What Is Praiseworthy

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| This is the 406th story of Our Life Logs |


I was the third child in a family of eight, born in February 1972 in Nairobi, Kenya. For the first few years of my life, all my immediate family lived in a low-income, one-roomed apartment in the city within a close-knit community.

I say this because my mother (whom I attribute my looks and my sharp character to) did not like the city. Every day spent in the confines of our tiny living space made her long for her life in the village where we were originally from. On the other hand, my father (and myself) much preferred the hustle and bustle of Nairobi to the grueling farm work back home. My mother was content being a housewife and toiling in the farms, so she and a few of my siblings moved back, while my father and I remained in the city.

I loved my mother dearly, but as you can see, I spent much of the week with only my father as a role model and mentor.

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From a tender age, it was obvious I had the gift (or maybe the curse) of articulation and a command of language. All I had to do was open my mouth. I sense a bit of this skill was organic, but I do credit much to my father. My father, an easy-going steel fabrication technician, ensured that all of his children would grasp our Dholuo dialect and was always proud to teach us about our culture, the music, the fashion. The unspoken rule of our household was that Dholuo was to be the only language spoken.

And so, my gift of gab was whittled into a device I used to work my way in and out of any situation. The big one: poverty.

Now, I’m not saying that witty language put an abundance of bread on my family’s table. The truth was still the truth. I wore the same attire every weekend. My dad struggled to feed our family. And sleeping on empty stomachs was not even news.

Rather, I was able—even if just for a conversation—to carry myself with the pride of a prince. Because I wanted to fit in with many of my friends who enjoyed the luxuries of life. To do so, I mastered the art of seduction. I became a storyteller. What I lacked in material, I created in imitation and imagination. I explained my deficiencies so convincingly that even folks from affluent families were attracted to me. Unfortunately, deep inside I felt low and inadequate.

It wasn’t the best way to practice my command, but that’s how it happened, for the most part. I became a great communicator, unafraid. I got whatever I wanted through wit and skill. It’s during this time that I wondered if I could turn this escapism realm to a real haven to children. A talent school perhaps!

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I remained a top student throughout my education, but it was Sunday school that became my sanctuary. I was a natural storyteller capable of holding the kids’ imagination as I brought to life the Bible stories I narrated to them. If I couldn’t use my words, then I would draw, mold, craft, and create different forms to show them the stories.

When I grew old enough to seriously consider paths for my future, I began to picture myself opening up a talent school of sorts. Unfortunately, reality has a way of squashing dreams, and my reality was that my school didn’t offer any courses in arts. And, even if they did, would my family and I be able to afford this pipedream?

Instead, I was forced to pick other subjects that I could excel in, even if I wasn’t too crazy about them. And as if fate needed more ways to remind me of my misfortune, I had a friend from Sunday school who constantly confided in me about his school and all the creative arts programs that were offered.

It was difficult for me to be satisfied with the business degree I chose to pursue…especially when my friend (who was no more talented than myself, just born in a better environment) gushed about an upcoming project or display he was struggling to prepare for.

But still, I listened, I gave an extra effort in my studies at school, and I begged my heart to make peace. I managed good scores and qualified for university.

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My exam results brought a bright moment amidst dark clouds hanging over my family. Both my dad and grandmother were ailing. My results were such a boost to his otherwise dull spirit. I was the first among my living relatives to go to a university and he was so proud. Remember the fleeting moments? Well…

Right before I got my admission letter, my grandmother died. And at this, my father’s health took a dive, perhaps from the shock. A few weeks later, he breathed his last.

Suddenly, life was stripped of luster. I felt lonely, cried and experienced panic attacks. Having lived with my father the longest, I was entirely devastated. His death left a gaping hole in my life. My mom tried to support me, but she too was grieving. My foundations were shaken.

Yet, in all these, I had to make my father proud, even though he was no longer living.

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I proceeded to Moi University, in Eldoret where a shocker awaited me. I did not have the prerequisites to enroll in the creative arts. While I felt my dreams wither away, I decided to enroll in the classes that were available to me. I was not about to turn around! I hated accounts, statistics, economics, and business law, but at the end of the day, each was on my schedule. I would have to make do.

