My name is Enock Okoth, I am 32, and the eighth born in a family of nine children.
Both my parents are dead. That I am a medical doctor today is in itself a miracle because growing up, there were absolutely no signs that I would amount to anyone significant in society.
I grew up in Kwale County near the then Ramisi Sugar Factory, where my father worked before it closed down in 1988. My father, a casual labourer at the sugarcane processing plant, must have earned little because he visibly struggled to provide for us; for instance, my elder brothers, Moses Abock and Isaiah Ochieng had both passed their Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exams but they could not join secondary school because my father could not afford the school fees.
In 1990, we all moved back to our paternal home in Homa Bay County – life had become too hard after my father lost his job.
In December the following year, my late elder brother, Ochieng, decided to take me with him to Mombasa, where he was going to look for a job – my father had not managed to enroll him in secondary school. I was six years old then.
In Mombasa, we joined our elder brother, Abock, who was working for a group of hotels that later closed down. The following year, when I turned seven, Abock enrolled me to Maweni Nursery School. The school gave us porridge cooked with coconut and it always tasted good; it was motivation for me to go to class every day.
BROKE MY HEART
Ochieng, who was bright, would teach me maths when he returned home in the evening; he helped me cut 100 sticks, which I would use to count.
Later that year, dad fell sick and mum brought him to Mombasa for treatment: he had big wounds on both legs, which I was to later learn were due to cancer of the skin. We sought treatment for him at Msambweni District Hospital and Coast Provincial General Hospital, where he passed away on November 15, 1992.
My brothers and I traveled home for his burial, and in January the following year, we returned to Mombasa and I rejoined nursery school for my second year. I was resentful, though, because I was much brighter than the other pupils and did not feel challenged. I could therefore hardly wait to join Class One. Unfortunately, I did not get a vacancy in Maweni Primary School. Frustrated, Abock decided to enroll me in Class Two in Kongowea Primary School.
Jumping a class wasn’t a challenge for me because I could read what most of my classmates were unable to. By the time I got to Class Three, I would be either position one or two.
When I joined Class Four, my younger brother, Robert Osumo, joined us in Mombasa. That same year, we learnt that our mother had died. This news broke my heart. We immediately travelled home and buried her on June 4, 1996, and then returned to Mombasa.
In October that same year, Abock lost his job. He processed our father’s National Social Security Fund (NSSF) benefits and decided that we return home, where he built a basic house for us. By then, he was married and had two children.
I joined a local primary school, and was first in my class in the end of term exams. By then, my brothers were doing so badly financially, they could barely manage to offer us three meals in a week, let alone pay my school fees.
Eventually, I dropped out of school, and joined my brothers, Odhiambo and Ogweno, who tilled shambas and harvested sand for a living. At times, it would take me three days to earn a mere Sh50, which went to buy food.
In 1997, we sold the only goat that we owned and Odhiambo, Abock’s wife, their two children and I, travelled to Mombasa to join Abock. I went back to Kongowea Primary School, where I sat for my KCPE exams in year 2000; I scored 496 out of 700 marks, which got me admission to Aga Khan High School, Mombasa, in 2001. I could not afford the school fees though.
Thankfully, a local businessman who learnt of my plight from Abock agreed to pay my Form One school fees on condition that Abock work for him as a messenger, earning just Sh50 a day. To supplement this, he got a job as a security guard working nights.
I was top of my class that entire year, and in Form Two, a Mombasa-based organisation, Assist a Child To School, gave me a merit-based partial scholarship. To raise the remaining fees, Ochieng applied for bursaries through the Kisauni Constituency CDF.
I did not disappoint my brothers, topping my class the entire year. To my joy and that of my brothers, my exemplary performance earned me a full scholarship from Assist a Child To School.
TEA WITH MILK
While in Form Three, in 2003, we learnt that our elder sister, Belseba Adhiambo, was sick. We decided to travel back home to visit her, but by the time we got there, she had passed away. We were too late.
Shortly after Belseba’s burial, Abock started getting sickly. In December that year, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and was admitted at Coast Provincial General Hospital, Mombasa. My beloved brother did not get better – he died in January 14, 2004. His death hit me hard. Being the firstborn, he had been my father and my mother.
We transported his body home for burial, and I returned to Mombasa a very sad boy. To add onto my grief, I was homeless because my other two brothers, Ochieng and Odhiambo, had relocated to Nairobi in search of jobs. Concerned, my teachers decided to contribute some money, and each week, on a Tuesday, they would give me Sh330 for food. The principal allowed me to sleep in the school hall.
In second term, one of my teachers, Mrs Catherine Mwaniki, who had taught me CRE and History in Form One and Two, welcomed me to live with her at her home in Nyali. Every morning, she drove her son Kevin and I to school.
Kevin was then a Form One student at the same school. For the first time in my life, I had a bedroom, which I shared with Kevin. Need I add that it was also the first time I was driven to school? Or anywhere for that matter?
My new home was very comfortable, the food nothing like I had been used to – rice, chapati, beef, chicken, tea with milk, eggs and bread, fruits – all in plenty. That right there, for me, was heaven. I had sufficient time to read, and with the aid of electricity – it was a privilege that I did not take for granted.
Mrs Mwaniki treated me like she would her own child, buying me not only school uniform, but clothes for everyday use as well, and when I got unwell, she would take me to hospital and pay the bill.
I sat the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exams in 2004, getting a B (plus). To say that I was devastated would be an understatement. At the time, I was living with my brother Odhiambo in Mukuru kwa Njenga, where he hawked ice-cream.
