He remembers his mother’s lover. Not the unique features of his face but his presence, or rather, his moment of impending absence. At 6-years, he didn’t know what a lover was. All he knew was this man whom he and his sister called Uncle. This man, who had lived next door to them in the tea plantations where they grew up, was frequently over. Uncle was frequently over because his father never was. His father was never over because he died before he was born, in the second trimester. To mean, he was born in mourning. But worse than being born in mourning, he would soon discover, was to be born in poverty.
When they buried his mom and the crowd was dispersing, he remembers clinging onto his mother’s lover, because he didn’t want to remain alone in the village, he wanted to go back with him to the tea plantations in Kericho. But Uncle couldn’t go back with him. He was not his son, not his kith or kin. Uncle was just a tea picker who had fallen in love with another tea picker, who was now dead and buried. That’s all he remembers of his mother’s funeral; him crying as his mother’s lover left him behind to live with his grandmother in a rural village called Wamba.
I knew you’d ask – Wamba Village is in Bondo and Bondo in Siaya County. Siaya County is not Kisumu. Kisumu is a city with roundabouts and all. Wamba village has no roundabouts. It’s a small village that overlooks Lake Victoria.
In his grandmother’s modest boma were three houses; the one room main house where granny slept with her younger sister Mercy, the small kitchen which was a hen’s pen at night and lastly the one room house where he and six male cousins slept; cousins he had just met who belonged either to dead aunts or uncles he had never met or aunts and uncles who had dumped their children there. These houses had mud walls, iron-sheet roofs and floors made from cow dung.
They had very little. They walked barefoot. They fished for their food in the lake. Chicken was a delicacy, a preserve for important visitors. He learnt how to row a boat by the time he was seven years and they would row into the lake to fetch drinking water daily. They bathed by the shore and dried by the shore. They did dishes by the shore, washed clothes by the shore. (Not that there was much to wash.)
“I owned one pair of khaki shorts and three shirts, one of which included my school shirt.” They called these shorts, Ojebo. It was a special pair of shorts sewn through the dexterity of his grandmother, with the sole objective of outliving the owner and quite possibly the planet earth and all its inhabitants. It was made from this very tough khaki that could withstand rain, sun, lightning, earthquakes, a nuclear attack and a knife stab. Because these were the only shorts he owned, every three days he would wash it by the lake by laying it on a stone and scrubbing it with a swatch of nylon and a slice of bar soap, then leave it to dry by the shore as he and his friends went into the lake – naked – to fish or fetch drinking water. They’d be gone for a few hours and when they’d return, he would find his shorts there, on the stone, because you never stole someone’s Ojebo. That was the lowest of lows. You could steal someone’s goat but you never stole his Ojebo because then you stripped him of any decency, you left him naked, literally but also figuratively. Because the Ojebo was heavy duty, it would take ages to dry, so he would hang around the shore, waiting for it to dry. The Ojebo never waited for you, you waited for the Ojebo. And it took its sweet time. Time, as a commodity, was in abundance in the village. Nobody rushed anywhere. There was no massive dream to chase, no deadlines to meet, no proverbial time ticking on your dreams.
For the whole of his primary school life he wore that one Ojebo, changing the three shirts occasionally. Barefoot, he walked daily to his primary school – Wambasa Primary School. It had less than 150 students and sisal plants as a fence. Goats roamed about inside the compound. Although the motto was somewhat cliché – Forward Ever, Backward Never – they had some very dedicated teachers; teachers who, unfortunately, had shown up for that dogfight with a cock.
You might not have heard of Wambasa Primary but it’s the school Prophet Owuor attended, a fact which could mean a lot or could mean nothing. Fees was one thousand Kenya shillings a term – that is, two doubles of Oban whisky. Many defaulted and were often sent home. His grandmother was struggling with all these grandchildren and so the responsibility of going to school lay squarely on you. But since school is based on the dream of a brighter future and in his village dreams rarely rose beyond the earth, most dropped out of school. He stayed on because he was smart and books “agreed with him.” So to pay the fees, he would go into the forest to fetch logs then sell them in the nearby Usenge beach for the fishermen to fry the fish with. A batch of twelve pieces tied together called “Wich” went for 10 bob. To fetch this firewood sometimes he had to venture into the forest belonging to the government of Kenya and the wardens would grab him and beat him up. Raising the one thousand shillings was always an uphill task.
