How I came from the streets to Radio – James Kang’ethe aka “Bonoko”

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James Kang’ethe Kimani, popularly known as Bonoko, was a street boy who rose to the limelight after giving a witness account of extrajudicial killing. Now a radio presenter at Ghetto Radio, his story encapsulates the saying: ‘Time and chance happens to them all.’ He opens up about his life in the streets and landing a radio job to HENRY KAHARA.

Bonoko is a slang word for gun and that’s the name Ghetto Radio afternoon co-presenter, James Kang’ethe goes with. His prowess in Sheng, a common language in the ghettos, makes him stand out and also enables his listeners, who are mainly drawn from the ghetto, to identify with him.

“I was born and to some extent, brought up in Banana in Kiambu County. I am the fifth born in a family of six. We fled home while I was four years old. At the time, mum and dad had a lot of disagreements and it reached a point they would not reconcile thus mum, some of my siblings and I went to live in streets,” Kang’ethe starts off the interview.

The family set up base in Nairobi’s city centre and Kang’ethe would spend most of his time borrowing from passersby and while some would give him money, others dismissed him with an annoying look. In the streets, Kang’ethe faced the harsh reality of life such as harassment by senior street children and sleeping hungry in the cold.

“I used to spend my time either at Globe Cinema roundabout borrowing or doing odd jobs such as looking for scrap metal for sale, or helping traders to transport their luggage. Life was tough to say the least,” acknowledges Kang’ethe.

His life took a new twist when policemen shot one of the traders he used to work for. “I remember I was away on other errands but when I came back to the shop at Ngara, I found onlookers including fellow street urchins staring at his lifeless body. Since I knew the deceased well having worked with him, I was given the chance to speak to the media,” he narrates.

The words he used are still very clear in his mind, granted they were picked up by DJs who use them to spice up their music mix and were also used as a ringtone by mobile phone users. It goes: “Huyo mtu si mwizi anauzanga mitura pale Ngara. Wakamuua halafu wakawekelea bonoko juu yake.” (That man is not a thief; he sells mitura at Ngara. They have killed him and placed a toy pistol on his chest).

Kang’ethe says that at the time, he didn’t know that his comment would attract attention but it went viral and it became a slogan all over the town. He became an instant celebrity. He also got the moniker Bonoko from this episode.

“I was disappointed to learn there were some people making money out of my words without my knowledge,” he says.

It later got an airplay on Ghetto Radio and his friends alerted him of the development. They further urged him to go collect his royalties from the radio station as he was entitled to it. In 2011, Kang’ethe walked into Ghetto Radio and identified himself as the person behind the clip but security guards didn’t allow him in.

One of the station’s presenters later got wind about the incident and sent word for Kang’ethe to be brought in for an interview. The presenter also bought him some clothes and a pair of shoes for the big day. “I went and actually hosted a show with Mbusii, a former radio presenter in the station and who currently works with Radio Africa. I performed well and the chemistry between Mbusii and I was so great that his manager gave me a job as Mbusii’s co-presenter. The show’s rating went up, too. As they say, the rest is history,” he talks about his entry into radio.

In his first month of employment, Kang’ethe operated from the streets before renting a house at Shauri Moyo. “The first thing I did with my first salary was to rent a house. I thank God today that I have reached where I am,” he says.

He further notes that the fact that he is not learned might have been an issue but he is glad that his boss paid attention to his talent and not his lack of papers. “At Ghetto Radio, I have learnt to edit my programmes plus other radio basics and now I can present a programme on my own,” he says.

He points out that a person can do any job provided he is passionate and willing to learn how to go through it. “Education is important if you have a chance but on the same note, if you didn’t get education as you had planned, it doesn’t mean you are doomed. You can still achieve your goals if you are determined,” he says.

Starting a foundation

Having known what it means to stay in the slums and live in the streets, Kang’ethe has now started an organisation – Bonoko Sufferer Foundation – with the aim of helping the less privileged.

“I know what it means to sleep without food, to sleep in the cold and to be mistreated. That’s why I want to help people living in the streets to live a better life,” says Kang’ethe, adding, “My mission is to change the lives of children under seven years who are living in the streets. I would like them to be attached to a children’s home where they can have their basic needs catered for. I fund the foundation out of my pocket.”

Although he is determined to see the foundation work and to reach as many children as possible, he reckons he can do more with support from the public. “We have very many children’s homes in need of help and sometimes my fans give out clothes and food but we are not able to satisfy all of them. I am urging those who want to give to reach out to us,” he notes.

Message to parents

Kang’ethe discloses that many children are on the streets not out of their own volition but as a result of their parents’ disagreements, if not irresponsible parenting. He advises parents to learn to solve their differences since failure to do so affects their children’s wellbeing and life.

“Children are innocent and sometimes suffer because of their parents’ mistake. It is parents’ role to bring up their kids well and train them in the right way so that they can be reliable people in future,” he adds.

Kang’ethe further urges people to be kind to street children as most of them are on the streets due to circumstances beyond them. “Most children you see on the streets don’t have an alternative. It’s good to be mindful when speaking with them or even how we treat them,” he advises.

Kang’ethe has managed to rehabilitate his siblings from the streets and also helped them fend for themselves. “I have also been helping my parents, who finally got back together, as I want them to live a better life,” concludes Kang’ethe.

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