PHLEXIBLE - MY STORY
Growing up in Kibera
I was born back in 92, so long ago but only a few years after independence! Okay, let’s say about forty years. I was born here in Kibera, into a family of five boys. Imagine five boys, so much trouble! I was the last born. We all grew up here in Laini Saba. I only know my mom. What my dad looks like I can only imagine, with the help of an old ID picture. “This is your dad”, was what they told me. He died before I was old enough to remember him. And out of the five brothers, we are now remaining three.
My mom is a very strong woman. She was left with five boys to take care of, and she really hassled. She didn’t have a very well-paid job. She was a salonist. Every day she woke up, no matter if she was sick or anything else. She woke up and got us something to eat. Wow! She was really impressive. Sometimes she came back with nothing to eat, and sometimes we shared. Hard moments were when she sent me to ask the neighbour for money. It’s so difficult to approach people in this situation. They always sent me back home. But still all my brothers told me: “You are the youngest! Go!” I came back without anything and we went to bed hungry. But the next day comes, you play, and you forget about your hunger. In the evening you realize that mom has come back with some food.
What made us grow strong was Ugali and fish. There is a fish called “mgongo wazi”. It’s a huge fish with no meat. In the factory, they take off the flesh and sell it. The leftovers are taken to Kibera and sold here. The skin, the backbones and some little remaining flesh. This thing was making a very tasty soup, and that is what we grew up on.
Finally starting school
It was very hard for me to start school. We were many, and mom was struggling to pay the school fees. She was looking for scholarships all the time, and she told us to pray. My mom was very close to God. My elder brother Geoffrey had got a scholarship, but for it seemed to be harder. There was a place very far from home where people would get scholarships. It was a feeding program, where kids could come to eat. Anyone that wants to support a kid can go there and choose one. Beginning at the age of five I walked there daily and hoped that somebody would choose me. I tried to look as cute as possible, but it didn’t happen. So, mom decided to cut down on other things and pay school fees for me.
When I finally started school I was quite old compared to the other kids. I skipped all the nursery classes and went directly to class one. I did class one and two, and then skipped the third one to go directly to class four. I was very fast, so the teachers were okay with it. I was working so hard and had very good grades, so somebody finally started sponsoring me. I got it from the same organization, the “special ministry”, that was also sponsoring my elder brother Geoffrey. It was the lady called Mrs Newman and two other couples who helped me. I only know the couple from pictures. They look so good! Later, they encouraged me to support other people, no matter who they are. Because the people you support, they might not even know you in person. But you can make a big difference for them.
Discovering a passion during high school
During highschool, I got some problems with my eyes. It was a new environment, and there were so big lights in the dormitory. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I got a bad infection. They brought me back to Nairobi for a treatment. Until now, my eyes are giving me trouble. I can’t see very clearly.
I really didn’t want to go to a school in Kibera again, because this was where I had spent my whole life. But because of my eyes and because my mom wanted to have me close to her, that’s where I ended up. In the end, it was so good. This school was the place where I really found who I am. There were different art activities. I chose the department for music and drama. After one year, I became the assistant chair.
In my next school, there was no such department for music and drama, they were much more into sports. But I had developed a real passion for it! So, I called my friend Mono and told him: “I would really like to come up with a music and drama club.” The office gave us the permission, and we started it. That is where my name “Phlexible” comes from: It was a new club. A club about many things. But you are the president that knows only about music, and you have to show to everybody what the club does. So you pretend to know everything. You act, you sing… That’s how they started calling me “Phlexible”.
We organized so many good things in the club. There were awards for acting, and sometimes we called celebrities to come. My brother Geoff was a celebrity at the time. “Geoffrey Oyoo”, that was a big name. We performed together on the last day of the year. And there was also something we did every Monday. Monday is a very boring day. People have hangovers, they are tired… So we came up with a Monday entertainment. Right after the national anthem, our comedy show would go on. People came to school, some of them just to see us and then they sneaked out again. The artistic spirit in me was growing and growing.
A rainy day in the library
Mom died when I was in form two. I was living with her. After she died, I moved in with my brother. I went to school until form four, and then the scholarship ended. I wasn’t able to attend a college or anything.
But a good thing happened. It was in form three, in this period of the year when it rains a lot. I used to love school. All my friends were at school, and when I was at home, I felt alone. My closest friend, my bro, he had died. So there wasn’t anything for me to do. Even though the school was closed, I decided to go to the library and do some studies on my own. I woke up early in the morning to read privately. It was quite a rainy day. In the library, there was only a girl and me. The girl was the director’s daughter. We were reading. I still remember it today, I was reading physics. Around nine in the morning, the director came in, together with two white ladies. They saw us reading there, and they were so inspired: “They are reading, and it’s raining!”. They walked up to the daughter and talked to her. Then, they came over to my table and asked me what I wanted to become. “I want to be an engineer”, I answered. They said: “Oh nice, all the best.”, and then they left.