KCPE results came out when he was bobbing on a boat, shooting the breeze with his friends. He was told he was the top student in his school- 332/500 marks. He broke the news to his grandmother that evening as she sat outside the kitchen, by the three-stone stove. She was blowing the fire. She sat up and looked at him, her eyes watery from the smoke and asked, “Is that a good thing?”
“It is,” he said.
“Does it mean they will call you to secondary?”
“Yes. But we need twenty thousand shillings for fees.” [Per year]
“Eii yawa, nyakwara,” she sighed. She said it was impossible. There was no way they could raise that kind of money. Her whole life she had never held twenty thousand shillings in her hands at a go. Plus there were his cousins and sister to feed. [His sister was later to get married across the lake to a man who owned a motorbike ]
At this point being a top student lit a small “what if” in him. A little spark of hope. Something so weak you could blow it off with a sneeze. But it was there; the what if. What if there was actually a chance he could go beyond life in this village? What if a miracle could happen and he could be like those people in Bondo town who rode motorcycles and wore ties? But when nobody else has ever gone to secondary school in your family lineage, when dreaming means going to the moon in a Maruti, you don’t dare stand in that sinking sand of hope. In his village nobody dared to dream big. “You can only dream if you have a way out. We had no way out, so dreaming meant disappointments.”
So he carried this little hope in his pocket, a little secret, a rare coin with no value but one that represented something bigger.
He continued with his hustle of playing hide and seek with wardens in the forest, selling firewood, fishing and waiting for his damn Ojebo to dry. One day his primary school teacher sent for him and told him that they had a small miracle; KCDF, (Kenya Community Development Foundation) in conjunction with Chandaria Foundation was offering twenty thousand shillings to sponsor the top student. So he joined Got Abiero Secondary School, quite a distance from his village. Fees was eighteen thousand shillings a year. The extra two thousand shillings he used to buy his uniform.
For the first time he owned a pair of shoes and socks. “It was so difficult adjusting to wearing shoes after walking barefoot all my life. It felt strange, awkward. Sometimes I’d remove the shoes and walk carrying them.” He lived in a small house with a friend who was a shamba boy and caretaker for a man who lived and worked in Nairobi. When you are disadvantaged, you make friends who can help you, so he made friends with the headmaster, Humphrey Opondo, but also with his wife Jane Opondo who worked in the school. She would give me handouts; a hundred shillings here, or two hundred there, dried maize, millet. “They were very kind people, they helped me a great deal.”
His expectations of life then was to take a day at a time. To see what this education might bring. “I was afraid to expect too much from life because I didn’t want to be disappointed. I was just happy that God had gotten me to where I was. That someone was kind enough to pay my fees, people who didn’t know me.”
KCDF paid for his entire secondary education and he emerged the best student at Got Abiero High School scoring a B plain. How he wished his grandmother – now dead two years – would have been there to see it. For the first time he thought he had a shot at life. That perhaps things could be different. That maybe he could be something more than someone who sold firewood. He started thinking about possibilities. How things had changed overnight!
When applying for university, he had used his primary school post box; 54 Usenge. When his calling letter from Egerton University came, it was mailed there. He heard the news about his university admission when he was in the forest, three days later. A boy he ran into in the woods told him that he had heard his name announced in their primary school assembly. “He told me that everybody cheered.” I was the first person in my whole village to ever be called to university. I was scared. Scared because I knew I was going to be hurt by my success, hurt because I was too poor to afford university.” University wasn’t for them. It was a heavy word on the tongue.
By this time he had moved out of his grandmother’s boma into a small rental house by the lake, going for three hundred shillings a month. He was struggling to pay rent. “How was I going to afford sixty thousand shillings in university fees?!”
