IRŨNGŨ HOUGHTON – On living a purpose-driven life

  • PublishedDecember 6, 2019

One-on-one with Irũngũ Houghton

When Irũngũ Houghton and his wife Robyn T. Emerson request that the interview and photo shoot take place at Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) centre in Kibera, it sounded a little unorthodox.

Their reason, however, makes sense once we pass through the narrow pathways to the school in the heart of Kibera, infamously known to be one of the biggest low-income settlements in the country. This, they feel, represents who they are as at the core. The couple is passionate about community development and Kibera is all about that.

Irũngũ, 53, is the Executive Director of Amnesty International Kenya, an organisation whose main objective is to defend the rights of Kenyans. He is also a familiar face in the Kenyan media as he regularly comments on issues to do with policy and governance and how those factors affect Kenyans.

According to him, every job or position that he has held over the years has been in tandem with or has led up to this moment. “I started working around the age of 16 during school breaks. I’ve sold newspapers, worked in a printing shop, served tables and also worked in a government office where my job was to stamp meal cards. From that I learnt that all work has value, all people require dignity, respect and a fair salary or wage. This is what we, at Amnesty International, advocate for,” he says emphatically.
Like many other young people, his twenties were moments to experiment and that time saw him move from one job to another seeking more challenges and growth. He was fortunate to have mentors who kept him on the right path. “I have been very lucky that in my career I have had people who mentored me and gave me opportunities that, given my age then, I probably would not have been given. For that reason, I was able to grow quite fast,” says Irũngũ.

One of these moments came as a youthful member on the first Executive Committee of the National Council of NGOs in 1991. He was 24 at the time and effectively the youngest person in the room.

“Most of the time I was asked to go and make tea for people and photocopy documents. It further reinforced what I learned earlier that no job is too small or undignified,” says Irũngũ whose professional background is in adult education, gender and anti-violence training.

He credits his background on human rights advocacy to several people, among them Murtaza Jaffer, former National Council of NGOs CEO. “He was an avid human rights defender. He taught me that the most important work happens among the most marginalised communities. He also taught me humility and service. How he hated living large, extravagance and wastage was a very powerful lesson for me,” narrates Irũngũ who has also served as the Pan-African director for Oxfam for a decade.

Two decades ago, on his first day of work at ActionAid Kenya he went to Kariobangi and whilst there, they had to take shelter for about two hours as gunfire ensued. Afterwards, he spent some time with Kariobangi residents where he came face-to-face with the violence and abject poverty in their lives.

“Honestly speaking, I was traumatised that people lived like this just a few minutes from the city centre. It made a profound impact! In that moment I knew the most I could do in my life would be to help people denied essential social services in their lives,” he states.

His life has revolved around community work and social empowerment. In the 90s, he organised with others to stop ethnic cleansing in Rift Valley and advocated for the inclusion of marginalized groups and economic and social rights to be included in the constitution. Two decades later those rights are now in our constitution. More recently he, his wife and others passionate about Kilimani started a community foundation where Irũngũ has served as Chair since its founding. Consequently, it is easy to see why he was appointed as Amnesty’s Executive Director at the beginning of last year.

Staying connected

It is not lost on him, however, that he comes from a privileged background. “I know first-hand the ignorance of being middle class and the dangers of inequality. It is very easy to become removed from the daily struggles of most people. The great thing with Amnesty International is that it gives me the opportunity to engage communities on matters that are important to them,” he offers.

Irũngũ has a truly interesting mix of experiences but what he is certain of is that if he can help in any way, he does not hesitate to do so. One of the causes he is currently lending his voice to is the end to femicide. This and positions he has taken publicly in the past has earned him a feminist title.

While most men live in dread of the word feminist, Irũngũ shares that he has been a feminist since his days at University of Dar es Salaam. “I realised early that among the many things I could do, was to add my voice to women’s demands for an end to the discrimination of women,” says Irũngũ, who was one of the first male gender trainers in the country.

It profoundly worries him that most Kenyans seem to be oblivious to human rights violations, gross corruption and abuse of power and what they could do about them. “Kenyans continue to experience very intense violations of human rights every day and the stories are heart-wrenching. How long do we want the middle class citizens in North America and Europe to support human rights action here yet this is our society?” he asks.

As one would expect, there are risks when fighting for change and social justice. Irũngũ, for instance, was one of the two people arrested in 2015 as they successfully reclaimed the land grabbing of a playground at Lang’ata Road Primary School.

“I will not shy away from my work because I fear run-ins with the government as long as I know I’m doing the right thing. All who acted that day knew that to allow a school playground to be turned into a hotel carpark would have destroyed the right to education and recreation for generations of children,” he says.

He is against any sort of violation of human rights, regardless of socio-economic status or past history of anti-social behaviour. “Tact, interpersonal skills and a sense of humour are key in this type of work. I learnt long ago not to judge people. All people have the capacity to change. This is why I advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. Once someone dies, with their death goes with any chance they might have had to change. Some relapse into their former habits but most find their purpose from a bad situation,” he explains.

So would he run for public office given his stance? “I don’t believe you have to be in office to do public service work but if I ever run for office, you can be sure that I will still be doing this work. Activism is something you do on top of your profession. I’d like to be remembered for that – that I spent my life trying to improve the lives of other people. I’ve chosen to be cremated but if there was to be a tombstone, I’d like that to be the epitaph,” shares the 53-year-old.

