Well-known gospel musician Gilbert Ngaira walked a thorny path to success. Abused as a child, he ended up living on the streets, but through determination and luck, has pulled himself up and pursued his education as well as his love of music.
Now a respected musician and university student in Kenya, Ngaira shares his thoughts on his past struggles, current success, and future possibilities in this interview with The New Times. He was recently on a study tour in the country to market their university.
TNT: Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
Ngaira: I am called Gilbert Ngaira. I am 24-years-old, I come from a town called Eldoret, about 250km from Nairobi. I am in my second last year at Daystar University studying marketing.
I am the firstborn in my family, with three brothers and 2 sisters.
The two oldest of us are of one mother, whom we do not remember. Our mother divorced when I was two-years-old, and my brother was only three months.
Due to the growing up without love and care of a mother, we left home for street life, which street life we also left after finding the love and care we longed for. By the time we were old enough to remember, we found a stepmother, who is a mother of the other four.
TNT: Can you tell me how you ended up on the street?
Ngaira: I left home in 1993, I was 12-years-old, in primary 5. I left with my brother who was ten. We stayed on the street for 4 years. What drove us to the street was mistreatment at home.
Things were ok for us before, our stepmother treated us well, but then things suddenly changed negatively. She started denying us food, falsely accusing us of doing bad things, and we could be beaten without reason.
In the morning, we could have breakfast when dad was there, but at lunch time not eating was a sure deal because in most cases, dad was not there. Supper depended on the presence of dad.
For a while we could only eat if our dad was there. In most cases dad did not know what was happening to us…Dad was also a church person, thus absent most of the time. We suffered a lot.
I could not cope with my mum, as a result I sought somewhere I could find love and peace, and the only option was the street, where I could stay with fellow children. My brother and I made a decision at once and left home to live on the street.
After leaving home we went to the nearest shopping centre, and interacted with the street kids because we knew them.
But they could not easily accept us. Street kids in Kenya live in groups, each with a leader, and no one would accept us to join their group.
We had to form our own group of four. It was my brother, me and two new children we met who also had no group. I became the group leader. The other two were younger than me but stronger physically.
TNT: How did the groups work?
Ngaira: We looked for things to help us survive on the street, like things to use at night. We would look for sacks to cover ourselves with at night, because it could be cold.
Because other groups would have 12 people, group leaders would remain at the base as others went to look for food and other supplies. After getting something, they would bring it back and share.
Our group was very different. We were only four people so I had to work with the others. We went together looking for food, sacks and literally did everything together. After a while, we started moving from one town to another.
We went through three towns and finally came back to our home town. We would first patrol the town, as to get to know the type of street kids there, the type of food and life on the street in the town. They were things we needed to know before staying there.
We never ate food from the garbage; I would gather polythene papers from Paul’s Bakery, then go and give them to ladies selling food, who in return gave me food which could be at least enough for the four of us.
My group mates looked for plastic and metal pieces and sold them. Then we decided what to buy, which in most cases were cigarettes, food and glue. The money they made could ensure that we have glue and the sacks.
TNT: Was the street really better than your home?
Ngaira: Oh yes! The street was better than home. No one could convince me to go back. Dad tried several times to take us back but failed. Sometimes he took me home and I came back on the street. I only found out later that I lacked that peace at home.
TNT: Then how did you get off the street?
Ngaira: After four years, on my way to Paul’s Bakery for polythene papers, I saw a white man who had a land cruiser written on Jesus loves me.
His name was Michael Miswarnd. He was German but spoke Swahili. He came to me and told me he has an orphanage for street children, with many former street children.
He told me that what he does is find out who they are, reconcile them with their families, and support them with school fees.
I was not happy with the reconciling part, but happy with the rest. So I accepted to go with him. When I reached there I found 350 boys who had been living on street.
We were only boys because he only took boys. He had a friend who took only girls. When we got there, I told him about my brother and my friends. We went back that same night and brought them.
Among the 350 children, 150 were musicians and played guitar. Since I used to sing when I was young, I started to sing and was put in the choir. I became one of the best singers.
Then one of the boys taught me to play guitar. As soon as I could both sing and play guitar, in 1997, I moved to another orphanage to teach kids there how to play guitar. I was put in Primary 5 and started studying.
The orphanage paid my school fees and took complete care of me. From there I was able to teach 3 boys guitar, who later taught many others.
From that orphanage I was adopted by a woman from Daystar University. She paid for my school fees in 1998 and 1999. She rented a house for me and gave me food. I only cooked for myself.
Around the end of 1999, I started attending St. John, an Anglican church near Daystar. I was elected as the choir leader though I was young. The congregation used to pray under a tree.
Then white missionaries financed our church construction, and I volunteered to help build the church. The missionaries became curious and wanted to know me more. When I talked to them and explained about myself, they decided to support me.
The woman who had adopted me allowed them to adopt me. Then they paid my school fees from Primary 8 through high school.
My new sponsors left when I was in form two, and left me under the care of their friend. Since they had agreed to help me complete only high school, after high school I had to look for other means.
I felt I could not continue being under other people’s care. After completing and getting a driving permit, I volunteered in an orphanage as a driver, cook and music instructor.
With some CDs I had recorded in my last year of high school, I started selling them in church and different places. I was also supposed to go to the US to present and sell the CDs but failed to get a visa.
But I sent the CDs to the states and most of them were sold. Among the people who bought the CDs was a couple who decided to pay my university fees. Thus I ended up at Daystar University.
TNT: Have you gone back to your family?
Ngaira: Yes! In my first year in high school, I felt like I had forgiven everyone, especially my stepmother. So I decided to go home and forgive her and my dad.
TNT: Where is your brother now?
Ngaira: From the orphanage, my brother went to Uganda because my paternal granddad is Ugandan. An uncle took him to school but he dropped out.
Another uncle taught him welding and auto repair, and he started working with a transport company in Uganda. He has also reconciled with the family.
TNT: Do you now know the whereabouts of your mother?
Ngaira: No. Up to now I have not bothered to ask my dad about my mum because God has provided me with parents. I think at the right time I will ask my dad if my mum is alive.
TNT: What do you attribute your success to?
Ngaira: All my thanks giving and appreciation goes back to God. God has great plans for me.
TNT: How do you hope to extend that goodness to others?
Ngaira: My heart is to give to society. I feel I should help the less advantaged in Africa whenever I can. I feel with music I will produce albums and have enough money to donate funds, depending on the needs of society.
TNT: Any final message to the public?
Ngaira: My message is that people should not take the less fortunate for granted. Let them help where they can, for they don’t know what these people will become in future.
They may become great people in the society or the worst people in the society like thugs, putting Africa in chaos. But that will depend on how people treat them, and how they take the responsibility.