- Bottom up
- Community building
Urban Heroes #1: The amazing story of Robert ‘Rowbow’ Ochola
It didn’t look like baby Virgil was going to make it. She was born with an anorectic malfunction; a condition which requires urgent corrective surgery. Yet, doctors were on strike. Nurses made an opening near her ribs, and sent the baby and her mother home, where they waited for doctors to go back to work. An alternative hospital charged around 3000$ for a full surgery. Now, if you live in Matopeni – a slum in Nairobi – collecting this money is definitely beyond your reach, even with help of the humble community. In a last effort to save her baby, the mother reached out to Robert Ochola; probably the most famous resident of the community. This former journalist and radio host managed to create major media attention, resulting in a public fundraiser. Eventually, another hospital picked up the story and offered the surgery for free.
Baby Virgil needs one more hospital appointment, but she is doing fine. Her mother can use the raised money to set up a small business of her choice. Robert ‘Rowbow’ Ochola saved their lives, and they are not the first ones he helped.
“I held the baby and it was a magical moment for both of us; staring into each other’s eyes for 10 minutes. I have won in the race for humanity. Nothing better than this. This is my greatest win for my campaign, it’s far better than any position.”
This inspiring man is now trying to bring change to his community, making sure they won’t be the last either. With his slogan, ‘hope unaweza trust’ (hope you can trust), he is campaigning for the Kenyan elections that take place the 8th of August. He wants to become the MCA (Member of County Assembly) of Ziwani/Kariokor ward; making him the most important political figure in this district.
Robert shows me his ward, as I join his campaign for a day. We visit baby Virgil and her mother in Matopeni, bring condolences to a woman who just lost her husband, and meet a group of concerned ladies in a saloon in Ziwani. Who is this man, what’s his drive and how can he change (t)his decaying neighbourhood?
GROWING UP IN THE SLUMS
Robert grows up in Ziwani Estate, a small slum just minutes away from Nairobi’s rich and crowded central business district. As a young boy, he was confronted with a lot of crime. Shout-outs and gang related crimes ruled the neighbourhood. “You see that junction? A friend of mine was killed there.” Robert points towards a building across the street: “He lived in this house”.
After high school Robert did nothing for a couple of years. “There was nothing to do because my family had 12 siblings.” He explains that most activities to get through the day were hanging around with the boys and playing football. Although he did not consider himself a thug by then, most of his friends were, which got him into trouble as well sometimes.
HOW ROBERT BECAME THE (UNLICENSED) MAYOR OF NAIROBI
Robert moved out of the neighbourhood and lived in Kisumu for a while. But then he got a call that would change his life forever. He heard that his best friend was shot and killed by one of his own gang-members.
“When that guy died, I was so devastated! He was a good kid, ended up in bad things.”
After that incident, his life changed completely. He wanted to prevent any more killings from happening. As such, he dedicated himself to changing peoples’ behaviour, their thoughts and especially their environment. Robert realised that if he wanted to create change, he would first have to change himself.
“My thinking of positivity, my conscience, my attitude; everything changed. That was the first step to where I am now.”
Shortly after, Robert got the chance to go back to school. He studied journalism and public relations in Nairobi, and started making name for himself within the community. After he got a job at Ghetto Radio – a big youth station – things moved very quickly. He generated a national and international network and used the radio to reach out to other communities; practically all neighbourhoods in Nairobi.
“In fact they nicknamed me the Mayor, because I had connections everywhere. In West-Nairobi, I would have breakfast with guys who wanted to do something for their community. During lunch I would go to Kibera and in the evening I would end up talking with some Somali’s in Eastleigh. That’s why I became known as the Major: I was everywhere, it was so good.”
FROM RADIO HOST TO ARBITRARY IN MURDER CASES
Robert explains that due to his popularity on the radio and his physical appearance ‘on the ground’, people started trusting him.
“Communities and youth started communicating their issues to me.”
Robert does interviews and brings people’s social issues on air. Not long after, he starts to really intervene in legal matters within the community.
“People knew I had a bigger voice, because I was on the radio all the time. Most young guys are usually scared of the administration so for them I was a big man; a trusted man.”
As I am wondering about what his ‘interventions’ actually mean, Robert provides me with a rather shocking example. He tells me a story of a young gangster, who had gone on a robbery spree. The boy had already killed one police officer, a woman and injured about 10 other officers. He locked himself in a house, but was cornered by the police special forces. At that time, Robert visited a lot of neighborhoods, always leaving his number behind. That day, the boy called him.
“While he was shooting in the house, he called me because he wanted me to assist him to survive. The only way I could do that is to put the issue on air. So I did that, spoke to him, long conversation, live on radio. Everybody was listening to it. Unfortunately, the situation on the ground was very bad. For the first time in history, the police had sent in the RECKON unit to intervene in a non-presidential matter; they wanted his head. They raided the house and unfortunately the boy died then and there.”
