‘Still don’t know why dad left us’

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Maurice Otieno, Executive Director, Baraza Media Lab during the photo session at his home on June 22, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

It’s difficult to talk candidly and nakedly about your father because then by extension you might be talking about yourself. Apples don’t fall from orange trees, you could argue.

However, Maurice Otieno, the executive director of Baraza Media Lab is unfiltered and unfettered in going down that rabbit hole of his own childhood, his relationship with his father and how it all reflects on him as a father of two.

At Baraza Media Lab he steers a community of media practitioners and storytellers to strengthen Kenya’s media ecosystem through programmes, events, and incubation that enrich the community.

Before Baraza Media lab, he was part of the founding team of Metta Nairobi, an innovation hub that supports start-ups and innovators. He also worked at Strathmore Business School as a programme manager for the MBA programme. He is also part of the founding team of Association of Start-up and SME Enablers of Kenya (ASSEK).

He loves fitness [plays rugby] and loves the bush. He founded Kampnoo Camping, a camping and hiking outfit and often you might find him in the darkening wilderness of a dying day, rubbing two sticks together to make a fire. [Not literally, of course].

This conversation with JACKSON BIKO happens a day after Father’s Day in a boardroom of their premises along Riverside Drive. Outside, African winter gnaws.

***

What do you remember growing up?

I was born in Kitale. I vaguely remember a lot of green maize. Mom was then an untrained teacher and dad was working for the government at that time as an office messenger. We had six cows that gave lots of milk, in that regard we were doing well.

Dad gets promoted and we move to Nairobi in 1997. We settled in a house in Kariokor but my parents separated in 2002, I think. My two sisters, my mom and I move to Nyayo Highrise. I played football for Mathare Soccer Youth. When Manchester United under 15 team came [to Kenya] I was one of the boys selected to play against them.

But I discovered rugby in high school. In fact, I joined Strathmore University on two scholarships; academic and rugby. Childhood was pretty okay, in those terms.

Did you ever build a relationship with your father after they separated?

If you define closeness as talking once in a while, yes. We are cordial. Do I know details of his life? I don’t. I can’t figure him out. However, I admire some aspects about my father, his I don’t-care mentality. Very few things worry or stress him. I envy him because sometimes I worry about everything.

What’s the most important conversation you’ve had with him?

When he was leaving I was 14 years old. It was very early in the morning, 4 am, when he left because I guess he didn’t want to leave when my sisters were up.

The conversation we had while he was packing his things was very brief; I asked him why he was leaving. He said, ‘you will be a man one day and then you’ll come to understand.’ I said, ‘so there is nothing that can be done for you to stay?’ He said no. Then he packed this big radio and left with it. I was like, ‘what, couldn’t he even leave us that radio?’ [Laughter].

The next conversation we had was when I was getting married four years ago. We hadn’t had much interaction prior and it was the first time he was meeting my wife. I couldn’t ask him for marriage advice because how could he advise me when he didn’t know me? But I asked him what he thought of my wife [she’s American]. He said she seemed nice.

Now that you are a man have you understood why he left like he said you would?

I’ve never understood it but also maybe I’m trying to understand it in a different way. My parents have very different personalities. My mom has this very strong personality. She occupies a room; very loud, and free-spirited.

My dad is a very quiet guy that you will not notice in a room but is very fun when he is drunk. [Chuckle].

My mom was almost [aggressive] like a man, so to speak. She was raised together with seven brothers, and as the only girl, so she had to fight for her space.

Growing up there were no boy and girl duties in their home. I empathise with my dad because he was a man born in a different era where men were required to be alpha, you know? Then he married mom. [Chuckles].

I also realise that there were other moving parts like nosy relatives, finances, and different ambitions. My mom started as an untrained teacher and just started going to school, wanting better for herself. Now she has her PhD. Dad, on the other hand, was just happy taking one day at a time. Naturally, there was going to be a clash.

What about your dad’s absence has informed your own fatherhood journey?

A lot. I have two daughters now, one is two and a half, the other is just 11 months. Both of them can’t sleep if I’m not home because I have made a choice to be home before they sleep. That wasn’t my dad. He was always out doing his thing.

What I learnt from my father is his ability to get slow to anger. Growing up, we would have to really have pushed my dad’s buttons to anger him. My mom on the other hand would slap you immediately and ask questions later. [Laughs].

I like my dad’s calmness, I inherited that from him which has served me a lot as a leader and a father. My dad is a genuinely fun and good-hearted person. The kind who would shout at you and then feel so bad and apologise. The type who would see a stranger walking in the rain while driving and want to stop to give him a ride.

What do you struggle with as a father, as a husband?

Whereas my dad’s life could be defined as not having a lot of ambition, mine is filled with it as a result. Intentionally so. I’m running this organisation, doing my MBA, playing rugby, consulting etc.

My fear is that all these things I’m pursuing are taking me away from my family. But you see the similarity here? That my dad was away doing things for himself while I’m away doing things for my family, but the result seems to be the same; we are both away, it doesn’t matter the reason.

So we eventually turn into our father?

Eventually. You think you’re so different, you strive to be so different but you’re actually just the same. It’s a full cycle. We both have motivations and sometimes the results are the same.

I work hard to be there for my kids yet sometimes when I’m there I’m not even present because I’m thinking of things I’m doing that will secure their present and future. It’s a paradox, really.

Are you fulfilled generally as a man?

Not yet. But from my relationship and life with my wife, I am fulfilled. My wife makes me better. She’s well-travelled, so the perspective that she brings into the family is added value. Other aspects of my life, I’m constantly working on to seek fulfillment.

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