When I learned what I had scored, I cried for having failed. I had expected to score ‘A’. After two agonising weeks, I decided to repeat Form Four. But I had no school fees and no place to live.
In January 2005, my ever-supportive brothers contributed Sh600 and a cousin another Sh200, bringing it to Sh800 for bus fare from Nairobi to Mombasa. On arrival, I went straight to my former school.
I met Mrs Chuda Ochuodho, the student’s counsellor, and home science teacher, who had also been my mentor, and informed her that I wanted to repeat Form Four. Surprised, she advised me to talk to Miss Mariam Lavingia, the principal.
Ms Lavingia was a disciplinarian, so facing her was not easy. When I told her that I wanted to repeat Form Four, to my surprise, her eyes lit up with joy, and she even offered to pay my fees. Cleary, I wasn’t the only one who believed I could have performed better.
I went to live with a friend who was in college at the time since I did not want to burden Mrs Mwaniki; she had lost her husband that January. In May that year however, she welcomed me back to her home.
I sat for my second KCSE examinations In November, 2005. I was 20 years old. As I waited for the results to be announced, Mrs Mwaniki gave me the responsibility of overseeing construction of rental houses she was putting up in Bamburi. At times, she could hand me as much as Sh300,000 to buy building materials. Initially, this would scare me; I had never seen that much money.
WORDS OF AFFIRMATION
Fast forward, to March 1, 2006, the results were announced. That morning, Mrs Mwaniki – I call her mum – called me to tell me that I had scored a straight A. And that my name was in the Daily Nation newspaper. I was the happiest young man in the world on that day.
She later passed by the construction site with a copy of the Daily Nation and happily informed the workers, “I am a good teacher. My son has scored an A.”
These words of affirmation, of acceptance, changed how I perceived myself from that day onwards. I cried with joy.
My younger brother, Osumo, had just completed Class Eight, and I helped enroll him to Aga Khan High School through Assist a Child To School, the same organisation that had educated me. I was paying his house rent, transport and food using my wages from the construction site, where I was earning Sh200 per day.
I was still living with Mrs Mwaniki, otherwise I would not have been able to afford it. I also opened an account and started saving some money to prepare for my university education. I was able to because I had no expenses such as rent and food, and would walk to work.
In addition, the main contractor gave me additional tasks around the construction site, which earned me some extra money.
In July 2006, I got an admission letter to study Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery at Kenyatta University. This remains one of the highlights of my life.
On reporting day on August 27, 2007 I traveled to Nairobi. Luckily, I got university accommodation, which was cheaper than renting off campus. Food was also affordable at between Sh30 and Sh50 a plate.
To cater for my fees, I applied for bursaries and supplemented that with what I would get from HELB.
While in my second year in March 2009 there was a four-month long university strike. I applied for a teaching job in Mombasa Baptist High School, and they hired me to teach Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology. The job paid Sh10, 000 a month, which was like a lottery win for me. The money enabled me to support my brother, Osumo, better.
While here, I realised that most of the students were weak academically, and decided to start home tuition – I would charge Sh300 to Sh500 an hour.
I continued to offer tuition during holiday breaks to earn pocket money and buy text books. Later, in my fourth year, I had managed to save enough to buy my first laptop. Medical books are expensive, and with a laptop, I could access soft copies cheaply or at no cost.
In March 2012 while in my fifth year, I lost my brother Ochieng to meningitis. He died at Mukuru kwa Njenga, in Nairobi, where he lived. He was married and had four children. I couldn’t believe it – first Abock, now Ochieng. My two pillars gone. A piece of my heart died with him.
I sat my final exams that August, and in September 20, 2013, I was 27 years, I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Medicine and Surgery, taking up my internship in April 2014 at Moi District Hospital in Voi.
After my internship, I was posted to Keumbu sub-County hospital in Kisii. The hospital was not very busy, and the theatre was not operational, so I felt underutilised. I therefore requested for a transfer to Kisii Level Five Hospital, a request that was granted.
This is where I am based. I am under the mentorship of surgeons I look up to: Dr Raymond Oigara, Dr Vincent Omeddo and Dr Riogi Bahaty. Besides my full-time job, I also teach part-time at the Kenya Medical Training College (KMTC) in Kisii.
I intend to go back to school to study surgery, which is a timely intervention that saves lives, especially in trauma cases.
FEAR OF POVERTY
My late brothers’ eight children are now in primary and secondary school. Next year, one will join college, and another, Form One. I am paying their school fees, and supporting their mothers.
I have managed to build a house on my father’s piece of land back home, where I am doing a little farming. This has encouraged my brothers to start visiting what was once a deserted home. I may not have achieved much, but there is still time to do what needs to get done.
The fear of poverty is what motivates me to work hard. Our mother often told us, “If you want to eat, you have to work.” My dad in turn laid a strong Christian foundation for us, and on Saturdays, if you did not go to church, there was no meal for you.
I am grateful to very many people for how far I have come. I owe my brother Abock a lot even in his death. He selflessly loved me; I remember he once walked from Kongowea to Likoni to bring me lunch worth Sh20 in school; I meant so much to him.
That act alone motivated me to work extra hard in school. And how could I forget Ochieng? What about Assist a Child To School?
To Mum, Mrs Mwaniki – I cannot thank you enough for welcoming me into your home and treating me like your son. In you I have found a mother. You have taught me that everybody is important, whatever their standing in life.