An old friend from childhood, Nandi is an emotional intelligence professional and a cultural strategist currently working and living in Nairobi. I sat down with Nandi for an inspired photoshoot and podcast as part of our iN CONVERSATIONS WITH… podcast series. In this interview, Nandi digs deep and bares her soul, which inspired us to creatively do a nude photo shoot to represent the full exposure of her story. She is decorated in Black and Gold body paint by Lindsay Obath to represent glory, victory, and celebration, which is where Nandi has taken her journey.

Nandi On Childhood in Nairobi

l lived in Karen, so I had an amazing childhood: leafy greens and horses, and our parents threw us out of the house in the morning and told us not to come back until it was dark and it was safe. We were just jungle kids. And it was amazing — trees and fantasies. I spent a lot of time with my horses. I was so lucky that I had that as a way to keep myself occupied — I learned a lot from working with horses, and it’s really cultivated the woman that I am today.

Nandi on Horses

What we’re working on right now is letting people know that it’s a really accessible sport for the middle class — and upper-middle class, obviously. We want people to know that it’s not just a mzungu sport. I would say now that the horse culture in this country is really suffering, it’s really struggling and the diversity — especially in the showing arena — is not necessarily as strong as it used to be. And we want to change that — we really want to bring Nairobians into this experience and make our own culture, our own equestrian culture that defines who we are as people: The HAK, The Horse Association of Kenya.

Nandi on Military + Gender

I went to finish school in England and then went to the US military for four years. I went airborne. I was jumping out of planes. There aren’t many females that manage to get that. It’s so important because I’m not trying to be a man, I’m trying to be a woman in situations where men are, so that people don’t say “This isn’t the place of a woman.” It is the place of a woman, but my role in that environment looks different than a man’s. I believe that when it comes to sex, when it comes to professional life, there’s a reason we show up in different ways. There’s a reason you have male characteristics or you have female characteristics — whatever shell that shows up in doesn’t really matter.

Nandi on Military + Addiction

I actually left the military with a crippling drug addiction, and I say crippling because it did exactly that — extremely handicapped. I was addicted to opioids. I sort of stumbled into it — casually — it seemed like a normalised thing to do. It’s nowhere close to normal, and people based their ability to handle stressful situations – and this is the world over really – on some physically numbing or altering substance. But when I got to the military and people were snorting Percocet — opiates — it seemed like a completely normal coping mechanism. When you look at the American military, who makes up the regular Army are people who come from low income areas and people who don’t have access to opportunities like you and I did. My experience shows that that doesn’t necessarily matter, right? But it does make you more prone to choose lacklustre coping mechanisms. Drugs for the moment give you the illusion of power, and in a world where I would say powerlessness can seem more apparent than being powerful, it’s a seductive solution. We are a stressed society, and somewhere along the line, taking care of your emotional body or your capability to deal with stress… we’re just lucky to be the generation that’s saying “No more, pay attention.” It’s coming out through all of our mediums, coming out through the pores of society.

Nandi On Leaving the Military + Addiction

I did leave the military, kind of by choice. I took several drugs by choice — it’s not brilliant as I might be making it sound, I was desperate. And I didn’t care about any of the repercussions. I didn’t care about any of the consequences, I just wanted to get out — otherwise I was going to die. I needed to die. If I wasn’t going to get out, I needed to die. Very simple. But after I left, I continued to use. I actually came back here. I thought that if I went back home, everything would be okay. What I didn’t realise was that I was coming back home with myself.

I was like, “I’m going to leave this person behind,” but I didn’t. I am that person. You know when people say, “Go somewhere new and have a fresh start?” That doesn’t happen. You bring the person that you were from the old place into the new place. And the place that I brought with me was angry, resentful. It was furious. Just untapped rage. I was angry at the system. I was angry at growing up as a black girl in a white community in an African country. I was angry at my parents. I was angry at my friends. I was just angry at everything. And then what was even more frustrating was that I needed to drink or I needed to use drugs because I was in so much pain. It’s cyclical.

Nandi on Getting Clean

I can’t explain it any way other than a spiritual awakening, if you will. It was just one of those moments where… because in my mind, each time I ended up in jail, or each time I woke up with a needle in my arm, or something, I was like, “Oh, I didn’t die, but I’m not done yet.” There was this thing where “I haven’t fallen as far as I’d like to fall.” And I was very conscious of the spiral that I was going down, and it was torturous, it was terrible, but for some reason I wanted it. I needed it. I needed to get to the very bottom.

