Kenya is home to a vibrant throng spanning 42 languages that brings cultural diversity to the forefront of this interesting nation. One such character was Mr. Christopher Odinga.
His sand sculpture of a smiling lion rolling on the sand drew us in to his life story and he happily shared his tale of fortitude. Sitting awkwardly next to his crutches, laid carefully beside him on the sand, he works the sand with his hands and a trowel, paying attention to each groove and surface as he smooths it, fluffs it, cuts it and moulds it. His eyes smile as he talks, vigilant of the waves nearby that will remove all trace of his work in a few hours’ time.
“I am a sculptor now, but I was meant to be a lawyer. I had enough grades to enter law school but that didn’t work out. Now I’m too old and I have a family to take care of – my wife can’t work, she has no education.”
When probed a little more, he shared the story of how he came to be here, a polio sufferer with minimal use of his legs, two small children and far from his birthplace near Lake Victoria on the opposite side of the country. “When I was three, I became sick, but my parents thought it was malaria because many people get malaria in that place. They were illiterate and the walk to any clinic was three days away, so they never took me for any inoculations as a baby. They left me to recover on my own but when I was too sick to move, they made the journey to seek help but arrived too late to help me.”
He looks a little sad as he describes the transition that he was forced to make as a little boy, sent to Kisumu to a ‘special’ school where others like him were educated and looked after by the Salvation Army. Pride for his grades and his hard work despite mounting obstacles, he describes his academic achievements and how he was primed to enter law school and pursue his dream at a time when the newly independent Kenya was growing up. His eyes flash as he indignantly says, “But then the Kenyan management became greedy and corrupt and they took all the money and ran away. Me and many other people like me were left with nothing, no home, no food, no work and no future. That is when I started to move towards the bigger cities, using some skills taught at school to create sculptures and oil paintings to make income.”
Me and many other people like me were left with nothing, no home, no food, no work and no future.
The sand lion has pointy triangle teeth and he seems to be grinning up at the sky, his tail bound to flick up at any moment. Christopher starts to dig a trench around the base, perhaps extending the short life of the grinning lion before the tide sweeps him away.
“It’s okay. I met my wife and we have two children. I make enough money sometimes to buy them clothes and food. But if you have any things you do not want to take home, please give them to me – toothpaste, soap, mosquito repellent for my children, anything.”
His hands stop and he looks down the beach assessing how hopeful his day’s takings look from the number of tourists heading towards him – there are only two. One ignores him and keeps walking, the other looks at the sculpture, smiles and gives him a few shillings.
“I also do paintings.” He rolls out a small canvas from his tatty backpack. It is a scene of zebra in front of Mount Kilimanjaro. “Sometimes tourists can show me their photos and I paint it for them.” He even frames it, he tells me, and the price is negotiable. He will make it perfect, he says. “I paint the picture from memory, in my home, and I will bring it back to you next day. Pay if you like it. I do oil painting. Do you have a photo I can paint for you?”
Yes, we did. Our trip to the Masaai Mara is now forever immortalised by Christopher’s incredible talent – and he mashed two of our pictures to capture our memories in one beautiful piece with acacias, the plains, the wildebeest and the Mara River. What a privilege to be able to support this man who “hates to beg” and takes pride in his work. He may be a masterful storyteller, but he delivered on his promise and the look of appreciation in his eyes reflected genuine gratitude as we exchanged our painting for cash.