What you need to know:
- Wambui Kabiru Collymore honours the memory of her husband through art, which she believes has the potential to not only inspire social change, but also communicate it in ways words would struggle to.
Days after Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore learnt he had a stubborn strain of blood cancer, he started scripting his funeral – what it would look like, how long it would take, what song would be played. He scripted it all, except what outfit he would be cremated in, which his wife did. She chose to put his body in a white linen suit, with no shoes, no jewellery, nothing else – just him, in his purest form. Here, on the first anniversary of his death this Wednesday, Wambui Collymore speaks on losing a husband and her sense of smell and finding a new purpose in life.
Wambui Kamiru Collymore’s recent story has a lot to do with chemicals. From the day her husband Bob Collymore had shivers and she thought it was malaria, to the moment medics pumped harsh drugs into his system trying to kill cancerous cells, to the day his body was placed in a crematorium as per his wishes – and up to the present moment.
Now, something in her body seems to be tinkering with her sense of smell, she says. After the death of her husband on July 1 last year, her ability to smell has never been the same. In March, she tweeted that the sense disappeared for “a number of months”.
She added that she was glad that that sense was returning, though it had its hitches: “Burnt toast smells like rose petals. Still, I am grateful.”
And that is where the Sunday Nation starts off during an evening interview at her art studio off Waiyaki Way in Nairobi.
“I lost my sense of smell. It returned a few months ago and then disappeared again. It’s back again; so it goes and comes,” she says.
“In grief, any number of things can happen. You can lose your sense of memory; your eyesight can be blurred. Grief is a chemical reaction in your body and it has a chemical effect on your senses, and so, for me, it was my sense of smell – which was an indicator of the magnitude of the trauma of death,” she says.
She is speaking with us in a building that is an embodiment of her calling – art. In this residential house that she has converted into a studio, there are all manner of tools. Paintings dot the walls and adjustable lights stare down at us, almost condescendingly.
Portraits, she says, are not her mainstay but she can try one as a demonstration for us. It is a show of deftness and finesse as she uses a pencil to sketch a boy’s face on a mounted piece of paper in a matter of seconds, referring to the original image off her smartphone.
“I can’t exactly say when I found out I was an artist but I always liked to draw and to colour,” she says. “I have never been one to do portraiture. I think my work is more in installation, and that’s what I’m actually known for: Installation art.”
This reporter has no idea what installation art is. “Go google it,” says Wambui. Then quickly explains that “it involves creating art on a certain site to alter how people perceive that space”.
She runs The Art Space, an online platform that engages corporates to build art collections. On her website, wambuikamiru.com, the artist who studied history for her master’s degree at Oxford University in the UK has listed more than 24 exhibitions she has participated in since 2011 at various sites in Kenya.
But that is not the reason we are here. We have visited her to talk about Bob Collymore, the man she lived with between two “firsts” – from their wedding in April 2016 to his death in July 2019. Short as that time might have been, she says she would do it again even if time were to be wound back and she met Collymore knowing beforehand that it would last only a while.
We are curious to know why he had to depart so quickly. He died on a Monday and on the next day, he was cremated at an event where only a few guests were let in. Surely, the CEO of East Africa’s most profitable company deserved a public viewing, long dignitary lists and all the razzmatazz at his burial.
Turns out “he had chosen a strictly simple exit. And he did not just say it; he committed to it in writing. Think of it as an instruction manual written to be ticked off when you die.
“Some of the details were in that document, which he signed over through a lawyer,” says Wambui.
“He used to say, ‘I don’t want to hang about. It’s like I’m done; don’t keep me around,” she says, clapping dramatically at “I’m done” to mimic one of Collymore’s signature gestures.
She adds that there are other details Collymore left to her and to his friends – the famed boys’ club comprising KCB Group CEO Joshua Oigara, journalist Jeff Koinange, politician Peter Kenneth, stock market trader Aly-Khan Sachu, Scangroup CEO Bharat Thakrar, Standard Chartered Bank’s Lamin Manjang and the then British High Commissioner Nic Hailey.
The friends stood behind Wambui in ensuring the burial happened as the late Safaricom CEO had planned it.
“I’m grateful for the people who supported me when the pressure was on to have a longer ceremony and have viewings,” says Wambui.
As he felt his death drawing ever closer and as he bade those close to him farewell, including President Uhuru Kenyatta, Collymore assigned various roles to the members of his inner circle.
Mr Bharat, for instance, was supposed to work out the cremation logistics while Mr Koinange and others were to ensure the memorial went smoothly. The memorial happened that Thursday, two days after he was cremated.
“He (Collymore) scripted all of it,” Wambui says. “All of it, except what outfit he would be cremated in, and that was my choice. And I chose to put his body in a Mudi suit, which is a white linen suit with flowers on the front of it. And he was barefoot, with no jewellery; none of those other possessions. Just him, in his purest form.”
Has the boys’ club been reaching out? We ask.
“They have been very supportive. They have checked on me constantly,” she replies. “I feel like I’m part of a family with the boys’ club.”
She has also been wowed by Kenyans, some who were total strangers to her before Bob’s death, but who have reached out to assist.
“I have had support from unlikely places,” she says, recalling a day she was at a restaurant in Nairobi, weeks after Mr Collymore’s death, and broke down.
“When I got home, there was a lovely message in my inbox from a total stranger who said, ‘I saw you cry and I wanted to approach you but I thought that I shouldn’t. But then I just want to let you now that I’m thinking about you and I’m praying for you,’” she recalls. “I get lots of messages like those, even now.”
