Julia Kagunda is a woman of many faces. The 46-year-old who left a stable job at a reputable NGO to start her own firm has two masters’ degrees and is currently pursuing her PhD, amidst raising a family. She speaks candidly to EDNA GICOVI about her life, passion for communication and counselling and pursuing her God-given dream.
“Julia, you’re a bright girl. If you only put a little effort in your school work, you will go places.” These are the simple words that perhaps changed Julia’s life. Throughout most of her school life, she never really excelled in her studies. She had just completed her fourth form and her father was asking her to repeat the year, as she hadn’t performed well. As disheartened as she was then, she has never forgotten her late father’s encouraging words. “He motivated me and possibly made me fall in love with school to a point of pursuing a PhD,” she says.
Julia Kagunda is the last born of a family of eight. She evidently holds her parents in very high regard. Her father made her realise that she could actually make it in life, and as a result, she put in her best efforts. After her ‘A’ levels, she was bent on pursuing a course in business administration. “Even then, my father influenced me, without coercion, to pursue communication instead. When I became adamant, he sent one of my older brothers to talk me out of it,” she says.
She is very grateful that her father not only motivated her but also knew her strengths and thus advised her accordingly. Today, she is very passionate about communication, having worked in various organisations in the field.
“Parenting is about having a relationship with your children so that you can be their influencers. However, you should accept your children and continue to walk with them even when they make the most painful of mistakes,” she says. Growing up, Julia really looked up to her parents, who worked hard to provide for her and her siblings and be there for each of them as well.
She also greatly admired their marriage. “I’m sure they had their own quarrels though I never really got to see them,” she says, adding that they have always been her role models in that regard. When she got married, she looked forward to the kind of companionship that she had seen in her parents’ marriage.
Her father passed on several years ago while her elderly, yet rather industrious mother lives in Naivasha, where she is in business. “I’d nominate her for mother-of-the-year award if there was one,” says Julia fondly. “She really sacrificed a lot for us and I owe her a lot,” she adds.
Starting out in communication…
Julia studied communication at the Daystar University in the late 80s when it was still a relatively small institution. Upon graduation, she wrote for Step, a Christian magazine, before moving to the Kenya Times newspaper where she worked as a reporter. In 1991, she got a scholarship from Daystar to do a master’s degree in communication studies. She left the Kenya Times newspaper to work as a graduate assistant at the school as part of her scholarship requirements.
After completing her studies and getting married, she started working as a communication officer and mentor at Life Ministry, a Christian organisation in Nairobi involved in discipleship and mentorship. Her husband was already working for the organisation as a mentor and IT manager at the time.
In December 1997, the couple was posted to Life Ministry’s regional office in Harare, Zimbabwe. She was promoted to regional editor for Southern and Eastern Africa. One of her achievements during the five-year stay in Zimbabwe was establishing a regional newsletter that was very well received in the region. She also mentored professionals and executives on career, marriage and family, as well as spiritual and financial issues. “The higher you go in your career or business, the lonelier it gets. You need people to talk to, listen and mentor you, which is what I was did,” she says. Together with her husband, the couple developed a strong networking forum for business and government leaders within the Southern and Eastern Region.
Julia and her family came back to Kenya in 2002. She continued to work at Life Ministry for another two years before both she and her husband resigned in 2005 in search of greener pastures. Thereafter, she worked at her alma mater, Daystar University, lecturing in communication, a job she enjoyed and found very fulfilling.
Working in an NGO…
Julia left teaching two years later to join Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International, a non-profit organisation that seeks to promote the use of advanced science and technology products to improve agricultural productivity so as to eradicate poverty, hunger and malnutrition in Africa. She was the senior communication and administrative manager. Initially, she wondered if she had made a mistake by joining a field she was not familiar with. Everything was technical and she had to learn most of the scientific jargon in order to be effective as a communicator.
“It was one of the most hectic periods of my life but I had to jump on that fast moving bus. All aspects of my communication training including writing, advocacy, local and international media relations were put to the test,” she says.
Despite the difficulties she had encountered, she was able to find her footing on the job and enjoy it. Her work there included research, event management, communication and training amongst others. “It made me appreciate the role of communication in development as we developed and implemented communication strategies for community engagement,” she says about her time at the NGO, adding that individuals and communities do not just embrace new technology or innovation. It calls for getting into their world, understanding their attitude and belief systems and knowing how to package information accordingly. This is what essentially makes research a critical component of communication.
Heeding her counselling call…
After a year at the organisation she enrolled for another master’s degree, this time in counselling psychology at the United States International University (USIU), Nairobi. Working previously in mentorship and discipleship made Julia realise that she had a big interest in counselling and although she had done a few courses and had some practise, she felt unequipped to do it effectively. She graduated in 2010 and in June 2011 made the tough decision of resigning from the organisation to venture into other things.
“I really struggled with that decision but God had placed a vision in my heart 10 years earlier. While in Zimbabwe I read a book called Half Time that had a huge impact on me. It made me embark on a self-discovery journey and made me realise I had a natural gift of listening and somehow drawing people out,” she says.