These immense possibilities paralysed him. The astronomical figures made him curl into a ball at night. Plus where the hell was Egerton University anyway? He had never left his village. The furthest he had been was Bondo town, not even Kisumu. He had heard of Nakuru and Nairobi, but they were just names like Songdo-dong in South Korea or Kortrijk in Belgium. No way you imagine you will ever visit these cities. Someone told him to seek help from the government. So he started knocking on doors, hat in hand; local MCA, local MP, the church.
“I was an undesirable sight. If I showed up in your office, you’d have to open all the windows. My clothes were old and tattered. I looked really miserable. I was always so scared to knock on the doors to look for money and was ready to be chased away. Had that happened, I wouldn’t have been shocked. What actually shocked me was when someone even gave me an audience given the way I looked.” Those visits came up short all the time.
He then decided that he was going to come and try to get admission even just to say that one day he stepped into a university compound. Just for the record. He had no suitcase to pack because you don’t carry mangoes in a suitcase. You only own a suitcase if you own clothes. He had a few old clothes, so he printed out all his documents, put them into a polythene bag and set off to the bus stage with the one thousand shillings his teacher – Eric Ogwambo – had given him. Bus fare to Nakuru was seven hundred shillings, but he met a guy he had been in school with, who got him in the bus for five hundred shillings on condition that he would have to give up his seat when necessary.
So, for the first time he got onto a bus and for the first time left Nyanza and saw Kisumu through the windows of the bus, a loud bustling metropolis with honking cars and brazen bodaboda chaps. He stared out the window the whole ride, looking at a country he didn’t know whizz by and got to Nakuru at 2pm. He found his way to Egerton University. He had never seen anything like it before. How beautiful and green everything was, green hills rolled into greener ones. Self-assured university students roamed about in white sneakers looking studious and important. Everybody looked so clean. And the girls. My God. The girls! How does one even speak to a girl like that? What do they eat? If they touched you, would you still have a heartbeat?
“I was very intimidated. I felt like a lost animal that had wandered into that compound because everybody looked so clean. I mean, even at their dirtiest I didn’t think they would look like me. I was afraid to ask someone for directions, so I asked someone who was trimming the hedges because he looked like the least likely person to judge me.”
He registered but skipped the payment section and when he was done in the evening, he faced a conundrum; money to get back. He had also forgotten that he was hungry. He only had four hundred shillings left. He roamed around the grounds in his sandals, searching for faces, hoping to see one with kindness. He saw one eventually, and narrated his predicament to him. The chap took him to his mate in the hostel called Mike who loaned him three hundred shillings and off he was on the night bus.
Back in the village, every lead went cold. The MCA, the MP, everything. Classes started. Weeks fell off the calendar. He thought, “What was I thinking?! There was no way I – a village boy – would ever join the university.” What nerve did he have to want more for himself? He admonished himself. He deserved the heartbreak, he told himself. So he went back to what he knew; fishing and selling firewood. More weeks passed.
Back in Nairobi I took the elevator to the fourth floor of Morningside Office Park on Ngong road and waited for a briefing meeting at KCDF’s small meeting room. For the past year I had been commissioned to interview and write stories for KCDF’s beneficiaries. So this was just another routine briefing.
Natasha, a petite lady with quick steps and an unexpected smile slid into the meeting room. She’s the communications officer at KCDF. She asked me if I would like something to drink and I said, “Sure, black tea, no sugar.” Natasha came back moments later with white coffee and sugar. I said, “Oh my, Natasha, I never imagined anyone could botch up an order of black tea with no sugar.” She laughed and said, “I swear, I thought you said coffee!” The communications manager, Melvin, walked in as we went back and forth about what I said or what she heard. I have always written his name as Melvine with an ‘e’. One day he told me, “Biko, my wife always asks me ‘But why does that Biko fella write your name with an ‘e’?’ I keep forgetting to ask you. Do you mind not including the ‘e’ to my name?” Of course I don’t mind dropping the ‘e’ – anything for peace in Melvin’s household. What’s an ‘e’ between friends?
So no more ‘e’ in Melvin. Bad, bad ‘e’.
They briefed me on this assignment to Nyanza to interview more beneficiaries. This time round, we would go with a camera crew to record the interview.
