Urban Heroes #1: The amazing story of Robert 'Rowbow' Ochola
“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.”
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 for her near ribs and sent the baby and her mother home, where they waited for doctors to get back to work. An alternative hospital charged around 3000$ for full surgery. If you live in Matopeni – a slum in Nairobi - collecting this money is definitely beyond your reach even with help from 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 free surgery.
Baby Virgil needs one more hospital appointment, but 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 his first.
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 when 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 is confronted with a lot of crime. Shoot-outs and gang related crimes rule 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 much 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 does not consider himself to be 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 moves out of the neighbourhood and lives in Kisumu for a while. But then he gets a call that would change his life forever. He hears that his best friend is 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 changes completely. He wants to prevent anymore killings from happening. He dedicates himself to changing peoples’ behaviour, their thoughts and especially their environment. Robert realises that if he wants to affect 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 gets the chance to go back to school. He studies journalism and public relations in Nairobi and starts making name for himself in the community. After he gets a job at Ghetto Radio – a big youth station - things move very quick. He generates a national and international network and uses 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 Mayor: 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 communication their issues to me.” Robert does interviews and brings people's social issues on air. Not long after, he also starts to really intervene in legal matters.
“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’m wondering about what ‘interventions’ could actually mean, Robert provides me a rather shocking example. He tells me a story about 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. By 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 mind-blowing 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 Robert ‘Rowbow’ Ochola now tries to convince his 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 in the place where he grew up, still lives 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). Change safi sana! (very clean change!). When we stop at what looks like an improvised well, the necessity of change becomes very visible. There is not enough pressure in the new water pipelines which means 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 activities. Again it becomes clear that even without political ambitions, he already made a huge effort to put things in motion. Robert is the CEO of Kothbira Football tournament: Kenya’s biggest offseason football tournament which takes place on the neighbourhood’s local football field; the field 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
But Robert is – as with so many topics - thinking far ahead; something which also seems 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 Rowbow can rent out the field to professional teams, while in the evening the field can keep neighbourhood kids away from the bottle.
“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 Robert is pounding me with all kinds of other activities and new ideas he wants to introduce. Karate and boxing inside the building, theatre, dancing, special programs for girls, a whole agenda for older people. But (how) is this all possible?
OUR WARD: YOU ARE REWARDED
Most ideas from Robert’s manifesto are based on one vital decision: a critical legacy he wants to leave behind. Robert wants to introduce a proper social welfare system under the name ‘Our ward: you are rewarded'. With the introduction of this system Robert is going to pull a stunt no other Kenyan politician has ever done.
“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 costs of living and realise this plan. His rent is low and he has no fancy swimming pools to take of. His very extraordinary, long term plans make Robert “Rowbow” Ochola a truly unique and inspiring person. Although already proven himself in many cases, his vision and future plans are backed by a humble and solid financial structure. Something that distinguishes him from the (in his words) 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 extend his amazing track record, but now with the mandate of his people. He wants to leave a legacy; to 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 probably the most fit candidate to bring nice clean change to this neighbourhood in decay. Good luck with the campaign Robert! Change Safi Sana!!