Strong networks benefit both the community and the individual

Incoming District Governor Joe Otin’s speech at the Rotary Club of Karen Installation Ceremony honouring outgoing District Governor Jeff Bamford

29th June 2019

Rotary is a differentiated networking organization and most of the people you meet in the club you never would have met if you weren’t a member. One person I’m sure I never would have met hadn’t I joined the Nairobi-East Rotary Club is District Governor Jeff Bamford. I can say this with confidence because when I was inducted into its ranks 20 years ago, Jeff was often spotted at exclusive country clubs, while I was a frequent customer of heaving night clubs. Yes, they are both clubs but the virtues they promote are on opposing sides of the scale.

While Jeff was employed in the civilized world of finance where everyone is prim and proper, I was on the other hand engaged in the murky world of advertising which is characterized by torn jeans, body piercing and angry tattoos. And while Jeff spoke the Queen’s English, sprinkling the occasional Kiswahili word, I preferred the lazy Kenyan street slang in which we replace the greeting ‘how do you do’ with ‘otherwise’ and we call a one hundred shilling bank note ‘a red’; it would cost you two reds to get into the Carnivore Disco and one red to buy a bottle of Tusker Export beer.

Our fates were on parallel trajectories and we were never destined to meet or interact in any way, until one day when I was invited for lunch and drinks at a local Rotary club. In those days Nairobi-East was the sole Rotary group meeting in Nairobi Club, and they had a fully stocked bar set up in the private dinning room every Tuesday lunch time. Perhaps that is why I joined, because at that stage of my life drinks stacked like it was the Casino Royale would definitely attract my attention.

You’d start with aperitifs at 12 noon, followed by a drink of choice, beer, vodka or scotch whisky, red or white wine with lunch depending on what meats were served, and you washed it down with a liquor to aid digestion of the sumptuous meal. In those days the proposer was expected to settle the candidates bill for their food and refreshments until the day of their formal induction. So, whenever my proposer David Wilson would ask me if I’d made the decision to join the club, I’d casually say that I was still thinking about it and perhaps needed another six months or so to make the call.

Candidates for membership were not encouraged to speak before they became full Rotarians, so after six months of waiting it is rather obvious that I would have a great deal to say including the witty retorts I had held back, questions for the speakers that only remained in my private thoughts, and funny jokes I could have told. And when I spoke, I discovered that I had a bad case of verbal diarrhea. I just couldn’t hold it in, and I did indeed end up in trouble.

At one point during the meeting and after my induction, Jeff signaled the Club President indicating that he’d like to make an announcement about a major project that we were involved in at the time. A great big yellow file with it springs extended beyond their usefulness, and its contents frequently floating away, sat awkwardly on the table in front of him amongst his meal and drinks. As he made his announcement, he occasionally passed his hand over the file to emphasize that it contained documents pertinent to the success of the project.

At the end of his update I saw this as the opportunity I’d been eagerly waiting for, to speak for the first time during the meeting, my debut question as it were. I asked a probing question about the project to gain more insight and Jeff’s response was brief and succinct. He suggested that if my curiosity required that amount of detail, then we should sit for a coffee later in the week where he would answer all my questions.

It was a set up and I didn’t see it coming, because when we finished our coffee meeting, I was in full custody of the big yellow spring file, with its papers constantly floating away, and only a sketchy idea of what my mandate was. You know how it is in Rotary; we have no idea whether you will sink of swim but go ahead to push you into the deep end and wish you the very best of luck.

The good news is I did emerge on the other side. The bad news is I was battered and bruised. It took ten times more of my time than Jeff had told me it would, and he had failed to inform me about the fire breathing dragon that was frequently on the other end of the telephone line from California, who would call any time I failed to respond to a simple email. Why couldn’t she understand that in Kenya we frequently gave up trying to send an email because it took longer to fire up the clumsy and noisy modems than it took to write a letter by hand and send it through the post.

That traumatic experience taught me many things such as tolerance, resourcefulness, and that when you see Jeff with a spring file under his arm, sit on the other side of the room and stay mum. But in my quest to know what Rotary is I have come to learn that the best knowledge is gained not by reading about it, browsing the website, following it on Twitter or joining a WhatsApp group, but that the best way to fully understand the organization is to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.

It is when you have a goal to uplift a needy community and sit together with others interested in doing the same thing, to plan and successfully complete a project, that is when you learn about one another, build friendships that will last to the end of time and develop a very solid network. There was a study that was conducted over 75 years in the US which followed similar children throughout their lives in order to understand the ingredients required to live a long and fulfilling life.

The findings showed that those people who live the longest and find happiness are the ones that have robust networks within their community. Having those connections with one another is critical to a long and successful life and it is indeed what Rotary is all about. Past International President Ron Burton is fond of saying that if he spun a globe and placed his finger randomly where there’s land, he is certain that he would know someone there, because of Rotary.

In Rotary, what do bankers and advertising men have between them – apart from space? Perhaps it’s a big yellow file that is bursting at its seams, a fire breathing dragon from California, and a successful community project in Mukuru Kwa Reuben slums. With our diverse skills we can bring insight and capability into our community programmes and offer better solutions and bring water to the thirsty, medical care to the sick, economic empowerment to the underprivileged and save our environment.

If we can bring into our clubs more people that we know, who have a varied set of skills and a desire to make a positive change, we will better share the responsibility, get more efficient and effective, and of course have the people that we love and respect live longer and more fulfilling lives. So, I ask each one of you within the next twelve months to bring at least one new member who will add value to your club and if we all heed this call we will easily double our numbers for the benefit of our communities.

When it comes to membership growth, and as fate would have it, Jeff went on to become the founding president of the Rotary Club of Karen which meets at the Karen Country Club; how could it be any other way. And I too went on to start a club with Jim Wilson and George Mathenge called the Lavington Rotary Club and meets at Kengele’s in Lavington Green, a popular bar.

Jeff, may God bless the vision on your mind, the love in your heart and the work of your hands, and may he bestow you, your family and your friends with good fortune, sound health and abundant love.


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