Irũngũ the family man

A father of seven and grandfather of three, Irũngũ shares that there is no distinction between his life and his work. The values he upholds professionally are alive in the blended Irũngũ household.

“I grew up in what we now call a blended family. My mother Nyaguthii Nguyo had two children when she and my father, Roger Houghton, married. They then had two more, including me. My mother died when I was six and my father later remarried Brenda Houghton and they had one other child. My parents didn’t treat us differently. I think that’s one thing that helped me accept the role of parenting and fatherhood more easily. We don’t do step, half-sisters or brothers, we are all equally parts of one family,” he shares.

Before they married, both he and his wife have experienced divorce. “Divorce is hard and is made even harder by the Marriage Act which insists that one spouse has to be at fault. After having been married for 12 years, it took me a while to find myself again. One of my sons was my saving grace. He reminded me that despite no longer being married to his mother, I would always be their father,” shares Irũngũ. Parenting also has other challenges. For Irũngũ, the biggest one was having their eldest son lose his eyesight in two separate robbery attacks.

Irũngũ is grateful that he has Robyn by his side. “We’re kindred spirits. We both have a belief in justice. This helps us understand each other better. When you have some-one who has the same outlook on life, marriage is beautiful,” he notes.

From his seat at Amnesty International, one might assume that all he does is write memos and organise community action, which he quickly dispels. “I do have other interests outside of my work. I love jazz, reggae and I am currently listening to Kenyan musicians like Eric Wainaina, Blinky Bill and Sauti Sol. I also watch movies a lot. What I don’t do enough of, perhaps, is exercising,” he chuckles.

Robyn’s take

When we featured Robyn on our October 2018 issue, she was among the movers and shakers of the Kenyan real estate sector, having carved her leadership niche through her real estate firm Legacy Realty and prior to that as the CEO of the Kenya Property Developers Association.

This was just around her 47th birthday and being at the top of her game, many could not have predicted that in December of last year, she would end up selling the firm.

“Last year around my birthday, I started coming to the realisation that I missed working directly with communities,” Robyn, an urban planner, explains.

As this new year started and she pondered on what to do next, she chose to go the community development way.

As she informs me, this is not entirely new territory for her. “I have been a volunteer mentor of two mentees with the SHOFCO Kibera School for Girls for six years. Community organising and planning is actually my forte as an urban planner. It feels great to utilise my diverse skills and I’m glad I was authentic and bold enough to make shifts as they call me,” she says. Robyn also serves on the Planned Development Committee of the Kilimani Foundation and led a school campus redevelopment project in the early 2000s in Lower Matasia.

SHOFCO Urban Network (SUN) serves over 200,000 people across nine slum areas in Kenya. Robyn is keen to lend her expertise to build communities that work for everyone. “The work that I’m currently doing at SHOFCO leans heavily on my urban planning skills but also political organizing and coaching skills. SHOFCO is a brilliant model for community development and I advise on urban redevelopment through developing leaders and working with strategic partners.”

It was in her nature to design her former firm, Legacy Realty, as a philanthropic company. “Embedded in Legacy’s structure, we donated 15 per cent of our profit to select NGOs but I longed for more,” says the Kenyan-American real estate guru. She has also recently launched her co-authored book, Building in Kenya: A Real Estate Developers Toolkit as the first of its kind to make plain the process.

Speaking to her, you can tell she thoroughly enjoys doing this. “Being in the midst of communities and partnering solutions is fulfilling. I don’t see it as though I’m giving anything to anyone but as a partner facilitating growth and transformation. My desire is for people to be empowered and to live in communities they created and are proud of,” she states.

Shared passions

It also helps that she and Irũngũ share the same interest of building up communities, social entrepreneurship and empowerment. “We are both independently driven and we came into the relationship as two people who are passionate about community work, human rights and social justice,” she shares.

This is part of what drew her to Irũngũ. “We first met about 10 years ago while I was working with the Vision 2030 Directorate. We then met again in different forums thereafter, including Landmark Education programmes where we participate. As we interacted with each other, I was drawn by his vision, the love he has for his children, family and the country,” she narrates.

According to her, it is comforting to know that her life partner shares the same joys about life as herself. Despite their shared passions, they also have the typical conflicts of most couples.

Does being at the helm of different organisations lead to power play between them? “Titles don’t come into the house. We are just a husband and wife who love and celebrate each other equally,” she says.

Despite their busy schedules around work and community-related activities, Robyn says they certainly ensure that they get time to be together as a couple as they approach their fourth anniversary. “It’s all about intentionality because the work that we do could creep in; but we have a good barometer for when that happens. We usually know it’s time for us to reconnect as a couple without the kids, community work, board responsibilities, or church activities when we don’t really know what the other’s schedule looks like,” she shares.

Both nature enthusiasts, they spend their time together outdoors, taking mini vacations and hiking with their major hike being Mount Kilimanjaro. They also enjoy music. “We are both huge jazz fans and coincidentally, Safaricom Jazz Festival always falls around Irũngũ’s birthday. I always tease him that I’ve organised a big jazz festival in his honor,” she shares.

Robyn has a few words of wisdom for those in blended families like theirs. “I met Irũngũ when my kids were graduating from high school. We recognised from the start that there were the other parents involved and we did not want to make the kids feel like we were coming to replace them. The children simply get a bonus parent, if you will,” she chuckles.

On marriage, Robyn says, “It’s about two people who are whole and complete sharing life together. The other person should not define who you are for you and is not responsible for your happiness in life.”

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