Back in the village this boy was told to avail himself for the interviews at some local community trust offices by 10am. This posed a predicament; he didn’t have nice clothes worthy of sitting in front of a camera of “people from Nairobi.” His high school shoes had fallen apart but he had these old, tattered bathroom slippers, which he quickly mended with a wire. He then got some mismatched buttons and patched together his only tattered shirt. He would wear his faded brown trousers whose hems were undone at the bottom. The zipper was spoilt so he sewed it shut the next morning after wearing it.
The next day he was a bag of nerves.
He got there over an hour early because he didn’t want to walk in and draw attention to himself. The other beneficiaries streamed in just before 10am, mostly confident girls who were now in universities. He sat alone under a tree with all his dog-eared papers from primary school. We drove in and set up after some small talk with guys from the trust. I started the interviews.
He was third and after he was mic-ed and when the camera guy said, “Recording,” I asked him to introduce himself. He said in a whisper, “My name is Kennedy Olwana.”
He couldn’t even look into the lens or at me. As he spoke, I looked at the state of his clothes, how they seemed to fall off his body. A scarecrow could have outdressed him. I saw how he instinctively tucked his feet and those tattered bathroom sandals under his chair from embarrassment. His feet looked like tree stumps. He acted like he wasn’t worthy of being before us. The sound guy kept saying, “Please speak a little louder.” But he couldn’t because he wasn’t used to anybody listening to him. He wasn’t used to many people seeking his opinion. He looked scared. His self esteem was so low it could preserve blood platelets. He felt unworthy, looked unworthy and looked like he couldn’t wait to go back where he “belonged.” He broke my heart. I thought, shit, how low can a human being, an orphan, sink? What kind of cards are these this boy was dealt?!
After the interview I called him aside and we chatted; I asked him where he lived, who with, how he was surviving, who his relatives were, what his dreams were. He said he really wanted to join the university but he couldn’t afford it and he had reached the end of his rope; nobody to turn to for help, no relatives, no friends. He had pretty much given up. He didn’t have a phone so I wrote my number on a piece of paper and told him to send me any number I could reach him on. I then gave him a thousand shillings.
I thought about him the whole way to Nairobi and many days after. I’d get my bill in a restaurant and think, here I am eating food worth this much and that boy is stranded. Unbeknownst to me, he misplaced that slip of paper with my number and so I waited for him to text or call until two weeks later when I reached out to one of the teachers in the school, who tracked him down. At some point I thought to myself; what am I ever going to do with my life if I don’t help this boy? What, buy another car? Buy my children more shoes that they don’t need while that boy walks in those tattered sandals? My conscience stalked me. I felt selfish and undeserving.
Long story short, I said I’d help him if it’s the last thing I do. So I took over his welfare. A week later he joined the university to study Bachelor of Animal Health Management – Veterinary Medical and Surgery. This was in 2015. I got him a small phone to stay in touch, and bought him clothes because you know how university is. Then I called a contact at HELB and asked for a special favour, you know, see if they can look into his application. They said, “I can’t do much, but I will try to work the system.”
This was in 2015.
I wrote his story HERE ( http://bit.ly/2WZVAdR ) and soon afterwards a reader -Deborah Mate – touched by his story, emailed me and said, “I want that boy to come visit me and my family – I have four kids. My family will host him over the next holidays.” I met Deborah to make sure she wasn’t in the organ business. So Ken came to Nairobi for the first time, to their home in One RedHill, a gated community, the very leafy suburbs.
“It was like nothing I imagined. The house was so beautiful. I saw a gas cooker for the first time, how you could light it without a matchstick! I didn’t even want to touch it,” he says. “They had a fridge, a big television and nice beds. They were so kind to me. So so kind to me, a stranger.” Most impressive to him was the idea of a family, a unit. “I had never had a family before and living with them just opened my world drastically to the possibility of having my own family. It really changed me and my idea of a family.”
