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Akorino are known as reserved and modest – explores EVELYN MAKENA

A well-fitting royal blue checked suit adorns his symmetrical frame. An accompanying orange woven tie, a brown pair of shoes with colour-blocked turquoise and pink laces, and a white turban wrapped around the head complete Dr David Wachira’s eye-catching look.

This sharp look unveils a man who has no qualms pushing the fashion boundaries, especially given his religious affiliation as demonstrated by the turban. Beyond the sense of style, are more surprises to the young suave mukorino.

From earning a PhD at the age of 27, to building an illustrious career at the World Bank, Wachira is by all means not your ordinary mukorino. He is not only breaking the mould in fashion, academia and professionally, but challenging religious stereotypes as well.

Mentor, author, former university don, philanthropist all embellish the impressive résumé of the 33-year-old who’s flying the Kenyan flag high at the Washington, DC-based global financial institution.

At the World Bank, Kenyan-born Wachira is living his dream as he indulges his twin passions of country development and youth development, in the capacity of public finance and governance specialist and co-president of the bank’s Youth to Youth programme.

Modest beginnings

He traces the journey of joining the prestigious global organisation to Kirinyaga county, where he was born before his family settled in Nyahururu. His father, Rev Dr Solomon Waigwa, a teacher then and clergy in the Akorino church, and his mother, an operator at the National Cereals and Produce Board, inculcated values of service to the community to Wachira and his two younger sisters.

“I grew up seeing my father build orphanages and my mother donating food, income and other necessities to the community. My parents taught us from a young age that we had a duty to improve the lives of those around us,” he says.

These values shaped Wachira’s future endeavours and passions. “I knew from the onset that when I grew up, I wanted to help people by creating solutions to problems, particularly poverty eradication,” he says. When he was six years old, his family moved to Nairobi after his father enrolled for a degree at St Paul’s University, Limuru.

The Waigwas would later relocate to the US when Wachira was 12 years old, after his father was sponsored to pursue a master’s degree by the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), and settled in Texas.

As Wachira advanced his studies abroad, he was aware of his family’s strong inclination to academic excellence. “My parents taught us that education is a great social equaliser. It is key to ending poverty,” says Wachira. The value has been handed down through generations. Even though his grandfather only had Class Six education, he ensured that Wachira’s father achieved college education and became a teacher.

His father, now a college professor, later advanced his education and earned his PhD at the age of 50, while his mother completed her studies in paediatrics. One of Wachira’s sisters is also a college professor, and holds a PhD in public health, while the last-born sister is currently pursuing her PhD in counseling psychology after completing her master’s degree this year.

Wachira during a trip to Athens, Greece.

PhD at 27

At 17, Wachira completed high school and joined the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor for his undergraduate studies. He later enrolled for his master’s degree at Tarleton State University in 2006, followed by his PhD in 2008.

While completing his PhD coursework, he served as a teaching fellow at the University of North Texas and taught public policy at Southern Methodist University.

Heeding advice from his father, Wachira was determined to complete his education at a young age and not face the struggles of studying later in life, which he had seen his father go through.

Besides, Wachira had other external influences that kept him focused on his academic pursuits. “I remember watching the former United States Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, deliver a speech in 2001.

She was knowledgeable and smart, which I admired,” he adds. Wachira would later learn that Rice attained her PhD at the age of 27, and purposed to emulate her. In 2013, after 11 years of being in university for higher education, Wachira attained a PhD with emphasis in public finance and public management from University of North Texas, aged 27.

Besides his family, friends and church members, who have been supportive of his academic endeavours, he had a well-wisher to thank for helping him achieve his dream. In 2010, just two years after beginning his PhD programme, his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “Both of my sisters were in college at the time.

That combined with the financial burden of my dad’s treatment took a toll on the family’s finances,” he reveals. Wachira figured that he should look for a job to augment the family income and help finance the completion of his degree.

Facing the stress of holding a full-time job and completing a doctoral programme, the university informed him that a well-wisher had offered him a scholarship for the rest of his PhD. Completing his education was not an end in itself, but a means to realise opportunities that would not only benefit him as an individual, but also make an impact on the community.

“With education behind me, I had my whole life ahead of me to build my career, with a focus on working for development-oriented organisations such as the World Bank and IMF,” he adds.

