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Bruce Odhiambo’s humble journey from Jericho and his ties with the President Uhuru

ruce Odhiambo, Chairman Youth Enterprise Development Fund at his office

Bruce Odhiambo, Chairman Youth Enterprise Development Fund at his office

In the star-studded controversial Kenyan movie Project Daddy, a woman is on the prowl for a man to father her child in a no-frills relationship of convenience. The hunt zeroes in on, among others, the towering figure of fellow actor Bruce Odhiambo, as the plot takes its natural progression.

But in the best tradition of truth being stranger than fiction, something similar to the 2004 Project Daddy script — which was directed by the award-winning Judy Kibinge — would, a couple of years later, be played out by a star of the cast on the eventful streets of Nairobi. This was “Project Mummy”, and it was not make-believe.

Bruce Odhiambo was walking down a city street generally minding his own business when he spotted a stunning beauty. He instinctively stopped her and, after the usual pleasantries, it was not a coffee or lunch date that he sought — it was a strange proposal that left her speechless.

“I said I did not want to waste her time with long stories about love and whatnot. I simply wanted her to bear my child with no strings attached,” he says, revealing for the first time a secret that only his close friends know.

BROTHER B

It took the woman time to accept the “offer”. And when she finally did, Bruce had a contract drafted by a lawyer in which she waived any claim to the child other than the occasional visit.

“I did not plan it, it just happened,” the media-shy Bruce told Lifestyle this week.

Today, the arrangement seems to be working. Bruce, who is not married, lives with his eight-year-old son and the mother visits occasionally. To complete his family is a daughter, 24, born from a previous relationship when he lived in Mombasa.

“Nothing was signed for her,” he jokes. “But I am now a proud grandfather after my daughter gave birth recently.”

Bruce is many things to many people. To President Uhuru Kenyatta, he is the go-to guy and a close friend. To those who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, he is the talented musician who played with the legendary Mombasa-based Safari Sound Band and the Spartans.

To artistes, he is “Brother B” — a mentor and skilled producer, and his Johari Cleff studios is a melting pot of creativity. And to hundreds of disadvantaged people, he is a philanthropist who believes in the biblical advice that the left hand should not know what the right hand is doing.

That’s not too bad for a man born 50 years ago in the humble climes of Asembo in Siaya County, but who largely grew up in Nairobi’s Eastlands.

Bruce’s latest role in public life is as the chairman of the Youth Enterprise Development Fund following his appointment by the President in March. It is a position at the centre of an agenda that put the wind in the sails of the Jubilee Alliance in last year’s election campaigns.

“I believe in empowering the youth, having worked with them for decades. At the end of my three-year tenure, I want to leave satisfied that I have made a difference,” he says.

UNEXPECTED TURN

Bruce’s story took an unexpected turn early in life. Joining Eastleigh High School after completing Jogoo Road Primary School was the sort of beaten path many young men from his neighbourhood had followed.

But convinced that taking her son to a high-cost school was the best way to prise him from the iron-grip of poverty, Bruce’s mother, a career civil servant, had loftier ideas.

“She spent most of her savings to transfer me from Eastleigh to St Mary’s School, Nairobi. To say I was in shock is an understatement,” says Bruce.

Today’s St Mary’s is an institution for the children of the rich and famous seeking to intersperse quality academic credentials with a solid Christian foundation. The St Mary’s that Bruce attended in the tail-end of the 1970s and early 1980s was an even bigger monument to privilege, incompatible with the worldview of a young man from the cramped City Council houses opposite Jericho Baptist Church.

“I was the talk of the neighbourhood and everybody wanted to see this pupil from Jericho who was attending a school for the rich,” he says.

However, Bruce was pleasantly surprised by the family feel of the famous school, even though he never failed to notice the status gap whenever he visited his schoolmates’ homes.

In retrospect, Bruce believes his mother’s decision could have easily backfired.

“I was being introduced to a world far removed from my humble neighbourhood and was mingling with the children of prominent people,” he says.

Among his schoolmates was Uhuru Kenyatta, who was a class ahead, and there began an enduring friendship with the man who is now President.

One thing only a few of Bruce’s closest friends knew was that he was perhaps the only student who came to school by public transport, travelling on the Number 7 Kenya Bus Services from Jericho to the city centre and connecting to Waiyaki Way using the Number 23, before walking the rest of the way from Church Road. This meant that despite his best efforts, he was always late for the first lesson.

COMEDY SCRIPT

“There was no school bus then because all the students were dropped at the institution with some even flying in every morning to Wilson Airport from places like Naivasha,” he says.

