Tragedy can either kill you or strengthen you


By James Kahongeh
More by this Author

A distinctly good-humoured manner, careful diction and a winsome smile constitute the first impression that you get of Reuben Favour, 28. He has recorded three songs, is a motivational speaker, and an author of three books.

He also runs a security firm located in Thika town, Kiambu County, and is the founder of a charity that provides street families in Thika with food and clothing.

Commendable achievements for a 28-year-old, right? Underneath these accomplishments however are jagged scars of a young man whose life has been knocked off kilter numerous times.

Reuben’s experiences are almost surreal, baffling, but inspirational all the same. His childhood is markedly bereft of any familial attachment; a despondent life characterised by disease and destitution. Reuben and his siblings endured woe upon woe, upheavals that were mostly orchestrated by their father, a man that drunk too much, was violent, and who shirked his responsibility towards his family. Nevertheless, Reuben has repeatedly bitten the nail and risen above the gale of doom. He has never let the misfortunes that coloured his childhood slacken his willpower to become a worthy person, a resolute young man with a cause and a powerful message of hope to those who may find themselves trampled under the feet of similar tragedies.

“I’m the fourth born in a family of six children. My siblings and I were raised in Kiandutu slum in Thika. My father worked with the then Thika Municipality as a security guard while my mother was a vegetable vendor,” he recounts.

In 1997, Reuben’s mother was diagnosed with a heart condition that would see her in and out of hospital for five years. With their mother’s hospitalisation, and a father who drank too much, the already shrunken resources the family relied on shrunk even further, and Reuben and his siblings had to make do with the difficult option of fending for themselves.

“Most of the times we were under the care of our elder sister, who was 17 then. She would look for food, cook for us and prepare us for school. We were basically on our own.”

It was out of this improper care, misery and despair, that Reuben left home and went to live with the street children in their neighbourhood. He was only eight then.

Reuben Favour Mwangi Githaiga with Joseph Nganga 33 , a street man at Mama Ngina Garden, Thika, Kiambu County on January 26, 2017. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO

Reuben Favour Mwangi Githaiga with Joseph Nganga 33 , a street man at Mama Ngina Garden, Thika, Kiambu County on January 26, 2017. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO

“I dropped out of school while I was in Class Two. This was more bearable than spend the day in school on an empty stomach and return to a hostile home,” he explains.

Street life would completely change the course of his life. At first, Reuben and his new friends would just roam the streets of Thika town engaging in mischief and begging. One day, his friends pounced on him and tossed him into a pool of water and fled. Reuben says that he almost drowned since he could not swim.

“Were it not for passers-by, I would have drowned in that water,” he says, adding that for the three years he lived in the streets, other life-threatening incidents followed in the name of playing.

“It was hell on earth,” is how he describes these three years.

Even as the young boy suffered in the streets, none of his kin, except his mother, was concerned about his welfare. “Whenever she was released from hospital, she would come looking for me. She would beg me to return home, but I would always refuse – what was there at home to motivate me to return? Beatings from my father and sleeping hungry? I was better off eating from dustbins and sleeping in bus terminals, at least I had some peace.”

As time went by and Reuben adjusted to the way of the streets, he started engaging in acts of crime. He and his friends would accost people in some sections of the town, beat them up and rob them.

The gang grew in number and notoriety. They were now a serious security concern for the town’s residents, but every time, they managed to escape the police dragnets. Their party did not last long though, they were arrested during a vicious crackdown that left many of them with bullet injuries. He and his friends were arrested in this crackdown and arraigned in court. They were committed to a correction centre, where they were to stay for five years. For two months, Reuben and 47 other children were held at Getathuru Rehabilitation School in Kabete, after which they were ferried to Othaya Approved School to officially begin their sentence. Now in the confines of a government facility, Reuben, then 12, found himself in class again.

“I was readmitted in Class Three and began my studies.”

But life in the facility was far from cosy. “From teachers who were overly hostile, inadequate food and crammed cubicles, the general living conditions were beyond pathetic. It was nothing quite like a correction centre should be like, much less a learning institution.”