“People confide in me and severally my friends and colleagues have pointed out that I am a good listener. Coupled with my love for counselling, I knew that my second half in life would include counselling,” she adds.
Julia’s dream as she resigned was to merge her counselling and communication skills. As a counsellor, she is very interested in people involved in frontline services, for instance pastors, full time Christian workers, doctors, lawyers, and social workers, among others. She says that they deal with people who are stressed or distressed in some way.
“How do they cope with dealing with other people’s problems?” she asks, adding that if one is constantly exposed to trauma, they go through vicarious traumatisation (the negative changes that happen to humanitarian workers over time as they witness other people’s suffering). This ultimately affects their general wellbeing. They also develop burn out and as a result cannot function normally.
Starting her firm…
Having discovered this special group of professionals that need a unique kind of counselling, and also having armed herself with a master’s in counselling psychology, Julia knew that it was time to establish something to this effect. Thus, she started Elim Palm Renewal Centre (EPRC), a Christian counselling firm dedicated to facilitating restorative care for those in the frontline professions through professional counselling, psychosocial services and capacity building programmes.
EPRC offers professional debriefing (an information-sharing and event-processing session conducted as a conversation following a traumatic event). Debriefing aims to reduce any possibility of psychological harm by informing people about their experience or allowing them to talk about it. EPRC also offers professional counselling and capacity building through marriage and family seminars, stress management, conflict management skills, and counselling psychology workshops, among others. The organisation is committed to the physical, emotional and psychological renewal of not only those in the frontline services, but also other individuals or groups that may be in other stressful environments.
In response to the upcoming elections, EPRC is running psychological debriefings of communities especially in the areas that were affected by the 2007/8 post election violence in a programme called ‘Restoring the Healing Voice of the Community Leaders through Psychological Debriefing and Grief Work’. “We work with community leaders and pastors and later train them on how to carry out debriefing in their communities,” says Julia.
Julia is currently doing her PhD in communication and carrying out research on communication and conflict resolution. She hopes that these findings will enable EPRC, in addition to its current functions, grow to become a centre of communication and conflict management that will enhance cohesiveness amongst various groups.
On marriage and family…
Julia got married to Kagunda Chege, a life coach, in December 1994 before she joined him at Life Ministry in 1995. Their first child Njeri was born in 1996. Their second born, Simbarashe, whose name in Shona language means God’s power, was born in 1999 while they both worked and lived in Zimbabwe.
“I had a very problematic pregnancy when I was carrying him but through God’s amazing power, he was born weighing only 1.8 kilos. He is 13 years old now and indeed we have seen God’s power through him,” she says. Their last-born is three-year-old Danny. “He is very independent and joyful. Raising him so far has been interesting and different from raising the other two. My two older children have been very helpful in raising him as well. I hope they don’t spoil him,” she says smiling.
Parenting has been fun for Julia. “I have really enjoyed my children. They’ve been a source of joy and encouragement,” she says. She tries to involve herself in their lives as much as she can. She’ll go on dates with them once in a while. “Sometimes we’ll go for a movie together,” she says adding, “I also discuss some of my decisions with them. I told them when I resigned from my job last year and they were quite supportive.”
She also strives to maintain a friendship with her children. This however does not mean that she does not discipline them when the situation calls for it, though she says that caning only works up to a certain age. “With the older ones there’s more discussion than the kiboko (cane). I’ll also withhold their privileges when they don’t do what we’ve agreed on,” she says.
On dealing with the tumultuous teenage years that are a problem for most parents, Julia says that constantly talking with (and not ‘to’) her older children has been very helpful, though it hasn’t been easy. She encourages her children to talk to her about anything and everything. “I have told my daughter severally that if anything happened to her, I’d like to know. I may get mad or unhappy but I’ve given her that freedom to talk to me,” she says.
She adds that it is important to establish boundaries and give freedom coupled with responsibility. “When you have children, you do your best but leave the results to God because you don’t know how they will turn out,” she says.
Julia has been married for 17 years. “As a born-again-Christian, God is very central to my marriage,” she says. She has enjoyed her marriage, even with the usual ups and downs all marriages go through. “My husband has been a strong pillar in my personal development. Even when I get discouraged, he urges me on. For instance, I really struggled to get started on the PhD programme as I thought of my young business and family but he really encouraged me to go for it,” she says.
According to Julia, many times couples fight over symptoms without tackling the underlying issues that cause conflict in marriage, which is really a failure to study and know each other well so as to serve each other effectively. “When partners in a marriage focus on what they can get from it, they both lose out,” says Julia adding that it takes work, time and energy to dig deeper and understand each other.
To Julia, marriage is a lifetime project, which needs to be given the necessary attention. She goes on to say that like some projects, marriages sometimes fail and it’s not our place to blame the two people involved because we don’t know their circumstances.
Nonetheless, her desire as a counsellor is to see every marriage work. She looks forward to continue working in both counselling and communication, to grow EPRC and develop herself as an individual.