OYOO - MY STORY
My name is Geoffrey Ochieng. They call me Oyoo, which comes from the name of my great grandfathers.
I do stand-up comedy, script writing, script developing, I’m a street performer… so many things! But the one I do most is comedy and video production, to make sure the message comes across. About the comedy, I started it way back, in 1995. I remember the first time on stage: My role was a cow! The play was about Jesus’ birth, on Christmas day. I was not Jesus, I was not Maria or Joseph… I was given the role of a cow. Jesus was crying, and I said “mooh, mooh”. That’s when I started with comedy.
From the slum to a world’s stage. It really started with a big bump in 2006 when we went to the Kenyan national theatre. We started with small auditions here and there. There might be some that you are losing. But in 2009, there was a talent search for comedians all over Kenya. It was called “TopComic” and was organized by one of the biggest comedians of the country today, Churchill. I thought “ok, let me go and try it”. Arriving there, the line was just huge! My number was 541 out of more than 5’000 people from Kisumu, Mombasa and Nairobi, Kenya’s three megacities. Out of all these people, they wanted only 32. They told us that if after two weeks we hadn’t got a call, we would be out of the game. Since I didn’t have a phone myself, my brother told me after one month that they had contacted him, and that they wanted me. Out of almost 6’000 people, they had selected me into the top 32, I couldn’t believe it. Then, they said: “Let’s make 15 out of the 32”. So we went on stage and performed, and I made it to the top 15. Then they selected only six. I tried again. It was on air, so you could see people voting all over Kenya. I made it to the top 6 again. Now was the time for the big match, the finals. With the support that I got from the Kibera people and all over, I managed to become the top comic. I won first prize.
I was born and brought up in Kibera. My Mom was a single mom. My father had passed away when I was young, about two years old. There were five of us, now we are three. Two of my brothers have passed away. Now there is my younger brother Philip Oyoo (Phlex), my older brother Wycliffe Omondi Oyoo, and me. One of the most important people in my life was my mother. She was so funny! She didn’t know that, but she was so funny! When people came over, she used to make a lot of jokes, and everybody was laughing. Or my brothers. Some of the jokes that made me be the top comic were made a long time ago by my brothers. I just remembered them, and their jokes made me be where I am today.
My mother always supported me a lot. She did everything for her five boys. She made sure there was food, there was shelter, there were clothes for us, and also education. Sometimes she was not able to pay the education for us, so she went and looked for scholarships. A ministry called “special ministry” paid school fees for children in Kibera by getting funds from abroad. There was a woman called Newman. I will never forget her, because she was making sure we got our funds, not only me but a huge number of kids. They were going to school thanks to that lady. Newman helped me, my mother helped me, and my brothers have been so supportive in everything. And of course, the Kibera community and Kica. We help each other to move forward.
All my life I’ve lived in Kibera, and I’ve learnt a lot. I’ve seen many places, but this is my home. I love this place so much because there is a lot of love. Even though life here might not be easy, there is something here that is hard to be found outside of Kibera: The love. Here you will find so many kinds of people. You will find people who are laughing, you find children, women, youth… You engage with them and you gain a lot. And you know, most of the jokes I was making, they were based on Kibera. People that were not from Kibera were laughing, because they thought: “That must be a joke”. When you tell somebody: “I’m paying the rent of 150 shillings, that is like 15 chapatis! 15 chapatis and you have your rent for a whole month.”, they find this funny because they can’t believe it. You see, if you tell this to somebody that is maybe paying 100’000, imagine how many chapatis he would get. So, Kibera is a place where you learn a lot. They say that if you can live and survive in Kibera, you can stay anywhere around the world. Because it teaches you everything. It’s like a college. A college on life.
Life lessons. There was a time when within one year, in 2009, I lost so many important people. First, my brother. It was funny because when I was at TopComic, it was on a Friday that we were doing the finals. It was on air, live on TV: “Today we are going to announce the winner. We have six finalists, and today, the winner is Geoffrey Ochieng”. This was at 9pm. At 9am, twelve hours later, the news came that I had lost my brother. When I was going to the finals, my brother was going to the hospital. He was going to the hospital, and me, I was going to the stage to make people laugh. Something that is not very easy. People were telling me: “This is not Oyoo that we were seeing the other days, your jokes have changed. You are different.” That was because there, I was just thinking about my brother. Because when he was going to the hospital, he told me: “Hey brother, good luck!” It was the last thing he told me. The good luck came, but he was not there. After one day I was told: “He is no more.”
Eleven months later, my mother followed. And then, my daughter followed. In those moments, I told myself: “Maybe this is the time I am learning. I need to become very hard.”