According to him, this was more like condemnation for the boys, most of who would rather have taken their chances in the streets. The harshness of this new reality was insufferable for the boys. Out the batch of 47 who were admitted in 2000, only Reuben and another boy endured the living conditions here.

“The others fled, while three died there,” he narrates.

Reuben Favour Mwangi Githaiga 28, with some of books he has written on January 26,  2017.PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO

Reuben Favour Mwangi Githaiga 28, with some of books he has written on January 26,  2017.PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO

For five years in the borstal institution, and what took a huge amount of Reuben’s forbearance, he contended with the sufferings, chronic deficiencies and hard labour.

“In November 2005, I sat for my Kenya Certificate of Primary School, KCPE, exams. My term also expired. I was now a reformed teenager and at the brink of freedom once again. I felt new,” he says.

In December that year, Reuben was a free man. When the results were announced, he had scored 335 out of 500 marks. “I received an admission letter from Kenyatta High School, Mahiga, in Nyeri County.”

The invitation was both a milestone and mockery to him. Confronted with the reality of his mother’s ill health, his father’s unconcern and a family that was fast disintegrating, clearly, secondary education for Reuben was a long shot.

As luck would have it though, out of the blue, a Japanese organisation, Japan International Cooperation Agency, JICA, offered Reuben a four-year sponsorship that would see him through secondary school.

“My patience had been on an acute wane, and I was staring at a likely return to the streets. It was a miracle.”

It was during his time in high school that the ghosts of his life at the approved school came back to haunt him. “During a lesson, one of our teachers asked us to introduce ourselves. One was to say their name and former primary school.”

Clearly, this was a catch-22 situation for him – Reuben had no option but to reveal details of his incarceration, a revelation which would consequently blow away the cover of a tainted past that he had been determined to conceal forever.

“When I mentioned that I had come from an approved school, the friends I had made shunned me.”

The distance between him and people he had known as his new friends in a new life for weeks effectively dashed what little hope he had been nursing of reforming completely and being accepted by the society.

“They began seeing in me not a classmate, but an outcast who had just been released from jail. I started keeping to myself, and my participation in class skidded off. I had no motivation at all.”

The steady flame of cordiality, of reform and of good conduct that had been building up in him rapidly turned into a fiery fireball of self-loath, resentment for his colleagues and a pounding desire for the worst: suicide.

“It was difficult for me because I believed and even felt I was a changed person. I thought: what’s the point of living anymore when my schoolmates discriminate against me? Can I withstand this for four years?”

Even worse, Reuben’s isolation made some students suspect him to be a mole for the school administration. Whenever he got wind about plans by fellow students to attack him at night, Reuben would slip out and spend the night in the cold. “Sometimes I would sleep in the washroom. Since I shared the same facilities with those who were plotting to harm me, I had nowhere to hide. I thought: the only option is to end my life.”

That first time, the school matron walked in on him just as he had put the noose around his neck.

“It took the initiative and motherly care of a teacher, we called her Mrs Thirimu, who comforted me, assuring me that she knew people who had been through worse. I was put through a counselling programme for weeks.”

Through this therapy, Reuben’s fears were quelled. But only for a short time. He would try to kill himself five more times. Meanwhile, his mother’s health continued to deteriorate.

“She was operated on and would occasionally go to the clinic. Dad on his part lost himself completely into alcohol. While the stay in school was intolerable, at home, the situation was more distressing.”

His mother would never recover. She passed away in December 27, 2006. The agony that this dramatic departure bore in Reuben’s heart, the wound that was incised deep into his spine, was unspeakable. 

“It was a whack of utmost severity that I didn’t imagine I would ever recover from.”

While his initial thought of taking his life had been quietened by his teachers’ reassurances, the tragedy of his departed mother reawakened his temptation to take his own life. Again.

“This time, the urge was hot and heavy. I had no reason to live. I was determined to end the pain that was my life.”

During the vigil following his mother’s death, Reuben took a knife and slipped away. This time, it took the intervention of an uncle who happened to be passing nearby to stop the utterly devastated teenager from harming himself. 

After the burial of their mother, it was decided that Reuben and his siblings were to be divided among their relatives. While he ended up living with his grandmother in Karatina town, Nyeri, their youngest sibling was taken in by a Catholic nun.

