I beat noise about my village all the time because that’s where my umbilical cord was buried, and my bones will be interred. Until Colonel Apollo Aloka joined the Kenya Air Force, the village of Jimo never featured anywhere on the Kenyan map, and we had been content with our little reputation as indigenous cassava farmers and small-time cotton pickers. Politicians never bothered to campaign in Jimo because we had no noticeable access roads and our votes were so minuscule they weren’t even enough to create a storm in a teacup. But we couldn’t complain because God gave us this little corner of paradise where we lived a decent rural life outside of external interference, and we couldn’t have asked for more.
This is where I was born 36 years ago. At that time my father had three wives, and my mother was the third. It is recorded on my baptismal card that my birth happened at a place called Pith Koluoch (‘Pith’ is Dholuo for ‘elevated ground’, Koluoch being ‘Oluoch’s place’). Those who know say my mother had gone into labour at home and as she was being rushed to the nearest dispensary, I became stubborn to let her get there. So I was born at that steep hill where this guy called Oluoch had made his name. My mother would neither confirm nor deny that my umbilical cord was cut using a nappier grass blade. I am told my late grandmother held me up to the sky and spat on my forehead at birth; she said my death would never come from the hand of man, and that I was too blessed to be cursed. In the hierarchy of birth, considering all my father’s children, I was tenth in the pecking order.
So I started this race of life at 10th place. Not an enviable position when you have an elite field of accomplished siblings looking up to one man for financial support and fatherly mentorship. Tenth-born kids do not know what it means to receive preferential treatment, that word actually does not exist in our dictionary of life. I can’t quite recall when we got to Miwani, the small industrial town 27 kilometers North East of Kisumu city, and home to the first sugar company in Kenya. My father got a job as a clerk with the Kenya Revenue Authority, in the Customs and Excise Department. They always called him JaKastams. For those who’ve been to the Miwani Sugar Company, the Customs office was right at the foot of the distillery section.
My father was a man of few words. You would never have found him in a crowd because he hated noise to death. He was also choosy in the company he kept. We could count his friends who often visited us on one hand. He is the guy who instilled in me the religious habit of wide reading. If there was anything my father would buy you without question that thing was books. He was also my private tutor at home, and he was hard on me like a ten-ton anvil. The only time I ever saw my father engaging in politics was during the 1997 Kisumu Rural campaigns when he wore the campaign t-shirt of Wilson Ndolo Ayah; but that was only because he had been invited to Ndolo’s home and asked if he could join his campaign team. You will never have seen my father going to people’s houses to look for political gossip, or cheap brew, or those things people’s fathers look for whenever they go to other people’s fathers’ houses. He had a predicted work-family routine and he stuck to it like clockwork. That’s why when he lost his job sometime in the mid ‘90s, few people in Miwani knew about it because he quietly went back to the village to tend to his father’s farm.
He was exactly 49.
Which means we stayed back in Miwani with my mother to start life anew, and straight from the bottom of the barrel. It was the dictionary definition of grace to grass. Life is tough when you don’t have a breadwinner you can pummel with your problems and he sorts them out like a jukebox. For the first time ever we were introduced to the tough of side of life. My elder sister and I had to wake up before 5am, ignite a bonfire of wet wood to boil a drum of porridge. We would then help my mother carry them to her rickety food kiosk next to the weighbridge section of Miwani Sugar Company. We did that just in time for the morning preps bell of 6.30am, it was pure grafting for survival.
The place we immediately relocated to after my father lost his job was beyond imagination. It was a one-roomed servant quarter, made of rusty iron sheets which leaked like a sieve whenever it rained, and definitely not even fit for a dog’s pen. Cultural taboo prohibited boys from sleeping in the same room with girls and so I spent half my life spending the night in other people’s houses, timing when they were ready to sleep before doing my routine knock and often with clinical precision. It is the reason I don’t wear a wristwatch because I already come hardwired with a natural timer.
I will put my hand up and say school has never been a problem for me. God gives people gifts and for me he gave me a reliable thinking cap. The tough life at home never affected my performance in class. If anything it polished my rough edges, because I topped my class, each term, every year, until I left primary school. There is no academic award in Miwani Division that I did not get during my stay in that place. When I sat for my KCPE, and received my invitation to join Maseno School, my mother was called to the school to offer motivational talks to the children I had left behind. They even visited her with gifts in the hope that they would be associated with taking part in my unbelievable feat. I want it to go on record that I have never crumbled under pressure.
Maseno School brings me bitter-sweet memories. Bitter, because I was always in the list of fee-defaulters and I kept shuttling between home and school to raise school fees. Sweet, because Maseno gave me an unforgettable experience that completely changed my view of life and expanded my knowledge of the world. If four high school years have twelve school terms, I was only in Maseno for nine. Each year, I would stay home for an equivalent of a term waiting for my mother’s small kiosk to raise a fraction of my fee arrears, and back I went to school to plead my case.
There is this day in school that will forever live with me. Miwani Sugar Company had what they called a check-off system for parents with children in secondary school and higher institutions of learning. Every month, a portion of your salary would be deducted to cater to your child’s school fees needs, and this cheque would be sent directly to your child’s school. Before this idea was hatched Miwani was awash with children dropping out of school and staying at home for lack of fees yet their parents were permanent employees at the sugar mill and were doing well for themselves. The check-off system increased enrolment rates into secondary school by triple digits on its first year of implementation, I am still in shock why the guy who introduced it is yet to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Education.
It is this check-off system that saved me one day when I was about to be denied a stay in the school for the umpteenth time. My mother, being the aggressive woman that she is, had spoken to one of his clients at the food kiosk to allow the company send a cheque to Maseno on his salary account. She would repay the guy small small until the whole amount was cancelled. So the factory messenger was sent to Maseno School with a cheque bearing this guy’s name instead of mine. When the messenger arrived at the school, he didn’t know me and he couldn’t answer the question on whose school fees account the cheque was to be banked under. So the bursar asked the messenger to go around all the classes calling out this guy’s name so that whoever knew him could go to the office and claim the cheque.
What doesn’t humiliate you, makes you stronger.
But humiliation should never be made a prerequisite for strength. That is why this thing Barclays Bank is doing for bright but needy children in this country strikes a song in my heart. Because those kids remind me of me. It is the shame of this country that we have children who are unable to complete their education simply because they lack the money to. What they have done is scour through the land to find those kids who have qualified for university, but because of the way life can sometimes go left, they cannot afford to. The scholarship program was started in 2017 and when these bankers decide to hold your hand, they do not loosen their grip. They pay for tuition, accommodation, meals, stationery and then even throw in a laptop just to make it good. By the end of last year, they had filled the cups of 470 students from 47 countries. Of these, there are 211 female students and 259 male students and 26 persons living with disability.
If you ask any of these kids if they knew someday help will come, none of them will tell you yes. Lakini life has taught me to always do your best and leave the rest to whoever is in charge of your destiny. You might not know it, but there is someone always watching your struggles and there is no knowing when they would reach out to pick you up. One day, when all this is all over these 470 kids will look back and wonder how they made it out of the jaws of obscurity.
It is a sweet feeling, and this I can tell you because I’ve been there. And done that.