In Summary
  • Being the first born in a family of five, I could not afford to sit at home.
  • In January 2000, I went to Mombasa with my uncle.
  • Two months later, I realised that he had plans that I train as a security guard which I refused and ran away to live with another uncle who was staying nearby.

I have walked a long way before finding the song in my life. My name is James Ouma and my early childhood was at Kisenyi slums near Owino market in Kampala. There was a lot of violence due to civil unrests.

In 1986, we relocated to Kenya in Seme-Kadero, which is on the border of Kisumu and Siaya. In 1989, I joined Korwenje Primary School in Standard Two. In the same year, my dad passed away and mum refused to be inherited. In Standard Four, a teacher, Mr Arao discovered that I could read and write better than pupils in upper classes.

DREW FROM VIVID EXPERIENCES

When writing composition, I drew from very vivid experiences in Uganda. Mr Arao encouraged me to be a writer. On sitting the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) in 1995, I emerged top in our school with 469 marks. I was called to Nyambogoi High School but my mother could not raise the fees.

One of my uncles enrolled me at Kambare Secondary School in Siaya. The headteacher asked him why he had not taken me to a better school. That was how I knew that the school was not good. This shaped my poor attitude towards it. On sitting the Kenya Certificate of Secondary School (KCSE) in 1999, I scored C+. If I had a good attitude, I could have done better.

COULD NOT AFFORD TO SIT AT HOME

Being the first born in a family of five, I could not afford to sit at home. In January 2000, I went to Mombasa with my uncle. Two months later, I realised that he had plans that I train as a security guard which I refused and ran away to live with another uncle who was staying nearby.

James Ouma and his wife Cynthia Wendo at their home during the interview. PHOTO| MILLICENT MWOLOLO

In 2003, through friends I had met in college, I came to Nairobi. I was staying in a single room in Jericho as I volunteered for an organisation called Kumekucha in Buruburu. I used their computers to write and teach children creative writing. I really wanted to be a journalist even though I had no training for it.

I applied for a job at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) for several years. In November 2008, I was hired. As a television producer, I became more aware of the plight of teenage boys in prisons. I wanted to change this. I considered a reading club for young children as I mentored and counseled them.

READING CAMPS

But it was not until 2010 that I organised the first reading camp in Karen, Nairobi, with 23 children. I was mobilising resources through friends on Facebook to run the programme for free.

I would visit the boys in prison every Friday, then trace and contact their parents. I would then facilitate reconciliation between the boys, their parents and people that they had wronged. A good number of cases were withdrawn and some of the boys freed and accepted back home.

For several years, my work at the prisons won me fame that did not go well with my bosses at work. In January 2013, I had to quit work when I was asked to choose between the two.

BACKED IDEA OF BOOK CLUB

NPC Academy Buruburu backed my idea for a book club. I was earning a mere Sh10000 from the book club every month because parents would pay for their children to be in it, but I still did it. In first term 2013, a new principal joined and he opposed the programme.

I lost that income and I couldn’t afford house rent in Ayany. I moved into a single room in Kibera. I still visited the boys in prison every Friday with bus fare donated by friends on Facebook.

Life became harder. I was walking from Kibera to the Industrial area remand prison.  Luckily, a friend from church accommodated me. I used to attend Citam Woodley church because I would learn how to swim without paying. I lived with this friend until May 2013 when he informed me that he was moving out of that house.

ORDERED OUT OF THE SWIMMING POOL

That morning, the trainer noticed that I was not concentrating and ordered me out of the swimming pool. One of the ladies asked me what the issue was and I explained.  She offered to support me to move into a single room in Kawangware. She paid for my transport and Sh4500 rent.

James Ouma with his vision board which he made in 2006. He advises young people to create own vision boards so that they can capture their dreams and aspirations in a visual manner. PHOTO| MILLICENT MWOLOLO

The following months, rent became a challenge. Many times, the caretaker locked my door. But with time, he supported me by giving me food. Life got tougher and I stopped going to prison.

In late 2013, I met Cynthia Wendo, my wife, in church. In early 2014, we started dating. In November 2014, some friends who are medical doctors invited me for a one-week mission in Baragoi. As they treated the community, I was sewing buttons on the clothes of the children. They nicknamed me Jim Buttons.

In early 2015, I proposed to Cynthia. Back then I had one trouser and my shoes were torn. She was concerned about my finances. I convinced her that I see in myself someone who would eventually earn from the book club, television production, and writing. In October 2015, we got married. By this time, I had a growth on my neck which was not painful.

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