In professional circles, she goes by Prof. Hellen Kinoti Mberia. At home she’s simply Mrs. Kinoti, or mummy. And she likes it that way. To her beloved mum, she remains her little girl, Kiende, the young girl full of promise, the young girl she told could achieve anything she set her mind to.
Professor Hellen Kinoti Mberia holds a Doctorate in Mass Communication, with a specialty in Health Communication. Her Masters Degree was in Applied Communication, and several years ago, for the exact date escapes her, she undertook her undergraduate studies in Bachelor of Arts in Education, with a focus on English and Literature. She currently serves in her third year as the Dean, School of Communication and Development Studies, under the College of Human Resource Development (COHRED). Her professional journey with the University however dates back to 2005, when the visionary writer of this article was still but in Primary School.
The good professor has over 90 publications in refereed journals to her name, mostly in the fields of Public Relations, Health Communication, Media studies and Development Communication. Currently, Prof. Hellen Mberia’s scholarly fascination is the stubbornness of our species, especially in health matters. Why for instance, people know smoking hurts their lungs but they still smoke nonetheless. Why people know and understand the risk factors for a particular disease but still head straight for the cliff. So she’s writing a book to help you and I, mere mortals. It’s titled; ‘Persuasive Communication for Health Behavior Change.’
This interview takes place in her office, and although she tells me we only have ten minutes, I end up consuming her one and half professorial hours. Ten minutes for who?
Students consider you ‘bad news’. Are you aware of that?
(Evil laughter) Yes I am very much aware. I’m very strict, and I know some say I’m mean with marks, but all I do is give what a student merits. I’m strict because I know I’m molding lives. As a teacher, I cannot allow mediocrity or laziness. My work is guided by my professional dictates, not just kienyeji, and in the end the students appreciate it. All one needs to do is attend all my lectures and apply what you learnt. I don’t set recall questions. You have to synthesize the knowledge and apply it. I like it that way.
So what’s your philosophy in dealing with students?
A student must be a student. You have come to learn, and therefore you must learn when you get to class and be the student. Seek the knowledge and let me do the imparting.
What did you pray for this morning?
I prayed for myself, for my family and for my ailing father. Sometimes (not this morning), I pray for my country.
You’ve grown through the ranks since joining the University service. What do you consider your proudest achievement?
That would be the steady growth we’ve had from a Department to a School level. I started off as a Tutorial Fellow under the then Institute of Human Resource Development, now COHRED. I was tasked with developing programmes in Social Sciences, and I pioneered and spearheaded the development of Diploma and Degree programmes such as Mass Communication. This saw us grow in enrollment, capacity and personnel. As far as management goes, I started off as the Chair, Department of Social Sciences and Humanities, which has since grown to a School with two departments under it.
To what do you attribute this growth?
The development of demand-driven programmes which are relevant and needed for the growth of this country. This has led to increase in enrollment. I can also cite the massive support of the management, which has been very key.
What drives you?
I’m a results-oriented person. I’m driven by the need to achieve. Whenever, wherever I take part or get involved in something, I like seeing tangible results. But that is not where it started. I’m majorly driven by my upbringing.
In what way exactly? How did your childhood contribute to the Professor sitting across me?
In my formative years, back in lower Primary, being the last born I was sent to go stay with my elder sister and help her with the children. It so happens that she was undergoing a lot of family problems, and she would project all her frustrations on me, and I ended up losing self-esteem and feeling rejected. Then I went back to live with my mother, and everything changed. I found love, approval and encouragement, and I started working very hard. My mother believed in me so much and encouraged me. There was a paradigm shift. I started to see things differently. So one of the things that have driven me in life is her encouragement, belief in me, and my desire to always make her proud by making progress in every sphere.
How has this informed the kind of a mother you are to your children?
I always remind them that I know they will make it. They WILL make it, I don’t express doubt when I’m talking to my children. I always believe in them.
Still on children, your job and position demands a lot of time and energy. Have you managed to strike a balance over the years for work and family?
I don’t view it as a work and life balance. I view it in the sense of work, life, choices. When I was younger and newly employed, my work and academics dominated almost all my time, and I was not able to make the right choices.But as I grew up in marriage, as a wife, mother and family lady, I realized I had to make tough choices and be deliberate about my family.
What inspired this shift?
You know I used to get an excuse to delegate most of the parental responsibilities to my husband, such as visits to the children’s schools and events. I was always working, or travelling or doing this or that, then at one given time my children complained that I was not available for them, and that got me thinking. From then, I made a choice to be deliberate about my family.
Where do you think people get it wrong in this regard?
