape the actions I need to take each day. I cheat the traffic by leaving the office early each day. Believing that traffic jams were designed to rob us of productivity and live-ability, I am currently searching for legal grounds to sue someone for traffic jams.
By the time I joined Amnesty International Kenya last year, my predecessors Miriam Kahiga and Justus Nyang’aya had already built Amnesty into one of the pillars of the Kenyan human rights movement for the last 15 years or more. As spokesperson and chief strategist, my role as executive director is three parts managerial, strategy and representation. Each week, I spend about three days managing colleagues and budgets, one-day engaging mass and digital media and another representing Amnesty externally.
My media footprint is deceptive. Firstly, my work is much more collaborative than it looks. Several colleagues work on the messaging behind each television or radio appearance. Secondly, most of the change we have caused comes from face to face dialogue with government officers and not through our media work. Amnesty’s greatest influence comes from the trust and respect we have built with policy-makers, partners and people at risk of discrimination and violence.
Plenty of things keep me motivated to go to work each day. I am pulled by the idea that Kenya can be an open and democratic society driven by its citizens and not its cartels. This belief clashes with the day to day reality we face. I am also pushed by heart-wrenching stories of families who have experienced poverty, extra-judicial killings, gender-based violence or homophobic discrimination. Most of the time it feels like running uphill but when we win, it feels worth it. Some of our recent wins have included rescuing innocent persons from unlawful detention in our hospitals or our police stations.
Amnesty’s work has uncertainties and risks. This doesn’t work for all of the people I work with. Keeping us all hopeful, systems-focused and empathetic with each other is my core challenge. Like the rest of the country, I grapple with keeping myself and everyone around me punctual, authentic and intentional.
I have found that happiness is best generated. It is less a mood or a feeling but a choice. I have wrestled inwardly with the seriousness of my work. I have been to more police-stations, mortuaries, and funerals than I would have liked to over the past year. I have been confronted by toxic men and women with no interest in anyone else but themselves. I keep myself anchored by the belief that all people have virtuous and vicious sides. Most violators are often violated, people. Hurt people hurt people, as the saying goes. My role is to interrupt the viciousness and then speak to and feed the virtuous side. That’s how we win.
Six years ago, I agonised whether to leave a very comfortable job with Oxfam. Mary M’Mukindia bought me lunch and asked me three questions. Whose job would you most like to have? If you had Sh100 million, how would you spend it? Lastly, if you could assemble your dream team who would be in it? An hour later, I had the independence to step out of that job and create another for myself. Being able to imagine your ideal job is the first step towards creating it. It is not just the high levels of unemployment that restrict us – our own lack of clarity can constrain us from choosing what job we want and how to get it.
I wish a younger me had known that being confused and overwhelmed in life is also a choice, that by not being independent or responsible for our thoughts is like standing still in a raging river. Predictably, you will be swept away by others. As we grow older, we tend to become more cynical and risk-averse. This places limits on us as professionals. Instead of playing safe, we need to expand our personal courage to take bigger risks, especially as we grow older.
The concept of work-life balance has always been a little confusing for me. I don’t have my work as something separate from my life. However, over the last eight years, I have actively volunteered at the Kilimani Project Foundation. This community foundation was created by residents and businesses to collectively advocate and create a sense of community in the Kilimani ward of Nairobi.
My wife and I like to entertain friends at home in our small garden. Many of our best ideas and happiest moments happen here. Indian and Swahili dishes are among my favourite foods. I scored big time against my cholesterol by dropping meat and sugar from my diet two years ago. I drink alcohol moderately and have never smoked.
Crowded out by policy reports and academic papers, I read less fiction these days. Books have long been dominated by my smart-phone’s insane capacity to tweet, find news articles and play pod-casts. What do I watch? Black-list, Truth and Justice and Ava Duvernay’s brilliant When they See Us, are some of my recent Netflix favourites. We are committed to nurturing the Kenyan creatives industry and are regulars at film and music festivals. I am now seriously considering launching a music-lovers campaign to bring Spotify and Amazon music to Kenyan audiences.