Growing up in the slums, losing both parents at a very young age, getting kicked out of school because of lack of school fees, waiting tables during the day and selling cigarettes at night to make ends meet, he has been through it all. Today, he is the man behind Ficha Uchi Campaign, an initiative that has provided school uniforms to over 2, 700 underprivileged children from the slums of Kenya, in schools spread across Kenya.
We talk to Okoth Billian Ojiwa.
‘I grew up both in the village and Mathare because my parents separated when we were still very young. At the beginning things were not so bad. My father was a primary school teacher, and my mother would make batik drawings and sell at Maasai market. We were stable, I think. We went to school like other kids, had food to eat. We were alright.’
Then tragedy struck. Billian’s dad passed on , and even before the family could come to terms with the loss, his mother followed eleven months later.
‘I had just joined Form One, and it was during the April holidays which I was spending with mom in Nairobi when dad passed. Even before I had gotten over this mom followed. In the blink of an eye I was officially an orphan. I was devastated. I was angry. I transitioned from this lively young boy to a depressed loner.’
As the eldest child, responsibility for his two sisters and brother automatically fell on his shoulders.
‘I had to grow up real quick and find ways we can survive.’
With this in mind, Billian opted to help his grandmother burn and sell charcoal in the village.
‘This kind of life really toughens you. Transitioning from a once comfortable life to living from hand to mouth teaches you lessons you’d otherwise never have learnt in life. You not only become physically able to do heavier tasks than children your age, you also become quite strong mentally. I can say it is really hard to break my spirit.’
Despite his unrelenting spirit and support from his grandmother, things only got worse for the family.
‘The charcoal business was not enough to pay our school fees and feed us at the same time. My grandma decided to sell her cow to cover some expenses but things were just not adding up. I stopped going to school, we all did. It pained me that my sisters were not able to join high school because of the challenges we were facing.’
With all options spent, his eldest sister opted to get married so as to be able to support the family. She was only about 15 years old at this time, and had just cleared Std. Eight.
‘All Brency ever wanted was to make things better for us. To ensure at least we had food to eat and able to go to school. She worked so hard, practically sacrificed her own life so that we could live to tell a different story.’
The family did not see the next blow coming. Three years into her marriage, Brency passed on.
‘I was there when she passed on. I watched her go. I don’t know if I can ever find words to talk about that particular period, but when she died so many things in me died with her. I don’t think I have ever recovered from that experience.’
At this time Billian had managed to clear high school, but because of the huge fee balance he had, was not able to pick his KCSE certificate.
‘At that time with a KCSE certificate I would have been able to get menial jobs here and there, something to keep us going. Since that wasn’t possible, and my brother needed to join high school, I worked as a waiter at my aunt’s small kiosk hotel.
After getting his KCSE certificate Billian was able to secure a job promoting airtime for a commission. At night, he would hawk cigarettes in clubs around Nairobi and Machakos. The money he made went to paying his younger brother’s school fees until he was able to clear high school.
‘Something had to be done, and the person to do it was me.’
The universe saw his determination and smiled upon him.
‘As a young boy I had wanted to be a priest, but my grandmother could hear none of that. Afterwards I changed my mind and wanted to be a soldier, inspired by the many people in our family who are in the armed forces. Then I changed my mind again, I wanted to pursue music!’
With his brother done with school now, he was able to join a youth group in Mathare where he intended to pursue his music interests. Billian says it was during one of his freestyle performances in the slum that NTV’s Lolani Kalu saw his talent, took him to a studio in Dagoretti corner and paid for the recording of his first song.
‘Afterwards I would perform at different events in Mathare and my friend Elijah Kanyi offered to do my first music video for free.’
This journey also saw the birth of a number of other songs, including Don’t Stop featuring his friend Steph from the United States and Leisure featured Lenny, a Canadian friend.
It was also during this period that he started Billian Music Family, a hub that nurtures young musical talents in Mathare. The music family also supports member kids education through scholarships and partnerships with well-wishers.
Still, Billian felt there is something else he needed to do. His heart was not at rest.
‘I was still looking for something in my life, and was not surprised when I discovered that serving others in whatever capacity gave me immense satisfaction, a joy I had never experienced before. So I made my final decision, to be a servant of the people.’
Ficha Uchi Campaign was birthed during this period.
‘My inspiration for starting Ficha Uchi Campaign came from my own story. I was one of those kids who’d always show up at school with worn out shorts and shirts. This was quite embarrassing. Especially when fellow classmates start making fun of your ‘torches’, the name we gave the gaping holes in our sweaters and shorts that exposed our nakedness.’
With the support of his friends in Mathare, Billian set out to identify the first children that would benefit from the initiative.
‘It had to be Mathare. I have grown up in Mathare, experienced firsthand having to make do with the uniform you have. If I walked in shame of my torn shorts then that walk of shame was done in this hood. I had to start here.’
The campaign picked up slowly at first, then gradually, as more people understood Billian’s vision and mission, they joined in.
‘We have so far managed to provide new school uniforms to over 2, 700 pupils across the country. This year we aim to reach even more counties in Kenya, having done our first missions outside Nairobi last year in Kakamega and Bondo Counties.’
In addition to restoring the dignity of the children in the slums, Ficha Uchi Campaign also conducts mentorship sessions and sports tournaments to empower the young boys and girls.
Last year the campaign launched university chapters, to aid in planning and distribution of resources across even more regions.
‘You know after my parents died I asked myself so many questions, like what am I really here for? Does the world really need and want me? But I found that when you give yourself to the service of other people, a lot of these things stop weighing you down. When I see a child smile, or dance with joy, or come to ask me when I’ll bring them more uniforms, I feel I found my purpose, or another of them. Not just to serve but to play a part in changing that child’s narrative. That is all I wanted growing up.’
Billian’s journey to fulfilling his purpose is not about to stop. As he works on positively influencing the life of another, he is actually changing his narrative. From that of a child who had no hopes, who’s life felt meaningless, to that of a man shining a candle to illuminate the lives of those who come after him.
‘#ImpossibleNot, I believe in this. Nothing is impossible.’
The starting place for your greatness is desire. The desire to succeed, to serve others, to keep going no matter what-Assegid Habtewold.