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Dr Awuor Ponge: I’ll always give back to society because many held my hand during the dark days

By Awuor Ponge | Nov 28th 2021 | 9 min read

Dr Awuor Ponge (right) with Gender and Evaluation greats at EvalGender+ and EvalYouth during the IDEAS Conference in Guanajuato, Mexico.  [Courtesy, Standard]

Today is my golden anniversary and I have to go back to my roots to celebrate this special day. I will share the memories of my childhood that shaped my future.

But first, as I turn 50, I want to appreciate that despite my colourful past, I have given back to the society that played a great role in shaping me.

They say, “asiyefunzwa na mamaye hufunzwa na ulimwengu.” I have learned from the school of hard knocks and can now survive anywhere in the world. The past terrible experiences have taught me to be hard and to adjust to any conditions. But I also appreciate the good that has come from people, especially those who stood with me during the darkest hours of my life.

I appreciate academic excellence and I award students from my neighbourhood who get grade A or A- in the KCSE exam.

This has been running since 2010 and many students have benefited. I usually give Sh10,000 for As and Sh5,000 for A-. I also set aside an award for the first person from my village to break my First Class degree record. That Sh10,000 was won by Eng June Brigid Samo, the daughter of the first engineer in our village, James Aggrey Waga Samo (RIP).

Recently, when I realised that getting an ‘A’ was not that easy, I started awarding the best boy and girl from my local secondary school, St Peter’s Wagai Mixed Secondary School. Three students have benefited so far, this year.

I am chairman of the school’s parents association where I also served as board member and signatory to the school account.

I was able to secure full sponsorships for three top students up to Form 4 from one of my friends, Otieno Ong’owo, an aeronautical engineering lecturer at the Kenyatta University, who runs a charitable foundation that sponsors bright students from poor families.

But even before starting my own foundation, I have been sponsoring about 10 students in different schools, both in my village and in the city. I do this well aware that I was taught by family and well-wishers, especially after my father died when I was in Form Two.

If it were not for the well-wishers, I would not have completed secondary education. It is therefore in my heart never to see any orphan or child from a poor background not get an education because of lack of fees. At least now the burden is manageable given that we only pay for the meals while the government pays the tuition fees.

Being born in the village is not bad. But it makes you learn some things that are unique to rural life and you have to ‘untether’ yourself so as to fit into the urban life.

I grew up in a tiny village called Ginga Valley in the hinterland of Siaya County. When it came time to start and name a school, it had taken the keen eye of an education quality assurance officer called Eliud Onyango Owino to detect that the area was situated in a valley. That is how we got Ginga Valley School, from which the village got its name.

I enjoyed going to school and loved books. But I hated going to the shamba, so I hated Saturdays and the holidays when we had to go to the shamba or there was no food for you. There were teachers who made life at school difficult so you had to chose between getting caned and going to the shamba. We chose the former, which was the school and canes.

I joined Wagai Primary School in 1977 and completed Class Seven in 1983 after passing the last Certificate of Primary Education examination. If I had failed, it would have meant wasting two years by joining the 8-4-4 system of education.

There were three teachers who were particularly lethal in my primary school. Alex Obat Wasonga was bad, but only to those who did not like mathematics. So I survived his canes because I always answered his questions correctly.

When I was in Class Three, on the day before closing, Teacher Alex called me, and I knew I was in trouble. I stood before him and another teacher called Oricho Wuo Nyamuri ... and Teacher Hezron ‘Utahara Dengu’. I still don’t know his second name. He was called that because he used to say that he would cane you till you passed green grams in the toilet. He was feared!

Teacher Alex adjusted the big clock and asked me the time. I answered correctly. I did not know that was my first job interview. The next day, as was the tradition, the leaders for the following academic year were announced. To my shock, I was made the school bell-ringer. I made history by being the first Class Four pupil to be appointed bell-ringer, launching me into leadership positions that I would continue to hold to university.

I have never known why it is so, but many people trust me and turn to me for career guidance, especially parents whose children are about to join university. I have helped many parents and their children make the right choices for university education. I have also talked to many on social and professional media who have sought my guidance on career choices and progression. I’m not a trained career counsellor, but given the trust that people have in me, I have never wanted to let them down.

When I am at home, Form Four candidates come to seek my advice on career choices. University students who have completed their studies find their way to me to ask about future career prospects. I also mentor students of gender and development studies in my area of practice, namely evaluation. I have worked with many in various consultancy assignments and this has helped boost their CVs and careers prospects, while also learning hands-on about what they were taught in theory in class.