After high school, my brother told me he wanted to support me until I got a job. That’s how I started my own life. But I didn’t want my brother to support me for too long, because he had a family to feed. I tried my best for him not to pay for me, and I managed. I got some little jobs to stand on my own feet.
Some little time after, the director called me. “Where are you? These people have been looking for you!”. He told me they had left something for me. I went to his house, and he gave me a bible. It was a very big bible, with a very heavy cover. Inside, I found a photo. It showed the white couple that had come to the school. Behind the photo, there was a little message: “Philip, it was nice meeting you. Tell us whatever you want, and we will send it to you”, followed by an email address.
In the school of music production
I wanted to join university. But something was challenging my mind: If I’m going to university, who is going to pay my rent? Who is going to feed me? At the same time I didn’t know what these people could offer me, so I didn’t want to ask for too much. You need to be careful: If you ask for too much, you might scare them away and lose the opportunity. That’s why I decided to do only a short course. Instead of going to university for four years, I could do a course for some months. By then I was already much more into music, so I decided to do sound reinforcement. Sound technology, audio production. That was what I was interested in.
Three months from the morning to evening, I went to my courses. I walked there every day, it was quite a long distance. The guy is far away, he doesn’t know you don’t have a way of transport. He doesn’t know you haven’t taken breakfast. But they have paid for my school, so I went there. I’ve done some other small courses after that, for example some piano classes. Until today, I’m always learning.
In school, it was a bit challenging sometimes. The other students had laptops. Most of them came from rich places. They could train at home and do more research. They were always ahead of me. I often felt like I had missed a class, but I didn’t know which one. I hassled to study on my own. What I did was that I spent more time in the studio than the others. We were given one hour per day, one for every of the ten students. My trick was to come early in the morning, so that I could spend more time there. When the class started at eight in the morning, I sometimes went to the studio at six. Or I stayed longer in the evening. And when somebody missed out, I took his hour. This way I tried to catch up with the other students.
Getting started professionally
The first job I got after school was a commission job. They paid me as soon as I produced for an artist. I was just coming from school and I didn’t know if my work was good or not. It was hard to start. I just spent a lot of time in the studio. From there, there was a woman called Judith. She was working with another organization that used to come to our school to talk about peace building and conflict resolution. I started working with her, as some kind of internship. Judith started paying rent for me, and she trained me. We went to schools to pass our knowledge to other people. I did a lot of different trainings, so after a while I was able to be a good peer educator and facilitator. Finally I started to earn some small amounts and stand on my own feet again.
At some point of my life, I’d still like to continue with my studies.
Something that really affected me was my leg. I was not born with a limping leg. My leg was just like the one of any other kid. I don’t want to blame it on mom, because she was trying her best. But the point is that she was so busy looking for food for us, and she was not in a position where she could take us to a clinic for vaccinations. I think nowadays people come to your home with the polio vaccines, but at the time they didn’t. Polio affected me, and I was not even able to walk. It makes your joints and bones so weak, and it can even paralyze your whole body. My immune system managed to reduce it to the foot. I got it when I was a baby. That’s why it took me very long to walk. At the age of around four, I was taken to the hospital for some surgeries. They wanted to balance my leg by putting in a little metal piece. The hospital was for free. But when the metal piece came in, we were supposed to buy it. We were not able to do this, so they couldn’t help us anymore. After spending a month in the hospital, they closed my leg and sent me back home.
Since I couldn’t walk on my own, my brother used to carry me on his shoulders. I must have been very heavy. I thought it was fun, but now I understand these distances.
It really affected me, especially in school. Until today, it can be very painful. I need to change shoes very frequently, and the shoes need to be special. There should be more rubber, and they shouldn’t be too straight. In primary, people told me that I needed to attend a special school for disabled kids. But I didn’t want to. I just wanted to go to a normal school, like any other kid. I told mom: “I can walk! And you don’t have the money to take me to a special school, so just take me to a normal one.” There was a time I even played football. It didn’t hurt that much sometimes. Still, it was hard. You live a life that maybe physically, you are not meant to live. People around think that everything is fine. But things are not fine. On some days, I woke up and my foot was hurting so bad. And over time, it got worse. When I came to school, they punished me because I was late. In high school, there was this thing of running. I was not able to run. But if you say something, they will take you to a special school. You are the only one who understands what you are going through.
My friends used to do some manual work, for example construction work. I used to go with them, but the answer of the boss was usually the same. When he looked at my leg he just said: “You go back home.” They judge you even before they let you try.
I have tried to find a way to live with it. What others do, I believe that I can do it, too. Today, I try to connect people and make them understand what others go through.