Career

He aligned himself with development work during the PhD programme. When an opportunity to enroll in a World Bank’s Young Professionals Programme arose in May 2012, he applied.

Wachira admits to struggling with self-belief and self-confidence during that period of his life. “Often, we fail to seek opportunities or try new endevours because we think we are not good enough.

As such, we fail before we even try,” he says. Despite not feeling good enough, Wachira convinced himself to apply for the position. He was shortlisted and underwent several selection stages including arduous interviews, and exactly 15 months after applying, he started a job with World Bank.

The success of being shortlisted for a job at the reputable institution, which had over 10,000 applicants and a limited number of positions, encouraged him to apply for other opportunities he would have previously discounted.

Come 2013, he had two more job offers including the position of a college professor at a leading university, a situation he terms as a good problem to have. Ultimately, he settled on the job offer at the World Bank, as it was aligned with his interest in development issues.

As a sign of gratitude for his PhD scholarship, Wachira donated his first pay cheque at the World Bank to University of North Texas, and has so far donated up to Sh4.8 million to the school. He also established the Wachira Endowment for Public Service, to provide scholarships to university students.

“I owe the ability of completing my education to a kind soul that granted me a scholarship. This is my way of paying forward the kindness by giving others an opportunity to make their dreams a reality,” he adds.

Man with a turban

Working at a top global organisation based in one of the most sophisticated cities in the world and at the peak of his academic achievements, the question is, how has he managed to maintain the turban, while it would be more convenient to blend than be different? It comes down to his values and sense of identity, he says.

Referring to the Swahili proverb “mwacha mila ni mtumwa”, the economist posits that taking off the turban would be tantamount to denouncing his identity. He demonstrates a genuine connection to his roots.

With evident enthusiasm, he gives an account of how the Akorino were pivotal in Kenya’s fight for independence, referring to a chapter in the country’s founding father late Jomo Kenyatta’s book Facing Mount Kenya, which details the religious group’s contribution.

As a teenager, when his family had just settled in the US, he thought of taking off his turban to fit in. But now, the headwear is part of his identity. At the bank, he is identified as the man with a turban.

In the streets abroad, where people have no idea about the Akorino, he is often confused for a Muslim or a Sikh. “There is a time many people would stop me to ask the directions to the mosque. Initially, I would explain to them that I am not Muslim, but I later decided to find out where the mosque is,” he adds with a chuckle.

Today, besides being occasionally greeted with “as-salaam-alaikum” in the streets, he graciously directs those who seek the mosque. Even though he staunchly holds to the values of his religion, Wachira prides himself in being open-minded and tolerant of other people’s differences. It’s a quality that has been nurtured over time through education and regular travel around the world.

“Good morning from Amsterdam,” reads his response to this interview’s pitch. A week later, during the actual interview, he reveals that he is in Washington, DC. Earlier in the month, he had been to Nairobi and Texas. Evidently, globetrotting is part of his lifestyle.

Personal life

He breaks into a hearty laugh when asked about his love life. “I am single, by choice, but I plan to get married someday,” he shares, adding that his parents are not impressed by his delay in settling down. To them, it’s high time he brought a wife home. When he finally settles down, his ideal woman does not necessarily have to be of his denomination.

“I hardly have any concerns with marrying someone of a different race or denomination,” he reveals. He expresses an affinity for a woman who is open-minded, accepting of others, and one who is not afraid of challenging the status quo. When he is not travelling or performing his duties at the World Bank, Wachira enjoys reading.

On some weekends, you will find him at the 25-acre family ranch in Texas, tending to cattle and horses. What is next for Wachira? He has a profound interest in returning home to serve his country by continuing his work in philanthropy or through public service.

The economist notes that his education, career attainments, and opportunities have only been a stepping stone, enabling him to build his experiences towards a life of public service in Kenya. He echoes the words his father spoke to him following his doctoral graduation.

“My father spoke these words in hopes that they would not only touch me, but also other sons and daughters. He said, ‘success is great, but significance is even greater. It is more lasting. You have achieved a measure of success in your life. C

ongratulations! What you need now is something bigger, something greater. You need to be significant. This happens when you discover where your deepest passions intersect with your greatest abilities.

Get there and harness them to help change those around you. That blessing you hold now is not about you. It is about others. Realising that simple fact is the beginning of your walk towards becoming significant.’”

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