TALES OF COURAGE: No boy should ever live through what I did

James explains the process that he uses to navigate the boy's mindset and provoke them to make positive decisions and take control of their lives. PHOTO| MILLICENT MWOLOLO

What you need to know:

  • Being the first born in a family of five, I could not afford to sit at home.
  • In January 2000, I went to Mombasa with my uncle.
  • Two months later, I realised that he had plans that I train as a security guard which I refused and ran away to live with another uncle who was staying nearby.

I have walked a long way before finding the song in my life. My name is James Ouma and my early childhood was at Kisenyi slums near Owino market in Kampala. There was a lot of violence due to civil unrests.

In 1986, we relocated to Kenya in Seme-Kadero, which is on the border of Kisumu and Siaya. In 1989, I joined Korwenje Primary School in Standard Two. In the same year, my dad passed away and mum refused to be inherited. In Standard Four, a teacher, Mr Arao discovered that I could read and write better than pupils in upper classes.


When writing composition, I drew from very vivid experiences in Uganda. Mr Arao encouraged me to be a writer. On sitting the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) in 1995, I emerged top in our school with 469 marks. I was called to Nyambogoi High School but my mother could not raise the fees.

One of my uncles enrolled me at Kambare Secondary School in Siaya. The headteacher asked him why he had not taken me to a better school. That was how I knew that the school was not good. This shaped my poor attitude towards it. On sitting the Kenya Certificate of Secondary School (KCSE) in 1999, I scored C+. If I had a good attitude, I could have done better.


Being the first born in a family of five, I could not afford to sit at home. In January 2000, I went to Mombasa with my uncle. Two months later, I realised that he had plans that I train as a security guard which I refused and ran away to live with another uncle who was staying nearby.

James Ouma and his wife Cynthia Wendo at their home during the interview. PHOTO| MILLICENT MWOLOLO

In 2003, through friends I had met in college, I came to Nairobi. I was staying in a single room in Jericho as I volunteered for an organisation called Kumekucha in Buruburu. I used their computers to write and teach children creative writing. I really wanted to be a journalist even though I had no training for it.

I applied for a job at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) for several years. In November 2008, I was hired. As a television producer, I became more aware of the plight of teenage boys in prisons. I wanted to change this. I considered a reading club for young children as I mentored and counseled them.


But it was not until 2010 that I organised the first reading camp in Karen, Nairobi, with 23 children. I was mobilising resources through friends on Facebook to run the programme for free.

I would visit the boys in prison every Friday, then trace and contact their parents. I would then facilitate reconciliation between the boys, their parents and people that they had wronged. A good number of cases were withdrawn and some of the boys freed and accepted back home.

For several years, my work at the prisons won me fame that did not go well with my bosses at work. In January 2013, I had to quit work when I was asked to choose between the two.


NPC Academy Buruburu backed my idea for a book club. I was earning a mere Sh10000 from the book club every month because parents would pay for their children to be in it, but I still did it. In first term 2013, a new principal joined and he opposed the programme.

I lost that income and I couldn’t afford house rent in Ayany. I moved into a single room in Kibera. I still visited the boys in prison every Friday with bus fare donated by friends on Facebook.

Life became harder. I was walking from Kibera to the Industrial area remand prison.  Luckily, a friend from church accommodated me. I used to attend Citam Woodley church because I would learn how to swim without paying. I lived with this friend until May 2013 when he informed me that he was moving out of that house.


That morning, the trainer noticed that I was not concentrating and ordered me out of the swimming pool. One of the ladies asked me what the issue was and I explained.  She offered to support me to move into a single room in Kawangware. She paid for my transport and Sh4500 rent.

James Ouma with his vision board which he made in 2006. He advises young people to create own vision boards so that they can capture their dreams and aspirations in a visual manner. PHOTO| MILLICENT MWOLOLO

The following months, rent became a challenge. Many times, the caretaker locked my door. But with time, he supported me by giving me food. Life got tougher and I stopped going to prison.

In late 2013, I met Cynthia Wendo, my wife, in church. In early 2014, we started dating. In November 2014, some friends who are medical doctors invited me for a one-week mission in Baragoi. As they treated the community, I was sewing buttons on the clothes of the children. They nicknamed me Jim Buttons.

