This is not another Kibera story. Nobody needs another Kibera story. Not another bleeding-heart story of desperation and hopelessness in a wasteland that seems like faraway land, a mysterious place where the sun meets the land. Does anybody need another bloody-nosed story about the stripping indignity of poverty and how a hero beat all odds to make something of his life to a hooray of the rest of us reading over lattes? Most of us have heard these stories in one form or another and we have been enthralled by the grit and beauty of the sheer human spirit of our heroes and those stories have left us with a stain of guilt about Kibera that we can never wash away, narrowing the lens in which we see these stories from Kibera.
So, it’s only fair to make this story about artistry. About a boy who discovered that he was good with his hands.
“Actually,” Bevern Oguk says holding up a cautionary finger, “this story is about choices.” Bevern Oguk – in case you are wondering – is our hero. However, to understand a man you have to go back to where he came from, where he started becoming and for that reason, we have to go back to Kibera, in an area called Fort Jesus which might or might not have anything to do with Jesus. Oguk says that the fable he heard was that, a long time ago, white folk lived there with their horses. Whatever its history, Fort Jesus was a better part of Kibera; a string of fenced-off single-roomed stone houses. His father was a cop. His mom run a salon. It was just him and his younger sister. An uneventful life.
“In Kibera – I guess as it is life – everything boils down to a fork in the road,” Oguk says. “Do you go left, or do you go right?” That’s the choices he’s talking about. And for him, that choice – unbeknownst to him – was attached to sports. The nuances of sports ran deep in his neighbourhood. The boys who loved football, who gathered with other boys, would also easily gravitate towards a camaraderie built around the love of football, reggae music, towards sharing a spliff after a match, towards a sense of apathy to a different future. Then there are the boys who chose games like basketball which was seen as highbrow and attracted a different crowd of boys that wanted something different for themselves. “I didn’t even know that I was making a different choice for my future, I just knew that I didn’t like what the other boys who played football represented.” He says. These are boys who would gather at “base”; a corner in an estate where youngsters would hang out, it had a bench set against a wall with graffiti. There they would do what boys do when they gather, bolstered by their shared bravado for youth and brotherhood, whistling at girls, smoking weed, joshing around and sometimes getting into trouble.
“One day we heard gunshots at night and the next morning,” he says, “I learned that some of the boys I knew had been dragged out of their homes and shot by cops. They had been involved in a spate of robberies. The guys who were spared, guys I knew personally, had been spared with a warning. It was a sobering moment even though it was common for guys involved in crime to end up dead in Kibera.”
He didn’t know it then, but he was different, artistically, and in his disposition. If he was to identify when he knew he was artistically different it would be way back in high school, at Mukumu Boys in Kakamega where other students would seek his help to draw the diagram of the female reproductive system in the biology class. “I was fascinated that a lot of other students didn’t have that artistic coordination to draw a simple diagram like that,” he says, illustrating the diagram in the air before him. “I also discovered that most students wouldn’t be able to write to a girl they fancied a letter and so for a small fee I would help other students write letters to their girlfriends,” he chuckles. “How it would work is that you would tell me about your girlfriend or the girl you fancied. How you met, what you talked about, what she likes, I would even read the last letter she wrote and based on that I would write a letter to her on his behalf. This was purely storytelling, I now realise, which was preparing me for designing, which is also a form of storytelling.” He also did calligraphy, painted and drew.
During holidays, he avoided the Base and worked at night in a media monitoring company. During the day he played basketball or painted or drew. He became the best student in arts and design in his school in the national exams of 2008. He started painting seriously after high school and showcased his work at Pa Ya Pa Art Center. “I realised that you only sell art if you have a name and you only have a name if you have done it for many years, like maybe 20 years.” He smiles boyishly. “I looked at the trajectory and decided that I wouldn’t be able to sell my piece of painting for a million bob until I was 50 years old. But come on, I was 18 years old, 50 seemed like three lifetimes away. So, I stopped painting and got into creating artwork for branding on t-shirts and making accessories. Shamballa bracelets were a big thing that time, Jay Z and the likes were wearing them in the US so we started making ours back here but with cheap material, not diamonds.”