When my brother died, I told myself that I was not going to do comedy again. Because he had been my number one fan. He was following me all the time. “Today I am going to see my brother on TV”, he would say. We didn’t have a TV in our home, so we were going to see it on video somewhere else. Here in Kibera there are some places you can go and pay to see videos, like a showroom. So I used to go there to see myself. I went there and paid to see myself, it was funny somehow. “But now, my brother is no more. Why should I continue with comedy?”. It really affected me, and it took about one year that I was not interested in comedy. People asked: “Where is that boy? Where is that boy that became the winner?” But I couldn’t. I didn’t have the energy to be funny in front of people. It took some time. And until today, the energy reduced. But I’m continuing.
Back to stage. I’ve been performing on some of the biggest comedy platforms we have here in Kenya. The Churchill show is the biggest, then there is Kenya Kona, Laugh out loud (LOL), Laugh Festival, Allstar Comedy Night and others. I’ve been performing in all of these. There, I met so many people. This is probably one of the reasons why Simon and I started Kica back then. The organization started officially in 2006, but before we were already having comedy related activities. People were looking at us and they thought: “Oh, there is actually something coming out of this”. So they joined us. They were right, great things have happened. For example, one of today’s biggest comedy artists is called Mammito. She was there with us.
There is so much inspiration everywhere. The first thing is that when you are a comedian and you make somebody laugh, this is a big achievement. You are bringing a smile on their face. Then you feel from the bottom of your heart, “I’ve done something”. Most people have some inner frustration. And when you can bring this out through laughter, you feel that this is good. One more inspiration are the other artists, not even necessarily comedians. The other artists at Kica, growing up and doing something. If you see how much they want to grow and then they do it, they perform somewhere, you feel inspired.
Within one year, I felt better. And once the memories came back, they were not as strong as before. Art was also helping me overcome it, and the friends I had met through it. For example when I lost my mother, my friends from TopComic came to my home to cheer my up and help in many different ways. You know, losing a mother is not an easy thing. I was stranded. “What next?”, I thought. But the artists came together. Even before she died, when she was weak and sick, they came to my house. We were planning a show, the TopComic’s six finalists together. We formed a team, and this was so supportive. This is art.
And then again. I was married in 2010. In 2013 I lost my daughter. There was a time I went to perform in Mombasa. It was not even a performance but something like a roadshow, two days before the elections. We comedians were told to go around the cities of Kenya and preach peace. When I went there, I was called by my wife. “Wendy is very sick”, she told me. Then the phone went off. I tried to call. I called my neighbour and asked him: “What is happening there?”. “Your daughter has swallowed something”, he said. “She choked.” In the background, there were people screaming. “I need to go home.”, I told the group. “My daughter has passed away.” She was two years old.
Now thanks God I have another daughter. She’s called Alma Adhiambo Oyoo. Her first name means “soul” in Spanish. She’s now 4 years old. I’m very happy and life is continuing.
When things happen now, I just think: “Okay, I have seen worse than that.” In my life, I have lost five of my most important people. If you are weak, you can even lose yourself. I know some people who have seen their loved ones passing away. Some of them would even poison themselves, or at least become depressed. What has helped me for sure was being together with the people. It’s very important. You’ll get comfort through them. When you are with people, and when you do what you love, like I do acting, you start forgetting the bad things slowly but surely. If you are home alone, you are chased by memories. But once you are with others, things are better. Sometimes people tell you their stories. They will be different from yours. Maybe the other person’s story is even bigger than yours. You understand: “I can listen to his story. And if I compare my story with his, maybe mine is a peanut.”
The beginning of something new. Quite a long time ago, Simon and I were sitting down together. We had seen that so many young people were losing their lives or getting themselves into very bad activities. Some of them were getting into crime, the ladies might go into prostitution. And even me, I don’t want to lie and say we were always good boys. There were some things we were doing to this community that if we had continued doing them, maybe today we wouldn’t be alive. Probably some of us would have been shot or murdered by the community, or in jail. But we sat down and asked ourselves: “What can we do with these young people here?”
At the time I didn’t know I was a comedian. I thought I could sing, so we did some reggae music. We invited people to join us. There was no office, so people were sitting on the street. We just called them and said “Oh hey, you are the secretary, you are the chairman…” We didn’t even know how to write these things, we just did them. The organization grew little by little. It started like a youth group, and today, it is an official community-based organization with the name Kibera Creative Arts (Kica).
Up to this day, of course we also went through a lot of challenges. At one point, we almost gave up. There were some people joining that were causing a lot of trouble, and this was not what we wanted. We had to stop it for some time. But we realized that these were only people who didn’t have the vision, who only came to bring chaos. And that there are other people than these. We know it was worth it and we continued.
I think Kica made the community be united. Before, it was disintegrated. But through all the artists and what they do, we have managed to bring people together.
To give one example, we have done the Uchaguzi Bila Fujo concert. It was a show for peace, just before the elections. Tribalism is a big problem when it comes to elections, so we told people to stand together. I’m pretty sure it had a great impact, because we didn’t see anybody losing his life.