Problems with my leg, with school fees… They made me not focus on school as much as I wanted to. It limited me in being who I wanted to be. That’s why I invest my dreams in other people now. And maybe some day I’ll study more, go ahead and become that super sound engineer.
Other local producers have gone up to far places, for example to Berkeley and other international schools of music. And some went to South Africa to do production. These are the people you compete with in the Kenyan production industry. So, I’ll also have to continue my studies and be where I want to be.
It makes me happy to see that despite all the challenges we are facing, we are able to put a smile on someone’s face. We are able to bring that hope. Even though it’s not financially, we can make people believe in themselves and believe that they can do whatever they dream for.
Kibera Creative Arts
Kica started way back, with a youth group. My brother Geoffrey was the one to introduce me. I was following him all the time, in everything he did. He was my bro, and through him, I tried to find my roots. I think the idea of Kica came up on one of my brothers’ funeral. There were so many boys, and they decided: “We need to build an organization! We need to support each other when these kinds of things happen”. Geoffrey and Simon were the pioneers of this idea. Until now, it has evolved a lot. New people keep coming and bring new energy. It gets better and better. We hope that in the future, we’ll have a school of arts. So that many people can access it easily.
It has become a passion. And I started thinking: “Maybe my calling is to serve people.”
A challenge is that the community thinks that if you have an organization, you have a lot of money, or that you are very wise. Now that visitors are coming from Spain, Switzerland… Our people think that we are so rich. They ask us for school fees, or for any other financial support. And in some cases, they want our advice. Once a woman came here to tell us that her husband had abused the children. Since then, a lot of rape and theft cases have been reported in our office.
Because they think you are rich, people become very intolerant when you are late for paying something. At times, we pay the studio rent, we pay all kinds of fees and maybe give some money to support someone. Then, you come home and you realize that your own rent isn’t paid yet. The landlord gets very angry, saying: “What? I saw you walking with white people, with celebrities! And you tell me you don’t have money to pay for my house?” That’s the mentality. And that’s the reason why most of the people who achieve something move out of Kibera and support the community from outside. So that they don’t have this pressure anymore.
I think I have to be careful what I’m doing. I can’t lie on the ground and be completely drunk. People will look at me and say: “Look at Phlex. What is he even telling us?”. People are watching. So, to be a person my community can look up to, I have to live a healthy life.
The “Made in Kibera” song was one of the songs we produced. The idea was to show Kibera in a positive way. Artist from all different villages inside Kibera gathered. Everyone was writing his own part and then we put them together, with the chorus “One love we got, Kibera”. I was leading the project.
I am proud of Kica, and the Made in Kibera Studio. Linking people, helping them develop their talents, and creating the very first music studio inside Kibera. I think working here is my biggest achievement. If I die today, this is what I have done.
Music in my life
I love music, and arts in general. But what I do most is music. I was raised like this. My brother Geoffrey was a hip-hop guy, and sometimes RnB. He even had a gym at home: Two stones that he could lift up. I listened to his music: Jennifer Lopez, Eminem. For the speakers we had a lot of tricks: For example, we used the yellow water cans. We cut them, and then we put our speakers inside to reinforce the sound.
My other brothers were more into Reggae. They were even singing. I was listening to them and trying to follow their roots. And I think most of the music I heard was through my neighbours. They used to put loud speakers. The first little radio we had was a Walkman with tapes. My bro had brought it home. It was a home of boys, so we don’t know where this radio was coming from.
It was in class six when I wrote my first song. It was a rap song, and we performed it to people who visited the school. Once, we went into that very big and expensive hotel and we performed there. From there, I started writing my own songs. I’m still writing, but nowadays I’m more into producing. From coming up with the instrumental to bringing it together with an artist. You balance the sound and you make it sound good.
Without music, I would not be who I am today. It is through the passion of arts that I work hard in this community. It has always been the driving tool. Music is what makes me happy. And the people I have remained with. My two bros. They are the only people I look up to. They know me. When I tell them: “I’m angry”, they understand. They know me like nobody else. Also, the people we are working with. Simon, Erick,… These people have given their full-time life to make sure that this thing here is happening. They are also an inspiration to me.
Art is a very powerful tool if it’s well used. In every place, people use it, maybe they just don’t realize it. The cooking, science, anything you do. Art is simply a way of living. It can be used in a good or in a bad way. Art is a tool that can be used to do powerful things. I’ve been watching Bob Marley’s documentary: He went to places and used his music as a tool to bring people together. Another thing about music is that it cuts across. Across time, across history, across people.
Lucifer started playing music in heaven. He was taken out of heaven, and now he’s the Satan in hell. That means, in heaven now there is no choir master. There needs to be someone to replace him in that position. Maybe Phlex could be the one? I’m going to replace Lucifer and give heaven some music.
My message to the community
We need to stop judging so much. Judging someone by just looking at them. At least, you need to give every person a chance.