Despite always being the youngest in class, I was a naughty child. So I knew Teacher Alex wanted to ensure I would not misbehave when I was supposed to report those who flouted school rules. But the position of bell-ringer came with its share of benefits.

Corruption started a long time ago. I was supposed to come to school the earliest so I could ‘ring’ a big steel wheel tied to the branch of a tree. I was expected to hit it continuously for five minutes to call pupils to school. It was not an easy job but luckily the other students felt I was doing them a favour by helping me hit the ‘bell’.

To get in my good books, I started getting goodies like githeri, sweet potatoes and sugarcane. Any pupil who was late would find me and the prefect on duty at the gate waiting to write down their names. Some would bribe us with githeri. I wonder why the anti-corruption agency has never thought about engaging with primary schools to start teaching about good behaviour from early childhood.

When I advanced to upper primary, from Class Five going forward, I devised a way of manipulating the lesson time. If it was a bad teacher or a subject the students hated, immediately after ringing the bell I would adjust the clock forward by 10 minutes. That meant the lesson would last for 30 minutes.

I did this during the Maths class taught by the deputy headmaster, Joseph Abuga Odera. He always got annoyed when the lesson ended. I became notorious. When I was feeling hungry, I’d ring the bell for lunch early. Matters got out of hand and Mr Abuga decided that every morning, he would sync the school clock with his watch. If I rang the bell before the right time, I would receive a thorough caning.

That was how the habit stopped. Abuga knew all the students and their parents’ names–and their negative sides. If you landed on his wrong side, you would be disciplined while being abused by your parents’ names and all the bad things they had ever done.

Abuga had a way of teaching ‘angles of triangles’, which was the topic hated by most pupils. He pronounced angle as ‘engu’ thus earning the nickname Abuga Engu. Even his style of walking was what we came to call the academic angle of inclination, holding books in his arms and walking with a majestic slight bend that students started to imitate.

This early life helped to shape my worldview. There are many unsung heroes and heroines who mould your life without you knowing it. I learned the elements of time-keeping, discipline, innovation, and critical thinking. You only come to realise their importance during the sunset of your life. I know most of my teachers have gone to be with their Creator, but it feels good to remember them and appreciate all that they did.

When I was sent home from the University of Nairobi, I would do odd jobs to get money for alcohol. I would split firewood to sell to the women who brewed chang’aa. I was the right-hand man of a large-scale brewer called Odoyo Jectone Odero. We used to transport the illicit brew in the dead of the night from Ginga Valley to Luanda where there was a thriving market. We usually boarded the first vehicle from Siaya to Kisumu with other suppliers. Of course we did not pay the normal fare. I loved the job because I got to drink at the source, even though I was also getting a little money for the work.

But even as I was drinking myself useless, there were people who had faith in me. One of them was Samson Otulo Omondi, a teacher of English at Wagai Primary. He would call me to teach because he believed I still had the brains even in my drunken state. There was Opiyo Aginga, the deputy headmaster of Kojuok Primary School, who always invited me to teach Mathematics

Then there was Ogada K’Oriri (RIP), the headmaster of Komuok Primary School, who was a teacher of English. He’d give me a lesson to teach and pay me at the end of the day. In addition, he would invite me to drink with him. He had a special chang’aa distilled specifically for him, and it was very expensive because it was really strong. He would buy it for me.

Ogada also believed in the principle of ‘madho gi luok kod chiemo e yo maber, mondo mi idang aming’a’ (drinking together, taking a shower and eating healthy if you wanted to live long). And true to this, he did live long. There are still some good people around, who have faith in you, whatever your status.

Having passed through Dr Fred Owiti’s hands while being treated for alcohol addiction, I once met him at the airport when both of us were travelling from Kisumu to Nairobi. He told me how happy he was with my transformation and that we should work together to help the other alcohol and drug addicts at home. Since sharing my story, I have received numerous phone calls that have reminded me of what Dr Owiti told me. I think it will be good to give back to the community by either starting a rehabilitation centre or talking to alcoholics and recovering addicts. As I look back on the 50 years that I have been alive, I may have had my ups and downs but I have to thank all those who have stood with me during my darkest days, those who have been part of my transformation, and those who accepted me for what I am. The past may have been a dark one but we cannot run away from our history because it helps to shape us. So let us accept our past, make the present a reality, and make the future worth waiting for. Thank you all for sharing my joy today. I never imagined that I would live to be 50. Thank you, Almighty God, for making this possible.

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