We are working with many different kinds of people, and with many ages. A lot of them are young. They can find themselves in a very challenging age. Sometimes we need to tell them: “Hey, the path you are taking will bring you in trouble.” They can not always estimate the consequences of what they are doing, so we try to be there for them. Even if some of the young people are coming here and they are not getting anything out of it, it’s still better than going out there and doing stupid things. It’s giving them an alternative. Even the parents tell them: “You go and dance!”. They are glad to know that their kids are not on the street.
“Sanaa ni kioo cha jamii”, art is the mirror of the community. This is our motto. Art is able to change the community in so many ways. First, it can give you a little income, and you bring it back to the people. Maybe you record a song, and then you sell it. Then, you can use your arts to spread a message. You will have a little influence if you sing your song, or if you act in front of people. Talk about the importance of being together, talk about corruption! You can use that influence to bring change to the community. You see, art is very important. It shows other things than the ones you can see with your two eyes.
Our long-term plan is to build a school of arts, where people can learn different kinds of arts. You understand that sometimes, arts can make you sit with the kings. And we can come up with projects. We are working on so many things. There are our actors who are working on their play “Madame Speaker”. The Made In Kibera Live Band is practicing a lot and is being invited to different musical platforms, like lately the audition in front of the presidential commission. Our dancers are rehearsing… So we’d like to bring all these projects together under one roof and make people grow. The biggest challenge Kica is facing at the moment is about the space. There are many people wanting to join us and we can not accommodate them.
Kica is always trying to find solutions. Some time ago we sat down with Kubuka, a Spanish organization which is operating in Kenya. They helped us with a fundraising, so that we could open our studio. Now, through little incomes like the one getting out of the arts and crafts or the productions fees, we are able to pay the rent for the locations and don’t have to go to bed hungry. Of course, there are still many things to do.
Being an artist in Kibera. For the moment I’m working on funny short clips to put them on YouTube. Apart from that, I’m mostly doing videos with the “Made In Kibera Production”. And if there is a performance somewhere, I sometimes call in order to do something with the people.
Currently I’m working on a TV show project. You will hear more from me once it’s out.
It’s difficult to make a living out of this, but it’s possible. For example when I was working with Kenya Kona, they paid me well. But the program stopped. When I’m called to be an MC or to write a script somewhere, I make my living out of that. I’m eating art. I’m sleeping art. Everything is art.
There are many challenges for artists, in Kenya and in whole Africa. People don’t take you seriously. That’s one thing. And then, there is the income. What is funny is that some people might think you are very rich. Fame comes with money, they believe. But it’s not true. I’ve performed on some of Kenya’s biggest stages and still didn’t get a lot of money. And then they think: “This person is rich and doesn’t want to share with us.” It’s wrong. They see your smile, but they don’t know what you are going through. Nobody knows what is inside of you. Sometimes the community does just not understand what art is all about.
The biggest challenge for artists in Kibera is that there is no place to do rehearsals. Thank God we are able to rent this Sidarec hall, where our talented people can do what they love. It’s helping so much. Back then, I didn’t have any space for rehearsing. And there are so many artists out there who have the same problem. The Sidarec hall is for sale now. Maybe tomorrow, someone buys it and our place is gone.
For the musicians, there comes another problem: For you to go and record your songs, it’s just not affordable. That’s the reason why we came up with our studio, “Made in Kibera Productions”. It’s giving Kibera artists the chance to record for little money. They don’t have to go to town anymore to do that, and it’s more affordable.
Then, the platforms. The Kenyan radio, TV… They are not playing local music. This is a big, big problem. Who should we sell our music to?
There are also a lot of good things about being an artist, of course. Winning the TopComic was so incredible, out of 6’000 people. The whole country watches it on TV. And… You are from Kibera! Where people say that there is nothing good that comes out of there! The best comedian is coming out of Kibera? It was something so inspiring.
If I could change things in Kibera, I would make sure there is good education. That it’s up to the international standards. Only because we live in these houses here, it does not mean that we should not have good education. And if I had the chance, I’d bring music and arts back to the schools. People should know its importance. I’ve been reading so much about universities abroad. There are universities just about arts! This is incredible!
You learn for life: If you go stand in front of people to sing your song, maybe one day you will be a leader. You can stand in front of people, get confidence and do good. Learning is the most important thing. Knowledge is power!
My biggest dream is, one day, to see many, many artists that Kibera has created. What we have done so far is little. But it shows that if we continue, we can do something much bigger!
My message to the community: Never lose focus. Once you set your eyes on something, work hard and you’ll get it. No matter what, you’ll get it. I was a comedian, and along the way, I have lost some of my most important people. But I still tried, and I stayed focused. You are the one that can make yourself go or that can make yourself stop. So, set your eyes on the prize, and work towards it!
And something else: It does not matter where you come from. If you are from Kibera, or if you live in a very fancy house. Nobody should look down on somebody else, and nobody should look down on themselves. We can all do it! Working hard, we will all go forward.