About two years ago, when he was on a fashion TV show, a journalist asked him why he would be on a fashion panel judging people’s style sense when he had no fashionable bone in his body. And he tersely replied, “It’s my opinion I’m entitled to it and I’ll say it.” No apologies.” And that has always been the thespian’s modus operandi; a penchant for telling his truth in biting and sometimes brash manner. The menacing figure I expect to meet is not the one that opens the gate when I ring the doorbell to his home. Ian Mbugua is in a simple tee despite it being a chilly morning. He smiles and shakes my hand and asks me to feel at home. He is currently on holiday (he is a drama and music tutor at Brookhouse International Schools). His granddaughter Wandia is playing on a tablet on the sofa.
I expected an intimidating figure because that’s what I got from watching him on Tusker Project Fame, where he was the judge that didn’t mince words or suffer fools. He is all warmth when he talks to Wandia and laughs out loud when I later ask him about his failed marriage. He has no idea what I’m talking about, but isn’t surprised either. A lot, he says, has been written about him online and once in a while, he googles himself to see the latest rumour about him.
“I am not old,” he says when I ask him how old he is, “and age is nothing but a number.” His faith and training in psychology and theology have helped ground him, so that when asked about a tough moment in his life that almost broke him, he says nothing. “There hasn’t been anything major I can point out. I have the ability to take a step back and examine issues at a distance. That way it’s easy to remind yourself that no situation is permanent” he says. Over the next one hour, we delved into what lessons his journey has taught him.
1. Keep your day job
When you have a dream, especially for people in the arts, it is important to have a day job. The reality is that bills are there and they need to be paid. But that doesn’t mean that you forget about your art. You need to be able to multitask and know how to manage your time. I am a teacher by training. I used to teach during the day, and in the evenings, weekends and holidays, I would concentrate on music and theatre. The teaching covered my bills. You do need a day job until you get to a situation where people will realise the importance of the arts as careers.
2. Marry for the right reasons
Right from the onset, I was getting into marriage for the long haul — for better and for worse. I don’t believe in divorce unless violence is involved. One does not need to go into marriage till “we disagree and part ways.” I was in it for the long haul and I’ve always put family first; I’ve always made sure that I have time for my family. There are challenges in every marriage, but it is a question of being able to talk about them, discuss what went right and wrong. Forgiveness and trust are key. But you have to marry for the right reasons. Marry because you’ve met someone you want to spend the rest of your life with and want to raise a family with. Don’t get married because she got pregnant or because you have a child and he or she needs a father. Don’t get married because that is what you’re expected to do. If there is violence, even what you deem as insignificant, walk away.
3. No situation is permanent
I am surprised by what I have achieved. I live a fairly comfortable life now, but there were times when I couldn’t make rent, I missed meals, stayed without water or electricity because I couldn’t pay the bills. When I look back at my journey, I realise and appreciate what I have, and I know that I am truly blessed. Faith kept me grounded; faith is very important. And knowing that whatever situation you’re in, it is not permanent.
4. Mistakes are only mistakes if you don’t learn from them
I’ve auditioned for many roles I didn’t get, but each one was a learning process. Going to the next one, I did my research better and was open to learning. I don’t believe in mistakes. There are learning opportunities in mistakes. It is only a mistake if you don’t learn anything and if you repeat it. The mistake is there to show you that it was either not meant to be or you were not prepared and now have an opportunity to improve. Life is like that. It is like going for an audition for a role that you really want but weren’t prepared for, and decide to give up when you don’t get it. I always tell people, go for as many auditions as you can because each audition is different, and in the audition process you learn what different directors are looking for. When you’re there, ask what you could have improved on so that next time you’re prepared. And remember, you’re not going to get every role. Always be open to learning.
5. What people think of you is none of your business
I Google myself once in a while, and I see the most amusing stuff written about me. I have read that I have no family and live alone. I’ve read that I am broke. One even said that I was dead. These things don’t bother me. I never take things seriously or personally. As long as I know they are not true, and my family knows the same, I laugh them off and move on. Don’t care too much about what people think about you.
6. Count your blessings
I am grateful that I’ve lived to see my grandchild. I am grateful that my children are all grown and we have a good relationship. I think I have done my bit as a parent. I’ve given them as much as I can give to an age where they are now on their own, and then here comes my granddaughter and it is like starting all over again but in a different way. Now we have technology and we’re trying to limit the amount of time she spends on gadgets. We have physical games and other fun activities we do together. We talk, take walks, ride bikes together – things I wouldn’t be doing otherwise. I’m content with my life and feel very blessed.
7. Everything happens for a reason
I found out very early in life that everything happens for a reason, failure is part of life and if you’ve learnt nothing from failure then there Is a problem. I’ve learnt to take failure as it comes. If something “fails” then I know it was not meant to be, or when I can I find out what went wrong and try to rectify it for next time. It’s all a learning process.
8. Don’t try to relive your life through your children
My granddaughter is four-years-old and we’re very close. It’s is like being a parent all over again. I’m not trying to correct anything when with her. Sometimes parents try to relive their lives through their children and that’s a mistake – I didn’t get to be a doctor so now my child can become one, I didn’t get to do certain things so now here is an opportunity through my child or grandchild. Don’t do that. Guide them, yes. Support them in whatever they are doing. Let them make their mistakes; that’s how they grow, but don’t force them to do things that you wanted but could not do.
9. Don’t compare yourself with other people
The worst thing you can do is try to compare yourself to somebody else. You should never do that because there will always be people who are better than you. Instead of concentrating on what you don’t have, focus on what you have because just as there are people who are better off than you, there are people who are in a worse positions than you. You need to be content with what you have, but not so content that you’re complacent. Work at trying to improve on yourself and try to get better at what you do, but don’t compare yourself with people who have what you want because you don’t know their struggle. You don’t know how they got there. The ability to stand back and look at the bigger picture has helped me, because then you realise we can’t all be the same, and we’re not meant to. Having said that, you also need to have dreams, realistic goals, and a plan to help you realise those goals. Once you have those it is easier to stay focused.
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