The one trait Anastacia Kimtai banks on for career growth

When she was 10, Anastacia Kimtai, a village girl from Kabianga, Kericho walked into the National Bank in Kisumu holding her father’s hand. She wore her long floral Sunday dress, ironed to within an inch of its fabric life.

Never having been to any town bigger than Kericho, she was astonished by all the officious hubbub of the banking hall, of the men in suits, ties, and crisp white shirts. “They look like angels,” she gasped. When she immediately declared that she wanted to be a banker, her father chuckled and asked, “You mean you want to marry a banker?” She looked at him and said, “No, I want to be a banker.”

And so, soon after high school, she travelled to Agra, a city on the banks of Yamuna River in the Uttar Pradesh state of India, to pursue her dream. There, she studied banking, a Bachelor’s in Rural banking and community development and a Master’s in Rural Economics and Cooperation. Then she returned and dove nose first into a banking career that has spanned close to 25 years to where she sits now as the Managing Director of KCB Group.

When you think of your childhood, what smells dominate those memories?

Cow dung. I’m the third born in a family of seven. I grew up in a village called Kibinge in Kabianga, Kericho. As a little girl, I was tasked with smearing our floor with cow dung every Sunday morning before we left for church service. This was the girls’ task, the boy child didn’t smear the floor, they milked cows.

That smell of cow dung mixed with ashes doesn’t leave you. But it’s the smell that motivated me. I would tell myself, while on my knees, my hands caked with cow dung, that I would live in a stone house when I grew up, and I’d never have to smear my floor with cow dung. I kept telling my mom, ‘I’m doing this for you. I’ll never do it in my home. So yes, cow dung. My childhood, of course, has many other smells, but it’s mainly dominated by the smell of cow dung.

What kind of a woman was your mother?

A hard-working disciplinarian. My mom could smell the mistake before you made it. We believed she was a ghost, that she heard everything, knew everything, and was everywhere. She caned us relentlessly when we made a mistake and convinced us she wasn’t caning us but the mistake. (Chuckles)

My mother never went to school but inspired us all to study all through to university. She was a very solid woman who handled the household while my dad was away. I cherish her.

My dad—a government employee—educated all his siblings and all of us. He sacrificed to send us to decent schools. He was selfless. When schools opened, he would call on us, put all his money on the table, say, “This is all I have,” and then distribute it among us until he was left without a penny. Some sort of democracy.

Seeing that he was left with nothing, we would all agree to leave him something to live on. He’s now around 92. They are all alive, and I’m very fortunate.

What did you want for yourself when you were a small girl?

I wanted to be a career banker. There was never any doubt because when I was in Class Six, my dad took me to the National Bank of Kenya branch in Kisumu, where he would get a banker’s check for school fees. When I entered that building and saw all these well-dressed people, I asked my dad, “Are these guys angels?” because I genuinely didn’t believe they were human beings. I told my dad I wanted to be a banker. “You mean you want to marry a banker?” He smiled jokingly, and I said, “No, I want to be a banker.” There was not one female banker I could see in the hall, but I wanted to be one. He told me, “Well, if you want to be a banker, you must be good at maths.” From that day on, I never failed in maths.

You have spent your whole adult working life in banking. Do you ever wonder if there is somebody else in you besides a banker?

Yes, a nurturing and spiritual woman. She’s the one who grounds me and keeps me going. My spirituality and religiousness are how I want to come to the stage, to do my best, and to eventually exit. This is what makes me accountable in terms of living an impactful, honest life. I usually have at least two hours on Sunday for reflection, to take stock of my blessings and my shortcomings and what I can do better.

When did your relationship with God become a thing?

I was born into a Catholic family and attended Catholic schools from Class 3 up to Form 4. I followed the church principles because, you know, I saw my mom doing the same; that is what I was taught. The church dominated my life so much that I almost became a nun. (Chuckles). We (at school) admired the nuns; they were our role models, and they taught us how to be ladies.

However, even though my values were still solid, I wasn’t so close to God in high school, but when I settled as a mother and wife, I drew closer to God. I was a parish treasurer for over 14 years, a leader of women for 10 years, and a youth leader for eight years. I built a church from a membership of five to over 1,000 in Nyali, and every Friday afternoon, I would find myself in the church cleaning. My children would assist in the altar. For this service, I got a letter of commendation from his holiness, the Pope, the highest honour for exemplary social and impactful service. This was hugely gratifying and humbling.