In early 2015, I proposed to Cynthia. Back then I had one trouser and my shoes were torn. She was concerned about my finances. I convinced her that I see in myself someone who would eventually earn from the book club, television production, and writing. In October 2015, we got married. By this time, I had a growth on my neck which was not painful.


We had another mentorship programme at Dagoretti Girls in February 2016. Among the clothes donations were torn shirts. We took buttons from them. Cynthia and I would sew the girls’ buttons as we counselled them.

I chose to sew buttons because I had nothing else to offer the kids materially. While sewing the buttons of the kids, I was able to engage with them and they would open up even more than they would if I wasn't sewing their buttons.

At this time, Cynthia was the one paying rent. I felt like a failure and contemplated going back to the media even though I had started my own initiative called Lifesong I coined the word Lifesong because I believe that everyone has to have a song in their life. To get to this, they have to discover their purpose. Life is a song and the mistakes of yesterday are lessons and they should not prevent me from achieving my purpose.

I had misgivings about going back to the media so on second thought, I considered running in marathons to raise money for Lifesong Kenya programmes. John Wollwerth, one of my contacts from the US, backed my idea. In March 2016, I participated in the Shompole Wildlife Marathon in Magadi and raised Sh19000 for the mentorship programme.

Two weeks before the marathon, the friends that I were with in Baragoi gave me a wedding present surprise: Sh35,000 to have the growth on my neck removed. I went in for surgery at Coptic Hospital, Nairobi.


The second run was the Lukenya Trails Run. My wife and I drove there in the morning. It was to start at 7am. But they rescheduled. We found that the run had started 45 minutes earlier.

I still ran. My short was not good. It was tearing into my flesh. But I passed like 5 people along the way and finished the run.

James Ouma, aka Jim Buttons, sews a button on the shirt of Musa Ipapoi, a Standard Eight pupil at Emmanson Academy in Ngando, off Ngong Road. Musa,14, is one of the boys that James is mentoring. PHOTO| MILLICENT MWOLOLO

That September, I signed for the Kericho Triathlon Series. I shared about it on Facebook and a friend who was following me shared with his friends and I got a mountain bike and shoes.

On the day of the triathlon, my wife and I did not have enough money for dinner and accommodation. We got to Kericho late and the organisers were staying in one of the rooms. One of the ladies offered to share her bed with my wife.

In the morning, we went for the 5km run. The terrain was rocky, hilly and steep. I came second and got a silver medal. Cynthia and I were very happy even though we went without lunch.

In May 2017, I ran the Lukenya Marathon and raised nearly Sh30,000. I have just done the Kericho Duathlon this weekend and it was tough. I didn’t make it to the top three as I had wanted.


In April this year, an American friend, Patty Liston decided to bring her organisation, Standing with Boys US – which mentors boys to develop their character – into Kenya. She appointed me the in-country director. Standing with Boys USA is working with about 100 boys at the Kangemi Youth Center and Five Star Academy, in Kangemi, Nairobi.

My role comes with small allowance for daily living expenses, and I am now mentoring boys in remand at the Kamiti Maximum Prison. Most of them are held for crimes such as: the preparation to commit a felony, defiling girls, gang rape, and robbery with violence.


I want to rehabilitate, reconcile and integrate these boys back to community. Through Lifesong Kenya, the boys are learning skills such as making mats, book marks, greeting and success cards. I want them all to write a book about what led them into prison, the experience and the lessons.

A majority of their parents are poor single mothers who are in debts, yet they are in business. I have designed a debt relief programme to give capital that they can pay back within six months. This can help restore their human dignity.

Cynthia and I are already working with two mothers. I am talking to churches that run feeding programmes, and friends to donate anything from food to soap for these mothers before they get to their feet.

This was a huge leap of faith and since it has kicked off, it will no doubt take shape. I work remotely as a content developer, and my wife is a Chinese language instructor. I am motivated just seeing the time I have spent with one child or parent and they being able to see what they can do to overcome poverty and find their own song.

I would not like any other boy to go through what I have gone through as I tried to find my place in the society. I have to guide them so that they find the song in their lives. Lifesong.

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