When did you first realize you were a boy or girl? When did you first realize you were African or American or European? When did you first realize that you came from the wrong or right side of the tracks? What would have happened if you didn’t know? Did that information make you a better person? If you never focused on those things, would you have had an identity crisis? Would you have been less of a boy if you didn’t know you were a boy? Less of an African? Less poor?
Josphat Keya shares with us the story of growing up in Kibera, of being constantly reminded that he was poor.
“I was born on the 25th of August, 1986, at Pumwani Hospital in Nairobi. I grew up at the Kianda area in Kibera. When I was younger, I didn’t realize I was poor. I was comfortable and happy as long as I didn’t know. It was only when I started going to school that the social differences, the cracks in my childhood reverie emerged. I started to ask myself questions too complex for a child to answer.
Why were we poor? Why did we live in Kibera. Was my father lazy? Did he make wrong choices? Was he imprudent, careless with our lives?
I began to resent him, to resent the fact that we were poor and I was inferior to the richer children I went to school with. When my mother left for the village when I was eight, I resented my stepmother too. I hated my father for taking her word over mine all the time.
All the resentment I felt turned me into a bitter child. I was angry at the world. To hide the fact that I was hurting, I grew a tough exterior. I had no respect for my father or stepmother. I didn’t like to cut school, but I often ran away from home to stay with friends. I started serious drinking when I was twelve years old.
My relationship with my father further deteriorated when, after my Kenya Certificate of Primary Education, I refused to go to Upperhill or Aquinas; the high schools I had been called to. In anger, my father told me to find a high school on my own and to educate myself. His relationship with my mother also suffered; he blamed her for my stubborn behaviour. She in turn blamed me.
With my grandfather’s help, I got into Eshinutsa Secondary School, a day school in Western Kenya. Those four years away from Kibera changed me. In order to make new friends, I had to get rid of my tough exterior. I became shy and quiet, accommodative, willing to learn from others. I also got to live with my mother in the village. I loved the simplicity and tranquillity of village life.
Some of the old bitterness returned when my school mates found out where I was from.
“You’re from that place with the flying toilets?” they asked.
I didn’t expect that the bad reputation of my home would be known to children in a remote village school. I was ashamed of Kibera, ashamed of myself for coming from there. I was ashamed of my entire background. From then, whenever people asked where I came from, I made up a fictional hometown.
Coming back to Kibera after high school, I found that whereas my age mates were doing things with their lives, I remained stagnant and confused.
With the promise of a teaching job, my stepmother got me in touch with a school owner from Ayani Estate in Kibera. The first day at the teaching job, I was shown into the kitchen and introduced to the househelps and janitors. I thought that everything was just an orientation process into the teaching job, even the fact that the janitors handed me brooms to clean and arrange the classes and the school owner made me sell vegetables in the market.
Perhaps I would never have seen the light had one of the househelps not approached me. He asked me to think deeply about my life’s purpose. He said that I was wasting my education and my life.
I got another job as a telephone attendant for a Simu Ya Jamii in Kibera. At the same time, I worked with school children, giving them remedial tuition.
It was around this time that the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education results were announced. I had hit a snag in my life and was stuck inside a rut in which I cared less about anything. I wasn’t bothered about my performance in the exams, so even when it turned out that I was the second best student in my school, neither my father nor I were excited.
My friends asked me if I had dreams of going to university. I had no dreams. I didn’t even know what I wanted to make of myself. Due to pressure from his friends and mine, my father and I began to think of plans for my future.
I started going to church. I also took up a diploma in counselling psychology and went on to become a peer counsellor, taking part in programmes targeting schools. My life began to take direction. I spent weekends at church counselling, and the other days studying and getting a practical experience. Parents with broken relationships with their children, or whose children had other problems, would approach me for help. I had my own house in Kibera. It became a rehabilitation centre. Parents would send their children to live with me for a while. Lots of my friends reformed.
My father comes from a long line of electrical engineers. His clan believes in career inheritance, and the entire clan began to pressure me to do a course in electrical engineering. Mom on the other hand wanted me to become a teacher. Her entire family piled pressure on me to become a teacher. They even offered to take care of the fees.
My father began to drag me to his work place. I would do nothing there but read newspapers. Tired of that, I began to yearn for real duties. I went through my father’s architectural plans and began to understand them. I began going to the construction sites.
I gained a real interest in electrical engineering and even became better than some of father’s workers. I became a supervisor there and soon after, took up a course in electrical engineering. My father became proud of my achievements. He and I became very close.
I would say that I stumbled into the world of film. Togetherness Supreme was being shot in Kibera. I’d heard that they were looking for people to take part in that project, but was not really interested. When a friend made me accompany him to the set, I found the multiple takes dizzying and annoying. I was convinced that I would never be involved in film.
The friend that took me to the set of Togetherness Supreme brought me application forms for Kibera Film School. I wasn’t interested in the least bit, but my friend pushed me until I filled those in.
At the same time, my mother made me apply for a course at Kaimosi Teachers’ Training College. I had to make a difficult decision about what exactly to do with my life. To my father’s disappointment, I quit the course in electrical engineering and took up film. To my mother’s horror, I passed up the opportunity to join the teacher’s training college.
I took a leap of faith, unsure where that path would take me. My passion in filmmaking turned out to be a happy accident. I didn’t expect that film would take over my life like this.
Today, I proudly wear the tag ‘Produce of Kibera, this side up’. Look at me, I’m not a flying toilet; I’m a success story. I’m not a walking textbook illustration of poverty; I’m the embodiment of hope. The thing with hope, no one can reach the end of it. Did you ever meet anyone who ate up all the hope until they had nothing left to eat?
Sometimes it feels like this place is purposefully kept alive. See, in Kenya we have lions, we have snow at the equator, we even have the largest slum in Africa. Come, come pay us a lot of money for having these things.
See, we can’t get rid of Kibera. If we got rid of Kibera, what will your dollar bills have to pay for? What will your eyes have to see? How will you be thanked for helping us? How will you feel like you are better than us?
My Kibera is a place where, even if your anger and bitterness wouldn’t let you love your stepmother, you had a million other mothers offering you their love, opening up their simple homes to you. My Kibera is a place where no one will let your clothes get rained on out on the lines.
My Kibera is a place with the most hardworking people on earth. A woman will open shop at six in the morning, hawking milk. At ten, they cook mandazi for sale, then open the vegetable shop and sell potatoes and tomatoes until evening. At six, they take out the maize and roast it by the road side. It may be hard, but we have to struggle. Doesn’t everyone struggle in their own way?
Children here are afraid of dreaming because when morning comes, they will awake. My Kibera is a place where the onus is on us young people to hold each other’s hands so no one has to be afraid of dreaming.”
Josphat Keya is the Program Manager at Hot Sun Foundation, Kibera. He just received an eight-week film fellowship at Ghetto Film School in New York. For more information on how to help him raise money for his fellowship, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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