Two years after former US President Barrack Obama’s maiden trip to Kenya in 1989 to meet his father’s family, a peasant family in the heart of the beautifully lush green Matende village of Navakholo Sub-county, Kakamega County welcomed their last born son, whom they named Joel Castine Okwako.
The making of the man he is today can be attributed to a series of life trajectories that served to shape and mold him for diverse capacities in his young life.
Joe Kiongozi, as many call him, was born on 31st December 1989 to the family of the late Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Opete Okwako. He is the last born in a family of 9.
Both of his parents succumbed to cancer in 2006 and 2011. When he was in form one, his father died of liver cancer. His mother followed suit in 2011, shortly after he cleared his secondary school education at Chebuyusi Boys.
Joel’s early education began at Ebutenje and Eshilakwe Primary Schools before he was transferred to Sori Primary School in Karungu, Migori County. He proceeded to join Sori Secondary School after the successful completion of his primary education.
Medical conditions threatening his school life saw him transferred to a school closer home after his first two years at Sori Secondary School. Subsequently, Joel joined St Paul’s Emulakha and later Friends School Chebuyusi where he sat his KSCE in 2010.
After the demise of his parents, Sir Joel attributes to life being a living hell on earth,’ most especially after his beloved mother died. “I was raised by a mere housewife who did everything she could to give me and my siblings the best things in life she could afford.
As a lay Apostolate leader at Ematende Church of God, she ensured that her children were brought up in the ways of the Lord. On the other hand, my father, who was a tailor, was unbothered by my mother’s faith and cared less,” says Sir Okwako.
As a lastborn, he enjoyed his mother’s love the most and was ultimately attached to her such that her death nearly paralyzed his entire existence and survival.
“My mother struggled to raise us. I remember she sold vegetables ‘mama mboga’ and practiced subsistence farming to see me through school. She gave her all to give me life. Looking back, I appreciate and at the same time miss her. The void she left behind will never be filled by any other person. Her untimely death must have been the most heartbreaking moment of my life,” he said.
Handling two cancer patients for such a family was a tall order. Hanging on to hope that their loved ones would one day recover, and somehow life would become better, they helplessly struggled to meet the ever-increasing demands associated with treating cancer patients.
However, luck was not on their side as both parents succumbed, and the sun went down with the remaining pillar and source of hope in 2011- their mother.
“Mum was such a strong woman, and a brave fighter. She fought back throat cancer with her, and even on her deathbed, I know she was fighting to have one more second with her babies,” a teary Joel recalled. Given a chance, he could talk of his mother nonstop.
Fast forward, after his mother’s burial, Joel traveled to Mombasa, where he briefly stayed with his uncle, a then employee at Mombasa municipal council, who had him enrolled at Mombasa TTI.
As fate would have it, his education at the institution was cut short after being chased from his uncle’s residence over what he terms as a ‘petty disagreement.’
Thrown into the world of the unknown, Joel took to digging graves at Mbaraki Cemetry for a living.
He spent uncountable nights in the cold on the streets of Mombasa, and he was prone to arrests for roaming at night with no one to bail him out.
Selling roasted maize and groundnuts never yielded much for him. His saving grace arrived in the guise of a commercial sex worker named Atieno, who sheltered him briefly in exchange for babysitting services.
His daily wage was a paltry 50 shillings, with his duties sometimes including washing dirty inner clothes that often had bloodstains.
Atieno, however, provided him with sufficient food, unlike his initial host, his uncle, who kicked him out for ‘eating too much.’
As a part-time boxer at Mbaraki, Atieno introduced Joel to the game. He left Mbaraki as a lightweight boxer after winning over ten rounds and losing two.
One game left him with a broken left rib after an encounter with Okoth Dido of the ChafuaChafua team of the Kenya Police.
Joel has worked as a casual laborer at Kenya Ports Authority, loading luggage. In this period, severe backaches forced him to briefly stop and rest before resuming work, where he was transferred to storekeeping.
Deteriorating health saw him leaving Mombasa for Kakamega in an attempt to recover and regain good health.
Joel recently survived a near-death experience after undergoing a laparoscopic appendectomy when post-operation complications arose. He went into a coma for five days.
On waking up, he was airlifted to Nairobi Hospital for further advanced medical attention that accelerated his recovery.
He has worked as a painter at One Acre Fund, Kakamega. He has also served at ASK – Kakamega Western Branch for over three years in the Arena and Protocol Committees.
At KALRO, former KARI, he worked as a field researcher focusing on aflatoxins for five months in 2017 before actively joining local politics.
On college education, Joel finished his Diploma course in ICT at Sigalagala National Polytechnic.
He vied for a seat and lost but won in subsequent elections where he was elected Secretary-General of the institution’s town campus. He still pursues other academic qualifications he once desired growing up.
Joel began his political career as an affiliate blogger for the incumbent Lurambi Member of National Assembly MNA.
His active and staunch support of the Lurambi MNA during the 2017 campaign period saw him landing the coveted PA position for the incumbent MNA, a position he holds to date.
In 2019, Joel was democratically elected a youth league secretary-general of Kakamega County in the Musalia Mudavadi-led ANC party. He owes exposure to the world of politics to this party position.
“My life remains a work in progress, yet still, a masterpiece. I have learned so much from the life of my mother, and my life on the streets that no classroom ever exposed me to,” he said
He added : ” I have learned, that finding yourself in a tight place and everything seems to be going against you, and you feel like there is no hope and you cannot hang on any longer, never give up. That is the most opportune time to fight even harder like your life depends on it- because it does,”
And the tides will somehow, somehow, turn in your favor,” remarked Joel.
On mourning a loved one, he says, “it is easy to encourage someone who has lost a loved one and advise them to accept the loss and move one.
However, when death knocks at your door and it is your turn to apply the advice you give others, it is hard. Sometimes, what one needs is time to process everything and mourn alone.
My experiences were of double tragedy in gigantic proportions, and I was left a complete orphan, vulnerable and needy in a scattered family after both our parents died. I have struggled to be where I am today, and I will never, never give up.”