I had a happy childhood: The untold story of Yvonne Wamalwa
When I picked up the phone and made the call one rainy morning, on the receiving end was the warm, pleasant voice of Yvonne Wamalwa, the then Deputy High Commissioner of Kenya to Australia at the time. I was in awe.
Yvonne was the widow to Kenya’s former vice President, the late Kijana Wamalwa. Since her husband’s passing way in 2003, Yvonne has been a single mother to her two children, a boy and a girl.
The tough life of being a single mother notwithstanding, Yvonne decided to go back to school to study for a Master’s in Policing, Terrorism, Counter Terrorism and International Security in Australia.
For this feature, Yvonne explained to me what having a job many only dream of is like, how she first went clubbing at 18 and even challenged me to give her a pretty good incentive for her to answer one of the questions…
How long have you lived in Australia?
This is my fifth year in Australia.
Do you consider it ‘home’ now?
Not really, but I see it as a really nice place to be if you cannot be home.
How did you end up as a Deputy High Commissioner of Kenya to Australia?
After the death of my husband, the late Vice President of Kenya, Hon. Michael Christopher Wamalwa, the then President of the Republic of Kenya, honoured me by appointing me the Deputy Permanent Representative of Kenya to the United Nations Habitat offices in Nairobi. After three years there, I was delighted when I was appointed to Australia as the Deputy High Commissioner.
What does your job entail?
The job is diplomatic which means I am the senior diplomatic representative sent by the President of Kenya to Australia. This is the text book definition, but obviously the job involves a lot of people to people communication.
To do this job, I have to be proficient in several areas. I need to have thorough knowledge of Kenya’s foreign policy and areas where Kenya is innovating so that I can sell these convincingly. So I am not only a Kenyan who loves her country, but I am a Kenyan who has an intimate knowledge of my country.
I am often called upon to make speeches which means I have to be a professional speaker. As the acting high commissioner, I also need to provide leadership in the High Commission. The Kenya High Commission in Canberra like all Kenyan Embassies and High Commissions all over the world has very well educated and experienced diplomats. Their credentials make providing leadership easier to handle since they are all very sharp and professional individuals and it is an honour to have them as colleagues.
What are some of the things you wish didn’t come with the job?
Being away from friends and family. This is not so much of an issue now though because of skype, twitter and social media. The tyranny of distance has truly been slain by advances in technology.
What does a really good day at work look like?
A good day is actually getting everything on my ‘to do’ list for the day done. This can be quite challenging, because most of the time things are fluid and situations change very rapidly, but if you can get everything done, all meetings attended, all phone calls made, emails written and courtesy calls done for that day, then that is a really good day.
With such great status and an enviable career, is it a lot of late nights and early mornings?
Do dogs bark?! Late nights and early mornings come with the territory.
What kind of a teenager were you back when you were 16?
I could only be one kind of teenager. My mother was a ‘Strict Parent’ as is seen in the popular television series. She always said, “An idle mind is the workshop of the devil,” so I was either doing chores around the house or reading, otherwise there would be hell to pay.
She used the threat of corporal punishment to make sure her rules were followed. So I was a ‘very sensible teenager’ but at 18, my brother took me out to a club for the first time with permission from mum and after that, I really enjoyed being a teen.
When you think back to when you were 21, what’s the best memory you have?
At 21, my best memory would be getting a letter saying I had been accepted to a college in the United Kingdom and I would be leaving in about a month! I was ecstatic.
Do you get nostalgic about your childhood?
Many times. It was such a sheltered childhood and the simplest things brought us a lot of joy, like the four Werther’s Original Caramels we were allowed every Saturday afternoon as a treat for being well behaved. Even now when I pop a toffee in my mouth these memories come flooding back.
Would you have ever imagined you would end up where you are now career wise?
No. My original training was in Hotel Management and Tourism, but now I am in Diplomacy and an expert in Terrorism/Counter Terrorism and International Security. I would have never imagined it.
Looking back, over the years, are there moments you wish you had made better choices?
There are a few things maybe I would have done differently, like fashion but seriously, looking at the big picture, I would really not change anything as I can now see how those choices have brought me here, and this is where I want to be.
I sincerely would not change anything, even the wrong turns taught me valuable lessons, I am thankful to God for where I am today and would sincerely not change a thing if it meant my ‘now’ would be different. I am very happy with where my choices have brought me.
Do you have plans to further your career or do you think you’ve arrived?
I have plans to do a PhD in International Security and Counter Terrorism. I feel this would be beneficial to my country.
Looking at Kenya’s proximity to the Horn of Africa and the challenges we have there with piracy and terrorism, I feel Kenya should take on the matter at hand as it is hurting our international image, that being tourism, with many in the international medial generalising that the whole area is a problem. We need more home grown African solutions to the problem.
When you want to unwind and relax at home, what do you think of first?
I love my creature comforts, what girl doesn’t, but a beautiful aromatic bath, good music and some quiet time will do the trick.
Do you cook and host dinners or would you rather be the guest?
I am a picky eater and would rather host. I also love to cook where I can do everything just the way I like it. Kenyans are also famous for their hospitable spirit. I love having people over. This way, I can control the quality of the ingredients and since the food is usually delicious, I strive to make sure my guests have a great time too.
What kind of music excites your spirit?
Jazz, Classical and Gospel music lift my spirit.
Do you have a bucket list?
I find having a bucket list too restricting. What if you achieve it all and you are still alive then what? No, I have short term goals which I strive to achieve and then set new ones, I find it more exciting.
Where’s the one place you’ve travelled to that you think every person must visit at least once in their life?
Sorry I have to break the rule and mention two places, the first one is Lourdes in France and the other is the Annual Wildebeest Migration in the Maasai Mara National Park in Kenya.
What don’t most of your family and friends know about Yvonne Wamalwa?
They do not know it because I want to keep it a secret, why would I say it here? Give me a good enough incentive and I may spill the beans…(I was still thinking, I still am, we’ll do a Part Two of this. )
Whats the one thing you’ve learnt about love over the years?
It is the greatest gift we can give and receive.
And life in general?
Life is what you make it. You will inevitable encounter obstacles and people who want to pull you down. You will fall, that is a fact. But you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself up and start all over again. It does not matter how hard the fall, because with determination, you can learn from your falls and excel at the next hurdle.
What’s the one advice you’d give to a 22 year old who just graduated college?
Lucky you! You have your whole life ahead of you. Love yourself more than you hate those who let you down. Never let any of your choices be made to spite anyone, let them be made for your good, you are number one. Your character will not be written by how hard you fall, but by the courage with which you pick yourself up, and start all over again.
I have learned that I should strive to forgive those who have wronged me because it is good for me and my soul. This is because holding on to hurt and forgiveness has a worse effect on the person holding on to it, while the person responsible for the initial hurt may even have forgotten about it and is going through life oblivious of the resentment you may be carrying as the victim.
But allow me to quote from the last paragraph of the Desiderata. I really live by this and feel it may resonate with other young people. ‘Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.’
Yvonne Aoll is a writer and freelance journalist. You can read more of her work here www.yvonneaoll.com