Most people fail to prioritize their families because they are driven by the desire to make more money. The easiest people to neglect when a money-making opportunity comes is family, but there’s one thing people must know. Money will never be enough. As parents we must remember that children are with us for a very short time. Before you realize it they are in boarding schools and you barely see them anymore, therefore we must utilize the little time with them properly.
Presently, what do you wish you had more time for?
For myself. In the process of making choices, I forgot the real Kiende, the girl in me. I wish I had more time to go to the gym, travel more, meditate, hang with my girls. And I also wish… (naughty laugh) well I also wish I had more time for, eeh, for just lovey-dovey you know…
How is it like being an academically empowered woman?
Some people usually wonder how I’m a Professor and happily married. There’s this misguided belief that if you’re a woman professor or doctor and economically well-off, then you should either be separated, divorced or not married. And sadly if you look around in our Kenyan situation, it’s mostly the case, but that’s not how it should be.
So what’s your secret?
Whatever my accomplishments are, they have never gotten into disrupting my marriage. I work for my marriage. Many people think that marriages just happen. They don’t. You have to work on your marriage just the way you work for your academic and professional ventures. I have also learnt not to take my Professorship or position to the family. When I’m home, my titles are Mrs. Kinoti, and mummy, and I was well mentored for those positions by my mother. She taught me how to be a wife and how to be a mother. I do not have to remind my husband that he’s dealing with a professor. He is dealing with that girl that he married, and I’m very proud of him because he has been my support system through the years. He has played a key role in every academic or professional achievement I have.
Well well, that brother is quite something huh
You know many men get intimidated, and present very difficult situations to their empowered wives. They should instead be supportive and not merely see the women in terms of their achievements, but also as wives and girls who simply need to be loved, not as women who need to be left to their fate.
So do heads usually turn when you introduce yourself as a Professor?
That’s a nice question, because I’m really experiencing that. People don’t expect a young female professor. They expect you to be old and male, so heads always turn and you hear ‘oh, ooh…’
Is it true what they say that it’s lonely at the top?
Woi, absolutely. The higher you go the cooler and lonelier it becomes. Let me give you a typical example, even finding someone to accompany you to lunch at the cafeteria can be a problem. People see you as a Dean, as a Professor, supervisor and they keep off. We end up working hard yet again to fit in social places.
Does that sound fair to you? Should we then all just aspire to be average?
Is it fair? No. Should we aspire to be average? Absolutely not! Average what exactly? Just so you fit? Sometimes you don’t have to fit. You owe no one an apology for aspiring for greatness.
Are you happy?
Oh yes, I’m happy, and I believe happiness is an individual choice. I’m a happy Professor, a happy Dean, a happy wife, and a happy mother.
When was the last time you were afraid?
I was afraid of my stairs this morning. Yes, I’m afraid of stairs, I have a phobia actually. I walk down or up the stairs very slowly, often holding the rails. I’m always afraid I might fall and have a spinal injury. I also have a phobia for iron boxes. Sometimes I go back to the house twice to check if I really switched it off.
Greatest lesson you’ve learnt from interacting with and handling students?
As a lecturer, you must always deal with students as individuals. Don’t offer generalized accusations or treatment. Connect with your students beyond just class work and offer guidance.
What character traits do you admire in people?
I like people who are open and honest in their interactions. I don’t like people who are two-faced, I like straightforward. I also admire people who are assertive and confident, with charisma and people who are clean.
What’s the one quality you least admire about yourself?
I’m not a good listener. I’m working on it of course, but sometimes I just want the beating about the bush to end and we get straight to the point. So I end up finishing people’s sentences or summarizing their thought processes.
What’s the one talent you wish you had?
First of all, I’m a talented actress and a damn good dancer. I can out dance you in the latest style, try me. I would love to be a singer though, but the way my vocal chords are currently set up, that remains a wish. My voice has not yet decided whether I’m tenor, soprano, alto or bass.
What keeps you up at night?
At night you say? These days, maybe watching football in solidarity with my husband, WHEN he has made me happy. But it’s conditional, once I’m veery happy.
Can I have that on record?
If you were sitting in my chair, what question would you ask you?
I would ask myself where I would want to be in my fifties, which is not coming anytime soon just so you know. I would also ask myself about my retirement plans, and also ask Hellen to categorically explain why she has refused to start going to the gym despite buying five different gym kits and resolving to do so every year and even enrolling in one.
In life, extraordinary things are achieved by ordinary people who have decided to go an extra mile in everything they do. If you want to achieve, you have to do things differently, you must commit differently.