Interview: Ruth Ndesandjo on Investing in Children

Article by Damaris Agweyu
Posted: September 25, 2018  

Founder of Madari Kindergarten, Ruth Ndesandjo, has lived life as it should be- with passion, purpose and meaning. The American born educationist, business woman, mother of 3 and grandmother of 3 is an exceptional pianist, passionate tennis player and avid reader.

She shares some of the wisdom she has accumulated over the years with Damaris Agweyu.

Normally I start off these interviews by asking people how they started their professional journeys. I won’t do that with you- because you have such a big story.
I do have a big story.

​And so much wisdom to share

38 years of educating children is not a small thing, you’ve created quite a legacy.
I didn’t even realise I’d made such an impression, I’m getting a lot of feedback now. I have people coming up to me and saying, ‘oh my child was with you, thank you so much’, that sort of thing. It’s very humbling.

​Did you ever get tired of it? 38 years is a long time to spend in one job.
I loved Madari, I loved what I did so it never felt like it was a job. I never thought of retiring until recently and even then, a lot of things conspired to make it happen. I fell ill for a while went to get treatment in China where my first-born son lives. While I was there, I had a very good teacher come in and take over the running of the school and during this period, I was convinced by my other son, who lives in America, to retire and sell the school. It was time.

So let’s start from the beginning. How did you end up in Kenya in the first place?
I was born in America and I love America but I have spent the bulk of my years in Kenya which I equally love, I’m a dual citizen. When I was 27 and living in America, I went to a party and met a man named Barack Obama Sr., he was called Barack Obama then. We fell in love. He had a lot of intelligence and charisma. He swept me off my feet. Within 3 weeks of dating, he asked me to come to Kenya. He said if I liked it then we would get married. I came. And I liked it. So we got married in December 1964. In February 1965, I got pregnant with my first child. But the marriage wasn’t good so I went back to America. Barack came after me and said he would be better. So I came back. He didn’t become better. I divorced him after 6 years. Then I met my second husband, Simeon Ndesandjo, he was a very good man and loved me very much. I’m the marrying type so we got married and then I had 2 more children. I have 3 children in total.

You had just the one child with Barack Obama?
I had 2. The second one died in motorcycle accident – that is the one regret I have in life – losing that child. It was very hard. But I am forever grateful for the three that I have.

Where are they now?
My first born, Mark, lives in China, Richard lives here in Kenya with me, and my last born Joseph lives in America. I also live with one of my grandchildren, Tracy, she’s lovely. She’s 12.

Are you close to your children?
Yes, I love all my children very much and like most parents, would do anything for them.

How did you get into education?
When I came to Kenya, I started working as secretary because I had qualified as one but I had taught in America for 1 year in a grade school and had a teaching certificate. I used to spend a lot of time playing tennis and my husband Simeon asked me what I wanted to do you with my life. I knew it was to teach children. We started looking for options. I didn’t want to work for anybody and luckily we had the means to be able to start a school of our own. We had a friend who had a nice property in a lovely, secure area on Riverside and was ready to sell it to us. We bought it and Simeon built the school. It was purpose built as a kindergarten. We didn’t’ know if it would take off but I didn’t care, I was just happy that I could do what I liked which was teaching children.

Well take off it did, and it worked for 38 years.
Yes. We started in 1980 with 7 children and one of them was Joseph, my third born. My first teacher was unsatisfactory so she didn’t stay long. My second teacher who also happened to be a very good friend of mine and still is; her name is Shariffa Keshavjee, had run a school in Canada so she understood the business. She was a godsend because I’d never run a school. I didn’t know anything about that because my decision to start the school hadn’t been calculated, it had been emotional.

​“Your decision was not calculated but emotional”, can we dig a little deeper into that statement?
I didn’t get into education to make money or create a business, I did it because it was what I was passionate about. And over the years, the way I ran the school wasn’t the way other schools were run. I did what I instinctively felt was right. I was lucky that I could do this. Madari Kindergarten was, for that matter, different from many other schools.

What exactly was it that made Madari different?
Too many of these schools are too academic…

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