What have you struggled with when it comes to this service?

How can we find a middle ground so that the church can be an exciting and interesting place for the youth? How can our youth be included and involved in church activities? I’m struggling with this question.

What are you unlearning from the teachings you received as a little girl growing up in church?

The ability to forgive. I could never understand a girl not living by the standards of discipline the church had laid down. We were taught to live our lives on the straight and narrow, which was uncompromising. I’m trying to appreciate that people can make mistakes, and you can accommodate them and their mistakes.

I used to be very hard on myself, my children and others; be home at this time, go to church without fail…I was judgmental because of the way I was brought up, and I couldn’t understand that other people could have been brought up differently. Why? I could never understand someone, a wife, going out to have a good time in a bar after work. How? (Chuckles)

I don’t suppose you drink cocktails.

(Laughs) No. I’ve never drunk in my life.

Have you ever been in a club before? A disco?

(Laughs) I’ve gone to a club to dance. I did everything with my boyfriend, who is now my husband.

What do you think has been the impact of your dedicated Christian socialisation in motherhood?

We have 25, 23, and 20-year-olds, two boys and one girl. It was very important for me that my children emulate some of the Christian values. My background made me very firm in their upbringing. It took my husband to say, “Look, it’s okay, let go, let them be.” He insisted that I don’t take it too seriously when our son wasn’t home by midnight. If it weren’t for him tempering me down, I think my children would have had it worse because I was raising them by what’s written in the good book (Bible) and nothing less. I was raising them how I was raised, at home and in church.

Photo credit: Pool

Tell me about that artwork behind your desk. (A piece by Longinos Nagila of ‘Black Madonna’)

It’s a natural African woman who doesn’t feel fear, who goes out and gets what she wants. A confident African woman. That’s how I see myself.

My sister went to boarding school very early, in lower primary school. I find that because of that, she is unable to allow herself to be vulnerable. She is stoic, never showing too much emotion. Does that also describe your emotional language, seeing as you went to boarding school so young?

That’s a correct observation! We don’t show emotion! (Chuckles). Rather, we don’t allow ourselves to be too emotive. For the longest period in KCB, my group CEO used to say that I’m not a woman; I’m a man. (Laughs) That’s how the staff look at me.

A story: One day, my husband appeared in one of the branches, and the teller asked him, “I’m sorry, but are you married to Mrs Kimtai?” He said, “Yes, that’s my wife”. He asked, “Is she really a wife?” (Laughs) It’s because they believe I am so firm that they struggle to see me as anything else, much less a wife.

But I’m different at home. I’m a wife without a title. When I travel to the village, I’m title-less, just a village girl doing chores. They never got to know my seniority in the banking industry until I lost my father-in-law. They saw the number of cars that came home, and they were like, “What does this woman do exactly?” This is because when I’m in the village, I am Mama Alan.

Back to your questions, corporate life teaches women to be professional, not emotional. You are a leader, you aren’t supposed to show vulnerability. Let me ask you, which male leader shows their emotion at work? Very few, if any, so why do you expect different of me? I’m a leader. So, take me to be the leader I am.

You are a very tall lady, 6’’0’, I suppose. Does your height intimidate people?

Well, it used to intimidate a lot of boys in school. They used to run away. (Laughs). So yes, the shy guys would think twice before they approach you.

I take it your husband wasn’t one of the shy ones. He must be quite tall.

Actually, he’s slightly shorter than me, but he’s bold. He definitely wasn’t shy. We met at university and have been together since. He’s my friend. He knows who I am, who I really am.

Are there any advantages of your height in corporate?

(Laughs) Oh the height conversation. You know, from very early we were taught by the nuns to carry our height well, not to stoop, shoulders back, walk straight. Does it have advantages in corporate? I’ll say you stand out, for sure. Other than that, the content counts, not your height as a leader.

Who’s your favourite character in the Bible, and why?

Virgin Mary. She inspires me as a woman. The most important thing as a career woman is not the titles we earn. It is our impact on our family, society, and country. Virgin Mary accepted to be used for the benefit of the whole world, and during the lowest period in her life, when her son was being crucified, she took in the pain. Her story reminds me that there will be ups and downs as a mother, but what matters most is how I take in that.

Ask God one burning question.

God, don’t make me leave this earth without me being impactful, don’t make me fail to earn my crown.

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