Nakuru’s calligraphy king: 62-year-old Mike Okal still at it 37 years later

 Mike Obong’o Okall

62-year-old Mike Obong’o Okall at his shop in Nakuru on November 15, 2023.

Photo credit: Boniface Mwangi | Nation Media Group

Advancements in technology have significantly impacted on the art of calligraphy, with computer aided designs resulting in better quality artworks over the long period.

It is a job not many would prefer but 62-year-old Mike Obong’o Okal, also known as Balozi, has been a calligrapher in the streets of Nakuru city for over three decades, and is not about to down his tools any time soon.

Nestled in Nakuru city's Kanu street near Bondeni Post Office, Balozi's workshop is a vibrant space filled with quill pens, reeds, erasers, oil, canvas, papers, and various calligraphy instruments.

Balozi has been a calligrapher for 37 years, a skill he self-taught when there were no specialised courses available when he started the job.

His workshop reflects a treasure trove of artistic materials, offering a diverse range of artwork, including draughtsmanship, cartoons, portraits, and illustrations.

However, calligraphy remains his standout expertise.

The rarity of the art, which reveals a complex thought process, is what has kept him in the business for long, a superlative skill he has perfected over the years.

He writes deceptively, suggesting simplicity yet the work conveys punchy social commentary probing local issues such as politics, religious differences, history and other social issues.

What sets Balozi apart is not just his longevity in the field but the depth and complexity he infuses into his art.

His calligraphy conveys powerful social commentary on issues ranging from politics and religious differences to history and societal challenges.

Balozi's artistic journey has been solitary yet steady, with his hands crafting thousands of pieces that bear handwritten messages of hope, education, and advice.

His working area, nestled in a shared space, is a testament to his dedication to his craft.

Describing his process, Balozi explains, "I start by buying manilla papers and cutting them into an A4 size. From there, I choose the information I would want to put down from my exercise book where I write all my creative thoughts."

He meticulously crafts each piece, considering the reader's demographic and finishing with coloured pens to bring the message to life.

“My messages are inspired by what I see, hear and feel. I pick up a lot from conversations with people, the radio and generally what I see happening around society. From this I have generated thousands of messages in which many have in their homes in different parts of the country,” says Balozi as he stares at the bunch of copies he has placed on his laps.

His abstract paintings, although seemingly straightforward, delve into intricate subjects that demonstrate his mastery.

From his early days in Mombasa to his move to Nakuru in 1999, Balozi has witnessed the transformation of his art.

“Life was not easy with the menial jobs I was doing then. I said to myself that was something I could take up since I was good at handwriting and styling letters. In my village I would be paid by young boys to write beautiful love messages to the girls they were courting or those exchanging letters with their pen-pals,” he says.

"I used to be a very bright student, in fact, this is where I got the name Balozi. I represented my school in various academic competitions in which I topped. They ended up calling me ‘Ambassador of the school’ which translated in Kiswahili is Balozi,” he says as he reminisces about his primary school days in Kisumu.

He worked at a time when there were no coloured inks and only when brown paper sheets sold at the same time while learning about sketching, painting and getting dimensions right.

The era of photocopying, laminating paper and coloured pens and internet virality of content was unheard of back then.

Adapting to technological changes, he embraced laminating and framing when plastic bags were banned, and he now displays his vibrant copies in the streets of Nakuru for sale. Balozi's dream is to pass on his art to others, emphasising the need for passion and dedication.

He envisions teaching more people the art of calligraphy, especially those seeking alternative sources of income. His legacy is not just in the pieces he creates but in the potential for others to discover and flourish in the world of calligraphy.

Despite his humble beginnings, Balozi's art has provided for his family, educated his four children upto secondar school, giving him a sense of fulfillment.

Through his dedication and skill, Balozi has not only created a livelihood for himself but also paved the way for others to tap into the artistic richness of calligraphy.