Allow me to be candid. I am blind and it is hard making it in Kenya, no matter how qualified, gifted, blessed or otherwise. I am not talking about the usual things one has to contend with every day such as stereotyping and stigmatization. I am talking about having everything you can have with regard to qualification and abilities but not going very far; why? You are blind. I mean, you cannot see; and that is a problem. I am not talking about affirmative action – which, by the way does not exist – but about having all you can have and still having to count on God alone to make it in life. I am not suggesting that there is another person to count on besides God, but that you realize without God it is not worth living here.
I apologize for what you are about to read in advance, but if it will help someone understand something, I will have achieved something. This is partly my motivation for being part of the prayer to hand over Kenya back to God next week. So, please bear with me and be patient with me as you read, because tonight, I am not sure whether I am in the body or out of the body, God knows.
So, what does it feel like being Reuben and being blind in Kenya? First of all, people talk to you through other people, assuming that, because you are blind, you also cannot hear. They will tell my wife who is right next to me things like, “Tell him I have said hi!” or, “Tell him I like his songs! … …!” It used to get to me. Now it does not, and I just laugh it away and chuckle back, “Please tell him/her back for me that I have said hi! … …!” It is equally assumed that because I am blind, if there is one seat in a place, my wife or daughter should not have it because they can see, and I can’t. So, if I tell my wife to have the seat as I stand, she is looked at as unkind and unthinking. Reason? To be blind is also to be unable to stand as your wife or daughter sits. I have been the talk of Eldoret when I have gone jogging or shopping with equal measure. But all this is child-play compared to what you are about to read. Let us talk about employment first.
It was early 1987 when I asked for a short-term teaching job at Ebusiloli Secondary School after completing my Form 6. I was denied the job. They kept me waiting. They finally told me to call my dad so they could talk to him. Need I say anything more? I did not get the job. Someone else was hired. Being in Vihiga County, I could partly understand why, when running for office to be its first Governor in 2013, although I beat all the odds and made it to the ballot, some of my opponents had very bad things to say by way of convincing the voters that they should vote for them instead of me. One of them from my own Bunyore village literally undertook campaigning for Moses Akaranga and made everyone around him and wherever he went believe that I did not even know how to count money and so I would not be able to handle the county funds … It is too much to entrust billions to a blind man; they would be stolen and he would not even know where to start handling economic issues. Another told people that I would not be in a position to assess any projects because I would not be able to tell even how a good-looking house is from a bad-looking one. … In short, it was equally easy to steal my votes because I did not even know how to count ballot papers. I swallowed it all, complete with the numerous promises of Vihiga pastors and bishops that they would vote for me because I was a Christian like them, and then … the rest is history.
When I lost the election, I called Moses Akaranga and conceded defeat. I told him that if he needed me, I would be willing to share my agenda with him. The only time he reached out to me was by proxy inviting me for a meeting where he was to meet with “disabled persons” in Vihiga at Mbale. What was he going to do? Just give them some food and they tell them that he cared for them. In short, I did not go. I told the person who was inviting me, two days to the event that I will not come. I would only go if there was agenda. I felt insulted and I feel he insulted persons living with disability.
Let me fast-forward to the day I finally wanted to get married after college and had done everything except for the buying of the rings. I then took Mercy to the jeweler at one of the shops in Nairobi. First, the staff did not want to talk to me because they were busy serving other customers, mark you, including those who kept coming after me. I finally grubbed the courage to insist on being served next and so was reluctantly asked, “What do you want?” I said I wanted to buy some wedding rings. I was asked if I was the one getting married. I said “yes.”
“There are many different types … 100, 200, 300 and some more expensive. …” said he as he walked away to serve another customer.
I insisted, “Do you have any others?”
“Yes, but they are quite expensive, like diamond, gold, mixed, pure, many, many, many.” He walked away again.
“I want a pure gold ring,” I said.
He was quiet. I repeated myself. He then just said, “They are very expensive.”
To cut the story short. I ended up buying the most expensive rings he had left and I could hear that I was the talk of the street as I left, shocked. I cannot even recount how many times I have been denied the opportunity to check out a cooker or stereo, just because they believed I could not afford or did not understand what I was buying. As a young high school teacher, I remember the shock people had at the store where I went to buy my very first television set. It was drama.