One year later, Wambui has learnt that the best way to cope is by being easy on yourself. Even with her fledging sense of smell, she decided to readjust.
“I started to enjoy my other senses,” she says. “I wasn’t getting frustrated; I wasn’t getting angry with myself for not healing. And I think that’s another part of grieving. There is acceptance as a phase of grief, and it’s also coming to terms with the fact that the grief is not going to go anywhere; it’s always going to be a part of me. What I have done now is build a new muscle that helps me live with the grief, as opposed to saying, ‘I’m over it.’ You can’t get over grief,” she says.
Looking back, Wambui thinks she has mourned for two years, and not one. This is because Mr Collymore, on being told he had acute myeloid leukemia, a rare type of cancer that affects the blood production mechanisms, discussed all the scenarios with Wambui, which involved practical talks about death.
So, what has she learnt of this “monster” called cancer? First, she is not exactly pleased with our reference to cancer as a monster, noting that her husband defeated it twice.
“Cancer is not a monster, and people do heal from it. Bob beat cancer. He beat it twice, but the third time round, he was unable to beat it,” she says. “When people say that cancer is a monster, it concerns me because there are actually worse diseases and that kill faster.”
While at it, she is quick to urge people to always stay fit, because Mr Collymore’s healthy body saw him withstand some very harsh treatment targeting cancer. He said in a 2018 interview that he had never been admitted to hospital until around 2017 when he was being examined whether there was cancer in his blood.
He died at 61.
“Bob used to exercise every day and we agreed that you exercise not because of the body you want today, but for the body that you want to live in,” she says.
Wambui has spent the past one year thinking about the good times with Bob, a man who loved art and music, hated corruption and tried all he could to keep a healthy work-life balance.
“In Bob I found somebody who was like me, in that we like to call it as it is. And because he called it as it is, it wasn’t easy to derail him. And I liked his honesty. And because he was honest, it meant that the people around him had no room to be dishonest around him. And that’s why he could call out corruption,” she says.
She recalls a time when they agreed that no one in their household would ever have to give a bribe to anyone.
“We had a no-bribe policy,” she says. “If you were ever in trouble, you were to find your way out of it, but not by bribing.”
Bob shocked many when, in December 2015, he made a declaration of his wealth, saying he earned an average of Sh9 million a month and that his net assets were worth $2.7 million — in the form of bank deposits and a house in London.
Wambui says that was Collymore’s way of aligning to the ideals of the United Nations Global Compact, a New-York-based organisation he took part in steering that encourages businesses to work clean.
“He used to say that corruption begins with businesses, because businesses are the ones with money; and that corruption can end with businesses,” Wambui says.
Then there were his principles on getting an eight-hour sleep and not allowing a phone to take over one’s life that left a mark on Wambui. The couple had decided that no one would use their phone during dinner. He also avoided communicating over the phone after 10pm and Wambui says he often kept his phone in another room.
Even in the morning after waking up, he did not reach to his phone to get updates as many people are wont to.
“First he would get up, do his morning rituals – whether it was having breakfast, shaving, whatever it was – and then he’d come to the phone after he was ready,” says Wambui, noting that this is a trait she finds hard to emulate.
In January 2019, he issued a statement on how Kenyans should treat phones with caution: “It’s ironic that the mobile phone, the device that keeps us connected to the world around us, is also disconnecting us from the people closest to us.”
Asked what she misses most about her husband, Wambui says it is his sense of humour and his love for the arts.
Knowing she was a fan of artist Ai Weiwei, Collymore once attended an Ai Weiwei show while on a business trip in the UK and shared the experience with Wambui through photos and videos.
“He sent them to me. And he bought me a book about Ai Weiwei’s work. I think that was the most extravagant or largest expression of his love, which was attending the show for me,” she recalls.
Darkness is fast engulfing the Westlands skyline as we conclude the interview.
Are there specific people she would like to thank for her journey since she was widowed?
She takes a long pause, then says she would prefer not to name names so that some people won’t feel left out.
Later, she sends this reporter a YouTube link to the classical song Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber – as she had promised to.
It is eight minutes of melody, with violins being the predominant sound from start to end.
It is a tune Collymore liked so much he wanted it played at his memorial. And it was played in its full length during the memorial at All Saints’ Cathedral.
“The first time I ever listened to that piece with him was when we had first met. It is such a powerful piece that brings tears to your eyes,” says Wambui.
The same song was played at the funerals of Albert Einstein and Princess Grace of Monaco.
It was also played on radio during the death announcements of American presidents Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Where did Collymore’s ashes go after cremation?
Bob’s ashes were deposited into the sea in Diani. Diani was his favourite beach in the whole world, so we thought it best to put his ashes in the sea there; so that no matter where any of us, his family or friends, are in the world, as long as you are near or out at sea, then you are in the presence of where his remains are.
At the memorial, President Uhuru Kenyatta said Collymore had asked him to take care of you and your family when he departs. Has the President honoured the request?
I would say that Uhuru has been very supportive. And he has been supportive not as a President but as a friend of Bob’s. I am appreciative of the fact that he has been there with my family and I’m grateful for the fact that he was a good friend of Bob’s.
Collymore died at home. Were you scared?
Yes, I was scared when we knew that Bob was going to die and he was going to die in a short while. But then, part of being a person who is responsible, or who is in the space of somebody who is about to pass away, means you have to get rid of your own fear or feelings and focus on the person who is dying, because that’s really their time. If you can set aside what you are afraid of, then you can help the person die in a peaceful way and in a way that they feel loved.