His voice comes in waves. When he is talking about his childhood, it rises in urgency and he tumbles over his words. His tone reduces to a whisper when he talks about his father and the frosty relationship they had when the grand future he planned for him, was shattered.
“I think about my past and feel I had such an unfair childhood,” says Bethuel Mbugua, opening up on his rise to fame and how he faded into nothingness when he could no longer live up to expectations of many. Born in 1978, he made news at the age of six. He was a tiny boy who shocked his teachers at Rorie Primary in Londiani by talking about the human anatomy his age mates did not know existed. Teachers labelled him a genius. Media called him whiz kid. Psychologists said his IQ was so high.
Professors watched in awe as he thrilled students with his mastery of different branches of science. He was tossed from one classroom to another as his father Paul Mwaura followed with a donation tin. Mwaura explained that they needed to travel and money was scarce. People gave in plenty. “He is a miracle. This is God’s doing. I cannot explain it,” Mwaura who had separated with his wife said when asked about the rare talent Mbugua exhibited. When he was seven years, he was enrolled at Ol Kalou Secondary School as a Form Four
candidate despite protests from the then Chief inspector of schools Tom Sitima. He dropped out when it became apparent that he was a distraction to the school. Everyone wanted a piece of him; to watch him draw the brain and label it as he often did. “I can count the number of times I played outside as a child. I was always in libraries or traveling to lecture. I never saw my age mates. I was around adults who wanted me to recite what I knew,” he says. Need to justify Everyone who saw him had one recommendation: he be taken to a school for the gifted.
His brains did not belong to this country, they said. His father did not have money, but he had a plan. He told Mbugua to break through former President Moi’s security detail and deliver a plea to be sponsored. Moi ordered that his case be looked into. Things spiraled as the need to justify that he was a genius made people around him to push for him to do more. “I was spending time at the KenyattaNational Hospital medical library.
I would go to the cardiology department. I was always bent in books,” he says. At 10, he had delivered about 500 lecturers. He was off school. A search for a sponsor to take him abroad continued in earnest. When he was 12 in 1990, a professor from America Lenore Blum who was attending a Mathematics conference at KICC took a chance on him and enrolled him in Mirman School for Gifted Children in Los Angeles. “I was homesick.
It hit me that was not good in English and Mathematics since I was always out of school. I was bullied because of my accent. It was horrible,” he says. Back home, his father wrote letters reminding him that the future of the family depended on his success. Mbugua says memories of the pressure to go to Ivy League schools tormented him. He performed dismally in the first year at the gifted school. “I longed to come back home. I just wanted to be normal,” he says. The more his father reminded him that he needed to excel in school, the more the gap between them widened. The bond they once had while visiting institutions became a painful memory. “I started questioning whether the decisions that were made for me when I was young were right,” he says.
By the time he was getting into high school, the only thing he was happy about was being far from home. Away from enthusiasts who still nudged the Press to provide coverage on how his future of becoming a doctor was taking shape. At Macalister College in Minnesota, he changed courses thrice. He was even toying with the idea of majoring in Art. His interest in medicine was waning. He took solace in drawing, a passion he still pursues. After staying in the US for 13years, in 2003 he returned home.
“I came back with only 300 dollars and I had to look for a job. It was a very stressful time,” he says. Even after getting his current job as a manager of Information and records in an international organisation in Nairobi, his relationship with his father never got better. His father died in 2017. Mbugua clarifies that he is not bitter.
He believes he did what he thought was best for him at the time; his only mistake being not knowing when to stop. He sees a silver lining. His father’s mistakes have made him a better father to his two children. Mbugua says even though they perform well in school, he has never pushed them to a point where they feel anything less would land them in trouble.