Anyway, when he was 19 and in university – JKUAT, Karen – his father kicked him out of the house because he didn’t make the 6pm curfew. He started crashing at friends as he looked for a job which he finally landed at a boutique in Westlands. “They asked me if I could tailor, I said of course, a lie,” He laughs. “They would give me measurements to go make or adjust clothes and I would take it to the hood where I got a great tailor called Dan Osara who would do the work. I also learned how to tailor from Dan, whom we have now named a sweatshirt after.” His title at the shop was assistant designer. “I learned a lot about how to charge 70k for a piece and not be afraid, so pricing. I also learned how to position your brand because the boutique was high end and about branding.”
Then he – and a friend – started a design label called CO-BE Nairobi where they would make accessories and athleisure wear and dress celebrities. “What made us at that time – if you could call that making it, was that we made Boguk hats.” He sips his tea. We are in a cafe at Kilimani Mall opposite Yaya Center where he’s about to open his first shop. “We made our first Boguk hat for Octopizzo who I grew up with in Kibera…him and Bankslave, you know these guys, don’t you?” He only asks because perhaps I had expressed ignorance earlier on what Shamballa bracelets were. I say I know of Octopizzo (who doesn’t) but not that Bankslave guy who turns out to be a well-known graffiti artist. CO-BE Nairobi went on for a while until it didn’t. After five years they broke up and went their separate ways. And he continued making his hats until one day during a work trip in Diani he met a lady called Anna in a bar.
“My friend introduced me to her, Anna, as a ‘great designer’ in Nairobi, a massive exaggeration,” he chuckles, “I wasn’t a great designer in Nairobi, I was just getting by and trying to figure things out each day! Great designer in Nairobi, ha!” He pauses. “Anyway, she said she was a doctor from Germany and she would love to see some of my work. Would we meet the following day? Now, I would get lots of this in this business; people being polite. I said, okay, sure that nothing would come out of it. We exchanged numbers and I didn’t even save hers but then the next day she texted and asked if we were still meeting and I thought this girl was serious! We met. I showed her one hat we were making, she loved it, took it to Germany, Hamburg, where someone said, ‘Hey, where did you get that hat?’ to which she said, oh a big designer in Nairobi made it. They said, really, can I order some? So I designed more and sent 20 hats which she would sell whenever people asked her who designed that hat.” Then Anna, perhaps seeing the commercial and creative potential in him suggested that they become partners. And then they sold lots of Boguk hats. The rest is history.
Well not quite.
They started a brand called Boguk Fashion ions that does made to measure, ready to wear and accessories. They have a small store at English Point Marina in Mombasa and are soon opening their Nairobi shop. The brand has worked with juggernauts like Coke Studio Africa, Samsung and Blankets and Wine. They have also reportedly dressed personalities like Yemi Alade, Runtown, Sauti Sol, Nameless and a few.
However, their brand really blew up this year because of an unlikely accessory; masks – the Boguk masks, as they are called. Ironically Covid19 pandemic really boosted their brand. “It’s safe to say that we have had the greatest visibility and growth online from designing and selling face masks.” He says. “The response has been overwhelming.” Boguk Fashion is part of the innovators and creatives that have been identified by Facebook for a project dubbed #RealPeopleRealStories; that will help him create content for his brand and learn skill sets on how to monetize their brands through webinars and workshops.
Upstairs from where we sit in the courtyard of the mall, we can see a flurry of activity as hired hands rush to get the store ready for opening. “There is no way I would have imagined I’d be doing this, a shop with my label,” he says. “I think it’s taken a lot of decisions if you ask me, some wrong but most of them right. The decisions I made when I was a young man are the ones that I think has enabled me to get here. Now, I’m unafraid to dream bigger dreams for myself, because all this has come from a place where not often big things like this come from.”
You know what, maybe this, is a Kibera story after all. And that’s also okay.