Let’s quickly count the things Nancy Muthoni has done with her life. She has worked as a secretary in a bank, a manager at Diners Club International. She owned a salon, imported clothes. She started a fashion house in the early 90s that supplied uniforms to airlines, banks and hotels in Coast.
She made a boatful of money, travelled the world and bought a red BMW from a showroom in the UK on a moment of burning impulse. She has also been bankrupt a few times, had auctioneers come and sweep off everything from her house leaving only her wide-eyed children. She has been divorced. Then single-handedly raised two girls she is proud of. She is a grandmother to a boy she excessively calls “Sunshine,” — as only a grandmother would. She knows how it is to start again from the very bottom of despair. She started First Avenue, a real estate firm, at a time when you could count the women wearing hard hats. She started a property TV show even when people close to her said she quite didn’t have the voice for TV.
It’s been over 20 years since she first sold her first property, a lavish house on a cliff in Bamburi, the one that turned things around for her. Now here she is, bedecked in pearls, having made her bones, telling JACKSON BIKO about the rise, fall and rise of Nancy Muthoni. And what a breathless storyteller she is.
What was the experience of being neck-deep in debts and auctioneers wiping your house clean?
What auctioneers do is they rattle you so much that you don’t think a way of escape. I don’t know what happens now, but back then you never negotiated with auctioneers. My business had collapsed after the tribal clashes at the Coast that saw hotels close down. I was owed lots of money and I owed even more. I owed everybody money. I sold my BMW to pay some debts; sold jewellery … I had lots of gold jewellery because Mombasa is a town of gold. My belief is that if you are going to buy something, buy things you can sell when tough times came. However, no amount of jewellery would pay my debts. I was rendered immobile; in thought and in action. It’s worse if you have children, and you are a single mother.
What did that period teach you about yourself and life?
My biggest lessons is that there is nothing like a too much money or little money. Don’t ever think that you have so much money. Secondly, I learned to work with professionals. I should have had an analyst who examines the market. I invested in the best machines and then the market collapsed. I should have done things gradually. Sometimes we are too impatient to grow businesses. Lastly, losing everything humbles you. Today if you tell me that you have no money for school fees, I will know what you mean. I was there many, many times. I know how it feels to eat in the dark with my children. Losing everything builds your character and empathy. Today, I empathise with single women, because it’s hard. They go through so many bumps, they’re alone, and they are unlikely to turn to people because people take advantage of them. But it was a beautiful journey. It’s what made me.
What’s your advice to single mothers then?
Live within your means. Take your children to schools you can afford. Don’t take your children to schools with someone’s money. What happens when you disagree? You have to cut your cloth according to your size. I remember one of my friends telling me to take my children to Pembroke House School, which I had not heard of. One of my daughters wanted to go there because it had horses. (Rolls eyes) I took them to schools I could afford, which weren’t bad. Live in a house and neighbourhood you can afford. At a restaurant, if your money allows you to eat only chips, eat chips; don’t look at the next table at the person eating chicken and rush to buy it.
When you are raising girls as a single mother, how do you make sure that they have a male influence in their lives? Was that ever a necessity for parenting?
That’s a fantastic question. I have two girls, one is in renewable energy and the other is a doctor. Raising girls is hard enough; when they get to teenagehood, they are moody, difficult and suddenly they disagree with you. But I’m also a mother hen. I was on them, wanting to know their friends, picking and dropping them from the club. It was scary doing it alone. But I also raised my children around the men in my life. My late father was an integral part of our lives. He would look at their report forms when they closed school. My girls were A students but when their grades dropped, he would call them and talk to them. I also have male cousins and my friends’ husbands who were like fathers to my children. One of them was like a father to my daughters, he removed their teeth, taught them to pray, about sex and walked one of them down the aisle on her wedding.
You have led this life full of turns and bends, emerging here, a comfortable place. But what do you regret the most?
Senseless friendships. There are certain friends I’ve made over the years that I should not have made. Red flags were there from the beginning but I continued pursuing these friendships. I think that’s something I should have dropped. Friends can build you, but friends can also drag you behind. If you sense a red flag, pull the plug. Family for me is big. I visit my mom every week.
Describe your dream house.
It’s in a leafy suburb. (Laughs). It’s not too big. It’s very practical and real because I’m real. It’s a sprawling traditional English home with a contemporary twist. It’s three bedrooms, en suite, family room and a prayer room, which is the centre of the home. It has a guest wing. It has no swimming pool, but instead has a lush garden with mature trees. It has clean simple lines, large windows and high ceilings. A place with harmony, love, lots of food and good things. I want a house where God dwells.
What have you consistently asked from God that he has never given you?
A husband. (Laughs) No, no, just joking. There is a Bible verse that says ‘All things work together for good.’ What God doesn’t give you is for a good reason. I have passed through tricky times in the market and during those times I prayed for the storm not to stop but to pass and leave me stronger. It always did.
Do you look back and think that it was necessary to get really broke to get here?
If I hadn’t gone through that, I would never have had the guts to be where I am today. I’m not rattled by risks anymore. I take big scary risks. When I wanted to do a TV show on property, a lot of people would ask me, why do you think you’re the one who can do it? You’re not even a journalist, you don’t understand TV. My siblings saw the very first show and said, “what are you saying? We can’t even hear you!” My grandfather told me, just practice talking before you shoot.
You are almost always in pearls. When you wear pearls, what do you want them to say about you?
When I was much younger, I used to wear a lot of gold. I was loud, I said it in gold. (Laughs) My sister introduced me to pearls, because she said gold cheapened me. That as an entrepreneur, I needed pearls. Now they are my most favourite jewellery in the world. They say I’m solid, sophisticated, authentic. Pearls are approachable, they don’t intimidate.
What can shake your foundation right now, in this stage of your life?
Recently I was very shaken when my father died. A few years earlier I had lost a brother. When you lose people who are anchors in your life, it really rattles you. (Pause)
So, now that you are happy and in your early 50s …
Who is in her early 50s? (Makes face) Nobody is in their early 50s here. (Laughs)