The perennial late-comer soon attracted the attention of the principal, an Irish Catholic priest, who was unaware of the young man’s circumstances. What followed was a conversation befitting a comedy script.

Principal: Why are you always late?

Bruce: Because I come from Jericho every morning and it’s very far.

Principal: Do you mean Jericho, near Jerusalem?

Bruce: Yes Father.

Principal: You fly from Israel every morning?

Bruce: No, no, I mean Jericho estate in Nairobi, which is near Jerusalem estate.

The incident would, in later years, be a challenge that inspired him to buy two Mercedes Benz cars in the 1980s.

The school transport woes were solved by chance one day when Bruce noticed an old motorcycle in a corner while visiting his schoolmate David Kibaki, the son of the then Vice-President Mwai Kibaki, who would later become a two-term President from 2003 to 2013.

When Bruce learnt that the Kibakis had no use for the motorcycle and wanted to dispose of it, he didn’t have to plead too much for David to give it to him.

“I had never ridden a motorcycle before, but I was not going to admit that and let my luck slip. I can’t really explain how I did it but somehow my trial-and-error worked all the way to Jericho,” he says.

Bruce became an instant celebrity in his estate for owning the motorcycle before he realised he had no safe parking.

“Our house was in a flat with a narrow staircase so I had to chain the motorcycle downstairs. But I spent two sleepless nights anxious that somebody would steal it,” he says.

Bruce decided to solve this by walking to the compound of Philip Mwikia, a part-time deejay who lived in the nearby Harambee Estate, and asking for space to build a shack to sleep in and park his motorcycle. He had never met the DJ before, but he decided to try his luck.

“In exchange I offered to help him in manual jobs like delivering equipment and wiring. Instead of paying me for the work I did, he would retain the money for the space I had used to build the shack,” he says.

To make the extra coin, Bruce would play as a sessional guitarist — commonly referred to as zong zing in Lingala — for benga and rumba artistes like Joseph Kamaru and Ochieng’ Kabaselleh during their recordings in Nairobi’s River Road besides playing in city clubs like Starlight and Halians.

Working closely with the DJ was the spark that would years later ignite Bruce’s career as one of the country’s most talented artistes and producers, who has gained international experience in South Africa, US and Europe.

INTEREST IN MUSIC

Bruce Odhiambo (second left) was a member of the famous Safari Sound Band which produced hits like Mama Lea Mtoto and Jambo Bwana.

Bruce Odhiambo (second left) was a member of the famous Safari Sound Band which produced hits like Mama Lea Mtoto and Jambo Bwana.

His interest in music was refined at St Mary’s where he played the violin and double bass and later at Charles Coldham School (at the Nairobi Arboretum), where he attended high school.

Over the years, Bruce has worked with top artistes like Five Alive (where Eric Wainaina honed his skills), Les Wanyika, Mercy Myra, Jah Key Malley, K-South, Kayamba Afrika, Kanji Mbugua and Redsan among others. Congolese maestros Kofi Olomide and Awilo Longomba have also benefited from his skills.

“Even when artistes record their music elsewhere, they come to me for advice. I always feel privileged to mentor young artistes,” he says.

The veteran of the industry is, however, disappointed by some of the artistes whose careers he has guided. He gives the example of the payments controversy surrounding the performances on December 12 last year at the Kenya@50 celebrations, which he partly organised.

“For the first time in the entertainment industry, I managed to negotiate for good payments of as high as Sh400,000 for a single performance at the event,” he says.

However, he believes some of the artistes failed to appreciate that government processes sometimes take a little longer.

“I think I taught some of them how to be good artistes but I regret I may not have trained them to be good business people,” he says.

Bruce’s mark as a musician was mostly made when he relocated to Mombasa in the mid-80s where he played with the Spartans and lived rough since his monthly pay of Sh1,500 was hardly enough for food and rent.

“I used to sleep on the seat of a Combi (Volkswagen) inside the practice house of the Safari Sounds Band after band member Rishad Chuli took pity on me,” he says.

He would later relocate to Nairobi to briefly deejay at Club Visions before moving back to Mombasa where his uncle Okoth Waudi — famous for founding Casablanca and Toyz among other coast clubs — wanted a manager with fresh ideas.

Bruce also joined Safari Sounds to replace Chuli, who died in a road crash on the Nairobi-Mombasa highway. The successful group is known for evergreen songs like Mama Lea Mtoto, Coconut, Karibuni Kenya and Jambo Bwana (Hakuna Matata).

“I found myself juggling four jobs, including managing an electronics shop and ship chandelling,” he says.