One day Deborah’s husband, Sammy, told him to get in the car, they were going for a long drive just the two of them. They took a long drive around Nairobi while Sammy gave him a pep talk about life. “What I remember most about that conversation was Sammy telling me that although I was in that situation, an orphan and disadvantaged – it didn’t matter any more, my circumstance. What mattered was what I would become, not what I was then. He told me never to feel sorry for myself and that sometimes doors open in the darkest of corners and that I needed to be positive that things would change. He spoke to me like I was a peer, like we were two men talking. I was so touched by that conversation and although to him it was just a conversation, to me it was inspiring. He might never know what that drive did to my life. I felt like I could change my life. That it was possible to be like him one day and have my own family. He is such a good man.”
Wavi came through. He got a student loan.
I then called the two Powerpuff Ladies of Java House. They are the gatekeepers, they run shit there. I told them the story of this boy and they held their chins sadly as I narrated this tale. When I was done, they were almost in tears. I asked them if they could allow this boy to work at Java, any job at all, to earn a little money for upkeep. They gave him a job as a steward in Nakuru. I told him, “Ken, now you have a fishing rod, now fend for yourself and only let me know when you are completely stuck.”
“A steward at Java cleans dishes in the kitchen. While some might have found it difficult or beneath them, I was just thrilled to get a job in a restaurant. And don’t forget that my previous job was walking barefoot in the forest looking for firewood. Cleaning dishes was so easy.”
He cleaned the dishes until you could use them as a mirror to shave. He cleaned dishes at Java for a year after which he was promoted to be a barista. “I didn’t know what a barista was. I didn’t know what coffee was. But then I was trained to make coffee, something I had never tasted in my life!” It’s at Java that his life took a turn. It’s also at Java that he first interacted with his first mzungu. (A big thing for him). And it’s in Java that he met chaps who held his hand even when they didn’t have to.
“You know, when you are in the village you are told how Kikuyus are thieves because you have never met any. There is a gentleman called James Njuguna, one of the baristas I worked with at Java. Njuguna [He since got a job in Qatar] taught me everything I know about coffee. He didn’t look down upon me as this shady Luo boy from the village. He treated me like I was his brother and was very patient with me even when I wasn’t learning fast because I was also afraid. Most people would have given up on me but he didn’t. He was a very nice guy, very nice. I was so surprised that this Kikuyu guy was not anything we thought Kikuyus to be in the village. In fact, I learnt that we are the same save for our names.”
He’s also deeply indebted to one of the Java managers, Kevin Ogola, who was always very understanding of his school schedule, guiding him and giving him advice beyond just work. “I don’t see Kevin as my boss but as a mentor. Someone I can talk to when I have a problem.”
The biggest thing about working at Java is how interactions with customers has built his confidence. He loves it when a customer – a coffee lover – walks in and asks specifically for Ken to make his coffee. Someone knows his name. Someone chooses him. Suddenly he’s somebody who can contribute. His speciality is Malindi Macchiato. He makes a mean-ass Malindi Macchiato now, a boy from Usigu, Siaya.
He was in Nairobi this past weekend. He is a far cry from the boy I met four years ago; he dresses well, he walks with head high, he’s confident, he laughs easily, he makes eye-contact. He graduates in a few months, after he goes for his attachment. When he is done with university, he intends to settle back in the village. “I want to go back and help someone because I have been very lucky.”
I have been lucky to know him and been very proud to see him turn into this man. On behalf of Ken I want to thank everybody mentioned in this story for seeing this boy cross the rubicon of poverty, for changing his destiny and the destiny of his children. There is a video of Tyler Perry’s speech at the BET Awards doing the rounds, about helping someone cross the road, about knowing that there are people whose lives are tied to your dreams, so you should own your shit.
I love that speech. I mumble it in my sleep. I taste it on my tongue.
The people mentioned in this story for me show that it doesn’t take much to help someone cross the road. It illustrates how the power of small acts of kindness from normal people can change a life and destiny. Because that’s all it takes; a word, the equivalent of a bottle of whisky or a plate of mushroom chicken, your time, mentorship.
Out there are many Kens waiting to cross the road, hordes of them, standing barefoot, with not a chance in their hearts. Some will never cross, but others will. If you give them a hand.