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From smuggling and hawking condoms to the newsroom: Journalist’s unconventional journey

For some, the good life is handed to them on a platter, while others – like Mike Githuki, 39 – have to fight for every morsel of food to stay alive.

To become a journalist, he had to pass through the mortuary, where he worked as an untrained undertaker and clandestine photographer, hawking sanitary towels and condoms.

“In short, if you see me today, ignore your perceptions of me and instead see the power of resilience, a journey marked by a mad struggle with life towards stability, mostly scraped through not by my own doing but by the grace of the Lord Jesus in whose hands I have always been,” he says.

Born in Wanjohi village, Nyandarua County, the fourth of seven children, he was orphaned while still in primary school and had to be adopted by relatives.

“My grandfather – my late mother’s father – inherited me. He was a widower and you can imagine the kind of upbringing I had to endure. Instead of every dawn bringing a silver lining, it meant more uncertainty. Sometimes I felt I was born for the ruins, but raw instinct kept me going,” he says.

He was not surprised when he sat his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exams in 2006 and got a low grade.

“I always wanted to be a journalist. The languages that were supposed to make me a model journalist sadistically failed me. I just remember asking God to do His will with my life because I thought I had failed on my own,” he recalls.

And perhaps the prayer worked, because his grandfather persuaded him to retake the exam, using the experience of his first failure to improve his success.

“He who is in need has no freedom of choice… I mechanically made my way back to the classroom, where I rekindled my ambition to become a journalist. The 2009 KCSE results came and I had a B-, making me one of 81,048 out of 330,000 candidates to qualify for direct university admission,” he says.

Poverty breeds more poverty, and Githuki missed out on admission to Mt Kenya University, where he would have studied mass communication.

“Instead, my grandfather consoled me by giving me Sh3,000 to stay with a relative in Malava, Busia County, where I worked as a casual labourer at a food kiosk, earning Sh100 a day,” he says.

Mr Githuki became enterprising and joined a ring that smuggled sanitary towels from Uganda and sold them in Kenya. Two arrests and a near-imprisonment later, he decided to give up the black market and return home.

“The god of orphans was still important in my life because in 2011, a local investor in a private secondary school hired me as an untrained maths and physics teacher,” he says.

He says his new job did not last long because of the delay in his poor salary.

But the spirit of journalism within him still dared him to break the shackles of an abandoned dream, the deviation from poverty, and get back on track.

“So I bought a small digital camera and started photographing villagers for a fee and later ventured into Naivasha town where I earned more money photographing tourists at Lake Naivasha,” he says.

He says it was during his amateur photographic venture that he met a friend who offered him a turning point.

“That turning point was being hired as an untrained mortician, where my job was to receive, wash, store, tidy up and dress corpses. I also took photographs at funerals and money started to come into my life. My daily income averaged Sh10,000,” he says.

He says poverty and the desire to escape its grip heal all fears, “and that is how I managed to keep my senses together to work in the mortuary, where darkness, tears and regret reign, bound together by an unfathomable world of spirits”.

He says that receiving the bodies of children and road accident victims have been his most terrifying experiences.

He says he managed to amass a small fortune, which allowed him to enrol in 2014 – four years later – for his suspended journalism course at Mt Kenya University.

In his spare time between classes, he ventured into General Kago’s funeral parlour to earn his daily bread by handling the dead.

“Soon some of my colleagues on campus found out about my passion for the dead and started stigmatising me. I left the profession and started selling condoms in the brothels of Thika town. But the Thika police accused him of being an illegal hawker and put him out of business,” he says.

With his fortune dwindling, he decided to return to the funeral parlour.

“I risked losing friends to make a living and worked there until 2017 when I graduated and started looking for a job as the mortuary had started hiring professionals to replace us casual workers,” he says.

In 2018, he was hired by the national broadcaster as an intern and his passion for the profession, which he shared with great enthusiasm, quickly saw him rise to the position of continuity announcer. He currently co-hosts Party Time on Saturdays and also works in the newsroom.

A father of three boys, Githuki says that “my journey through life has taught me to always keep the faith, no matter how hard it gets”.

He says he never considered giving in to disillusionment and was willing to work in hell itself in pursuit of his destiny.

He has since ventured further into Benga music, where he has several tracks under his name, does some mugithi jigs in joints and is building his YouTube channel for commercial gain.

He says he is a man on the move, “and God grant me a long and healthy life, I will work hard to ensure that none of my children ever have to travel as far to achieve stability in life as I have”.