James Mageria: Serving God and fellow man

  • PublishedJanuary 31, 2014

Dr. James Mageria is the chairman of The Karen Hospital board of directors and also serves in several other boards, including the Management University of Africa, the East Africa Social Enterprise Network (EASEN) and the Personal Development Institute (PDI). He is also a director at numerous local and international corporations. A distinguished and esteemed individual both in the public and private sectors in Kenya, Dr. Mageria exemplifies unshakeable faith, discipline, commitment, service, and a dedication to duty, God and fellow man. He has a chat with EDNA GICOVI about his prolific life.

His stern, no-nonsense demeanor gives way to a warm fatherly persona as this interview progresses. He listens carefully to every question before responding. Systematic and deliberate in his answers, his every word seems measured and well thought out. Yet he has a few surprises. He is a good cook and makes great chapati, he says, adding, with a brief smile, that when his sons were much younger they humorously referred to him as chapatiologist because of this skill.

“We did not bring up our children with house help back in the day so I was used to house chores, including cooking,” he says.

James was born 72 years ago in Nyeri and is the first of 10 children, though two of his siblings have since passed on. The Second World War was still ongoing in his early years and he still has the vivid memory of a very noisy siren from Karatina town that had everyone running to the nearest dyke, as they had been taught, to escape an incoming bomb. “Fortunately, the bombs did not reach where we were,” he says.

He also recalls the Mau Mau war where Kenyans were fighting to regain their land and freedom from the colonialists. “As teenagers, we would hear bullet sounds and bombs and a few hours later dead bodies would be brought to our town and we would be rounded up to identify the bodies. It was a nasty experience,” he recalls.

The preacher-policeman…

He regards himself a child of war, having been exposed to the sad reality of death from an early age. “I saw all kinds of people dying – rich and poor, black and white, young and old. So I knew death did not discriminate and everybody would eventually die,” he says.

James was brought up in a Christian family and soon came to the realisation that death was not the end of one’s story when he came to know Jesus on a date he recalls clearly – March 21, 1955, at age14. “From then on I did not fear death but wanted others to know the truth and have the same hope that I had, so I frequently told others about Christ,” he says.

After graduating from Alliance High School, he joined the Kenya Police College in Kiganjo as a direct entry sub-inspector in 1963. He studied criminal law and management as part of his police training. James had grown up in an environment where he was surrounded by insecurity and death, witnessing the atrocities of the colonial police and those of the freedom fighters on their own people. He had also noticed police officers who rose above the hate to help fellow men, which inspired him to join the police force to serve his people. After training, he was posted to Tigoni Police Station in Limuru, then promoted to the rank of full inspector of police in 1964 and posted to Kikuyu Police Station.

A diligent worker, James was promoted again in 1967 to the rank of superintendent of police and posted to Kiganjo Police Training College as an instructor. He remembers this as a time when he made major strides in his career as an officer. Until then, the police force had been a ‘men-only’ domain and the first ever-female recruits were admitted to the college during his time. He is proud to have been one of the people who campaigned for women to be allowed to join the police force.

He was also keen on evangelising to fellow officers and this earned him the nickname ‘preacher policeman.’ It was during this time the Christian Fellowship, forerunner of the Christian Police Association, was formed. “We started the Christian Police Association and the Prison Fellowship that saw many officers and criminals hear the good news and become Christians. It became a very strong movement,” he says.

James was posted to Nairobi in 1970 as the commander of the traffic police department. He was among the pioneers of the traffic lights project that saw installation of traffic lights in different parts of the country. He received training on management of traffic lights in the UK. He retired from the force in 1973 and still retains good memories of his time in police service. He hopes that those still in the force will continue to use their privileged position to fight evil in the country.

After retiring from the police force, James went into business and was later offered a position at Express Kenya Ltd, a logistics company providing air freight, sea freight, trucking, warehousing and moving services. He started out as the general manager before rising to become the group managing director for East Africa.

James has always been passionate about community service and he lent his skills in management to different entities in the course of his work. “I was the chairman of the Agricultural Society of Kenya and also worked with St. John Ambulance as the area commissioner for Nairobi and the deputy commander for Kenya. I was also the chairman of the finance committee of the National Council of Churches in Kenya (NCCK) and a founder chairman of World Vision International in Kenya in 1974,” he says.

He left Express Kenya in 1990 to work with Prison Fellowship International, an organisation he had interacted with during his time in the police force when he pioneered the Christian Police Association and Prison Fellowship. He was based in Washington DC in the US where he served as the organisation’s senior vice president and was responsible for programmes development worldwide.

