Ofweneke: I stopped being suicidal when I realised everyone was trying to live

Sande Bush, also known as Dr Ofweneke, is a busy man. He arrives huffing and puffing, having bounded up the stairs to his office.  He may be out of breath, but he is all smiles as he walks into the sparsely furnished room.

Impeccably dressed in a well-pressed grey suit and tie, he cuts a dashing figure; a far cry from the village boy he used to be.

Dr Ofwoneke is his artistic name. An alter ego. Sande Bush is the man seated before me, a man who has been through it all.

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“I am not going to sit here and lie to you that I was influenced by bad company,” he cuts right to it.

“I was the bad company parents cautioned their children about. I would tell other teens that tonight, we would be going to Florida Nightclub to steal mobile phones and shoes to sell. And that would happen,” he says. He was sharp-tongued and a trouble chasing student and Aga Khan could not handle him.

But his life’s troubles began when he was a week old, in 1991.

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“I do not know what happened between my parents but my mother left when I was a week old,” he says. “And they were very young. My dad was 23. They were living in Mathare, Kwa Chief.

“My dad took me to my grandmother’s place in Mbotela. We moved to Huruma, Dandora – all these ghettos.”

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It was a tough life, one that would set the stage for his evolution into a strong-willed person.

“There were so many factors surrounding me as I grew up that did not allow me to be a child. I knew every single day I woke up that I had to toughen up. There was no time to be a child. There was no time to be beaten outside there and go reporting to my dad. If somebody beat you up, you beat them up as well. I woke up every day knowing it was another chance to prove to the world that I was not a pushover.”

But for the young man, acting grown up was tough, and he tried to commit suicide three times.

“I just felt like nobody cared, I was not worthy of living, I did not feel like I had a purpose and I felt neglected,” he says. “I jumped in front of a moving pickup truck along Malava-Webuye road, but it swerved and missed me. The next time, I was taking care of people’s shambas in the forest so that monkeys would not come to destroy the crop. There was a hut there and I tried hanging myself inside it but the bar broke. The third time, I swallowed pills and ended up vomiting.”

He says he stopped trying to kill himself when he realised that everybody else was trying to live.

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Hunting down his mother

At some point when he was in high school, back in Nairobi by then, he decided to look for his biological mother, behind his father’s back. An aunt and an uncle who had an idea of where she could be traced her to Industrial Area, where she was working for the police. “I am not very emotional, but when she saw me, she hugged me while crying for 30 minutes,” he says. He was not sure how to react, but his curiosity was sated.  

She would spend the rest of her life, which was about four or five years, trying to make it up to him for the lost years. His biggest regret is failing to forgive her when she asked him to on her death bed at Kenyatta National Hospital, after losing her battle with HIV-related illnesses.

“I still have that image of her in my mind, lying on that bed at, struggling to get that statement out to ask for forgiveness. I was still mad. I did not know that she was literally in the last stages of her life. I just told her I would see her tomorrow. I did not know ‘tomorrow’ would be in heaven.’ She died about four hours after I left,” he says.

The experience taught him an unforgettable lesson against grudges, one that he teaches people whenever the opportunity arises. “If your parents had an issue like divorce, as their child, you need to know that whatever happened between the two of them was none of your business. Don’t take sides. Do not hold a grudge,” he says. “Love them, even if it has been 20 years since you saw them. If you know where they are, you have their phone number, you have seen them on social media, contact them. Look for them and go have coffee. The blessings of a parent are very important. Your ego should never be more important than the blessing of knowing that they are still alive. As long as they apologise or give you their side of the story, give them an opportunity. The last time they speak to you asking for forgiveness could be the last time you hear from them.”

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Broken marriage

Today, he knows something of parents splitting. His own marriage did not survive, but he co-parents with his ex-wife, with whom they are good friends. It has now been three years since they separated. “We maturely decided to have an environment where our daughters, Faith, 7 and Debbie, 4 are comfortable. So sometimes the girls live with their mum, other times they come to my place. I take them out. We are good as co-parents. I make sure that we talk every day with my daughters.”

With each experience, he picks the lesson from it and applies it. He considers the breakdown of his marriage to be the biggest challenge he has gone through. “It is one of those pages I would want to tear out of the book of my life. I am a perfectionist, so I had regrets over what I should have done. I chose to leave, but with a decision: that the next time I found myself married, I would do things differently.

“What I learned about marriage and relationships is that you cannot give what you do not have. Find happiness within yourself in order to give happiness. The other lesson was that it is never that serious. If things cannot work out even after 20 years, they cannot work out. Just leave,” he says. “As for parenting, you will never be a perfect parent. Perfecting is the only school you will never graduate from. Every day is a class where you take notes. But again, it is a beautiful journey. There is a joy in being called ‘dad’.”

But it has not all been doom and gloom. February 24, 2014 was when his career as a professional comedian started, on Milele FM, and he would go on to do radio for 6 years. “Along the way I collected mentors and brothers I can talk to. People talk about godfathers, but God was my godfather. He is the only being who walked with me when I got rejections, SMSes saying I was not funny, people saying that with my English no one in Kenya would listen to me.”

Nine years down the line, he is a sought-after MC for corporate gigs, he co-owns Defa Media Group, a digital marketing and advertising agency, and his ultimate goal is to be the first ever African stand-up comedian hosting the BET Awards. “And the people reading this better mark this interview!” he says.

None of those successes compare to what he says was the most defining moment of his life. “We were doing a show in Malindi and I received a phone call that I was officially a father. I went and cried near the beach so that people would think it was just the water splashing in my eyes,” he says. “That was when reality hit me. That I was not going to be a child anymore. That I was then responsible for a life, that I needed to start thinking differently, doing things differently, working much harder, being more aggressive, being very ambitious to achieve, because it was no longer about me.”

The two life-altering experiences with his suicide attempts and watching his mother struggle with HIV has driven him to start an organisation to tackle mental illness, HIV/AIDS and drug abuse.

“God had a plan for me. I may not have known the reason then but now I know. Whenever I meet someone and they tell me I am an inspiration, I remember how terrible it would have been. Maybe I would now be in heaven getting punished, slashing grass at Solomon’s house. I want to leave an impact and a legacy on today’s generation,” he says.

“My past motivates me to keep going. I did not know my purpose when I tried to commit suicide, but because I know my purpose this time and I have another day to live, I have to make sure I fulfill my purpose every single day,” he says.

And what, exactly, is his purpose? Without missing a beat, he responds: “To change lives through my story and through my gift.”

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SuicideSuicide attemptsDepressionSande BushDr Ofweneke