I barely managed a degree and was glad to see it all come to an end in 1997. During my schooling, my mother tried to take the reins of the family, but with her loss and eight children to care for, her future seemed grey. Her back-breaking work in the sun-scorched dusty fields of my village in Central Alego took a toll on her as she battled chest infection. Eventually, it was too much. She passed away shortly after I sat for my final exams.

Despite the challenges, my interactions in college through various platforms opened my eyes to greater possibilities. I was thankful that my time at the University brought into my life the beautiful Faiza, my wife, who was an important emotional support system for me and my siblings after the loss of my mother. She took the role of a mother figure and stabilized my emotions. I don’t know if I could have carried on without her.

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The time had come for me to clean my closet of skeletons and take a fresh start at life. Each loss made me realize how fleeting and insignificant my insecurity really was. I realized that while my background sure made life inconvenient at times, it was nothing I needed to hide with flashy words and convincing excuses. I decided to embrace my experiences and see what came from it.

I undertook short projects, often using my skills in art and graphics to provide for my siblings back in the village. I got my first serious job as a marketing assistant in a factory in Nairobi (putting that business degree to work!). I quickly scaled the professional ranks and was soon a Regional Business Manager with Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc. of Africa (SIL Africa), which also operates the Bible Translation and Literacy East Africa (BTL) in Kenya. I maintained my work with children in various churches and affiliated organizations while silently nurturing my dream of establishing a talent school for kids in Nairobi.

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Life took its course and, after having four kids of my own, my desire to establish a talent school begged to be birthed. My friends turned their backs on me when I shared my idea with them, but that didn’t dampen my spirit. My wife and I started saving chunks of my salary towards my dream and had my family tighten their belts for a bumpy ride. My work with kids and youth had given me such an experience that I did not doubt my capabilities to run a talent school.

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My family.

Our vision was to create a Center for Excellence in Siaya County. An institution that will nurture talent, leadership, and learning. One that will be a compromise of a senior school and a talent school. From experience, we knew that despite one’s background, one’s future is strongly determined by their preparation. In poor societies where those responsible for that initial guidance are busy scrounging for basic needs and means of survival, this process is interrupted or inaptly done. The next generation is denied the privilege of adequate preparation and subsequently falls in the same pit as their predecessors. I had to change this narrative.

And so, in 2015, Faiza and I took a leap of faith and moved out of the city and into Siaya County.

We settled for a public primary school in town for two of our elder children and decided to enroll our two younger kids in our talent school. We named our school “Sifa” (Praiseworthy), a name that embodied our dream in a nutshell.

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The sign says it all!

From then on, we hit the road running, using local radio stations and word of mouth to friends about our services. With my marketing experience, I was able to rally parents behind an idea that needs funding, as well as work out a payment plan that is unique to each parent. That way, kids are not constantly sent home overpayment arrears.

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At an event held at the Sifa School with all our students.

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Be it luck or coincidence, since then we’ve seen an increased number of children walking our way every year, and with the help of both local and international partners, we hope to put up a modern complex within Siaya County that will bring international standards home. We are currently running a joint venture with the Siaya County Government to provide equipment and training for Roller-blade sports. We are starting a cycling and swimming club as well. Rugby, badminton, tennis, and other sports are in the pipeline.

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Sometimes, our realities squash our dreams. That’s true. But if we are able to overcome the challenges of life, I believe that our dreams can be our realities. Now, I just have to help others achieve theirs.

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 This is the story of Samuel Otineo

Sam was born to a humble large family that moved to Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya, to provide cheap labor during the independence period. He grew up wishing to hide his poor background by talking his way in and out of excuses and diversions. Despite that, he soon found his true calling right in his gifts when he was able to open up a creative arts school for children of all income levels. Samuel is married and has been blessed with four children who are all going through the training in which he envisions for the young generation through his talent based school idea. Another fun fact—when Sam was in high school, an American missionary couple, Barbara and Bill Kuert, noticed Sam’s talent and enrolled him in a Kid’s TV show in Kenya Broadcasting Cooperation (KBC), the only TV station then. Sam was signed as a Muppet in the Rainbow Surprise show. He believes that this opportunity led him to where he is today.

Sam at the office
Sam at the office.

 

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This story first touched our hearts on June 14, 2019.

| Writer: Opondo Maureen | Editor: Colleen Walker |

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

 

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