When I was remarrying, I saw drama. A friend of mine kept telling me that he did not understand how I as a blind man could manage to get such a pretty girl with dimples like Julie! Implications? I qualify for those who look less attractive. By the way I do not even believe that those thought to be less attractive are actually less attractive. It is their opinion. Then a pastor calls Julie and tells her that he would counsel her by herself because I did not need counseling myself. When we went to see the pastor who would then marry us and showed him our self-composed vows, Julie’s were shorter than mine. He made the remark, “Usually long vows indicate that someone has something to hide!” Should I say more? I am not sure whether I am in the body or out of the body. God knows.
Fast-forward again to the recent past. About two years ago, the Public Service board of Uasin-Gishu County advertised for a position on their Agriculture and Mechanization board which needed to be filled by a person living with disability. Because of my gubernatorial interests before, I had got a lot of acquaintance with Agricultural and mechanization matters and quite a bit of experience from my media days in matters to do with human resource management. I went for the interview and, according to some of those who interviewed me, I actually did exceptionally well. Believe you me, to this day, I have never ever heard from Uasin-Gishu county about this; not even if I flopped.
I recall too, running a coffee house at Zion Mall in Eldoret. My café was broken into three times and, with all the CCTV cameras and guards at the mall, to this day, nobody has ever been apprehended, not to mention that at the point of leaving the premises, out of sheer frustration, I came to learn that my competitor at the mall was being charged almost half of what I was asked to pay in rent. What can one say? Why was that the case?
Then in 2014 I visited Hon Mandago at his office and shared with him my proposal to expand my small music school in Eldoret so that I could serve more Uasin-Gishu youth with music and performing arts skills including trying to get street children off the street by teaching some of them how to play music instruments. He was excited and even said he would bring his own child to train. He indicated that they would do something small by the end of that financial year. I have waited since 2014 till now, 2019. I have not stopped doing the little I can. But it showed me how valuable I was in a county that continues to allocate money year after year for projects. I quietly learned that this was Kenya for me.
I am sharing this, not to embarrass or offend anyone, but to call for a turn around. After shutting down Fish FM in 2015, it was hard for me to go back to radio again. Indeed I never knew I would desire to be involved again. Although I had the experience of fifteen years then, nineteen now, in broadcasting, nine of those years running a station whose license took six years to get, I saw an advert at a Christian radio station where they needed a Manager. I applied. They acknowledged receipt of my application, but to this day, I have never heard from them; not even a regret. When I moved to Nairobi recently for studies, I asked for a part-time radio presenter position. They asked for my papers and indicated I was qualified and needed. That was the end. I emailed! I texted! I called! Nobody would answer my emails. Nobody would pick my calls. Nobody would respond to my texts. With my country Music experience, I have applied to several Nairobi stations wanting to do for them a Sunday evening Country show. My applications are received and that is the end. Never mind that besides KBC, I was the next person in Kenyan radio to introduce country music, and that on Christian stations, beginning with Family FM back in 2001. I have been ignored, even though, I think I am the first blind man in the world to start a radio station and run it for that long. My MSc in Journalism and Media Studies does not mean much any time I mention it in interviews.
My most recent radio attempt experience came after a gentleman travelled all the way from Thika to Eldoret to slash his girlfriend to death. I contacted one of our big stations requesting to do a family talk show at night to help address the rising homicides and relationship challenges. They asked me to send in a proposal and concept. I did. That was the end. The boss of the station would not receive my calls. He would not respond to my texts. In short I was ignored. …
Several years ago, as a musician and producer, I developed some exceptional jingles for Radio Citizen. They just received them and then went quiet. Forever. Everybody around me thinks they are great. Not them. This is not an audio platform. I would have posted them here for every one of you to judge. Never mind that I did some jingles for the station when they were starting about twenty years ago, and despite using them for several years, I never received a single cent from Royal Media. I have talked to staff at the Standard Group asking for the same position for the talk show. The response is the same.
Let’s return to academic institutions. I prepared courses for a Christian University in Nairobi last year for the launch of their M.A. in Apologetics degree. I developed ten courses in general in a booklet of about 40 pages. It was received and then they went quiet. I know many of you already know I was supposed to be teaching this semester at a different university from the one I have just mentioned – St Paul’s. I interviewed for the job and then the university went quiet after allocating me courses. This is in spite of following up.
