Whenever Michael Mwangi told his fellow street boys that one day he would fly an aeroplane, they would scoff at him and tell him those were hallucinations triggered by sniffing too much glue.
However, Mike as he prefers to be called, went on to achieve his dream. His story, from a glue-sniffing street boy to a pilot, from the rough streets to the cockpit, is the stuff movies are made of.
Once a week, Mike and his fellow street boys would walk to Nairobi’s Dandora dumpsite. The trip fuelled Mike’s fantasy of piloting a plane.
“There were days when the garbage truck would bring leftovers from the airport. The food tasted so good, especially if you got bread and butter. I kept imagining the kind of food passengers are served in aeroplanes,” he says.
Mike’s story began some 23 or 24 years ago. He is not sure of his age because his mother never kept a record of the date or year when he was born. For his birthday, he randomly picked January 7.
Mike’s father died when he was young. The old man’s kinsmen raided their home in Nairobi’s Kiambio slums and carted away everything.
Left with nothing, Mike’s mother started living in the streets with her three children- Mike, his brother and sister. The streets were rough.
“Life in the streets is tough. To dull the pain we were constantly high on glue and marijuana,” he says.
Mike had an added responsibility. Every day he had to look for some money to pay watchmen so that his mother and sister could sleep safely.
“Rape is one thing street women and girls go through a lot and I had to ensure that my mum and sister were safe,” he says.
His life started looking up when a Good Samaritan, Fred Mwaura, rescued him from the streets to Joy Divine Children’s Home in Nairobi’s Huruma estate.
There was one hurdle though- Mike’s mother was not happy with his decision to move out of the streets. He was her lifeline, and she was not about to let go.
“Apart from paying her protection fees to the night watchmen, I would also share with her the little money I made from scavenging and selling scrap metal,” he recounts.
But he remained at the children’s home. Then one day, Suzy Ngige, a businesswoman married to a pilot, Captain Simon Ngige, came calling.
Suzy and some members of her church had gone for an outreach at the children’s home when she first met Mike. An instant bond formed between the boy and the woman he today calls mother.
The two got talking, and Mike told Suzy about his dream of going back to school and becoming a pilot someday. She was touched and arranged a meeting with the children’s home proprietor. They both agreed that Mike’s dream was valid.
Suzy then arranged to have Mike enrolled at Moi Forces Academy in Standard Four. But it was not going to be a smooth ride.
“At this point in my life I was struggling with withdrawal effects having been a glue addict for some time. Most of the time I slept in class,” he says.
Having led a carefree, rowdy life on the streets, Mike also found it a huge challenge fitting into a structured life.
In his first term in school, Mike managed position 54 out of 55.
However, he firmly kept his eye on the ball. By the time he was leaving Moi Forces Academy, in 2011 he was top of his class.
He then joined Dr Ribeiro Parklands High School in Nairobi where teachers noticed his leadership qualities and helped nurture them.
“I became the Christian Union chairman and was the head boy at Form Three. This means I was leading even those ahead of me,” he says with pride.
Mike, however, did not perform as well as he had wanted in his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exam in 2015, something that demoralised him. However, his guardian angel, Suzy, was there for him.
“One day she asked me whether I was still interested in my dream of being a pilot. When I said yes, she and her husband agreed to take me to an aviation college,” he recounts.
His dream was unfolding fast.
By 2017, he was sitting at the cockpit next to his mentor, Captain Ngige, flying on the Nairobi-Mandera route on Ngige’s Rudufu Airlines.
The feeling was exhilarating and overwhelming.
“It’s a feeling you can’t describe. Looking around at all the gadgets in the cockpit I was simply overwhelmed. I felt like crying. As I sat there the story of my life played before me. I saw my time in the streets longingly watching at planes in the sky. I remembered the mocking and taunts of my fellow street boys when I told them of my dream to be a pilot,” he says.
Years later, Mike is at home in the cockpit.
Still, he has not forgotten where he came from. Every weekend, he heads out to the streets at Nairobi’s Mlango Kubwa to feed streets families.