When koroboi was the only reading lamp. My story.

When koroboi was the only reading lamp. My story.

For those of you who have used nothing else for lighting apart from electricity, count yourself very lucky.  And if you are a student at a school, college or university and are blessed with this privilege, read those books like they have never been read before.

As for some of us who hail from the countryside, some of our villages are yet to be connected with electricity and the kerosene lamp is still in demand as it is the only thing we have to light up our homes at night.

Let’s not even talk about a simple solar panel. That is simply a preserve of the village ‘rich’ who only include the chief and local primary school teachers.

Back when I was in primary school, when it came to doing homework, many of my friends depended on the light of a Koroboi (a smoky jua kali lamp made out of discarded tins such as then popular Cowboy cooking fat which used a thin strip of old blanket as a wick)

Where I come from, local residents called the lamp Chemamanda, meaning one who can’t be taken outside because the wind would blow out the flame.

The lamp, which emitted smoke just like a chimney, was famous in the village because (a) It was cheap, and (b) It conserved kerosene, which was hard to come by. Besides, the local shopkeeper sold a small amount of kerosene at a very high price.

“Unajua inatolewa mbali, hata si-make hata profit,” the shopkeeper would say, trying to justify the price.

Come night, we children would cram around the poor koroboi, which threw very scary shadows on the wall. Huddled together, we would do our homework. We dared not fall asleep before finishing our homework. If we did, it was better not go to school the following day as we would get a whooping that could be likened to killing a snake.

And if we asked our parents for a better lamp, they would tell us to count ourselves lucky to have a koroboi for reading. In their days, they would say, they did their homework using the light from a fire or by the moonlight.

“Sisi hatukua na taa, na situlisoma na tukapita!” and that is how the subject was closed, just like that.

Anyway, thanks to koroboi - which I bet is the smokiest lamp ever invented and is probably only available in Kenya -whenever I blew my nose in the morning, the mucus would literally be black with soot!

 The smoke also caused us to cough all the time and since some of kids did not have any manners, they would cough without covering their mouths. So it would happen that wherever kids huddled around a koroboi and the urge to cough sized them, they would end up blowing the lamp out to the chagrin of the rest.

“Mbona unazima taa!” they would ask as someone groped in the dark for a match stick to relight the lamp.

My story: I was a slumdog who dared to dream

Part 1: Walking my way out of poverty

I was born and raised in Korogocho, one of the largest slums in Nairobi. In Swahili, Korogocho means ‘crowded shoulder to shoulder’. That’s how we lived, with my parents and nine siblings all in one room. My dad’s income as a cook at the University of Nairobi and my mum’s as a factory worker wasn’t enough to support us. I realized that life wouldn’t get better just like that. To get out of Korogocho, I had to take my studies seriously.

In reality, it was difficult to study from our small house at the mercy of a frail ‘koroboi’ lamp. I quickly changed strategy and befriended the deputy head teacher’s son. He had all the books I needed. My deputy headteacher, Mr. Kariuki was kind enough to let me study in his home on the weekends; he even bought learning materials for both of us.

Mr. Kariuki’s son and I made a good team. We always topped our class. I was even among the best students in the final primary exams, so when my dad first told me that he couldn’t afford to send me to high school I was upset. My good friends from church stood in the gap and raised enough to pay for my first term.

The reality at Dagoretti High School was different. Many of my classmates were from well-off families. On visiting days, I enviously watched how they clutched onto shopping bags from their parents. I, on the other hand, was always sent home for not paying my fees and walked around in my ‘mtumba’ (second hand) uniforms with just meagre pocket money for upkeep. With shoes bigger than my feet, I learned a trick or two to make them fit. Newspaper and socks are particularly good stuffing. Every holiday, I walked for about 10km to go and study, from Korogocho all the way to the MacMillan Library in the city center. I knew I was walking my only way out of poverty.

Part 2: Persistence paid off

All the hard work got me into the University of Nairobi, where my dad was a cook. You have no idea how that was such a big relief for me. One of my problems was solved, food. Things were looking up. I always wanted to become a doctor, inspired by my sister who was a nurse, but I ended up studying commerce.

To pay for my upkeep, I hustled my way through uni. From writing other people’s assignments to selling magazines. One time I formed a dance group with my friends called ‘Odugla’. We used to walk 16Kms and back carrying our drums and costumes to dance at Carnivore, an open-air restaurant in the Langata suburb. Not to mention the cold nights just to eke out a living.

After my undergrad, I went right back to Korogocho. While I was trying earnestly to escape poverty and its consequences, I saw my former primary school mates getting sidetracked. Many of them joined gangs; some even got shot. I teamed up with two close friends to help change the dynamics in our community. We launched a beauty pageant called the Miss Koch Initiative.

At the same time, I worked on achieving one of my lifetime dreams: Studying at Duke University. With my humble background, getting a scholarship was my only hope. It wasn’t until the third application that I got into Ford Foundation’s International Fellowship Programme. Being among the 20 students selected out of the thousands of applications was absolute bliss.  It felt surreal, but there I was, a boy from Korogocho, going to one of the most prestigious schools in the US for a Master’s in Public Policy. Persistence paid off.

Part 3: Never kick away the ladder

Duke University didn’t disappoint at all. It was all I had imagined and more. I spent most of my University days at the library. The program was intense, and the string of assignments never seemed to end. My presence at the library was so prevalent that the librarian would joke he would name a seat after me.

Most international students dropped out one by one, but I channeled my memories of Korogocho; a reminder that there are no shortcuts to success. My mother taught me that the world has limitless possibilities and opportunities, if only you work hard. That is what I did. For those who made it, graduation was a momentous occasion. I was bursting with excitement when I was handed the certificate. I couldn’t wait to get out there to use the skills, knowledge and experience I got from Duke to build a better world.

Back home, my childhood in Korogocho informed my passion for the Youth agenda. In 2012, I became Special Advisor at the United Nations Habitat’s Youth Advisory Board. Working with the youth gives me energy and faith in Africa. If anything can pull communities or even the continent out of crises, it will be a new generation of leaders.

Currently, while sitting on the Boards of international bodies such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the Global Diplomatic Forum, and the African Leadership Institute, I still think about Korogocho. In those moments I am back there, in that unforgiving environment; in one of many poor families without access to economic opportunities, health care, good education or the basic essentials to live in dignity. But now, things are improving in Korogocho. There are paved roads, streetlights, water points, footbridges, schools and more small businesses. Much changed there, but I didn’t. I am still that same restless dreamer of the past. I just had to up my ambitions. Nowadays, my hope is to one day serve as the Secretary-General of the United Nations or the President of my country.

On my journey to the pinnacle of power, I keep my dad’s advice at heart. He always reminds me to never kick away the ladder. That is why I started a Foundation and The Youth Congress to support education for children from poor families, and to give youth opportunities through skills development and entrepreneurship. We must hold the ladder for others.

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