Clifford Chianga Oluoch has been running a feeding programme for street children and families for a few years now. The organisation he co-founded - Homeless of Nairobi - feeds and helps take them back to school.
The BBC called him “Nairobi’s Messiah” in an earlier interview.
His day job is an educator. He has been teaching for 30 years and is currently the headteacher at Premier Academy. He has also published 13 books.
You could have done a million things with your life, yet you decided to feed street children. Why?
Why not? (Laughs). I grew up in Eastlands, okay?
You’re a tough guy?
Yeah, I’m a tough guy. (Laughs) I grew up in abject poverty, in the sense that one meal a day was almost standard. So I know what hunger is, I know how it feels to wear your school uniform on Sunday because that’s your best. And the thing is that at the time everyone was going through more or less the same thing, so it didn’t look as bad.
What’s the most profound lesson you’ve learnt about these street children?
One is that human beings are all the same — this means inherently selfish. Those guys, for lack of a better word, appreciate things, but they also take things for granted. You know, like that handout mentality is one thing that I have had to break. Because initially it was like you bring them food and that kind of thing, but ownership and accountability is just not there at times.
You have a 30-year- old street guy who thinks like a four- year-old kid. You know, they imagine I will solve everything. If I showed you the messages on my phone, there’s this guy who has a toothache and is waiting for me to give him money to go and get the tooth extracted. Initially I used to do it, but after sometime I told them no. I have identified these Nairobi county government clinics. Go there.
If you imagine about poverty or think about it, what’s that smell that reminds you most of poverty?
(Pause) It’s difficult. And one of the reasons is that sometimes when you’re poor, you don’t even know that you are poor. Because everyone around you is more or less the same. You had tattered clothes, everyone had tattered clothes. Some ate githeri everyday, others ate ugali and sukuma wiki everyday. You didn’t think about it until Buru Buru Estate came up and the children there looked different. Then you realised you were poor.
Buru Buru guys spoilt it for you.
(Laughs) Yeah, they did.
What were your ambitions back then?
Just to finish school and go to university. You just knew that as long as you got to this level of education, you were fine. So finish your Form Four, you’re fine. Finish your ‘A’ Level, you’re fine. Go to university, you’re finest. You’re sorted. You won’t tarmac. In fact, employers would come looking for you.
Because what you are doing right now is quite selfless I’d say. What then, is your extravagance?
(Chuckles) I don’t have any.
You don’t have any extravagance? How do you treat yourself?
A good book, a good movie, good football. I hardly take holidays, but if we do, we take as a family. I was discussing with someone yesterday, it was pretty much the same thing; I care about so many people, so who is taking care of me? But we didn’t grow up in situations whereby we used to take holidays. To us life was just one continuous happening…
Where do you find excitement now?
I would say the projects that I’m involved in. That excites me. When I write a book and it’s published that is exciting. Like right now kids are going back to school, just seeing those guys who were brought in the streets in uniform, and looking transformed is what gives me a kick.
Other than that, I’m a passionate educator, so I’m also heavily involved in actual teaching, in actual development of curriculum. So for me when I look at something and I change it and it’s actually implemented within the system, I’m excited.
In all the previous schools I’ve been to, I’ve left a mark. Sometimes I go back and guys tell me, “by the way, we’re using what you’d started or implemented.”
Thirty years dealing with kids means you must know and understand them. How, would you say, parents can better manage their children’s upbringing?
If you go back to any sport, or any career, they always tell you basics, basics, basics. I think parenting boils down to just basics. It’s just about bringing up your kids to be responsible human beings. Not to be rich, not to be wealthy, just responsible human beings.
You know, when our parents were beating us, they wanted us to be more respectful. For example, if I disrespected you, they’d beat me up. I think parents have just lost the basics and when you look at the basics, they’re so fundamental. They are now what companies are calling core values. My thing is this; what did not break you as a child then will not break your children now.
You know that expression “Spare the rod and spoil the child”? I think it has been overtaken by events. Do you think we should go back?
We shouldn’t. But then, it can be cultural as well, because of certain situations. Like in the village, that’s the only thing they can understand. But kids who are exposed and demonstrate deep understanding don’t need it.
What were your parents?
My dad worked with the City Council (now Nairobi county government) as a purchasing officer. My mum was a housewife. My dad passed on last year, my mum eight years ago.
What do you fear the most?
(Laughs) Dying before my wife.
I know the struggle it takes to bring up kids. So to me all this toughness of taking care of street kids, I know I can manage. I’m not sure if she can.
What’s your wife’s strength then?
She is a good mobiliser. She’s a typical mother in the house.
You are turning 50 in October. What’s the best advice you have received in five decades?
(Pause) My dad kept on saying that there are only two people you can trust; both your parents.
So now you don’t trust anybody?
It’s just that when he said it, I didn’t think much about it. But you realise that the people who will regret letting you down will always be your parents. It’s not that I don’t trust. By the way, I trust a lot. And because of that, a number of guys have taken advantage. But I’ve always said, it’s okay, you can only do it once, not again.
What sort of people do you attract as friends?
I have never thought about it that way. Because even if you look at the kind of friends I have, they are either people I’ve grown with, or worked with for long periods of time. I think mostly passionate people, and people who are not wild, if I may use that word. (Laughs).
So you are more of a very tame person, huh? You don’t drink, you are home early…
Boring husband (Chuckles)
Or dream husband…
(Laughter) Or dream husband, maybe. I don’t know.
You don’t drink. You do philanthropic work. What’s your sin.
(Laughter) That’s a hard question.
Are you enjoying marriage?
I am. Definitely. I love the companionship.
What kind of 40s baggage do you think you’ll be dragging into your 50s?
Courtesy of my Jericho background, material things don’t count. They’ve never counted. For that reason, I’m the last person to think of mortgage and retirement. I’ll live the moment.
When my dad was dying, he called me to his death bed and handed me all the money he had and gave me a list of everybody who owed him money, then he said, “That’s Sh70,000, take it and use it to by my coffin.”
The most important thing for me is to educate my girls; one is in university now and the other is in Tear 10 at the school I head.
Would you want to pay for your own coffin?
I wouldn’t mind. Not just for the coffin, even for my funeral.
You’re not a part of the Luo Council of Elders, so you cannot speak for them. But what’s your opinion? Should they reconsider how they send off the dead?
That’s a very good question. I love it. First, one is to be buried anywhere. You don’t have to be buried at the village. Somehow along the way they missed it because at some point our funerals became an eating place for the whole village.
A quick comment on the 8-4-4 education system?
It’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with it. I have worked with 8-4-4 teachers and students and they are brilliant. But my concern is on how it is delivered. It makes KCPE and KCSE exams the most important thing, in between is not as important. That should be sorted out. That is what I’m worried about.