Robert’s extraordinary and endless track record becomes clear as he continues to describe other examples: environmental issues, security cases, social issues.
“I was in court just weeks ago – together with human rights activist Boniface Mwangi, fighting an eviction notice that was send to all the people in the area we are walking through right now. More than 2000 people would have end up homeless, can you imagine?”
HOPE YOU CAN TRUST
It is exactly with this track-record that Robert ‘Rowbow’ Ochola tries now to convince the local community to let him guide them for the next 5 years.
“I’ve given so many opportunities to people here: jobs, permanent employment. That should be enough for them to say: “Hey, you’ve been leading us without this political cloud, without us voting for you, so now we are going to give you this opportunity.”
As an MCA of Kariokor-Ziwani ward, Robert will add two extra means to his toolbox: political power and a budget. With these means, he wants to remove the hopelessness from the place where he grew up, still lives in and – as he emphasizes – will remain living once elected; something that is extremely rare in Kenya.
“People think that I will move out the neighbourhood once I get into office, like most our leaders do. I’m telling them no; I’m going to deal with the same issues as you. If there’s no water here, there is no water in my house! If there is water in my house, there is water here!”
‘Hope unaweza trust’ (Hope you can trust) and ‘Change safi sane!’ (Very clean change!) are two of the slogans from Robert’s campaign. When we stop at what looks like an improvised well, the necessity for change becomes very visible. There is not enough pressure in the new water pipelines, which means that half of the neighbourhood has to wait in line to collect water from a dripping, decades-old pipeline. ‘If there is any of course, most of the time it is completely dry‘, Robert explains.
“We used to shower, but I can’t remember the last time I did. Instead of going forward we are treading backwards!”
LEGACY’S: WHAT REMAINS OF YOU WHEN YOU ARE GONE
The community is hungry for change, and Robert is determined to leave a footprint: a legacy. A lot of his plans target the youth. Kenya’s population is one of the youngest in the world, but unemployment rates are skyrocketing. The government seems unable to generate jobs for this new generation, leaving the mostly uneducated youngsters in this neighbourhood far behind.
“Young guys have no future here. Currently the best they can get is indulging in alcohol. Cheap alcohol that is destroying their kidneys, their liver. Some people here are drunk 24 hours a day.”
In his manifesto (coming out soon), Robert tackles this problem with a new education system, by means of sports and other recreational activities. Once more, it becomes clear that even without political ambitions, he already made a huge effort to set things in motion. Robert is the CEO of Kothbira Football tournament: Kenya’s biggest offseason football tournament which takes place at the local football field in the neighbourhood, the field where he still plays every night.
“I’m telling you, for three months, all media and newspapers camp here to follow that tournament. There is a life-stream, everybody knows it.”
ROBERT’S RARE LONG TERM POLITICAL VISION
Robert is – as with so many topics – thinking far ahead; something which is also quite rare in Kenya. He wants to develop a professional football field on this quite poorly looking piece of county government land. During the day, Robert can rent out the field to professional teams, while in the evening, the field can keep neighbourhood kids away from trouble.
“I’ve seen what a football field can do for a community; it will change the economics of this place. Even this afternoon we could have a Kenya premier league training here”.
Not for the first time during our conversation, Robert talks about all kinds of activities and new ideas he wants to introduce for the community: karate and boxing inside the building, theatre, dancing, special programs for girls, and a whole new agenda for older people. The question remains: (how) is this all possible?
OUR WARD: YOU ARE REWARDED
Most of the ideas from Robert’s manifesto are based on one vital decision: a critical legacy he wants to leave behind. For this, he wants to introduce a proper social welfare system under the name ‘Our ward: you are rewarded’. With the introduction of this system, Robert is planning a project no other Kenyan politician has ever considered.
“After a long discussion with my wife, I’ve decided to use half of my standard MCA salary (about 1500$ a month) to fund this social welfare system.”
By residing in his own neighbourhood, among his own people, Robert is able to limit his living expenses, and realise this plan. His rent is low, and he has no fancy swimming pool to take care of. This extraordinary long term plan makes Robert “Rowbow” Ochola a truly unique and inspiring person. Although already proven in many cases, his vision and future plans are backed by a humble and solid financial structure. This is something that distinguishes him from, in his words, the false promises of his competitors.
“So these are things I can actually realise. When I become the MCA, I can do them. I’m not promising things I know I can’t deliver. I’m promising things from which 80 to 90 percent I can actually achieve in the next 5 years. I can continue with the last ten percent if I get another chance.”
Robert is ready to expand his amazing track record with the local political mandate from his people. He wants to leave a legacy and be remembered.
“I want any kid who is born in my administration to know who this guy was. Cause one day I will die, and I want people to say, that is a great man who died, only that.”
Although that might sound a bit selfish, his ambition and determination make him one of the most fit candidates to bring clean change to this neighbourhood in decay. Good luck with the campaign Robert! Change Safi Sana!!
This article was published on The Urban Detective. You can access the original version here.