The biggest low was in Las Vegas, where I almost fell into a sex trafficking situation. Because they don’t force you into sex trafficking. They [pimps] would just coerce you gently, over time. They might buy you things, or something, and then all of a sudden you owe a debt. And it was a very slow, gentle process. And I didn’t realise what was happening to me in my naivety. I was 24, and this concept of when you actually reach adulthood — it’s another conversation — but you’re definitely not an adult at 24 or 25. That’s for sure. But you’re expected to be. Society expects you to be and believes that you are, but you’re not. And one of the girls said to me, “Do you actually know where you are?” And I was like, “Well yeah, he said he was going to help me get a bus to Utah, to St. George to go and see my friend.” And she was like, “Girl no he’s not.” She was like, “He is a pimp. He’s actually just waiting for you to do your first job.” And I was, you know, “Don’t be silly, I went to private school, he wouldn’t do that. Never.” You know, “I grew up in Karen.” And then something snapped, and it just hit me. I was very conscious of the fact that when you cross that line, it’s very hard to get back across. And I’ve been sober for five years now.

Nandi on Now, Emotional Intelligence + The Future

Emotional intelligence is not just the identification and awareness of emotion. I also believe that it is the ability to generate and appropriate emotional energy in situations that are going to be of service to you or to your environment — or your society, or whatever the case may be. The difference is that you’re choosing to manage this emotion as opposed to the emotion managing you. So as an EI professional, I create realistic scenarios that allow people to get into their emotions. I do group sessions, I do individual sessions, but we don’t just do a role play or something. I put people through real life situations or things that they’re going through. Emotional intelligence can be applied to a multitude of situations. And the reason is this: we are, as human beings, we are emotional creatures. We are made up of these opposing forces that need each other in order to maintain balance in the universe. If you look into Egyptian mythology or theology, the gods had to take time — time that we can’t conceptualise as little human beings — to develop their emotional bodies. Because when they didn’t develop their emotional bodies and they were given universes, they brought them to destruction.

So who are we to think that we are any different? If we came from them. If we were created in their image. And it’s really important because as Kenyans, as Africans, we’re deeply spiritual peoples. And God is a punishing God. If you do something bad, then you’re going to make God emotional about you — you’ve pissed him off. Because for some reason you think you’re that special.

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BUT God is love, and love is an emotion. It can be an emotion, it can be a state, it’s got everything to do with everything. We have all these insecurities, and these insecurities bring up different emotions, and then we act from those insecurities, from those emotions — we perpetuate them instead of seeing that your body is just creating a completely natural response to the fear that you’ve given it. And when you look at emotions, emotions vary in quality, quantity, and duration, which means that if you don’t have the ability to control them or manage them, you are an unreliable human being because your authenticity, your integrity, your ability to operate effectively in your environment varies in quantity, quality and duration.

And so as a people, we need to become more cognisant of the fact that we’re all dealing with the same things. No one person differs from the other. We cannot punish a president because he doesn’t have an outlet or a safe place to be a human being because we don’t allow him or her to be a human being.

Nandi on Work

I’ve created a programme/pathway that is designed for the Sub Saharan market. It is designed so that it is empowering for Africans, so that we’re not just buying programmes from England or the US to tell us how to appropriate ourselves. We have our own culture, we have our own history, and we want to share that with the world. Just like we will prepare to go to a board meeting in London, we want the Londoners to prepare to come to a board meeting here and be able to take on our cultural responses, our cultural filters and not impose theirs on us.

And speaking on this, one of my favourite authors that I’m reading right now is actually a Kenyan man, and he wrote this book that you see me flipping through: African Religions and Philosophy by John S. Mbiti. I’m reading this book by John S. Mbiti because he says something that I think is so profound. He says, “African soil is not so infertile that it cannot grow ideas of its own.”

And we need to remember that. Western society is a beautiful thing, but we are no longer a colonised nation. We’re post colonial. We can start growing and fertilising our own soil.

Keep up with Nandi:
IG | @nandi.kegode

Body art by Lindsay Obath
IG | @ah_this