Six years later, Africa called, and James responded. He served as the president of World Vision Africa in charge of 33 countries, a familiar turf as he had been a founder chairman of the board that started World Vision Kenya. This new position took him around Africa, birthing in him a passion for a progressing continent. “After going round Africa (the second largest continent in the world), seeing its riches and great deal of resources, I marveled at the fact that it was home to some of the poorest people in the world,” he says, adding that he has a vision of Africa becoming the continent of the 21st century, but only through following Jesus.

He came back to Kenya in 1997 and continued in business and service in the boards of various corporations. He also joined the efforts to write a new constitution for Kenya. He was appointed secretary of the Ufungamano Initiative, a church-led coalition consisting of over 52 religious and secular groups who opposed parliament’s control of constitutional reform. He initiated a series of meetings aimed at jump-starting the constitutional review.

The need for a change of mindset…

“My purpose and passion is to transform people. We make a living by what we do but we make a life by what we give,” says James, adding that he desires that people would know their real value, and have love in their hearts – love for God, love for self, and love for others. He is keen to see a mindset change among individuals so they can understand their purpose in this world.

To this end, James has been involved in an initiative dubbed Shagz Connect, together with the East Africa Social Enterprise Network (EASEN), that seeks to transform the minds of people in the rural areas from social welfare and the “naomba serikali” attitude to one of social enterprise. This initiative is making villages, not only social entities, but also commercial entities. “Job creation and value addition in the rural areas will level the ground between rural and urban areas. After all, a lot of resources in Africa are found in the rural areas yet many remain poor,” he says.

He argues that a change in mindset will not happen until people know their value. Closely tied to this is the Personal Development Institute (PDI), yet another organisation he is working with as a board member and its Chairman. PDI provides training, coaching and mentoring to help people develop their potential to live purposeful lives and become agents of change in the society. “People do well when they enjoy what they’re doing, and we help people understand their purpose and passion,” he says.

James strongly believes that when individuals are transformed, they transform institutions. This, and love for others and our work, brings about transformation. In his extensive work with different organisations locally and internationally, he has observed that institutions do not change people. Instead, people change the institutions where they are.

“There needs to be a focus on the individual because if people in any institution do not have the values to move it forward then institutions are not the answer,” he argues. A realisation of this truth, he says, is what will change the country and the continent.

James’ contributions to the field of management and society earned him an honorary degree from Daystar University in 2010, where he served as the founder chairman of the university’s board until last year. He has also served as a founder chairman on several other university boards including the Nairobi International School of Theology (NIST) whose current name is International Leadership University (ILU) and the Kenya Institute of Management (KIM) where he received training in management and also lectured on the same. He is also a fellow of KIM. Most recently, he has offered his expertise to the Management University of Africa (MUA). He has also been a visiting lecturer at several American colleges lecturing on economic development in Africa.

“At my age, time is of the essence and I invest my time in things that matter,” says James, adding that he is in the process of easing off some of the many responsibilities he has had over the years so that he can focus on building the community. “The most miserable life is one lived for self. That is why I am keen on sharing the message of mindset change and love because I have learnt that only love is real,” he adds.

Family as a pilot for life …

“We are really blessed. I consider ours a marriage made in heaven,” says James while talking about his marriage. He and Beatrice Kabui have been married for 49 years. He fondly refers to her as a precious gift from the Lord and a great pillar of strength for him and their three sons – Mwaniki, Phillip and David, and their daughters-in-law, who he refers to as daughters-in-love, Nyakinyua and Wanjiru. Beatrice has been James’ trusted friend and companion, counselor and most faithful prayer partner since they walked down the aisle in 1965. “She has stood by me and supported me greatly even in very difficult times,” he says.

The couple has four grandchildren. “Someone once commented on how good and enjoyable grandchildren are and wished there was a way to start with them instead of children. Grandchildren only come to you when they are at their best, and their mothers will take them out of your hands when they become hard to deal with,” he notes with a chuckle.

He regards the family unit a very good pilot for life. “In a family, you receive training for life. You learn to love one another, correct one another, tolerate each other and if these lessons are properly taught and learnt, coping in one’s community is easier,” he says.

“Enjoy what you do. Let your work be your passion and share it with your family,” says James in conclusion, adding that when he used to travel a lot, he was very fortunate to have a chance to take his wife on some of his travels; times they both enjoyed immensely. Despite his busy schedule, he makes time to spend with his family and speak on invitation about his vision for Africa and various topics. He also enjoys cooking, reading and working out.

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