Money and fame were finally following him with monthly earnings of at least Sh90,000, even though he only slept for two hours every day as he hopped from one job to another.

“After experiencing what was possible during my interactions at St Mary’s, I promised to do whatever it took not to go back to the Jericho life. It was as though I had my own version of 50 Cent’s ‘get rich or die trying’,” he says.

But the strain inevitably affected his health and, over the years, he has had two heart surgeries, the most recent one being last year.

“I quietly took a flight to India last year. When I came back and told my friends about it, they were not amused that I had kept them in the dark,” he says.

This was perhaps a childhood trait trailing him. Bruce says his mother considered him to be “the worst child to bring up” because he did not cry at all.

“She always jokes about how difficult it was to know whether I was hungry, sick or uncomfortable because I was always calm,” he says.

YOUTH AFFAIRS

Bruce believes it is through hard work that the youth can make a mark. As YEDF chairman, he acknowledges there may be a few bottlenecks in access to funds. However, he believes that even as the fund works to knock down the bureaucratic barriers, there is also the challenge of apathy among the youth.

His upcoming initiative known as iTempo — Identify, Train, Empower — which will run concurrently with other programmes, targets young entrepreneurs.

“In the end, iTempo targets 900,000 youths per year for three years. The support of the private sector and professionals will be crucial,” he says of the plan that is yet to be made public.

Along with this are proposed sessions under the banner “I’ve got 10 minutes, do you?” where captains of industry and professionals will talk to the youth and listen to their problems to bridge the disconnect.

“In a way, we will be saying we want to talk to you but can you create time to listen to us?” he says.

Bruce draws experience from working with youth, women and disadvantaged communities in Orange County, California, through his US-based Infinity Business Solutions.

“It is important for the youth to get out of their comfort zones and dream big. Simple things like making inquiries or patiently going through the required processes to get funding can make a big difference,” he says.

His belief in the “digital” Jubilee administration is unequivocal as are his close ties with President Kenyatta.

“I first campaigned for Uhuru in 2002 when our team conceded defeat. I was not involved in the 2007 elections but last year I was convinced it was time for younger leaders to take over,” he says.

Bruce was part of the team that came up with the “I believe” slogan for the President’s The National Party and the glitzy launch of the Jubilee manifesto at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre.

“It was politics meets showbiz and it made an impact,” he says, adding that he believes the Jubilee team won because it had a superior and better organised campaign.

It is no wonder then that he was nominated among the three people to represent Mr Kenyatta in the committee that prepared the President’s inauguration at Kasarani Stadium in April, last year. He says the other committee members led by then head of public service Francis Kimemia respected his experience as an event organiser and allowed him to expand the VIP section to accommodate at least 3,000 people from the 500 originally slotted.

PROJECT WIFE

“That decision saved us the kind of chaos experienced during the inauguration of President Kibaki in 2002 and the promulgation of the Constitution at Uhuru Park in 2010,” he says.

Bruce says that he has sometimes come under pressure from people who believe he should be supporting Cord leader Raila Odinga to fit into the common perception based on his ethnic community.

“That is the kind of thinking we need to get over in order to have a united, peaceful and prosperous Kenya. We need to believe in policies and visions, not just individuals,” he says.

Bruce still retains his ties with Eastlands where he says he learnt the spirit of generosity and togetherness. His house sometimes has as many as 20 visitors at a time.

“I have an open-door policy and the friends and artistes who come in are always welcome,” he says.

Bruce, who is also involved in the First Lady’s Beyond Zero campaign on maternal health, says that an experience in South Africa in 1992, when a promoter abandoned him and other Safari Sound band members, taught him not to take basic things like food for granted. For days, the band of eight survived by sharing half a chicken and a loaf of bread before eventually making enough money from performances to get them back to Nairobi .

“I told God: If you get me out of this hunger I will never let another human being suffer like me. That is why there is always food in my house for any visitor,” he says.

But with everything seemingly going his way, when does Bruce plan a “Project Wife”?

“It will happen when I meet the right person. I am not against marriage but, at the same time, I do not want to get into such a union just for the sake of it,” he says.

IN BRIEF

Top producer and musician

Bruce is 50 years old and is father of two children.

He grew up in Jericho estate and attended the same secondary school with President Kenyatta.

He was a member of the Safari Sounds Band which is famous for hits like Mama Lea Mtoto and Jambo Bwana.

Bruce was part of the team that came up with the “I believe” slogan for the President’s The National Party and the glitzy launch of the Jubilee manifesto at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre.

He was appointed by President Kenyatta as chairman of the Youth Enterprise Development Fund

He has undergone two heart surgeries.

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