Let me close for now by sharing about trying to reach our leaders in government. I guess it is possible for everyone else except me. When preparing to have the first fundraiser for our ministry bus last December, I asked a friend of mine who works with one of the County Governments to request the Deputy President, His Excellency William Ruto, to kindly consider being our chief guest. He said he would request him, they are friends. He then just vanished, would not answer my calls anymore and would not return my texts. He then called and suggested we try and get Mama Rachel. I got excited because Mama Rachel has been to our home, their daughter and my daughters went to the same school. Mama Rachel used to be my travel agent at one point. So I got excited. That was the end. When I finally got the urge to just pick up my phone and call her myself, of course, there was no answer. I texted. No answer. I called a few days later and a lady picks the phone and when I introduced myself she said it was not Mama Rachel’s number and they did not know who I was. I checked with mutual friends if I had the wrong number. They confirmed it was the correct number. I left it. … Twice when singing at State House, the president has indicated he would want me to visit. I then took the liberty to write and request him to be our guest. My letters reached but that was the end.
I have been swindled by several people in this country. I take the matters to lawyers and they say they can help. That is usually the end. I have been in the music ministry for 32 years, but still had to buy my car through a loan. I just had to abandon the fight for my millions of shillings literally squandered by the Music copyright Society of Kenya whose directors now wallow in untold riches as I struggle just to raise enough to go to school, again because organizations such as the National Council of Persons With disability will not hear a thing about helping with funding my education. Not the master’s programme and now not the Ph.D. programme. I struggle so hard in a country where Safaricom makes millions from my music but pays me peanuts after sharing more of my money with go-between groups that will not even give statements for the monthly incomes. The bosses at PRISK and KAMP eat a lot of my sweat every month as I slowly slide into my old age. …
Perhaps the saddest of all my struggles as a blind man in Kenya is with the Church. Let me write it here so that nobody will say they do not know. I go to minister at a Mombasa church for two days about two years ago and I am given an honorarium of kshs15000. In the last meeting, it is announced that the next week one of the musicians I will leave unnamed, from Nairobi, will be at the Church – for an afternoon – and that the church should help raise one hundred thousand shillings for her. I know churches in Nairobi by name that are prepared to pay Tanzanian musicians kshs200,000 or kshs300,000 for a concert, and the musicians will come and sing over a Cd, merely showing their faces, but when I come to minister with a team of 25 or 30 people, I am given twenty thousand Kenya shillings for my fuel to and from Eldoret and for the transportation of the rest of the team. When one raises the question why such affluent churches do this to me and not to the other musicians, I am told I am becoming money-minded. That is not true. The difference is, the others are not blind and I am. Blind people are paid little, you see! Or shall we just say, the other musicians look better than me! Or not?
I will not even go into churches in Nairobi telling me to the face that they do not charge for concerts and we even have to talk for long about the permission to take an offering to help us with expenses, after we have made the concerts free for everyone. … Again, I am not sure whether I am in the body or out of the body. God knows.
One day, most of these who avoid me now, will hear I have died. Then they will rush to form WhatsApp groups to raise money for themselves, say I used to write good songs or even buy me a nice coffin that looks good on cameras so that it can be said they honoured me and gave me a good send-off. If I do go before any of you, please save your monies. There will be plenty to eat from my music and books, anyway, after I am gone with nobody to stop you.
In other words, that is Kenya for me. That is the Kenya that ignores me while thinking I have so much that nobody should care to do what is right for me. This is the Kenya that says it enjoys my music and even uses it on public holidays at stadia as the Police or Army bands play song after song. This is the country with organization after organization, budget after budget that would make a big difference, but alas! This is the nation with so many opportunities that are thrown at you every day, but you never touch a single one. We have to fight tooth and claw looking only to God as resources are stolen every day. Sometimes it is tempting to just leave the country for those who deserve it more than me! Forgive me for such a long post. I have left enough out and just pledge that I will not bother you on this topic again. … It is enough what has been done to me. Please don’t do it to others living with any disability!
The views expressed here are for the author and do not represent any agency or organization.