Profiles

Growing up poor with rich dreams

CLIFFREGISB

Clifford Oluoch, School Principal, Regis School in his office on January 27, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

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Summary

  • Sometimes to understand a man, you have to understand the man that raised him.
  • You have to hurtle back in time to the 70s, in a small house in Nairobi’s Jericho, to this father who worked for the City Council as a meter reader while raising six children and a multitude of relatives in a space hardly enough to swing a cat in.
  • You have to ask how this man ended up across the social divide, at Strathmore School, then clawing his way up to become a teacher at Oshwal, Aga Khan Academy, Premier Academy, and now at Regis School.

Sometimes to understand a man, you have to understand the man that raised him.

You have to hurtle back in time to the 70s, in a small house in Nairobi’s Jericho, to this father who worked for the City Council as a meter reader while raising six children and a multitude of relatives in a space hardly enough to swing a cat in.

You have to ask how this man ended up across the social divide, at Strathmore School, then clawing his way up to become a teacher at Oshwal, Aga Khan Academy, Premier Academy, and now at Regis School.

He then started a charity—Homeless of Nairobi —that feeds 150 homeless children daily, houses 31, and schools 38.

“My father knocked on doors he wasn’t expected to knock on,” Clifford Oluoch says. “Because of that, my options to the world opened wide.”

Some of these stories you will find in his memoir “A Perfect Score, Memoirs of a Teacher” — but others you will have to sit down with him as JACKSON BIKO did in the gardens of Elysian Resort, down the road from the school he runs, Regis.

He is very tall, and— at 54— very wide in perspective.

Everybody I have interviewed this year is in their 50s. Did you ever imagine that one day you would be 54?

[Chuckles] I’m turning 55 this year, and it’s the age my dad retired. At 55, he looked ancient. Sometimes I feel ancient, especially when I look at my daughters; Akinyi (25) and Lisa (20).

I feel old when I get a 22-year-old’s CV who wants to work at the school. It doesn’t help that I’m the second or third oldest in the staff of 140 members.

What have been your most regrettable mistakes in life?

Are you a counsellor? [Pause] I won’t call them regrettable, but because of teaching in international schools, my children attended those schools and I didn’t pay school fees or I paid a certain percentage.

I told them recently that if I was to go back I’d send them to public schools instead.

There is a certain grit, a street smartness that people who go to public schools have.

I got it living in Eastlands even though my dad was smart to send us to schools outside Eastlands. I went to Strathmore and my brother went to St Mary’s but we were not of that social status. We realised we didn’t belong. But you realise you’ve got the best of both worlds; you’ve got options.

What lessons did you learn from straddling this social line that helped you as an adult?

Eastlands taught me sociability; everyone in Eastlands is crazily social. That social aspect is something that has been a boost in my career. There is also resilience and grit, a stubbornness that Eastlanders have—we just don’t give up.

So the first time that I walked into a group of street boys I could speak to them in sheng and they accepted me. I wouldn’t have started Homeless of Nairobi had it not been for my experience in Eastlands.

The street children trusted me because they saw themselves in me.

Also humility, there was no way to look down on anyone in Eastlands because we were all down.

[Chuckles] We were all the same. Tribalism was never there. We— Gor Mahia fans—walked to the stadium with AFC Leopard guys, chatting and when the game was over, regardless of fracas or who lost, we would wait for each other and walk back home, together.

You didn’t leave anyone behind. I’ve never known how to look down upon people so much so when I faced racism at my place of work, I was shocked.

How did you and your brother end up in those uptown schools?

One time my dad was reading a water meter at Banda School. He knocked on a mzungu’s office door and inquired about scholarships. He was told they didn’t have any but he could check St Mary’s school.

He went there and knocked on the principal’s door and he was told, ‘let’s see the child first.’ That’s how my late brother was admitted.

Then he asked the principal of St Mary’s if his other son could join and he said, ‘try Strathmore.’ So he went and knocked on that door and applied. I sat for exams and passed. That’s how I got a scholarship. My dad was dutiful, giving everything to his family.

Fascinating that as a meter reader he didn’t see himself as unworthy to knock on those doors when most would be intimidated. Are you the kind of person who knocks on doors you shouldn’t knock on?

That’s what I’m doing with philanthropy. I’ve got about 50 children who we are taking care of. We feed and house some, and it’s expensive. We spend about Sh4 million in school fees and resources needed.

So yes I knock on doors looking for funds and sponsors. The difference between my dad and me is that while he knocked on doors for his children, I’m knocking on doors for other people’s children.

I love that. You never speak about your mother…

I don’t remember much about my late mom. My parents separated when I was hardly five years.

She left and we remained with dad. On holidays, we sometimes would go to her home but there was no deep bond. Our relationship was very formal.

How do you think that affects how you turn up as a man, especially your relationships with say women?

I taught boys in Strathmore, I was tough. Then I became a father of two daughters. I realised you cannot treat a girl the way you treat a boy. They softened me, made me more patient.

I feel that if I had sons I would have become terrible, I would have driven them to the grave.

Are you the kind of guy who is in touch with his emotions?

[Chuckles] What exactly do you mean in touch with his emotions, Biko? I’m very guarded when it comes to emotions.

I always feel that my presence is already an expression enough. [Laughs]. If my girls had a function I’d be there dutifully but don’t expect me to carry flowers.

There is a running joke with my older daughter on why I never say, “I love you” back. [Laughs] I find it difficult to express my love in words.

How did you get your wife then?

Well, how did she get me? [Laughter]. We were neighbours growing up in Jericho so it was a friendship that led to love and marriage. Don’t ask me what my first pick-up line was, must have been, ‘do you love comics?’ [Laughter]

You speak of always carrying your own sunshine, where did you get it from?

This contentment? Not looking beyond my fence at the next guy’s car or house? Maybe from childhood. The moment you look hard at what your neighbour has, you forget what you have.

I appreciate what I have, how far God has brought me, and how I am of service to mankind. I’m a teacher, that’s my vocation. I love children. That’s my work. My sunshine comes from the two.

Have you led a good life?

Yes. I’m proud of being a teacher. It exposes you to small things that people do not appreciate, an innocence that we forget. Dealing with children keeps me young and silly. Children rub on you.

What do you do for leisure?

I read a lot and watch sports. I don’t drink, just wine…occasionally.

Wine is not drinking?

Wine is not drinking. [Laughs] Who’s that who wrote that guys who drink wine pee and guys who drink beer urinate?