Philip Ogola: From a ‘slow learner’ to digital guru

Philip Ogola.

Philip Ogola.

Photo credit: Pool

Growing up, Philip Ogola was always reminded that his birth was some sort of curse.

Born in the backstreets of Nairobi’s River Road at Casino Health Clinic, which specialised in treating Sexually Transmitted Infections, Mr Ogola was brought up in government quarters on Jogoo Road in Mbotela estate but his original home is in present-day Siaya County.

Popularly known on social media as Kenya’s “digital humanitarian”, he is a dyslexic father, husband and ambassador for Dyslexic Organisation-Kenya (DOK). The 46-year-old explains that the reason some people frowned upon him was because in his community being born as a twin was culturally seen as an abomination.

He vividly remembers his tough upbringing, and constant fights for space in a big family.

“While in primary school, I was a poor performer and so my parents became frequent visitors to the headteacher’s office, constantly being reminded of my dismal performance and apparent lack of interest in school. ‘He can do better only if he works harder, only if he can concentrate on his studies,’ the man in charge would bellow at my parents in frustration,” says Mr Ogola.

It would take years for his dyslexia to be diagnosed. Dyslexia is a learning disorder that mostly involves difficulty in reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words (decoding). Also called reading disability, the condition affects areas of the brain that process language.

Normal vision

According to experts, people with dyslexia have normal intelligence and usually have normal vision. Experts say sometimes dyslexia can go undiagnosed for years, but it's never too late to seek help.

The signs of dyslexia can be difficult to recognise before a child starts school but some early clues may indicate a problem; which is why once a child reaches school age, the child's teacher may be the first to notice a problem.

Philip Ogola and his wife Charity Wavinya at a past event.

Mr Ogola says that as expected of most African parents those days, the beating he would get as soon as they got home from seeing the head teacher was unimaginable. He would then be told he was an embarrassment and disappointment to the family with a bleak future ahead of him.

“This is why I was never allowed to go outside and play with other children but instead was always forced to ‘sit and study’ with the hope that my academic performance would ‘improve’. Confused and frustrated, the inevitable dislike for school and all things formal education followed and my high school experience was no better as the snide and derogatory remarks about my academic abilities continued,” he says.

Mr Ogola tells Lifestyle that his parents forbade him from engaging in any secondary school co-curricular activities despite noting his love for music, drama and art. He decided to quit school a few times but was always dragged back. Needless to say, he spectacularly failed in his O level exams.

According to DOK, dyslexia in Kenya affects 10 to 15 per cent of the school population, yet only a small percentage if these children are recognised and their needs appropriately cared for while in school. The organisation says dyslexics are usually talented, think outside the box and should not be ashamed of the condition.

For Mr Ogola, while pursuing odd jobs in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, mostly helping and interning for anybody who would give me a chance, he fell in love with computers.

Computer training

“Over time and with no formal computer training, I would teach myself then navigate my way into the digital communications world where I now thrive,” he says.

The ‘digital humanitarian’ has so far worked with the United Nations (UN) and the Red Cross among many others championing digital messaging and mobilisation into issues of the day.

His journey has not been easy, he says.

“Self-doubt and low esteem, feelings of isolation and inadequacy, trigger memories have at different times led me to alcoholism, suicidal thoughts, missed opportunities, job losses and relationship turmoil,” he says.

Mr Ogola’s fall from grace was as spectacular as was his rise from the ashes; thanks to the brown bottle.

“At my lowest point after the death of my father, who later became my greatest ccheerleaderapart from being my harshest critic, I became a functional alcoholic. My alcohol dependence grew and this only meant that I couldn’t hold a job to the point I became homeless and resorted to sleeping in brothels and bars, specifically at Sabina Joy (in Nairobi). I had been kicked out by landlords from houses in Valley Arcade, Ngumo, South B, Donholm and Umoja Inner Core before I became so broke that I moved to Kayole, where I couldn’t afford to pay a house rent of Sh1,500 until my friends rescued me while I held onto ‘little jobs’ that would provide me with just enough money to get me my next batch of brown bottles. Soon, the race to the bottom would be complete,” he says.

He discloses that while at his lowest, he met his would-be wife at an Airtel shop.

“She gave me hope. Through therapy, I was now able to explore my early childhood traumas, difficulties in school, extremely harsh parents and the effect these circumstances had on my adulthood.”

This is when experts, after a series of tests and assessments, discovered and concluded that he indeed fell into the dyslexic spectrum.

 For those with dyslexia, the prognosis is mixed and predictions are hard to make, but the earlier the diagnosis and the stronger the social support structure, the better.

Mr Ogola says many of those labelled “slow learners” in school could be dyslexic and it is important to seek professional help.

Suffer in silence

“This is a huge part of our population and is significant because it exists within peoples’ daily lives and impacts not just the dyslexic but their families, partners, friends and even their employers/employee,” the DOK ambassador notes. “Many may suffer in silence, ignorant and self-deprecating throughout their lives, be misunderstood and bitter.”

He urges society to learn to unlearn and relearn then learn again.

“How we look at education, family and society in general has to change so that nobody falls through the cracks. Discrimination or ignorance must be countered with practical viable solutions, which may be as simple as opening our eyes and hearts to differently abled people.”

This is why Mr Ogola has partnered with DOK, which was founded in 2011 by Phyllis Munyi,  a mother to a dyslexic child.

“Together, they work to bring awareness to parents, teachers, educators, influencers, the workplace and workspace, family and friends to spot and nurture dyslexics to be their very best.”

Separately, Phyllis runs a school in Kitengela that caters particularly to dyslexic children.

“With awareness comes the push for practical psychosocial and psychological adjustments to be incorporated into government policy in education and mental health services, out-reach out to the population that may be differently abled, and support for their family, partners or caregivers,” Mr Ogola, who is currently a key player in the digital team at Raila Odinga’s Azimio Presidential Campaign Secretarial, tells Lifestyle.

“If the world can accept Will Smith, Bill Gates, Whoopi Goldberg & Richard Brandson, who have been diagnosed with this condition, it should be able to accept everyone.”

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