EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

Sicily Kariuki's unlikely journey to the top

In her life, Sicily has learned that when you want to do something, just do it

In Summary

• Born into a modest family in Embu, Sicily describes her life journey as gruelling but purposeful and determined

• If she wasn't doing what she does, Sicily would have been a counsellor

Health CS Sicily Kariuki during the interview.
Health CS Sicily Kariuki during the interview.

After her last exam paper on a Friday afternoon, just before the sun sank into the horizon, Sicily Kanini anxiously packed her bags and left Maryhill Girls School for good.

It was her moment of truth.

"It hit me that it was time to face the world on my own and I matured in a snap! I wasn't prepared for that since I was very young," she says. 

 
 
 

Fast-forward to 2019 and Imelda Barasa, the current school principal, was shuffling through the list of past students, looking for someone to invite to a prize-giving day. She stumbled upon the name of Sicily Kanini, the girl who proceeded to study Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Nairobi.

Sicily Kariuki finally returned to Maryhill as chief guest on the prize-giving day on April 5 this year. "I saw the school library and was nostalgic of the hard work we put in there to make it in life. Gold has to be purified by fire," she says.

Dressed in a black dress and a purple blazer, Sicily sits comfortably on the couch in her office at Afya House, as she narrates her life story.

She is married to Zabby Kariuki, a man she refers to as a 'very private, understanding' husband. The two are parents to four young adults and two grandsons. "I am now a young grandmother," she said.

Her normal day begins at 5am with a one-hour workout which gives her the energy to face the world. Balancing her schedule as Cabinet Secretary for Health and family time has not been easy, but she has adapted a rhythm and has made Sundays a 'no-go zone'.

Sundays are special days for me. It's the only day I spend quality time with my family

As a family, they agreed to be going for evening Sunday Service at All Saints Cathedral so as to spend the whole day together. "I get depressed sometimes as guests want to visit me on Sundays."

 
 

It's on Sunday that Sicily cooks pancakes and Masala tea for her husband. Her favourite meal is Mukimo, which she also makes sometimes. She usually doesn't have a house help on Sundays, so she does most of the house chores.

"It's the day I am just there not thinking about work and also spending quality time with my ageing mother (Eunice Wandiri), who is currently living with us," she says.

Friday evenings are shopping days for her, which she loves doing with her daughters. "They are always there reminding me to stop buying pink stuff. I love pink in all shades, it's my favourite colour and sometimes I find myself buying the same thing twice just for the colour," she says.

A FAMILY OF SEVEN

Born into a modest family in Embu, Sicily describes her life journey as gruelling but purposeful and determined.

As the second-lastborn in a family of seven, Sicily was close to her parents but at the same time lost because there was the lastborn who got all the attention.

Her school life began at Kangaru Primary School in Embu before moving to Thika Primary, while in class three. "My late father Mugo worked in Thika and our last born brother and I stayed with him for the longest period," she said.

She then later move to Maryhill Girls High School in Thika, which was a premier high school then and is now a national school. "You have to appreciate that I did well to go to Maryhills," she says proudly. 

She also studied at Kangaru Girls School for A-Levels before moving to the UoN for a Bachelor of Commerce degree.

Her work life started in 1990, serving at Keninvest, then called the Investment Promotion Centre, where she worked for five years as an officer.

Sicily, a self-described risk-taker, would then resign from the permanent government job to take up new responsibilities as a project manager for a horticulture project at USAid for two years.

"My boss was very worried when I said I was leaving. He discouraged me, saying I should take unpaid leave for the two years. In return I told him I wouldn't work hard enough at the new post, knowing I have somewhere to go back to," she said.

She would work herself hard and would be elevated to become the CEO of Fresh Produce Export Association of Kenya (FPEAK) and last there for eight years before moving to become the CEO at the Tea Board of Kenya for another eight years. "In my life, I have learned that when you want to do something, just do it."

During her tenure, Kenya's tea earnings rose from Sh44 billion annually to Sh120 billion, and she got the Moran of Burning Spear award from President Mwai Kibaki for that.

When President Uhuru Kenyatta unveiled the second batch of his Cabinet in January last year, Sicily Kariuki opened a new chapter of her life as Health CS. 

If she wasn't doing what she does, Sicily would have been a counsellor. "Many people think I can listen to them and help them fix one or two work-related or personal issues," she says.

To unwind, Sicily finds a precious moment in a long swim.