After four years of enduring unspeakable labels and insults from his schoolmates, Reuben completed his secondary school education.

“I scored a D+ of 30 points in my KCSE. I had failed. I was in a panic and devastated.”

With broken dreams and an even more broken heart, Reuben went to his late mother’s parents’ home in Kamwangi in Thika. “It wasn’t the best place to be, but what better option did I have? There was nothing worthwhile to do there though.”

With his teenage life in a topsy-turvy state, he needed to chart his next move in life.

“I was once again at the centre of the crucible of a misery-laden life, without hope, and, even more forbidding, the prospect of ending up in the hostilities of street life again.”

He was hapless, scared and confused.

“Soon enough, I left home and started looking for menial jobs in construction sites around Thika town. I had my future staring right into my eyes, I had to do something, however mindless, to secure a livelihood,” he recounts.

With frustrations that characterised the young man’s life after high school, Reuben could not resist becoming a chip off the old block: he soon glided into alcoholism and drugs. It was an easy escape from his troubles, he says.

“I spent all my wages on liquor and yellow yellow,” he says, referring to crystal methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug that alters the central nervous system.

With this indulgence, Reuben’s life had come to a watershed. Until a stranger intervened and he was saved from his self-destructive behaviour.

“This time, it was a church leader. I was vigorously counselled by Pastor Sammy Thuo of End of Times Mission Church in Thika and became a member in this church.”

Pastor Sammy, as he calls him, also financially supported Reuben to enrol for a certificate in Theology at the Presbyterian University.

Left to right - Margaret Muthoni, 24, Reuben, Mwangi Githaiga 28, Stephen Mburu 32, and George Kuria 20. These are just some of the individuals that Reuben, a former street boy, is helping through his charity. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO

Left to right – Margaret Muthoni, 24, Reuben, Mwangi Githaiga 28, Stephen Mburu 32, and George Kuria 20. These are just some of the individuals that Reuben, a former street boy, is helping through his charity. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO

“It wasn’t easy. Challenges got the better of me, but I had to keep going until the end.”

Upon completion of the course, he registered for a diploma. With these developments, Reuben’s life was right on the path of a recovery process.

He says that attending seminars and conferences aimed at youth spiritual empowerment and his stay within the precincts of a church altered his outlook of life, upon which he took a long and confident stride in the right direction.

The young man’s carefully coordinated life between church activities, philanthropy and writing is dramatically different from his earlier life that lacked poetry and order, a young life that had almost irredeemably gone off tangent.

Reuben’s current life is anchored upon a fervent desire to caution people against pitfalls such as domestic violence and alcohol abuse. The principal themes explored in his books are hope and inspiration.

“Since I’m a beneficiary of motivation and psychological support, I’m fired up by the need to inspire other young people who may be just as desperate as I was. It’s an obligation I feel to change lives and give hope to those who might have lost theirs.”

For someone under whose watch and guidance are tens of children and adults, he lives by discipline and punctuality.

“With about 30 children under my wing, occasional motivation talks to deliver in high schools, colleges and universities, my life has become very busy. It requires commitment, industry and alertness.”

When you factor in Reuben’s literary endeavours, his life has had a spectacular switch from a course laden with misery to one that is incredibly eventful.

“It humbles me to see that children and even adults can draw inspiration from my earlier life,” he says, warning parents and guardians against giving up on their errant children.

“I believe that everyone has a chance at change. I had mine, and I made the most of it. I can comfortably say I have won back my bearing in life.”

Reuben and his siblings have since reconciled with their father, who is now retired. His siblings now have their own families and are independent. As for him, his ultimate goal is to set up a children’s facility and help as many street children as possible get a better life.

From the absolute squalor of street life, the burden of incarceration at 12, the death of his mother, stigmatisation by schoolmates, the dragon of drug abuse and shackles of a broken family, Reuben refused to surrender. Instead, he picked up the fragments, rebuilt his life, and is now a source of inspiration, of livelihood and hope, not just to children in similar doleful circumstances of his previous life, but to adults as well.

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